Hedley Aylott: from gangsta rap to digital marketing

Entrepreneur Hedley Aylott set up his digital marketing agency, Summit Media, with prison inmates as the workforce. Now it's turning over £45m year.


Hedley Aylott of Summit Media

Hedley Aylott, 45, has been passionate about music ever since he won a choral scholarship to the prestigious Norwich School as a boy. While he dutifully went on to study mechanical engineering at Nottingham University, he says, his "heart really lay in music". As a result, in 1989 he got involved in teaching inmates at Norwich prison to write songs and compose music. However, he wanted to take it further. After completing a Masters degree in studio production at Manchester he came up with the idea of making a proper commercial piece of rap music about street gangs putting aside past conflicts and laying down their weapons, which would feature current prisoners from HMP Strangeways.

He released the resulting single The Summit through a record label that he had set up with help from his parents. It was a big success, reaching the top 20 in 1995, and raising money for the charity Victim Support. The ensuring publicity led to the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra recording a piece of music entitled Fanfare for Strangeways inside the prison. It also led to invitations to come and work on similar projects from other prisons Aylott remembers getting a phone call from another prison governor "who hated the music, but loved the idea". This led him to found Summit Arts, a charity that he used to continue his work over the next six years.

It was this work with Summit Arts that gave Aylott the idea for his next major project. After successfully using the internet to promote the charity's productions, he realised that online advertising was a rapidly growing area. So, in 2000, he set up a digital marketing agency, Summit Media, with one big twist it would use prison labour. It might sound like a recipe for disaster, but the prisoners were reliable and keen to work. They were strictly monitored to ensure that they didn't take advantage of their access to the internet to communicate with friends and relatives or to visit banned sites. Those breaking these rules were removed from their jobs.

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However, for Aylott, the biggest challenge didn't lie in managing his prison workforce, but in "figuring out how to build a brand in an emerging industry". Nevertheless, while "there were times when I had doubts about the business plan", he insists that "I never doubted my ability to lead people". The turning point came in 2004 when, after pitching to T-Mobile, he won a contract to plan their digital marketing. This enabled the firm to expand sufficiently to justify opening its first non-prison office in 2005.

At the moment, Summit Media's turnover is around £45m, with international retailers among its clients. It currently employs around 150 staff, 20 of whom are currently serving prison sentences. However, Aylott points out that the company still places a great emphasis on hiring, employing and retraining former convicts. In an effort to stay ahead of its competitors, Summit has funded research on how to maximise the impact of its marketing, via a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Durham. In the medium term, Summit hopes to continue scaling up the size of its operations, especially internationally.

Aylott, who is also a qualified pilot and water-skiing instructor, offers aspiring entrepreneurs five key pieces of advice. Firstly, he says, "you have to be able to harness energy from setbacks, because they will happen". Secondly, "listen more than you talk" it's the best way to learn. Thirdly, hiring the right staff is vital. In particular, "you need to have a great financial and legal person from the start". Fourthly, it's important more generally "to surround yourself with positive people". Finally, while some responsibilities can't be avoided, he advises that aspiring entrepreneurs "work out what areas of management you are good at, and then focus on them, leaving the rest to others".