People, profit, and planet: Q&A with our CEO, James

Author information: Lily Veale , Senior Marketing Executive , Post information: 14 Mar 2023 , 7 min read ,
Related post categories: Culture ,

Over the last two years, Torchbox has doubled from 60 to over 120 people. We're still dedicated to working with organisations making a positive impact, like Oxfam, Mozilla, NASA, and the NHS. And, as we're 100% employee-owned, we are continuously working to create a great place to work and finding ways to shift the needle on the things we care most about: climate action, diversity and inclusion, and civic engagement.

james leavesley
James presenting at the EOA Annual Conference 2022

One of the key people driving our organisation forward is CEO, James. When he’s not running ultra marathons, James can be found driving instrumental changes to our employee wellbeing strategy and client services, and working on our mission to become the “best agency in the world to work for”.

Find out what advice he would give to his younger self, what’s next for Torchbox, and why being an employee-owned company is so important to his role.

So, James, how are things going at Torchbox right now?

When looking at our businesses, we tend to analyse the three main pillars that are most important to us; people, profit, and the planet. So, I’ll break down my thoughts by looking at these individually.

We want all our co-owners to feel motivated and engaged, so we have been focusing on making Torchbox the best employee-owned business. This has involved improving our benefits and working on new initiatives and best practices to take care of the wellbeing and development of our people. Much of this is being led brilliantly by our employee voice groups. Our mentoring and academy schemes for tech and digital marketing have also been hugely successful.

But there is still more we can do to continue making Torchbox a great place to work. Our quick rise up the rankings of the Best Companies index to be listed as a World Class Organisation and taking home the EOA’s Good Leadership Award, shows we are heading in the right direction. We’re currently 21st and 6th in our sector!

Our impact on the planet is an area we’ll always strive to improve and it’s something that our people really care about. One of our founders, Olly, has now taken on the role of Chief People and Sustainability Officer, so it’s a core part of his remit. He is supported by the co-owners in our Sustainability Voice Group, as well as our Digital Sustainability Group (which focuses on emissions associated with our digital services).

For the last four years, we’ve monitored our carbon footprint, and compensated for our impact through certified carbon removal projects but the picture isn’t entirely clear. Our current focus is to more accurately measure our carbon footprint including our Scope 3 emissions (we are working with the sustainability consultancy Inhabit) after which we intend to publish a Net Zero strategy in line with Science Based Targets.

Finally, from a commercial perspective, it would be fair to say the trading environment has been pretty rocky these past few years! Therefore, our ~10% YoY growth is commendable, and I believe this is mainly due to the investment in our people. As an agency that delivers people services, we must hire and retain great people, which we can only do by investing in their care, wellbeing, and ongoing development.

What trends are you seeing and how are these impacting Torchbox?

Particularly looking at the not-for-profit space, there have been many reports of funding cuts and a reduction in donations which is a double-edged sword for us. Despite some charities needing more budget, many are investing further in digital to navigate an ever-changing landscape. These organisations want to work with an established company they know will deliver, and we will continue going above and beyond their expectations.

We saw a similar trend at the height of the pandemic. Despite the not-for-profit sector being particularly affected by covid, our clients saw incredible ROI in our digital services which helped them get through a turbulent time.

We’ve also seen a huge uptake in US charities and organisations who want the best company to work with, not necessarily the most local. This has given us a great opportunity to work with a much broader cross-section of clients in sectors such as Higher Education, Health and Wellbeing, and the US public sector.

And finally, I think we are seeing a real shift in how organisations procure services, with much more impetus on how suppliers are positively impacting both the environment and society. This really plays to our strengths as we have always been an agency that cares deeply about our impact on the wider world.

What areas is Torchbox particularly doing well in?

Previously, we were very much founder-led, and the majority of our ideas came from our Senior Leadership Team. Now that we’re an EOT, we’re following more of a bottom-up model, allowing us to harness great ideas from our people and the wider Torchbox community. In particular, one idea put forward from within our Digital Marketing team was to grow an Email Marketing offer. We’ve hired two new employees to expand this business area, and many of our clients are now using this service.

Over the last four years, we have worked with more and more public sector bodies, particularly in the UK and the US. We have been investing heavily in building up our skills across all our departments to deliver these services and it’s really paying off. Not only has this allowed us to expand in the public sector but the other sectors we work with have benefited from these capabilities and experience.

In terms of Wagtail, we’ve seen this product go from strength to strength as one of the leading open-source content management systems. The rapidly expanding number of organisations around the world using Wagtail has led to an even better ecosystem of agencies and developers supporting it. Torchbox has continued to increase its investment in the product and we have a growing list of organisations sponsoring new features and programmes of work, including Google! Areas that are particularly exciting at the moment include the evolution of the editorial experience, the accessibility updates we have been working on informed by our work with RNIB, as well our aim to make Wagtail the most environmentally sustainable content management system.

And finally, our award-winning digital marketing services have been our largest area of growth. We have a 35-strong team focused on the UK nonprofit sector, with clients including some of the biggest and most respected nonprofits in the world.

Although we are predominantly focusing on the UK market at the moment, I could see the US as our next stage of growth for this team; we have an existing bedrock of US clients including Mozilla and Wharton Interactive on which to build future global growth.

What are you most excited about?

We’re in the middle of further developing our vision which is really exciting! We’ve always had a strong digital for good mission, and have been striving to become the best employee-owned trust to work for. These key pillars won’t change but we have also grown, not only in terms of services and sectors but also globally. We want to ensure that our vision is relevant to, and holds weight amongst all our team so that we’re steering the ship in the same direction.

I’m also excited about the innovative work we’re doing. We are investing £350,000 in innovation work this year, led by our new Head of Innovation, Edd. This is helping us to evaluate our current value propositions and gauge any gaps in the market. We also want to use these funds to innovate within the not-for-profit space.

I’m also really excited about our Wagtail sustainability CMS project which I’ve already touched on. It’s such an exciting project I had to mention it here too.

Why is being an EOT important to you and your role?

As an employee-owned trust, all our team (as co-owners) are invested in making Torchbox better. Whether it’s existing employees or new employees we can harness this collective power to continue to improve our business and the services we offer to our clients. This model works particularly well in the ever-changing digital environment and makes my role more about ensuring that all aspects of the business are working well together and encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit across the business.

So, we’ve spoken about everything you’re excited about, but what are the things you’re more concerned about?

The current turbulent market that we are operating in can be challenging. Although the economic outlook is looking less severe than expected the IMF still has the UK economy shrinking by 0.6% in 2023 and many of our other markets aren’t faring that much better. We are also aware of how our people and our clients have been impacted by inflation and the cost of living crisis.

What has been your biggest learning over the past year?

In a senior position, you might often find yourself trying to shield employees from challenges or turbulent situations. I’ve learned how important transparency and openness is.

Previously, we held financial updates every six months. But, following feedback from the team and the EOT that people wanted more regular financial updates, we’re now holding these monthly. We realised that our people feel comforted by discussions about the recession and our ongoing strategy to overcome any turbulence. I found that transparency about these challenges spurs our team to achieve more.

What is your advice to your younger self?

When I started my career, there were a lot more rigid structures and leadership hierarchies. Now, there’s much more of a feeling of making sure people care about their employees. So, the advice I would give to my younger self who was operating in that environment would be to make sure you work for a company that fits with your values and encourages open dialogue with senior management. If you don’t feel that your company aligns with your beliefs then my advice would be to find somewhere that does. I think I could have benefitted from this understanding a little earlier in my career!

What is next for Torchbox?

I think we have a really good business. One which values its team and the environment and has a strong client base. In addition, our people are starting to really feel and act like co-owners. However, we are by no means perfect and there is still progress to be made. I believe if we continue to focus on our culture, our people, and maintain a critical eye on quality, we will be able to offer our transformation services to even more organisations and Torchbox will continue to grow as a responsible business.

Author information: Lily Veale , Senior Marketing Executive , Post information: 14 Mar 2023 , 7 min read ,
Related post categories: Culture ,