Business in focus: The Iris Nursery

December 2017


The world of adverting, marketing and brand development is making use of technology to develop new services, identify trends and simply do things more efficiently and effectively. Dave Caygill, Managing Director of The iris Nursery, explains how tapping into technology benefits both agency and client.



The iris Nursery is a specialist arm of iris worldwide – the integrated creative strategy agency with international operations. The agency brings multiple disciplines under one roof, offering a range of services from management consulting to help clients identify and develop new revenue streams, to running advertising campaigns across multiple media.

"We live in an omni-channel world and people connect in all sorts of ways so we built our agency around being platform and channel agnostic, and being a creative and strategy agency that delivers against any medium.” 

Caygill joined iris 10 years ago and for the last three has been MD of The iris Nursery, an innovation incubator positioned within the management consulting division and set up in response to client need. “We were increasingly being asked to solve clients’ business problems that were higher up the food chain,” Caygill says. Instead of asking how to sell a product, clients were increasingly seeking strategic advice on how to compete in the marketplace. “Big brands would look around their marketplace and see threats coming from smaller, innovative start-ups,” Caygill says. “They were asking how to behave and produce output in the way that small, more agile companies do.” The agency therefore saw an opportunity to help clients define their “innovation roadmap” – the products that would drive their future.

The Nursery therefore has two outputs. The first is consulting advice. “Brands come to us with problems and we go back to them with new business ideas that we help them execute,” Caygill says. “The second is we find interesting companies and we invest in them. We make small investments in early-stage companies with a view to growing a long-term benefit and to make sure we are involved in some of the latest trends in the AdTech space.” This benefits not only iris, but also the agency’s clients, who can stay close to emerging trends.

Investee companies tend to be a marketing-related field. One example is Filmstro, a sound-track creation company that enables users to create bespoke, rights free sound tracks which match footage perfectly. Another investee company, Seenit, developed a video co-creation app that enables companies to produce videos by editing together footage captured by employees, customers or fans. It might be used by festival organisers, for example. “You can send a brief out via the app to all your signed-up audience saying what you’re looking for,” Caygill says. “The footage is sent through to a central person who does the editing so you can turn round a video clip on no time at all.”

Techno shocks

Caygill has no doubts about the impact technology has already had on the advertising and brand development sector. One major development has been the use of real-time bidding in the media marketplace, also known as programmatic advertising.

"This is the process of monetising the moment that someone is in front of a screen. If you are a publisher, you know from the tracking cookies the value of that person – their income bracket and demographic – and then you can price accordingly. The highest bidder wins the slot.”

As this process has become more advanced with more players joining the value chain, fraudulent activity become an issue. “It’s been estimated that around 20% to 40% of clicks on banner ads are fraudulent,” Caygill says. “That’s worth around $16bn. So as technology has entered the marketing world, there has been a sense of lost trust.” Technology is now offering solutions, however. As an example, Caygill refers to the launch in November 2017 of Truth, a new media agency built on blockchain technology. “It will use the blockchain distributed ledger to verify transactions through smart contracts,” Caygill says. “The moment you see the ad, the brand gets charged – and that transaction gets stored in an open ledger – the blockchain – so everyone can see it. It’s bringing transparency back.”

Technology is also changing the way that organisations structure their marketing teams. “We’re seeing the benefit of automation,” Caygill says. “If you get your data in order you can now orchestrate things like CRM [customer relationship management], lead management, reporting and business intelligence. And all the other things a marketing team used to do can now start to be managed by technology platforms. That’s changing the way people structure their teams. It’s not that the automation does the marketing for them, but it synchronises it, makes it easier to track and to manage, and takes some of the manual work away.” This doesn’t necessarily result in smaller marketing teams, but potentially the same-sized teams achieving more output.

"Generally, for an agency like ours, technology doesn’t present a threat – it’s more an opportunity.”

“We need to understand how these platforms work and what’s good to be automated and what needs to be still done by humans.” As he notes, artificial intelligence (AI) isn’t generally good at being creative or understanding human emotions. “So there’s still an important place for old school, human-driven creative strategy.”   

Future trends

Caygill expects the advertising and brand development arena to continue evolving. He anticipates, for example, the continued proliferation of single-service digital platforms, where customers buy a specific service on a subscription basis. He also expects a continued breakdown of the traditional lines between the different types of service that companies provide to brands. “You have creative agencies that buy digital media now,” he says. “You have media agencies that provide creative ideas. You have management consultancies coming up with campaign ideas. Brands essentially just want a trusted partner to work with. So in the medium term I think we are going to see much more blurring of the lines between what an agency does. There will be a lot of reshuffling, rebranding and repositioning of agencies over the coming years, but essentially we will all still be doing roughly the same thing – which is helping businesses to be future-fit and come up with new products and services, and acquire new audiences to sell to.”

Further change is also likely in the next couple of years. “People will be using AI-driven tools to help them analyse data more quickly and surface the right information for their clients so they can make real-time decisions on how a campaign is performing or how a product launch is working,” Caygill says. “There will be some tangible changes as technology becomes more available and more understood by brands and the agencies that are servicing them. There will be a definite shift in how we engage – it will be much more iterative and real-time.”

FinTech interest

The iris Nursery recognises that its own staff may have innovative ideas themselves. “We do a bit of ‘intrapreneurship’, so we start to grow businesses from within iris,” Caygill says.

"The theory is that an agency like ours hires smart, creative, entrepreneurial people and they tend to come up with great business ideas. So rather than have them leave to set up on their own, why not get involved?”

Caygill is himself an example of an in-house entrepreneur, having developed Savio – what he calls a “digital piggybank” or “a personal trainer for your wallet”. He explains: “It’s a way of helping people save up for the things they want. You set a goal in your app and it will set up a personal savings plan for you. It will give you little nudges along the way – send you messages and encourage you to make ‘impulse saves’ as you go along. It will automatically take money out of your bank account to help you reach your goal.” When the goal is reached, Savio will refer you to the retailer, receiving a commission from the retailer once the purchase is made. At the time of the interview the app was on track for launch in early 2018.

The FinTech sector has already seen a lot of innovation, and more is expected. Caygill refers to the advent of “open banking”, introduced by the requirements of the Second Payments Services Directive, effective from January 2018. Banks will have to enable other service providers to access customer data, opening up the potential for new services to be offered. Lack of access to data has been a limiting factor holding back innovation until now, Caygill explains. “We will continue to see more evolution in services,” he says. “There’s a lot of work going on with using AI for risk analysis and blockchain for a more distributed financial system and verification across different entities.”   

About The iris Nursery

Industry:Marketing and Advertising
HQ: London
Ownership: Privately held
Visit website

Getting started with digital

Caygill suggests success starts with accessing the right talent. “Where I have seen the most success is where a business had tried to hire digital people – talent that’s come from the world they are trying to get into,” he says. These people are “natively digital” and have grown up using digital products and services. “They understand the tools and workflows that they bring,” Caygill says. Spreading them through the business is better than setting up a distinct “digital department”. As Caygill explains, “Digital influences everything from the way your customers interact with you, to the way you pay your suppliers.” 

Smaller businesses with no scope to hire in new talent may need to think about “immersing” their existing people in the digital world to work out what specific changes need to be made in the business. There needs to be “a top to bottom mindset shift”, Caygill emphasises.  

He also advises that SMEs take advice from real experts. “Digital is a world that evolves very quickly, and anyone advising or selling services in that world needs to be always evolving and learning,” Caygill says.

"So it’s important to canvas opinion from different organisations and talk to people who don’t have a vested interest in selling you a particular contract or solution. For SMEs, there shouldn’t be an enormous upfront cost to do most things and you should be able to try things to make sure you are making the right decision. Even if you are a big company and want to try out a different workflow or way of operating, find a SaaS [Software as a Service] provider who can do it for a subset of your workforce. If it gives good results, then roll it out.”

Government action

Caygill has no difficulty identifying what the UK government could do to help more businesses embrace digital futures. “It’s obvious – infrastructure,” he says. “In the UK broadband and fibre – not even in particularly rural places – is not very good. Our mobile signals are horrendous. A lot of investment and work needs to be done to enable us to move forwards a lot quicker.”

He is also concerned about the protracted Brexit negotiations. “The Brexit issue has caused uncertainty and therefore risk aversion among our client base,” Caygill says. “Businesses don’t want to take risks when it comes to their innovation strategy. Experimental pilots tend to go on hold and businesses hunker down and look after their bottom line.” Manufacturers, for example, tend to focus on short-term returns rather than “the 10% of innovation inspiration that’s going to define the next five or 10 years of growth”, Caygill says. “That’s a challenge and will continue to be so.”  

"We asked: Away from The iris Nursery, what disruptive tech has most impressed you…

For Caygill, digital assistants such as Google’s Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa have come to the fore. “They’ve now reached a level of usefulness where people start to depend on them,” he says. “I hear my kids asking Echo [Amazon’s voice-controlled smart speakers] to help with their homework. So we are going to raise a generation of people who are used to talking to machines and see value come back from them. That’s going to change the way people start to think about technology.”



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