More men in sheds than men about town, John Holton and Simon Myers created a strategic brand consultancy with top-tier clients from a garage in Notting Hill. Mike Exon explains what drives their success
When they quietly seeded Fig Tree back in London in 2003, they were two ex-Interbrand colleagues mad enough to swap the bright lights of the Strand for a dodgy bit of Notting Hill garage space. From there, The Figs hunkered down, noiselessly getting by in tin-pot fashion, attempting to work up a frenzy of client branding and creative projects for just about anyone willing to hang out in a parking lot. But something worked, and slowly their name began to spread.
‘Simon worked in a small village in Africa called Figtree when he was 21,’ says creative director John Holton. ‘I really liked the name because it is the toughest plant in the plant kingdom and it’s adept at growing in the harshest of climates. We are kind of hoping that continues to remain true for us,’ he adds.
When they got to 12 people, it started getting a bit tight in the garage. One client turned up for a meeting and had to go to the local pub to use the lavatory – but she did come back. And then she came back again. Surprisingly, clients apparently weren’t put off by sitting in their back yard to hold creative briefings. Some of them even seemed to like it.
Now Simon Myers and John Holton’s 25-strong consultancy has ditched the garage for smart offices in Marylebone, London. They have restyled it as Fig Tree Network, and are expecting to turn over £2.4m this year. Their ascent began at Innocence, that legendary, now defunct side-arm of Interbrand, which was ostensibly set up inside the consultancy to hothouse creative strategy for Orange without compromising Interbrand’s other telecoms accounts. Holton, a graphic designer from Nottingham Trent University, found he naturally paired up with Myers, a brand strategist who, after studying politics and Chinese, left a journalism career at the BBC World Service to go into sales and marketing with Carlsberg and Coca-Cola.
‘Innocence was a special place,’ says Holton. ‘We were all creative and strategic. We worked in a much more rounded way than most groups, and that gave us the backbone for setting up Fig Tree.’
Now they’re doing strategic brand consulting with a top tier client list that includes BlackBerry, Disney, Sotheby’s, Schneider Electric, and their old client Orange, as well as a handful of more entrepreneurial brands to whom they’ve given a leg up. Past names under the Fig Tree include Sony Ericsson, Co-op, Mazda and Poker Stars.
Much of their immediate success they put down to their individual style of collaboration, which probably owes more to an advertising agency-style model of art director and copywriter, than to the tried and tested methods of the big brand shops.
‘We sat together like an ad team in Caffè Nero creating things together. Si did the words and I did the pictures. It just worked really well,’ says Holton. ‘The separation of the roles [creative and strategic] in branding consultancies is ridiculous. It’s just not efficient. Now we are replicating what we did back then, with creatives and strategists sitting together to solve problems. It just doesn’t happen elsewhere.’
The inspiring ascent of The Figs will offer tremendous hope to all budding start-up design and branding consultancies, and the pair is mightily enthusiastic for their peers to do what they did. ‘It’s never been easier to set up on your own,’ says Myers. ‘After a short period of pain, the upside is much more positive. It’s quite daunting leaving your full-time job beforehand, but there is a point where you have to step away with nothing.’
Like a lot of start-ups, they were forced to meet a lot of people in the early days and to take any work they could just to keep busy. But the new-found freedom gave them the chance to do things their way – keeping things ‘generous and open’, as they put it – creating a real ‘network’, working responsibly and paying freelancers on time.
Holton and Myers, and their band of Figs, are positive living proof that going it alone can and does work. But, more importantly, the Figs embody something of a new order, a class of emerging design businesses with emotional intelligence, warmth and wit, which is gently shifting the order of things in the consultancy world. Keep an eye out. It’s probably happening all over again in a garage near you, right now.