A trained musician and songwriter, Hedley went on to produce two rock operas from prisons under the Summit brand, before falling into online marketing
By Luan Goldie – 10/01/08 NMA
Launching his online marketing agency by employing prison inmates, Hedley Aylott of Summit is keen to promote its other successes, finds Luan Goldie.
Summit made its name by employing prison inmates to run online ad campaigns. It has a remarkable track record that has given hope and rehabilitation to many offenders. But MD Hedley Aylott is just as keen to shout about his other achievements.
The family-run agency had a turnover of over £10.3m last year, taking it into the upper fifth of the NMA Top 100 Interactive Agencies 2007 guide, but its rural base in East Yorkshire and unusual heritage have kept it elusive
Formed in 1994 as Summit Records, the company was responsible for releasing the first record from a British prison in conjunction with the Arts Council. At the time, Summit consisted of Hedley, his mother Marion and sister-in-law Victoria, who both still work with him.
Aylott, himself a trained musician and songwriter, went on to produce two rock operas from prisons under the Summit brand, before falling into online marketing. It was a move born out of the need to promote the music more than anything else.
“I didn’t even know what an agency was then, I just knew we built websites to promote our events. And I knew if we could make sites for others, it could then support the arts work we were doing in the prisons, which until then was pretty hand-to-mouth.”
Summit was officially formed in 2000, a family operation offering affiliate, design and build, ecommerce and search services. Its work within prisons was switched from music to media, with inmates of two jails training and working in the sector.
Prisoners at HMP Wolds and, until a recent change of category, HMP Rye Hill work across Summit’s growing client list, which includes Argos, Comet, Powergen, 3 and Viking. While Summit’s use of inmates may raise eyebrows among competitors, Aylott has always been completely upfront with clients. Some even attend meetings held in the prisons.
On release, inmates can continue to work for Summit or go into the wider media world. Some have started their own enterprises and Aylott claims that he knows of just one re-offender in seven years of running the project.
While he’s proud of Summit’s achievements in prisons and the high level of success of former participants, he’s also keen to shout about Summit’s other achievements.
“Prison is a small part of what we do; less than a quarter of our staff are from prisons,” he says. “The bigger part is having created a company that allows us to be truly specialist as well as to have a view of the whole online channel.”
This year Summit took on Larraine Corbelli-Withey, former commercial director of Manchester digital agency Moonfish, to take responsibility for growing the business.
“We’ve never had any salespeople in place or formal business development, it has all been down to referral up to now,” says Aylott. “Larraine will now help grow the business and spread the word of what we can do.”
Although prior to the appointment, the wider industry was already beginning to take an interest in the company, with it winning several awards – including an NMA Effectiveness Award in 2007 for its ecommerce work for Comet – and new clients.
This year mobile operator 3 handed Summit its affiliate programme, to power all its tracking, billing and support. The success of this prompted Aylott to roll out standalone brand Summit Connect, to encourage more brands to outsource affiliate marketing.
While he sings the praises of affiliate marketing and what it can do for clients, he says that some companies are doing little to rid the sector of its sometimes poor reputation.
“There are really good and professional affiliates but there are also some who cross the line of what’s acceptable, and the problem is networks are very compromised,” says Aylott. “On one hand they make money through the affiliate, but on the other they serve the merchant. So where do their loyalties lie?”
Another sector Aylott feels needs work is ecommerce; he believes that many vendors are doing retailers and customers an injustice.
“All that companies like Fresca, Imano, Snow Valley and Venda do is look at the web channel and ecommerce platform. They have no reference point with the store, catalogue or call centre. They’re totally missing the point of joining up these channels. No one’s doing this and retailers are crying out for it.”
So for Aylott, joining up the customer experience is Summit’s biggest mission.
“Everything comes back to delivering a sale. It’s where we start, working back to the click and watching it go all the way through the site,” he says. “We’re really obsessed with engineering the best customer experience, so we’re very usability-focused and innovation-led.”
Summit took the unusual step of opening an office in Prague before London and is only now considering a presence in the capital. The Prague office now boasts 40 people and a raft of clients from Eastern and Central Europe. “London is a short train journey away, and we are well represented at all the events, so we don’t feel too disconnected from what’s going on. But a London office is on the cards,” says Aylott.
For the time being he opts to invite clients up to Yorkshire once a year for a Polo tournament, hosted by the family at his other business venture, the White Rose Polo Club.
Despite the growth and expectations of turnover increasing by 50% by the end of 2008, Summit is not up for sale. “We have no ambition to sell,” assures Aylott. “We have a mission, a lot of work to do and we’re scaling our business to grow, not to sell.”