Posted on December 28, 2017 by staff

Lou Cordwell: Designing a brighter future


As the founder and CEO of magneticNorth for more than 17 years, Lou Cordwell has been at the heart of Manchester’s digital and tech community for a generation.

Well connected and well liked, Cordwell is a passionate supporter of women in the industry and she’s just been appointed director of the North for AllBright, a new funding and support platform designed with female entrepreneurs in mind.

Reflecting on her new role and her career she says there’s room in business to be nice and successful.

“There’s a real sense of ambition in Manchester to grow with humanity but that doesn’t mean not being successful economically,” says Cordwell.

“That’s more sustainable than the explosion model you see in places like Silicon Valley with extreme poverty at one end and extraordinary wealth at the other. Look under the bonnet of some of those businesses and see the behaviours and human cost of that billion dollar valuation.

“Young people are coming through and saying ‘actually I find that unacceptable and that’s not a corporation I want to buy from’. The only point of success is about creating happiness. As a person I’m only happy if I feel like I’m moving forward and if I feel a sense of pride about what I’m delivering along the way.”

Cordwell left a successful career in advertising in 2000 to start digital design agency magneticNorth after noticing the direction the industry was going.

Now she owns one of the few independent agencies left in Manchester, and is putting people first in her company too.

“We’re people designing for people,” she says. “Tech is just a means to an end which is why we talk about being a design-led organisation. Great design understands the problem or opportunity and creates solutions for that.

“Technology might just be the right way to get to that – it could be voice tech or an app or a screen you can swipe – but it’s about understanding people and sometimes people forget that.

“One of our core brand values is curiosity and we tend to hire on that basis – you have to enjoy it. As soon as the Alexas arrived here everyone jumped on them. It terrifies some companies but we love it, so you need to be really clear on the space you operate really well in.

“Those that are doing well will be the very adaptable. It makes non-functional skills really important like the ability to work as a team, to collaborate, to problem solve.”

As a board member of Manchester LEP and advisory board member of Design Manchester Cordwell has become instrumental in the city’s digital scene, but in her new role at AllBright she’s also creating change on a wider scale.

“There’s a moral argument that as a human being I want to see other humans do well but there’s a very straight economic argument too,” she says.

“Companies with greater diversity perform better. As a city the economic argument is that if we’re going to create opportunities we want to get the 30-40 per cent who are struggling and failed by the education system and bring them up with us.

“We’re in the business of making products and services and if we only have one perspective we don’t get the all-rounded challenge to the design process that we do when we bring different people to the table.”

As part of her work with AllBright Cordwell wants to shift the business culture while offering role models for women, so it might come as surprise that many of her favourite mentors have been men.

“It doesn’t have to be a woman mentoring you because you’re a woman,” she says.

“Some of the strongest people who’ve mentored me have been down-to-earth very Northern men. I like the pragmatic, honest view. Find someone you have a real connection with and who has experience relevant to you but when it doesn’t work for you say now I need someone with a different experience.

“Get one that works for you rather than ticking a box and going ‘I’ve got a mentor now, everything’s going to be fine’.”