Stephen Rust writes the next chapter for i-Level

Stephen Rust, group chief executive of i-Level, tells Harriet Dennys why the business is reinventing itself as an integrated digital communications agency with a focus on the consumer

Stephen Rust, group chief executive, i-Level
Stephen Rust, group chief executive, i-Level

Something feels different about i-Level - and it isn't just the office redecoration in the new brand colours of blue, purple, orange and green.

The reinvention runs deeper; it is a complete repositioning and change of direction to move the game on, with new people, a new structure and a new purpose, based around the three themes of "clarity, clients and colleagues".

From this week, the digital agency is regrouping into seven divisions, including a new client services division to act the interface between agencies and clients, and a new creative activation unit. For the first time, i-Level is branching out into digital creative work to support the agency's social media department Jam, led by Richard Costa d'Sa.

The rethink about what i-Level stands for is a response to the unstoppable rise of social media, which allows consumers to have myriad conversations with brands, and clients' increasing requirements for integrated campaigns. The independent digital agency, which broke the mould when it launched in 1999 as a display advertising specialist, needs to evolve again. Quite simply, the world has moved on.

The driving force behind the change is group chief executive Stephen Rust, who was promoted to the role last June after David Pattison moved up to become non-executive chief executive. When Rust started last summer, he drew up a "road map" for the agency indicating where it needed to go, but even he couldn't have foreseen the five-car pile-up around the next bend: the potentially catastrophic loss of the COI's digital account, which made up 40% of the agency's turnover.

Throw in the loss of the £3.5m Sony Electronics digital media business to OMD UK in January and the departure of group managing director Faith Carthy, who left last August following the bedding in of the management buyout backed by private equity firm ECI, and it is understandable why industry observers have questioned i-Level's future as an independent digital media agency.

But Rust, who joined i-Level as group chief financial officer in January 2008, agrees the agency needs to "raise the bar" and has set about writing its next chapter with zeal. "Unless we do that, we are dead," he says. "Clients are incredibly sophisticated now and they are looking for strategic leadership and direction online. We need a real focus on what the consumer is doing: a really integrated, joined-up approach."

And when Rust is asked whether i-Level still sees itself as a digital media specialist, the answer is an emphatic "no". "Media is increasingly a smaller part of our business," he says. "Video, paid search and natural search all need to interact - we no longer distinguish between paid and natural search - and social media is booming. We need to understand the customer journey and deliver more targeted activity."

Rust has dropped the "media" part when describing the business, rebranding i-Level as an "integrated digital communications agency". With the company moving into new territories such as reputation management and buzz research, management grading structures have been collapsed to "emphasise different skills". "You don't have to be a people manager to develop," says Rust. "If you have a brilliant planner, let them be a brilliant planner, and don't put a ceiling on what they can earn."

Integrated communications

I-Level's chief planner is Adam Fulford, while Jonathan Barrowman, who joined from Initiative to lead the COI account, is the new head of client services. Jamie Kenny is head of strategy, Martin Lawson leads the insight team, and Ian Thomson's technology team has a head of emerging platforms, Ollie Newton, who keeps the agency up-to-speed with technologies such as the iPad and online video.

Two activation divisions - campaign and creative - complete the line-up. The campaign unit covers media, performance and search, while the creative team, led by the newly promoted Alex Miller, includes the social media unit Jam and the new content team. Rust says: "The creative offering is a move away from what we have done historically. The team will initially deliver creative brand experience to support social media in a focused way, such as a Facebook page or mobile apps."

Meanwhile, the agency has gone "pitch mad" to win new business, with 16 active prospects in the pipeline. Rust declines to say which accounts the agency is chasing - "let's win them first" - but this year i-Level has already won business from Comet, Gala Coral and Samsung, as well as seo activity for a government-funded agency that Rust cannot publicise. He does, however, reveal that about 20% of the agency's total revenue for the year to the end of March 2010 comes from new business.

Rust says: "We have to work hard to make new business a priority, because historically i-Level was trying to hang onto the tailcoats of massive growth from existing clients. If the phone rang with new business, we didn't have enough staff to manage the existing clients - let alone new ones - because they were growing so quickly. But four new people have joined new business, led by Natalie Mead, and we are making progress through the rounds, so I am hoping we will get good news."

The integration of digital has widened the competitive set for pitches - i-Level now competes against network media agencies and boutique creative shops - and Rust plans to evolve the agency again to give i-Level a "serious point of differentiation". Model 3.0 is a work in progress for now, but Rust's big idea is to focus on the consumer - an evolution of mindset, rather than another restructure.

"It is important to be able to talk about what makes us different, otherwise we will drift into the wallpaper," Rust says. "In two years' time I want i-Level to be seen as an inspiring, leadership brand, and we only will achieve that if we do great work."

If the business sticks to its new motto of "smart but not smartarse, confident but humble", i-Level's next chapter should be an interesting read. Just don't call it a digital media agency.



Group chief executive, i-Level

Group chief financial officer, ilG Digital

Group chief financial officer, search marketing agency WSPS (The Search Works and The Technology Works)

Founding director, London Design Festival

Group commercial director, Outrider (now WPP)

Chartered accountant, PricewaterhouseCoopers


Age: 43

Lives: In Belsize Park with his partner Nick, with a second home on the Isle de Re off the west coast of France

Hobbies: Gardening, yoga and music - anything from High Baroque Bach cantatas to the Pet Shop Boys and the Scissor Sisters

Favourite media: Twitter, the Zuti London Underground iPhone app, Dave