Name: Michael Di Paola
Company: Studio North
Role: Co-Founder & Operations Director

Brief Biography

I reluctantly drifted into university aged 17, having skipped a year at school to read engineering. Frankly, I wasn’t ready for it. Academically, it wasn’t a problem but I hadn’t really matured to cope with the progression of independent learning and a relatively intensive course at the old UMIST. Skipping the end of year field trip for a League Cup Final didn’t help matters too much either and at the end of the year, by mutual consent, it was all over.

My first job after leaving university was as a pushbike courier (or a professional road cyclist as I sometimes now describe it) for a print & copy shop, Manchester Print & Office Services (later MPG) on Dale St. in Manchester. I was paid £85 per week with a bonus of as much free beer as I could drink on a Friday night. I think with beer prices back then, it made OTE £115pw. I loved that job, not a care in the world! Thankfully, my potential was quickly recognised by the owners of this relatively new business and soon it was goodbye tracksuit and hello suit as I was thrown into the middle of helping to run a small start-up business at the age of 19.

I don’t think it was part of any grand plan on their part but poor money aside, this was a great opportunity for me and I got stuck straight in, getting involved in pretty much every aspect of the business (finance, retail, operations, HR). I observed everything around me, soaking it all up and taught myself the rest. Producing management accounts, worked it out. Using a Mac, worked it out, dealing with people (still learning…). But the money got no better. And neither really, did the acknowledgement of contribution. You know, the basics, like “thank you for staying all night and doing that job”

Eventually I was headhunted by one of our clients, a small old-school design agency based in Old Trafford who’d experienced my commitment and energy. Despite last minute offers to double my salary, I had to move on and eventually stayed with Coopers for a couple of years, learning so much about design, despite the slow pace. A small business, with little ambition, but we did great work for brands like Kelloggs and Kleenex.

I would eventually return to MPG (meaning I’ve never actually had a job interview in my life) to run their new print factory up Dantzic St. I was 24 and running a double-shift production factory environment to ISO standards. Despite best promises, culturally, MPG was still a challenging work environment with high staff turnover, hinged around a cluster of underpaid over-performers like myself. I’d experienced context elsewhere and now knew I would have to make something happen for myself at some point.

By mid-2001 (I was aged 25), three of us were plotting to do our own thing and eventually, in January 2002, Studio North was born. No money, no clients and not even a front door of our own. But it was wonderfully exciting and loaded with risk. I’d just taken on my first mortgage on a house in Burnage and had zero savings.

So it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster but demonstrates personal progress in business rarely takes a linear route. I like to think you have to earn your stripes before you can make something of yourself, which means getting hands dirty. Even as a pushbike courier I learnt so much about people. I remember the way people in suits would treat me as I entered a reception area of an architects or an ad agency. It was like I was a nobody to them, just because of how I was dressed (and perhaps my broad Mancunian accent). They probably assumed I was perhaps a bit thick.

I’d look at them and knew I could outthink, outwork and outsmart them at every stage of the working day. But my job was to be professional and I privately stored those experiences so now, twenty years later, I make sure I treat everyone the same way and try my best not to judge too early.

In a proper team, everyone matters.

What is Studio North?

It is an award winning integrated brand communications agency. We have an impressive track record and help brands of all shapes and sizes engage their audiences and grow market share. At the heart of all our client relationships is the shared ambition to push the boundaries of technology and deliver the richest brand experience.

What’s Studio North’s proudest achievement?

We are proudest when making a difference to a client’s business. As well as taking pride in aesthetics and design, we are obsessed with tuning into the commercial success of clients, and try to show them how we can make a difference in this area.

These days there are so many awards to choose from, both regionally and nationally. Some are fairly spurious, based on public votes or client nudging. Others really matter, like the Transform Awards (Europe) focussing on business transformational outcomes rather than subjective taste or popularity. To date, we’ve enjoyed huge success (most of any North West agency) at these awards, winning five out of the last six years.

But it was probably the first year that represented our proudest achievement. We won a Gold and two Silvers for rebranding a Warrington umbrella business called Parasol. Working on a fraction of the budgets we managed to get Parasol onto the podium with global brands like Citroen and Aviva in a couple of these categories. That business has flourished ever since.

And of course, we’re happy to be thirteen years old. It doesn’t get any easier!

What do you see as the challenges when running a creative enterprise?

There are a few. I’d be amazed if there is a faster moving sector in business. The number of channels through which to market product or services is growing year on year and in particular the digital environment is accelerating rapidly. It’s a constant barrage of new updates, tools and platforms. For us, like all agencies, the challenge is in keeping up-to-date with every development and integrating them into our offering. For a business owner, the balance is in how much time do you dedicate on R&D and training, without neglecting time spent on developing client relationships and getting things done. You’ve always got to be learning in this business if you want to add the sort of value that keeps you ahead of the game.

Another consequence of the explosion in communication channels is an increase in client expectation. With the rise of mobile technology and multiple tools – from email to social media – businesses and customers expect immediate connectivity when communicating with their agency. No one wants to wait for an answer. We’ve long since seen the end of the 9am-5pm working day and it’s difficult to switch off.

Finally, it’s relatively easy to start a creative business, with few barriers to entry so there are constantly new start-ups, who bring hunger and energy to the competitive scenario. And of course, quite often this puts pressure on margins. All of these pose big challenges for a business like Studio North and how we deliver responsive solutions to our clients, yet these are challenges we relish as they help us strive for continual improvement.

Creativity seems like a big part of your value proposition. How do you keep a creative workforce engaged and happy?

Employees like to understand the bigger picture when it comes to business progress, developments and strategy. They like to know that they are not just a cog in the machine but an important, much valued team member.

There’s sometimes a danger of being too open but I think it’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate. This also includes helping employees see the importance of their role to the whole business and the impact they make.

It sounds simple but this is a huge challenge for a small business that is regularly looking outwards in the servicing of existing and new clients’ needs. There is a lot going on at any one moment, and ensuring employees feel valued requires stopping, reflecting and communicating clarity and context. What is it F. Scott Fitzgerald said about intelligence being the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Well that is what is required: to both work on current business and at the same time assimilate the latest developments into the bigger picture for communication back to the wider business. It’s a skill that I’m still working on.

We also invested heavily into our premises at Waulk Mill in Ancoats. We give people space and diversity of space within which to operate. We’re not the only business that realises employees spend the majority of their time at work, so it pays to make that an enjoyable experience. Also, from a creative angle, different spaces are important for fuelling the creative process – whether for inspiration or room to concentrate outside the studio hustle and bustle. An inspiration space looks completely different to a concentration one.

At the heart of most progressive growth plans is talent, making it the new premium in business. How important is talent for you and how do you go about attracting talent to work for you?

A service business is only as good as it’s people so talent is the most important asset and needs safeguarding effectively. Losing good people can be massively detrimental for any business, even at a simple direct costs level. Aside from the cost of recruiting new staff there’s the hidden cost of integrating new starters, something that can take anything from a month to six months to fully perform, depending on the role and seniority. It’s a huge drain, so keeping staff turnover low is an imperative.

It’s standard now to provide a wider benefits package than basic salary, so you look at things like healthcare cash plans and contributory pensions. Mostly, I think respecting work-life balance is the biggest win. We pay overtime (unusual in our sector) and try to be as flexible in the whole employer-employee relationship as we can. If people are empowered to work, motivated by targets and doing good work, a start and finish time should be the last thing on their mind.

Creatives are often unfairly stereotyped as scruffy, laconic and unconventional libertines. How important is appearance and attitude?

Obviously, appearance really matters when client-facing, as immediate perception is everything in our game. But attitude is even more important. I like self-starters who can motivate themselves and are willing to face challenges. These days I see lots of graduates and young workers who bring with them misguided and unrealistic expectations when it comes to jobs in the workplace. Too many suffer from a sense of entitlement that never existed when I began working – or if it did, was never publicly shared. It’s a big problem when employees are constantly looking up at the roles above them and never on their own work. Before you can be a manager, you have to first show that you are a bloody good doer who has experienced both the ups and downs yet has delivered consistently good work. How else can you empathise with or inspire the people you manage?

I like to see that employees are willing to tackle the menial or difficult jobs and succeed, that they have learnt from their mistakes and their character has grown as a result of it. Getting these tools in your locker is vital for your development in business. All of this requires a sound attitude.

I read today that Britain will need to create an additional 745,000 digital skilled workers in order to meet the rising employer demand for digital skills and innovation. How important is a digital strategy and digital knowledge for businesses?

Digital is a beast. It is also a growing problem for businesses because of a skills shortage in the area. Industry and education have started to come together to solve the problem and help produce a greater number of ‘ready-to-go’ digital recruits. It’s improving but the fast-moving and evolving nature of the digital world makes it extremely difficult. Universities and colleges can’t possibly hope to plot three-year courses and expect year one learning to be entirely relevant three years later in industry. Quite often, it just isn’t.

Perhaps, it would be better if the education system was turned upside down with each year consisting of 6 months funded working in industry, alongside 6 months classroom learning. Bridging the academic/practitioner divide this way would significantly increase the chances of producing the right future talent.

We’ve pro-actively supported the recently opened Manchester Creative Studio in Ancoats. I sit on the employer advisory committee and helped the school craft a fit for purpose curriculum. This type of engagement is a step in the right direction.

What makes you optimistic?

It starts with life lessons. A combination of personal and business experiences over the past decade have gradually instilled a resilience in myself that means I now think nothing or nobody can beat me (and consequently the agency). That might sound arrogant but I think it’s how you have to be when running a business. I no longer worry about something not working or a difficult task on the to do list. We just try it. Or it just gets done.

We’ve had to get through a recession and personally I had to cope with far more. My younger boy, Joe is severely autistic. He lost the language he’d gained, regressively, after his jabs at about 18 months and this destroyed me for a long time. The disability meant little sleep for dad from about 2009 to 2012 (which massively affected my own performance) though it then started to slowly improve. Now, I get a good 5-6 hours sleep every night and have restored energy levels.

Joe is now seven, still requires the same level of care a baby would, and is a right handful (I equate the effort to tenfold of looking after his brother) but you adjust your own effort and cope. The one thing that drives this effort is hope. Hope that things will get better. Putting this type of coping strategy into a business context makes agency world seem quite straightforward.

So having learnt to harness every last drop of hope personally, yes, you could probably accuse me of being a very optimistic person. I learnt in 2013 that you have to be optimistic to survive.

Positive thinking inspires positive actions. And that’s the only place positive results come from.

Studio North