Bristol Life Interview with James Ray

Armadillo started out 28 years ago in Bath as a design-led marketing agency. In those days, the two founders were mostly doing design work for print: marketing literature, point-of-sale design, and so on. Over the next decade the agency gradually gained a name as a direct marketing agency, working mainly on postal print campaigns.


I joined the company over 20 years  ago, just as email starting to make inroads. If email was the start of digital, it’s still an important element today, as part of a much broader digital mix and informed by all the customer data that  companies manage. Armadillo has naturally moved with that digital change, and works across all of today’s channels to help our client companies maintain and build their customer relationships.

These days we call ourselves a CRM agency – customer relationship marketing – rather than the direct marketing label. It’s a better reflection of the kind of work we do.

Once upon a time, direct marketing was a little more like broadcasting, but now our work starts more than ever with understanding a client company’s customers and their needs and behaviours. You develop a carefully considered plan and go from there – and now always with driving sales in mind. You might be trying to support something more subtle, like a would-be customer’s affinity with a brand.

We often work with big companies, but the aim of every campaign and project are different. For example, we might be running a campaign for McDonald’s that’s trying to influence a relatively small thing, like an individual’s decision about what to choose for lunch. Compare that with the work we might do for a company like P&O Cruises, which is trying to garner interest in a high-value purchase like going on the cruise of a lifetime. It’s definitely a longer lifecycle if you want someone to consider spending several thousand pounds versus a fiver!

Data is the lifeblood of business today, but companies think about data differently compared with a few years ago. These days, and even more with data and privacy regulations like GDPR, everyone understands that in managing a customer database you are custodian of that data, with a duty to handle it securely and use it fairly. Having that crystallised by the regulations has been a good thing, too. Whether an agency or a company is managing the data, it has to be handled with respect and every action justified and logged. These are disciplines which can bring far greater gains than playing fast and loose with data, as some may have in the past.

With two others, I led a management buyout of Armadillo that completed in September 2017.  I had been with the company for a long time, and I knew it inside out. Like the other two directors involved – our executive chairman Chris Thurling and our CFO Andy Brown – we could see there was still an enormous opportunity to develop Armadillo, and the two founders wanted to step back. The stars aligned and we managed to get the deal done. It was pretty seamless and there was a clean break from the founders with no operational impact.

Since the MBO, we’ve invested in the business and made the move from Bath to Bristol. It’s been a perfect base for accelerating the company. In Bath, we were in a Georgian town house that was lovely but impractical. It wasn’t so good for collaboration. Bristol, like Bath, is a vibrant city but with more scale and it has its own unique vibe. It is a great place to find partners to work with on certain projects, and the range of digital talent in the city is striking. We have quickly become advocates for Bristol, having only moved to our home just off Old Market in May 2018.

Most of our clients are in London, so we spend a fair amount of time travelling. That’s a reality of some of our working days, but the transport links are relatively good and working face-to-face is less important than in the past, with video calls to lean on. Still, personal contact with clients will always matter and when we need to meet up we do.

How to scale up in the right way is on our agenda. We are a 35-strong team today, having grown by a third in the past year or so, and we turn over a bit more that £3m. We know that our success lies in doing excellent, tailored work for our clients, and in strong relationships, so whatever we do we don’t want to jeopardise that as we scale. You want things to stay on a personal footing with every client. The challenge is just to keep on top of how the company functions internally and how we relate to and deliver for every client. It’s an exciting time for us.

First published in Bristol Life, Issue 268, August 16th, 2019.