Tonbridge touchdown

Features Posted 16/01/15
Top-flight marketing agency's unique memento of its early success in the unexpected world of American football

John McMahon’s office in Tonbridge High Street is spacious and uncluttered, which only serves to draw attention to the framed number 12 sports shirt hanging on the wall behind his desk.

It turns out to be a replica shirt from American football team the Seattle Seahawks, and it has a tale to tell.

The shirt was sent to John as a memento many years back after an unexpected series of events saw his fledgling company MCM Net creating online games for a number of NFL teams.

Even John remains surprised at how quickly a business he set up in a spare room at home found itself in demand on the other side of the Atlantic, but it clearly wasn’t down to luck. A decade or so on, his full service digital marketing agency now employs 17 people and has plans to double that in the next 18 months.

The business began by creating websites and now offers a complete service that focuses on web design and digital marketing to carefully-researched target audiences on behalf of a wide range of local and national companies.

MCM Net also optimises the way websites attract and retain visitors, but John is wary about referring to this as ‘SEO’ because of the reputation it has gained as a ‘dark art’ in recent years.

“The dozens of spam emails we all receive from companies on the other side of the world promising to put us on the first page of an internet search have given search engine optimisation (SEO) a bad name,” John said. “But that’s all changed.

“Google really shook up the whole digital marketing industry last year, and using a poor quality agency that will simply add dozens of dodgy links to your website is now quite likely to get you banned from Google completely. Getting a good rating on search engines is now about well-designed, user-focused sites, great content and real, relevant links.”

And that’s exactly what MCM Net sets out to create for clients that include Harvey Jones Kitchens, Bishop’s Move, Easistore, CBS Outdoor, e-cloth, Veetee Rice and Chelsea Football Club.

These days the internet seems to have been around for ever, but in reality it is still in its infancy, a fact brought home by the realisation that, at just 17, MCM Net is still a year older than Google.

John was working as an insurance broker for a company called Aon when he formed a research and development division for it and began to dabble in the new field of personal computers.

He created a programme that allowed the company to analyse and interrogate statistical information – a useful tool for insurance brokers – and was then encouraged to set up on his own by others in the business who wanted him to create the same kind of package for them.

In 1997 he took the plunge and set up MCM Net at home and before long he decided that he needed his own website. “There weren’t many at that time and they were very expensive to buy,” he recalled.

“One of the companies I approached was a large London agency which was at that time having discussions with a guy called Jeff Bezos, from a company called Amazon. I seem to recall that the chap I was talking to said it was a hare-brained scheme that would never work.”

John soon found that websites weren’t cheap in the late nineties – he was quoted between £10,000 and £100,000 – and so he bought a copy of Websites for Dummies (it’s still on his desk) and built his own.

After creating his own site to tell the insurance industry about the analytical support MCM Net could provide, it was an obvious step to begin designing websites for others, although as the business grew John put aside his well-thumbed paperback and took on a member of staff who could write code.

Factfile

The Boss Name: John McMahon Age: 46 Job: Managing director Lives: Orpington, Kent Hobby: Travelling, boating and currently training for another London marathon Best holiday: Jamaica in the summer and Skiing in Obergurgl in the winter

John, meanwhile, decided to sell banner ads on his original insurance-focused website, and quickly capitalised on the growing awareness of the internet by persuading no less than British Airways, Mercedes and BMW to take space. “My website was taking a feed from Reuters and was seen by Lloyds underwriters so it was a great target audience for them,” he explained.

That focus on target audience is something that has remained with MCM Net throughout the company’s history, with campaigns aimed at creating interest amongst their clients’ potential customers rather than the world at large.

The aim is to build a long-term relationship with customers so that the team can understand the client’s business and its target audience and advise on the best ways to reach that audience online. “It’s one of the things we believe sets us apart as a digital marketing agency,” said John.

“The technology is there to allow us to help businesses reach a very tightly-defined audience and that’s what we do.” Inspirational social media campaigns devised by John’s team – mainly via Facebook and Twitter – also help drive traffic to those websites.

Meanwhile back in the early two thousands, the new member of staff was also keen on designing games and devised a putting game for a golfing concern. “We gave the company the game as a free add-on for a new website we built for them,” John recalled.

“We mailed out a number of press releases and it was covered briefly in the Mirror, but then it was picked up by Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 2 – and the response was so huge that it promptly crashed the website.

The golf site was thrilled with the response – once the site was back up and running – and it was the success of the game that saw MCM Net invited to work first with the Philadelphia Eagles and then with the Seahawks.

John remembers taking his first call from the Eagles with a chuckle. “We were just a few years old and working out of a tiny office in Tonbridge. This guy on the other side of the world had heard about the success of our putting game and wanted to come over to visit our ‘headquarters’. Fortunately I managed to persuade him to do things by email instead – and he was delighted with the games we created.”

Now working in the same town, but in more impressive offices, John and his team believe that websites and digital marketing are about to ‘come of age’, with more compelling content, a focus on relevant and interesting material and the use of social media and online games to drive traffic and improve search engine rankings.

“These days there is no excuse for not having a good website; soon there will be no excuse for poor content or promotion, either,” he said.

Sites are also becoming more ‘intelligent’ to cater for an audience that will soon spend more time surfing via mobile devices than PCs. An MCM Net-designed responsive website will automatically shrink itself and format itself differently when it is viewed on a tablet or a smartphone rather than a desktop computer.

“We still work with our customers to create great websites, but now it’s about following that process through by driving relevant traffic using techniques such as user experience audits, search optimisation, ‘pay per click’ marketing, social media and online games,” John concluded.

“That’s what makes it such a satisfying business. We get to work really closely with some great clients and get the satisfaction of knowing we truly make a difference to their business.”

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