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Master storytellers Folk reveal the secrets of their success

With a decade in design and development, Folk has become a leader in eCommerce design but also in skillfully portraying messages that major brands are consistently drawn to

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Folk has just finished celebrating its tenth anniversary. As one of the leading eCommerce specialists working today, Folk has become synonymous with not only innovative digital design, but also a well-defined appreciation for the stories the brands they work with want to tell.

Jo Cruickshanks, MD and co-founder described the genesis of Folk: “Once upon a time, long, long ago a very fresh-faced Jo left university to begin a career in marketing. She also got her first mobile phone.” After a year at a software company full of 80 geeks and being the only girl, Jo’s interest in how technology could transform marketing and communication was sparked. It was her next job that really allowed her to deepen this interest as a proper digital native.

She became the editor of a dot com community for teens, building the community up to over 200,000 users in 18 months, she helped launch pop acts, trialled the first reverse-billing/SMS technology with Vodafone, designed and published a website that had millions of page views every month, promoted the first version of ASOS, looked after an editorial team of 12 and lots of other fun stuff. From there, she has never looked back. Jo has been passionate about digital as an integrated marketing tool for brands ever since, but not just for marketing – as the lifeblood of a business.

Fast-forward a few years and Jo met a crazy Kiwi called Paul Sheehy snowboarding in France. He was not a digital native, but he understood and connected with Jo’s passion and belief, and he saw the opportunity that many brands were missing out on. He fell in love with digital as a tool to produce results for people and naturally moved towards SEO.

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About seven years ago, two things happened that were fundamental to Folk’s existence: One was that Jo had two very bad experiences with agencies, one for a company she worked for, and another for a company she had formed called Puresha. Second was Paul’s SEO retail clients were asking if he did any digital design stuff. The reason behind both? Digital agencies don’t ‘get’ brand stories and even if some did, the product at the end turned out to actually be more damaging to the brand. There was a complete disconnection between the brand and the experience.

At this time, while they were taking a holiday, an ex-colleague of Jo’s got in touch and asked if Jo and Paul wanted to take over his boutique digital design agency, Chillifish. ‘Why not?’ they thought. ‘We must be able to do better than the other agencies we’ve worked with, because we believe in the brand connecting with digital’. And so, Folk was born.

The agency continued with its existing name for about two years after Jo and Paul took over. “After two years as Chillifish, I felt our name was disconnected and didn’t really represent what we were all about,” Jo continued. “Folk came about one day when I was trying to think of a new name and a bunch of emails were flying around in the studio. One member of the team opened his email ‘Hey folks…’ and that’s when it just clicked.

“It’s a word that resonates on many levels – it stands for people, it stands for cultural storytelling and myth making, it stands for a musical genre and lifestyle. When it came to the URL, Folk wasn’t available, but ‘wearefolk’ was. I liked this because it constantly reminds us that, despite all of this wonderful technology, we are all still people.”
Folk has become well known in the marketplace as a specialist in the retail fashion and luxury brand sectors. Paul explained their approach: “We know from experience the types of clients we can really make a difference with. In the early days, we weren’t really clear, but now we have a very clear idea both from a budget point of view and a vision view. We know we cannot fullfil our purpose as an agency working with people who don’t want to build their digital strategy on a purpose above and beyond making cash. Commerciality is obviously key, but our view is it’s a by-product of everything else.

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“As we deal mostly with retail clients, we have seen over the last few years that our clients are much more educated about what they want and how digital fits into their overall proposition. Digital is also now more integrated into the overall business practices of the clients that come to us. The marketing people we now deal with are more digitally savvy than in the past. For us this means the disconnection we used to see between a business’ proposition and how digital was being used has vastly reduced.
“We want to empower eCommerce and marketing directors to show their boards that, in effect, digital as a separate entity is dead. These channels are now an integral component of all businesses – none more so than within the eCommerce sector. Fifteen years ago I advised New Look about how digital would impact their business over the coming years. It’s taken retailers a while to appreciate this channel, but they are all now actively developing these services.

“With our clients we talk a lot about connected commerce, which we believe is the evolution of eCommerce. From a design agency point of view, this means we all have to be more nimble and proactive with the designs we produce for our clients, simply because they are also moving much faster to perfect their digital channels.
“If you look at how digital commerce has evolved beginning with SEO, and then blogging and now social media, many companies have found themselves in a bit of a mess trying to handle all of these channels. There really wasn’t a cohesive plan of action. Today we talk to our clients about the messages they want to communicate and how this will be achieved over multiple channels that are integrated together. For us, we help brands to understand why they are using digital channels and how these can be optimised. For instance, a brand may come to us and say they want a new website. But after our discovery phase a new website may not actually be needed. What they would really benefit from is a new story.”

Jo elaborated: “We try and work with brands that are discerning. By that we mean that the clients we work with want to clearly understand their message and build digital assets to communicate those values. We as an agency have become known as a design service that will work with a brand to understand those messages and ensure they are communicated in the most innovative and efficient way possible. We may have started with fashion and luxury brands, but we are seeing that more diverse brands are now coming to us, as they can see that we can help them as well.”

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Over the last decade Folk has continued to evolve as the markets it serves have also changed. However, with last year being the agency’s tenth anniversary, Jo took some time to re-evaluate the direction that the agency was moving in, and what this meant for the ethos within the company.

“Last year I spent a lot of time looking at the leadership in the company. We made a couple of quite radical changes to ensure that as we grow in the future we have our staff making more of a comprehensive contribution. We have appointed someone to hire the right people but also to protect the culture within or business, which is unique and very precious to us. This may seem like a luxury for an agency of our size, but it has been successful.

“We have found that it’s important to have the right attitude within the people we hire – their skills are not enough for us. We have a close working relationship with Bournemouth University. Paul gives lectures there, as we feel it’s important to have that connection with up-and-coming designers and developers. We have hired graduates in the past. When this has gone wrong, we now know this is because their attitude wasn’t right for us. One thing we try to do is ensure that our developers are more involved with the clients they are working for, and not simply coding the work we give them.”

Turning to how Folk approaches each new commission, Paul outlined the agency’s general approach: “A project is normally between four to six months. We start with what we call a ‘Why Workshop’ that helps the whole team to align to the purpose that the brand is fulfilling through its digital experience. Our account services team is really great at finding the why, then the producer will look at the business case – what their needs are and how we can best meet and exceed those needs.

“Once we have all of that background information, we then go into the creative process where Tom, our creative director will work with the producer, content strategist and account team to create a vision for the project. We like to work beyond a simple website design to create a full experience, so we will usually have a few concepts to visualise for the client. From there, we go to the technical team, where we have a team of front- and back-end Magento developers in house. Finally testing happens; we have a QC person who double-checks the functional specification back to the design to ensure that we have completed everything we needed to complete at the outset of the project. Overseeing in the background all of the tasks, plans and production is a project manager.”

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FOLK – Values we work (and live) by

Be curious: Curiosity isn’t a way of thinking, it’s a way of being. When we look at things as though through the eyes of a child, the whole universe becomes a source of inspiration. “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” – Albert Einstein

Believe in the impossible: When we set sail with passionate purpose, nothing gets in our way; and so it is in life, and the work we craft. “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll

Have purpose: Good stories tell people what you do, great stories tell people why you do it. Without a ‘why’, a purpose, a mantra or belief, what would we be here for?

Make a difference: Without a commitment to transform even the smallest thing, what’s the point? How we show up in the world and do good is who we are.

Master your craft: The courage to move through fear, and learn from our mistakes in order to hone our unique expression of a craft we love, is what we value as true expertise. “Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, Masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.” – Robert Greene

Be genuine: Speak with truth, speak from authenticity. Don’t hide behind the mask – it keeps you, and those you speak with, small. “Be quiet enough to hear the genuine in yourself so you can hear it in others.” – Mirian Wright Endleman

Connect: We are all connected. Everything we do affects others directly or indirectly, so by nurturing the connections we hold in life, we nurture ourselves. “Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued;  when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship” – Brene Brown

Take responsibility: Everything that happens is due to the choices we make in life. Be the success you want to be in life, and grow from the challenges that life brings you.

Have fun: Free thinking comes naturally. By forcing ourselves to get in the zone, we stifle our efforts, and only when we relax and wander as we wish to wander, can we be truly creative spirits. “People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing” – Dale Carnegie

RIDE THE WAVE AND BREATHE
When you breathe in the face of fear, and accept the ebb and flow of life, challenge becomes the welcome nature of every day.

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Like all design agencies, the tools that are deployed have changed over time and now reflect the kind of work that Folk is best known for. As supreme Magento developers, they have also embraced a number of other development platforms to realise their clients’ visions. Tom Wittlin, creative director, outlined their approach to the toolset Folk use: “We think that HTML5, CSS3, etc, are overused buzzwords and have already been around for years. Although the web has been slow to adopt a lot of these changes, as soon as they are actually fully used they will have been superseded and replaced with something better.

“jQuery really is seen as the storefront of JavaScript these days; it’s hard to imagine a highly interactive site without it. However it can be pretty resource-heavy. We’ve already seen alternatives that use the same syntax as jQuery but are slicker, smaller and execute faster – Zepto is one such example. I think this will continue with the jQuery syntax becoming a standard in its own right. CSS preprocessors are also increasing in popularity and the benefits can be huge on a platform. Most of these benefits are developer focused, such as nesting and mixins. These are great once you get them set up and the whole team is used to using them, so I can see that they will become more commonplace, especially in larger teams, template systems and rapid development.”

But the sheer number and diversity of tools that are available now can be rather bewildering. Staying ahead of the technology curve is vital, so what does Folk think the future of development tools looks like? “A framework that is really coming to maturity is Foundation,” Jo explained. “It is jQuery compatible so you can use it with existing scripts, and it pushes mobile first without being a hindrance to rapid development. It’s quick, intuitive and has a tiny footprint. The only downside is it doesn’t support the older version of Internet Explorer.

“Another tool we’ve been using more and more is local storage; this isn’t new and has been around since Internet Explorer. Local storage is basically the ability to store a decent amount of data within the browser, which can be unique to the user. Accessing this is very quick, so you are able to improve load times for common information without needing to include it in the source of every page on the site. It can also be used to great effect with full-page caching systems such as Varnish, where the whole page is returned as a generic static HTML page, and customised content is updated within the browser from local storage. This lowers server access and increases load times for the user.
“One final bit of technology we’re keeping a close eye on is HHVM, which is a PHP just-in-time compiler. It’s created and used by Facebook to provide lightning-fast browsing experiences using PHP. HHVM has come a long way in recent months as it’s now starting to be compatible with PHP frameworks. Once this is achieved we could see instant improvements in speed of up to 80 per cent without any significant server changes.”

Folk has carved a particular niche for itself within the eCommerce sector that is very much the envy of many other agencies. Paul outlined their approach to client acquisition: “In the past, websites have relied on word of mouth, search engines, and advertising (both online and offline) in order to be found,” he explained. “During the past decade social platforms have transformed the internet, rising in popularity and becoming great new drivers of traffic. Because different social platforms cover specific niches and also include recommendations by friends, traffic from these is often highly targeted and therefore likely to convert.

“People used to point links to websites to prove their popularity and gain rankings. Social recommendations are now equally (if not more) important. When you consider how many people go online just to check their Facebook and Twitter feed, rather than (for example) go online to look stuff up via Google, that’s a good indication of how and why social has become crucial for every business. Google itself has heavily promoted Google+ and made it the backbone of all of their services, which goes to show why a social presence isn’t optional, it’s essential. It’s also a useful tool for monitoring your reputation and what customers think of you.”

Folk has clearly become an agency that clients flock to in order to take advantage of their experience and technical prowess. Jo outlined what the future holds for the agency: “We are talking about Connected Commerce to our customers now, which is really our take on the omni-channel topic. The future of this industry will totally revolve around a customer and their journey of interaction with the brand – whenever they want, on whatever device they want. Mobile is key for us, we design responsively, but it is a bespoke design to suit different devices and needs the customer may have at that point.” And with Folk’s acute understanding of brand messages, their clients are certainly in safe hands.

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