“We are all very passionate people at All human” — CEO Q&A with John Mitchell of All human

By Business & Finance
22 June 2022
Pictured: John Mitchell, CEO, All human

John Mitchell is the CEO of All human, a digital agency based in Dublin. According to the company’s website, the firm “drives business growth through digital experiences that people love.”

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

As the CEO, I am responsible for continuing to expand and grow the business, increasing brand awareness within and outside Ireland, strategically expanding our service offering and spreading the word about the quality of talent we have here. 

We are all very passionate people at All human — we want to create and build superior digital experiences that resonate with people and create commercial impact for our clients, whether buying health insurance, booking a weekend getaway, or tasting Irish chocolate for the first time. 

For me, it’s all about human connections, insights, and relationships.

Clients need to connect customers with actions, employees need to connect and engage with their job. Perhaps most importantly, people must connect with our innovations and feel that the site, app or portal we developed was created for them. It sometimes seems obvious, but by understanding what real people want online, we help our clients succeed at e-commerce. 

What are your biggest challenges as CEO? 

On the one hand, it’s about navigating client expectations around what they can achieve with their investment. Often the people we meet with are under pressure to produce phenomenal results on what can be tight timelines and limited resources. We then have to find the best way to work within these constraints to maximise the results. 

On the other hand, it’s about making sure that we have the right people with the right skills and the right amount of passion for ensuring that what we deliver to clients is exceptional and paves the way for their success. 

The last two years were interesting, to say the least. However, now that restrictions have been lifted, we are moving into another phase.

We’ve just reopened the office after completing a massive refurbishment during the lockdown. Employees and clients will now be able to come together and meet, some for the first time, face-to-face. Part of the challenge that now lies ahead is laying down a framework for this new hybrid paradigm and adjusting as we grow.

How do you keep your team/staff motivated? 

Our team is highly motivated by the type of work and projects we do. Their value system is based on “how can I shine and improve my skills?”. We attract the best talent by working with progressive clients on challenging projects. This factor comes out time and time again in our staff reviews, hiring and check-ins. 

Naturally, in a hyper-competitive labour market, we need to offer attractive packages, which we do. We offer many benefits — from the standard annual leave plus birthday leave, maternity and paternity to parental leave. We also offer a healthcare package, a pension fund, an employee and family assistance programme and performance rewards. 

Where we are different is that we genuinely support people in their career paths. Whether a back-end developer, a data engineer or a project manager, all our employees are continuously upskilling, attending training and events that we subsidise.

We want our employees to know that we support them as they keep learning and expanding their expertise. It’s not just lip service here — it’s built into our culture. All employees are offered a training allowance and paid study leave. 

We also have a wellness programme where each employee is offered guidance and information from a wellness instructor. They meet with the wellness coach on a schedule they decide, and every employee has access to an extensive library of training videos, recipes and exercises. 

Since we are dispersed geographically, it’s not possible for everyone to meet in person. Therefore to promote a sense of community within the company, we host a monthly Grab a Coffee session. Each is led by a different employee who shares their story or some aspect of their life. It’s up to each individual to determine the topic, and so far, it has proved a great way to learn about colleagues and their particular interests. 

Now that Covid restrictions have eased, we’ve also started to return to social events — from tag rugby to zip lining.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward? 

Honestly, many of the things are well covered across all media — namely, wage inflation (especially in tech), cost of living and general price rises. This results in higher costs to agencies and, in turn, clients who have had a tough couple of years due to Covid and general market performance. In the middle of all of that is a growing demand for digital services which are becoming more costly. Thankfully for us, our clients are totally committed to long-term investment in digital because it ultimately saves money and builds revenues. 

There is also the trend toward organisations shifting to an in-house model and away from using agencies like ourselves. This could put their brand and revenues at risk as they don’t have the range of digital channel knowledge or experience that agencies possess. Part of the problem is that many fail to recognise the value and importance of comprehensive expertise and how agencies can leverage this insight to drive better outcomes in tangent with a cross-sectoral view. 

Another concern is the internal digital knowledge and culture of some (not all) organisations and their leadership teams, many of whom are responsible for significant digital investments. Organisations must move beyond thinking that building a website or app means people will start flocking to your brand.

That is rarely, if ever, the case. Instead, it is putting a lot of time and money into researching what makes real people come to the site, what they want and why they are there. Then it is continuously reproducing this research so that your channel constantly evolves with your customer and builds brand equity and repeat revenues through loyalty. At All human, we conduct large volumes of testing, analyse the results and constantly tweak a site, journey or app to optimise performance and see the expected results.

It is then about taking this data and insight and applying it across all your digital channels. It’s also about realising that optimising can mean making small incremental changes: from a shift in the call centre or returns experience that will move the sales and/or cost needle in the right direction. 

Like many other CEOs, I also have the talent and skills shortages on my radar. A 2021 report from Solas found that 46% of science, engineering, and tech companies surveyed in Ireland struggled to fill IT roles such as software developers, IT engineers and mobile or web developers. I don’t see this number changing dramatically anytime soon, so it will be up to employers to work hard to build a culture that attracts talent and to focus on training suitable candidates to fill the gaps.

What new trends are emerging in your industry? 

While the conversation around augmented reality and virtual reality is not new, what is new is that we are seeing more organisations laying the groundwork to embed these in their roadmap. What was once for the select, very cutting edge brands is now expected from more traditional brands. 

We also see a higher level of consumer expectation and knowledge around what they want from their brand or online experience. Particularly as you look to attract or appeal to younger markets — a demographic raised with digital and very happy to shift quickly away if your offering is subpar. When the end-user experience fails to meet the end-user experience, it can damage brands. This expectation is that brands will have active CSR programmes and be very clear and transparent around their sustainability, environmental and ethical policies. 

Subscription models continue to proliferate the market. Netflix took a hit last month with the loss of over 20,000 subscribers wiping more than $50 billion off its market cap. However, more and more companies are looking to this model to boost sales and retain existing customers. All the big names —Apple, Samsung, Spotify are key players and we will continue to see this model move into all sectors, including B2B. 

This year voice-driven e-commerce is estimated to reach $40 billion. As more people opt to search verbally, brands will need to meet this preference and adapt marketing strategies and methods to ensure they capture their intended audiences. We are very excited about where voice, ai and web coalesce.

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector? 

I’d love for people and clients to be less prescriptive about what they want from digital and fully embrace research to understand their customers’ behaviours and take some risks to create differentiation in their market. Otherwise, all are competing for the same cohorts with the same offerings. 

Organisations must be cognizant and appreciative of the benefits of conducting extensive research before the design phase and be open to agencies challenging them on the brief. 

All too often, we’ve encountered some resistance when we first propose the idea of conducting a study of existing customer behaviour. However, the reluctance slowly dissipates when we demonstrate how this investigation has led to significant gains and higher conversion rates for other clients. Highlighting the benefits of research and some design thinking at the start, we soon see a shift in how to view the product, the proposition, the target audience and the opportunity. In our experience, when clients invest the time and conduct new proprietary research, the greater the likelihood of the desired outcome. 

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market? 

Hiring technology and design talent is very competitive and is probably the most challenging we have seen in our 20+ years of business. We have responded to this by growing our network of partners across Europe to ensure access to a more extensive roster of talent, an attractive culture, a benefits package, and an in-house referral scheme. This has meant we have also been able to scale at the correct scale and speed to suit our needs and our clients’ needs. 

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis? 

These crises just keep rolling through. First September 11, then banking, then economic, then Covid now Ukraine. The reality is that in a time of uncertainty, the strategy is to stay relevant to your key clients. During 2008-12, we invested heavily in a new dedicated squad of analysts and designers who focused solely on optimising ‘live products’. Consequently, All human was not only designing and building transformational digital work, we were also able to grow revenues and make these new digital channels even more commercially successful. That’s what we did in 2008 and continue to do. 

How has Brexit affected you? 

Not much. Our most significant fallout from Brexit was that we had to react to how it changed business for our clients. For some, the most immediate impact was a reduction in spending. For others, it was a way to address any issues raised or caused by Brexit on their digital channels, e.g., custom payments on e-commerce transactions. Clients like An Post had to pivot quickly as many of their customers were smaller businesses that had to adapt to new tax and shipping restrictions rapidly. We worked with An Post in helping to address this issue. 

The other effect is psychological in that business expansion opportunities certainly lie in the UK and the uncertainty has probably created a period of pause in this area. 

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector? 

Like most businesses, the shift to working from home was the first impact. Fortunately, we had already started the process, and generally, the digital industry is familiar with disruption as the pace and scale of change can be relentless. Our team is used to having to adapt quickly. All human had previously invested in moving our collaboration, software and infrastructure to the cloud — so the transition to home working was seamless when the crisis occurred. Some already worked remotely full-time and others from clients’ offices. This fluency has been key to maintaining close collaboration during the pandemic. We interacted and kept the team spirit alive through Slack, and we use G-Suite for email, all collaborative documents and virtual conferencing. We’ve also invested in SaaS solutions for designers and developers and our development team uses public cloud environments to fulfill extra resource demands. 

The biggest negative was the absence of real meetings with clients and colleagues. They are returning now, but we missed that human interaction before the office reopened. It’s in these exchanges, discussions and workshops that the magic happens. After all, we are All human.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed? 

The clue is in the name — All human. We are all about driving business growth by designing experiences that people love. So in that statement there are 3 types of humans: our team, our clients and their customers and by remembering that we never lose sight of our purpose as a company. So I define success through that determined and dogged focus on real people and real business outcomes. On a purely personal level I have grown to appreciate the team more and more every year and I’ve witnessed some amazing people grow and flourish in their careers. In All human, there is real integrity in how we support each other and I’m proud of that culture so I’m very driven to keep that precious thing intact as we scale. 

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business? 

To get to know your customer. To spend time and money understanding why people behave a certain way. We need to move away from relying on bias or unfounded assumptions when informing our opinions about human behaviour. It is essential to unearth core insights and take action based on these insights. 

I’d also say surround yourself with good, smart people. 

What have been your highlights in business over the past year? 

Naturally, it is always great news when you attract a new client, so now we can count Bord Bia among the All human family; it is turning into an excellent year. We also retained An Post — another phenomenal partner client and an inspiring opportunity to continue evolving their digital strategy. We’ve done some amazing projects with them, and we are delighted for the digital team in An Post. They are now gaining many accolades and commercial success in the market, which they richly deserve, and we are proud of our part in that transformation. We also recently won the best website of the year for DiscoverIreland in the Spiders. Our client Irish Life Health was listed as the leading e-commerce site in Ireland in a ranking published by Bearing Point. Very chuffed with that.

We’ve also added some new members to the All human family — people equally passionate about their work and who produce high-quality work. 

While it was technically last year, I have to mention the rebrand. We are immensely proud of the work we put into the rebranding and I genuinely believe that All human perfectly encapsulates what we are and what makes us different. 

What’s next for your company? 

Firstly we want to continue to attract great customers so that we have the opportunity to showcase our talent and continue to demonstrate that the digital must also be a human experience. Along with this, we want to continue promoting how turning visitors into loyal customers means continuously optimising your digital products. It means constantly tweaking, testing, and researching patterns and behaviours to generate conversions and maximise opportunities. 

We are also very much focused on international growth and being open to partnerships that will enable that ongoing expansion. 

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year? 

Our acquisition of the international name and domain is a statement of intent. We are already known as the agency that understands humans and translates that into business impact and growth in the domestic market. I’d like to see All human also become a well-known brand throughout the UK, Europe and the US. 

I want continued growth in other sectors while expanding our services to existing clients. We want to onboard new clients and enable them to transform and grow their various channels successfully digitally without diluting our unique culture because that’s our ‘super power’.