All Aboard The Social Chain

Written by: Emily on October 31, 2018
Tags: Careers, Day in the life of, Inspiration, Interviews, Role Model, Women in Tech

Walking into Social Chain’s Manchester office for the first time can send your senses into overload, to your left is a millennial depiction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with the disciples glued to digital screens instead of their messiah, on your right is the ‘Social Train’ and straight on is a extremely instagramable flower arch. But that’s nothing; round the corner is a slide with a ball pit, a jungle and a meeting room that looks like it has been transported from a chalet in the Swiss alps! This was the location for our meeting with Katy Leeson, Managing Director of Social Chain UK (they also have offices in London, Berlin, Munich and New York), and Stephanie Bell, a Digital Designer at Socal Chain (Stephanie is also the volunteer on our first InnovateHer programme in Manchester, which we’re hugely grateful for).

Katy Leeson MD of Social Chain UK (left), Stephanie Bell Digital Designer at Social Chain (right)
Katy Leeson MD of Social Chain (left), Stephanie Bell Digital Designer at Social Chain (right)

In the four years since it was founded, this global marketing agency has grown from a team of five to nearly 200 and has become one of the world’s leading social media marketing agencies. We wanted to find out more about this trailblazing agency, the staff behind it and their digital journey.

Prepare to be inspired…

Can you share an interesting fact about yourself?

Stephanie – My claim to fame is that I’ve met Rebecca Adlington (olympic swimmer and gold medalist) but the circumstances were bizarre. I was in a restaurant in Manchester and my friend was trying to tell me that Rebecca was sitting across from us, but when I looked it wasn’t her. I popped to the loo and the door was jarred so I pushed it open and it was Rebecca Adlington on the loo! It was so bad.

Katy – I carried out some work experience at the BBC in London in between my GCSEs and A-Levels. I was working on Watchdog and part of my role was to answer letters from the general public. It was around the time when there were anthrax scares, which is a white powder. We opened one of the letters in the tiny mailroom at the BBC and a white powder came out. The whole of the BBC was evacuated except for us and the others in the mailroom. They did all the tests after evacuating everyone and it turned out to be printing powder from all the comp slips we were sending out. So we closed the whole of the BBC for no reason!

Can you tell us in your own words what social chain does and why it’s unique?

Katy – Social Chain is really unique. We’re nearly 4 years old and in that time we have innovated, changed and developed our offering quite substantially in line with changes in social media. Social Chain was started by Steve and Dom, who are still only 25. They dropped out of university and started a website called Wallpark, which was like a Gumtree for students. Dom had also started a Twitter page called ‘Student Problems’ which all started because he realised he’d ran out of toilet paper after a night out. Instead of going out to buy toilet paper he actually started tweeting about it. It managed to gain a lot of followers. We found other people who, like Dom, had started similar accounts and had a real passion for social. They started associating these pages with brands because they realised they had a real power with the networks they had created. That’s how Social Chain was born.

Social Chain Manchester's Flower Arch

It’s developed over time into a social marketing agency. Because we have the power of the network and we can quickly understand what’s happening on social, we can create strategies for brands pretty much in an instant when something changes. It enables us to be at the forefront of what’s going on on social, and this is something our clients desire. We’ve managed to evolve into production, website design and everything around social, but it all starts with social first. Our strategies are born out of an understanding of social and then we build marketing campaigns off the back of it.

Stephanie – What I find particularly good about Social Chain is the culture of the company. If you have a particular skill set or interest, Social Chain will work that into your role. We’ve just hired some design interns and one is a particularly good illustrator so she’s been able to take on more projects that incorporate her skill set. They play to your different strengths and we have our Head of Happiness to keep the staff’s morale up. We’ve been called a ‘Meme Factory’ and ‘a bunch of kids’ in the press but what I think they’ve missed is Social Chain’s focus on retaining talent by giving them quite a lot of freedom. We all have our individual Passion Projects which are really good, InnovateHer will be mine. If there’s something you feel passionate about, Social Chain gives you the freedom to pursue this.

Katy – Our culture is the most important thing, as you can see it’s a pretty special office. Our recruitment process is very much focussed on culture. We make sure that whenever someone joins the company that they fit in with our culture. It sounds really cheesy but we really are one big family, we are all close and we really respect each other.

Were either of you interested in tech or digital at school?

Stephanie – I wasn’t really encouraged to do it. I did like IT but I wasn’t pushed in that direction. I did my degree in Fine Arts because I’ve always been creative. I feel like if there was more encouragement from my science teachers, who were all men, I would have considered it.  

Katy – I don’t ever remember it being a clear option. My school would push us more towards traditional subjects rather than training you for the digital world. But I think that’s the same as now. I didn’t start out in a digital career either, I started out buying press magazine adverts and always felt a little behind on the digital front. I always knew digital was something I needed to learn if I was going to progress and future-proof myself but I didn’t really know how to.

When did your journey into digital begin?

Katy – When I started out, digital media and marketing was just developing. There were people who had started their career at a similar time to me who had gone straight into a digital role and were progressing quicker than me. This made me question how far my role in traditional media was really going to take me. Digital only really became part of my career once I’d taken a few sideways steps. It was out of a passion rather than a vocation that I learnt about digital.

In reality I knew I had to learn a few more digital skills so I started a fashion blog. Which meant I learnt about blogging, SEO and affiliates. Then Social Chain popped up on my radar and I didn’t know much about social media marketing. When I got the job here I realised that it changes all the time anyway so I didn’t need to put myself under so much pressure to know everything. I’ve taken that pressure off myself and tried to learn what I can.

Stephanie – When I was a teenager I used to create websites using Pixo. The websites were normally about you and your friends but you could style and edit it to suit you. I loved my Pixo page. That was when I first dabbled with digital design. I also started a blog too, which gave me some basic skills web design.

After my degree I went Shillington College, Manchester, which is possibly the best thing I ever did. From that I learnt the basics of graphic design and how to create websites. Social Chain has been a workplace where I’ve been able to carve out my own niche. When I was hired website design wasn’t a part of the Design Team’s offering, so I’ve been able to bring new skills to the company.

What’s in store for the future of Social Chain?

Katy – Lots and lots! We’ve got some really exciting developments for next year in terms of data. We realised that we’re sat on so much valuable data with the network that we have, which enables us to do first party research which we can then translate into understandings for brands. We have quite a lot of unique data on the youth market, which is traditionally quite hard to use for research purposes. So we’re going to delve more into data, which is going to be called Data Chain. We’re going to be developing our social first marketing agency too. We’re looking at how websites and digital sits within our social first model. We are just constantly growing, developing and being the best that we can be for our clients.

What are Social Chain’s values and mission?

KatyOur values are to be first, fearless and ever-changing. We are a contagious family who care about each other. If you see someone’s having a bad day or is struggling with their work you’re there to help and that breeds down from the top to the bottom. We try our best to be a selfless family. Our values were created out of what we stand for. We didn’t just create them and then force people to live them. The mission is to be at the forefront of what’s possible for us and our clients through living those values.

Our values are to be first, fearless and ever-changing. We are a contagious family who care about each other.

Stephanie – Values can become a buzzwords but I think they are true in the case of Social Chain. We do definitely live our values, it’s not a marketing term, they really are how we operate which is refreshing.

Who inspires you/who is your role model?

Katy – My dad is also a role model of mine. He broke his back just before I was born. He had to quit teaching and take early retirement because of this and had to try to work out what he was going to do next for a career with quite a young family. For me it’s been an inspiration to see how he’s adapted to change.

Stephanie – I’m always inspired by women. In my previous job my creative director was amazing, she was really encouraging and had the right manner in how to deal with people and problems. She would always confront issues in a very calm yet bold way, which is something we as women are always told not to be. I find Katy inspiring too. It’s encouraging when you see people in positions of power being themselves and leading in a measured confident way.

Any advice for those wanting to go into digital marketing or tech as a whole?

Stephanie – Don’t let anyone put you off,  if you really want to do it, be determined and stubborn – don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise!

Katy – Take each learning opportunity that comes your way. I was talking to someone this morning about their ikigai which is your reason for getting out of bed in the morning. It’s a mixture of what you love doing, what your passion is, what’s going to make you money and what’s going to help the world. All those things together help you find your reason for getting out of bed in the morning.

Getting into digital and tech can be really fast-paced but if you keep your passions alive and find other ways of learning you can keep going. If there’s something that you really want to learn find a way of doing it through a passion point, don’t rely on other people getting you there.

Find out more about Social Chain here and follow them on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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