Written by Joff Alexander-Frye / Photography by Nick ‘The Rhino’ Hook

Kate Cox is really cool. She is a woman of substance; a carrier of joy, a practitioner of humility and a fountain of wisdom.

I had the pleasure of spending just over an hour with her recently and I came away inspired, motivated, challenged and entertained. We had both disclosed parts of our personal journeys, both shared openly about lessons we had learned in business and also about the values and ethics that sit at the core of each of our worldviews. That probably sounds pretty intense, but we also laughed. A lot.

Kate is the CEO of Bray Leino, a full-service integrated creative agency based in Filleigh, North Devon. I explained to Kate that I had once applied (unsuccessfully I might add) for a role there, so had done a bit of research about the company already, remembering that the company had been founded over forty years ago by two friends from London who moved down to Devon for a better life. They had both come from the world of Marketing and Creative Agencies so, naturally, started up their own in Devon, using each of their wives’ maiden names to form the company name.

Twenty years later, in the late nineties, Kate joined Bray Leino, in what was somewhat of a surprise move for her, based on her previously intended career plan. Having attended Manchester Metropolitan University, followed by the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST), gaining a degree in Art Direction & Graphic Design and then a Masters in Marketing, she left University on the Friday and joined Bray Leino as Account Executive for Wrigleys, Castrol and G R Lanes the following Monday. She had always been London-bound, with her sights set on life in a London agency, but she took a detour via North Devon and then, sort of, never left. It seems that Devon has a way of hooking your heart like few other places in the world.

Joff Alexander-Frye meets with Kate Cox, CEO of Devon-based advertising agency Bray Leino

It struck me that Bray Leino must be a pretty special place to not only attract but retain talent like Kate. For a young twenty-something coming out of nineties Manchester, in all its Hacienda, Oasis glory, rural North Devon must have come as a bit of a shock to Kate. As I say though, the company seemed to have the culture, buzz and opportunities for a young and hungry executive like Kate.

This was magnified by the superb leadership of David Morgan, one of the founders and owners at the time. Kate recalled how he excelled at giving young, relatively inexperienced members of his teams a lot of freedom and responsibility, fostering a culture of trust and proving that progression was genuinely possible within the business. So much so, in fact, that two other current board members also started around the same time, in junior roles, and have worked their way up through the business.

Such has been the success and growth of Bray Leino over the years, that they now have over three hundred staff, spread around the UK, Asia and US working in just about every area of marketing conceivable; from Brand Strategy, TV and Digital to Sales promotion, Experiential, Conferences and PR. They also belong to the Mission Group, a collection of agencies, of which Bray Leino are one of the largest and broadest in terms of their offer.

That isn’t to say, of course, that they don’t have areas of strength and key industries that they specialise in. Food & Drink, Healthcare and highly complex B2B industries are key verticals for Bray Leino, with national and international clients in healthy number for all three.

When I asked Kate about why Bray Leino had embraced this broad, multi-discipline, multi-industry approach (compared to that of more focused specialist agencies), without breaking her stride, she replied,

“We get to benefit from shared learnings between multiple types and sizes of business. This cross-pollination puts us in pole position to offer our clients the very best service and advice, rather than a narrower specialist viewpoint. The fact that we operate cross-continentally as well means that we have the added benefit of multiple cultural influences too. That only further bolsters our overall offer.”

Joff Alexander-Frye meets with Kate Cox, CEO of Devon-based advertising agency Bray Leino

To think that this thriving, award-winning agency has come from such small beginnings, further compounds how impressive their offer is. In the middle of rural Devon, forty years ago when there wasn’t even a main road or internet connection of any kind to speak of, it must have been a hugely challenging start to life as a business. Not only have they survived though, they have thrived in almost every way imaginable.

One key thing that stuck with me from my chat with Kate was the culture and internal approach that Bray Leino has adopted and fought hard to retain. Their communicated value system is solid, aiming to be clear, open, astute, ingenious, caring and brave at all times as a business. They also talk often internally about being a ‘house of curious minds’; embracing endless curiosity which helps them refine, learn and innovate as an organisation. Kate commented,

“I noticed a decade or so ago that we were starting to become a little more risk-averse as a business. It was starting to affect our people and our financial performance, so I tackled it head on and have worked incredibly hard to encourage calculated risk and promote within our teams that failure is ok, as long as you learn from it. As far as I see it, let’s mess up, learn quickly and move on!”

Another extraordinary component of Bray Leino’s business is their visionary approach to technology. As the world of marketing and advertising embraces technology such as AR, VR, Automation, Programmatic and Chatbots, Bray Leino have made the brave decision to take all of their development in-house. This approach includes the strategic decision to gather dedicated project teams around new technologies to work out the genuine benefits, challenges and possible applications of it. Once they have assessed the opportunity and often built their own tailor-made solution, they then train every single member of staff what it is, how to use it and how their clients will benefit from using it. This fosters a shared sense of ownership and increases the total knowledge base of the business, meaning that whoever a client may end up speaking to, they are guaranteed an educated and cognisant interaction.

The summation of this approach has been Bray Leino’s development of an industry-leading Agency Management System called easl, soon to be rolled out across the whole of the Mission Group and also their own Project Management System, Wonderwall, which is used by every department in the agency, allowing all staff members to see in real time the status of every client project being worked on.

This sort of innovation and investment into quality of service, has led to an envious client retention rate, keeping clients like Jägermeister, BP, Freederm, Thatchers and WKD happy for, in some cases, decades. And, in many, in fact most instances, new business has been secured based on recommendation; the gold-dust of modern business interactions. When a client, employee or supplier recommends you, you are so much more likely to enter into positive and mutually beneficial business relationships.

Joff Alexander-Frye meets with Kate Cox, CEO of Devon-based advertising agency Bray Leino

I also asked Kate what it was like working for such a large, fast-paced and expert business. She replied,

“In such a fast-paced industry, it becomes really easy not to feel the highs and lows. I believe it’s really important to pause at the right times to feel both the tough stuff and the amazing stuff. If something has gone wrong, let’s pause, feel the pain for a second and then move on. If something has gone right, let’s pause, celebrate properly and then move on. It is a subtle and small thing but it improves the overall experience for everyone. Also, happiness is a choice. That is a firm personal belief of mine. We control the positivity of our outlook and our own happiness. To be on your ‘A-Game’ you need to be healthy and happy. So, we ask our people to manage their lives as they see fit, to do what they need to, to be the best they can be, in order to bring their ‘A-Game’ to their role at Bray Leino”.

Outside of Bray Leino, where Kate works extremely hard, she tries to get into different head-spaces. For example, she practices Yoga, runs and tries to Kite Surf (but only when it’s hot). She is also involved in the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), has supported the IPA (Institute of Practitioners of Advertising) to help drive Client Service excellence in the advertising industry, is a Trustee of North Devon Hospice (Bray Leino’s nominated charity who they donate £30,000 worth of advice and help to per year as a gift-in-kind) and is also about to become a Trustee of a newly-formed plastic-reduction organisation. Her husband of eight years, her family and her best mates are also of vital and central importance to Kate, that is very clear.

As our time together drew to a close, I found myself feeling like I had just had an incredibly positive human interaction. Personally and professionally, I left our chat walking an inch or two taller and with a little more of a spring in my step. Well, as much spring as a portly thirty-three-year-old can have that is.

See. I told you Kate was pretty cool!

To track Bray Leino’s amazing journey, follow them on LinkedIn, @brayleino on Twitter or @brayleino on Instagram.


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