Feature Interview: Stephen Kenwright, Co-Founder at Rise at Seven

Stephen Kenwright is the Co-Founder and Technical Director of SEARCH-FIRST creative agency Rise at Seven. We spoke to Stephen about his career, Rise at Seven’s explosive growth and what’s next.

Hey Stephen! Where did your career journey begin?

I have seven A Levels because originally, I wanted to become a Doctor. My head of sixth form told me I wasn’t smart enough for it; that I needed to lower my expectations. I decided to study English when I went to view the residences at Sheffield Hallam University. I met a girl called Lizzie; I’d probably known her for two minutes and she suggested I do English, because I’d only need to come into class six hours a week. I thought: perfect, I’ll do that.

Really, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do. I ended up completing a Master’s in Shakespeare and planned on doing a PhD. I was also freelancing for a small ad agency in Manchester doing advertising copy — mostly leaflets and technical copy.

The company was acquired around the time I was graduating, and they offered me a full-time copywriting job. So I moved from Sheffield to Manchester. I was there for ten months and I spent a bunch of time with the SEO team. I really enjoyed it and found it easy — it was all common sense to me. And I liked SEO because you aren’t selling stuff that people don’t want; they’re looking for it themselves. It feels like you’re actually helping people — which was a huge motivator for me.

After ten months I was made redundant and decided that I’d go full-time SEO and try to make that my profession.

What was your next step?

I joined an agency called Branded3 in Leeds which I was at for seven years. I was promoted really quickly and ended up as part of the management team — and at various points was looking after everyone; from the PPC teams to the SEO and web development teams, to design, content and PR.

Branded3 eventually merged into another business. But I was involved in some really cool projects while I was there. One was Search Leeds, which was a conference that we created — and it became massive. In its first year, in 2016, it was attended by 450 at the Royal Armories in Leeds. And in its last year, in 2019, we had 3000 people in Leeds Arena with 48 speakers. It became a full-time job for a couple of people in the business, and was definitely one of the highlights of my career.

In 2019, I became Head of Digital at Pendragon in Nottingham — the UK’s largest automotive retailer. There was a wide remit there too, which was a lot of fun. It was also the chance to see how everything worked in a way you don’t always do from the agency side. It was at Pendragon, while I was doing a pitch process to bring on an SEO agency, when I identified a gap in the market. There were some really great agencies that pitched; they were all brilliant in their own way but none of them could fulfill the technical end of things with the creative side, at least not to a high standard. 

That was the original vision of Rise at Seven when we first launched; we knew we could do those two things together and fill that gap.

Rise at Seven’s first office was in Sheffield. How did being in Sheffield have an impact?

I think Rise at Seven grew as fast as it did for several reasons. The first was the pandemic, which we benefited from. We had a few clients who were traditional retailers like Matalan and Halfords who had a website and it was part of what they did; but all of the sudden it was entirely what they did. We also had several digital-first clients like Misguided and other e-commerce websites that really exploded as a result of the pandemic.

But Sheffield was another key ingredient, because there wasn’t the same degree of competition — or the same style of competition — as there was in places like Leeds. Or the big behemoth agencies who would hoover up all the talent. And having worked at Pendragon in Nottingham, I knew of three people who commuted from Sheffield. In Leeds at Branded3 we had seven people commuting from Sheffield. It seemed obvious that perhaps people would want to stay in Sheffield if there was a job for them there. There was a lot of talent that was leaving the city because there weren’t the opportunities.

Finally, Sheffield has two really good Universities. Hallam is particularly good for journalism, so there’s skill sets being developed for PR. And the University of Sheffield has great technical degrees, like computer science.

I don’t think that Rise at Seven would have grown anywhere near as quickly if we’d created that first base in Manchester, London or Leeds.

How do your company values come into play?

Our values are a starting point to help us spot the right people to bring into the company right away. But it’s very hard to advertise values externally; agencies do that, but it doesn’t always translate.

What we have done, especially in the early days of the pandemic, was to propagate this idea on social media that to get noticed at Rise you had to be creative. Because people were producing these really creative applications — which started a cycle of applicants sending in even more creative stuff. We foster this creativity throughout the agency, from top to bottom; so that whether you’re in SEO or a developer or you’re working in PR, your job is to come up with creative solutions to problems.

You’ve had impressive growth over the past few years during a pandemic — what’s been your experience of it?

It’s been tough. And we’ve not done everything right. We’re in the process of undoing some of what became ingrained within our company as a result of the pandemic. One of the bigger challenges is actually around communication.

When everyone’s at home, and no one ever leaves the house, and there are no boundaries between work and home life, people just work; they stay at their desk, and it’s propagated by the fact that everyone else is still at their desk. So they’ll send a message at 8 or 9pm. These are behaviours that we’ve never tried to encourage, but have happened over time.

We’re just about to stop using Slack. That’s a hard decision, because it’s been crucial to us during the pandemic. But we need to remove the behaviours that are not healthy for the individuals here in the business. I personally don’t like Slack; as I’m in SEO I know the deep work it requires, and the instant form of communication that Slack promotes is frustrating and distracting. There’s so many reasons why, in theory, Slack is a bad thing for a business like ours.

Now that we’re (hopefully) at the other side of the pandemic, we’re assessing the work-life culture that we want our team to have. We have to decide whether the existing processes are still fit for purpose. I think businesses right now have the opportunity to keep the good bits of what they put in place during the pandemic, and remove elements that don’t work for them anymore. 

These aren’t easy decisions to make — and time will tell whether this is a good one for us.

What’s your vision for the company — at least over the next couple of years?

The vision we began the company with was to be the biggest. And we have created a big agency very quickly, but we’ve reached a plateau where we have to deal with some of the challenges that we created for ourselves by growing so fast.

What we can’t do is continue to grow as we have and let service drop as a result; because if we start losing clients, that’s the beginning of a downward spiral. We decided around November to take a pause and bring in people more slowly — fill in skill gaps where needed. We’re much more static now than we’ve ever been. We’ve reached 110 people and for the most part we’ve stayed there.

We grew as much as we wanted to. The business we want to run now is one that’s as great as it can be. I think from now on our growth will be steady and deliberate, rather than explosive. The US is going to be a massive opportunity for us; about a fifth of our work comes from the US already and we aren’t even there yet. We’ve expanded into Europe as well. But it’s all much calmer, at least for the next year.

Have you had time to reflect on what you’ve achieved?

I think that it’s tough to do as a business owner. You should take stock of what you’ve done and what your experience has been. But some of the things, to say out loud, just sound ludicrous. We turn down six clients a day on average; 3000 people applied to work here in 2021. We added a new person every single week for a year. We’re working with — almost exclusively — brands everyone in the world has heard of.

People who work at Rise are really happy to be working with clients that they actually buy stuff from. These are brands that are part of our day-to-day lives, and that’s something you can’t take for granted. And too often we do. But we’ve been really lucky. 

You can read this issue in full below, or click here.