Creative Revival

A management buyout at Wolff Olins has paved the way for an onslaught on the global market. Michael Johnson looks to its past and what we can expect in the future. Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks. His first job was at Wolff Olins.

For 30 years we watched and waited. For it to swoop and buy, or for someone to swoop and buy it. Now it’s finally happened. Wolff Olins has sold the company to itself.

That sounds a little strange, and in a way it is. By selling to itself (or a “management buyout”, to use the jargon) Wolff Olins has cut short a process which had already commenced as it talked to such unlikely bed-fellows as Interbrand (with a global reputation for brand valuation) and Diefenbach Elkins (the US corporate identity specialist). Both alliances would have given Wolff Olins access to the international market which, for years, it had seen US identity networks begin to dominate.

For Wolff Olins the driver for internationalism was the recession, combined with a move to a huge building in London’s King’s Cross, crippling rent and over-reliance on the UK market (90 per cent of work at that time).

But the attraction of the global market came at a time when the founding partners, Wally Olins, Brian Boylan and Jane Scruton, after nearly 30 years in the business, were, to be frank, running out of steam.

Design consultancies which have been in business longer than their founders’ initial energies have to grapple with the succession issue, most prime a level of associates for eventual take over, some add partners. Strangely, for a consultancy well versed in educating companies about internal culture and encouraging internal communication, Wolff Olins took a long time to establish a second generation.

A whole succession of notable candidates left (or were pushed); from co-founder Michael Wolff; to John Sorrell (soon to head up Interbrand Newell and Sorrell); to the team including those involved in the early breakthrough work of Bovis and P&O who left to form Sedley Place. And then the power structure in place throughout most of the Eighties of Val Allam, Steve Howell and Stuart Jane also moved on.

When the new four-man team of Charles Wright, Doug Hamilton, Kate Manasian and John Williamson (with the financial backing of Lloyds Development Capital) approached the original owners with their plan, they wanted to take the Wolff Olins brand name on to the global scale themselves, without outside help.

With the combination of the leverage of the Spanish office to get Wolff Olins into South America and the efforts of American-born Manasian in North America, the global ambitions (that it always promised but failed to deliver) began to be realised. By building a new and international team – half of the 130 staff are now foreign nationals – it seems to have begun to get the balance right internally as well.

While Boylan remains as chairman and Olins is retained as a “travelling bow-tie” to talk to the bosses of India and the like, the responsibility for the next stage of the company lies squarely at the feet of the new team. Interestingly, this team contains no trained graphic designer on its main board. Hamilton, the creative director, was schooled in fine art and practised in film and interiors; Boylan trained as an architect; Williamson studied product design before becoming a consultant; and Manasian and Wright come from solid backgrounds in consultancy and accountancy respectively.

Is this the team to enliven the product of a company whose creative reputation once stood shoulder to shoulder with the other founders of the first wave of British Sixties graphic design, Pentagram and Minale Tattersfield?

The present output has to be seen in context of the 30 years of work that have proceeded it. There have been significant moments in the Wolff Olins portfolio which have set the tone of much of the work of each decade. For example, the early work for Hadfields, Bovis and P&O fundamentally changed the UK identity landscape in the Seventies. The company at the time was loose, unstructured, almost craft-based, flying by the seat of its pants, a heady mixture of Michael Wolff’s ability to sell almost anything (just try running through the presentation you would have given to a group of builders to persuade them that a humming bird that wasn’t even native to Britain was appropriate to them) and Wally Olins’s growing reputation as one of the seminal thinkers of the then infant profession of corporate identity.

The Eighties saw a change in tone and style, with the controversial, but undoubtedly successful work for Prudential, BT, Akzo, Midland Bank and Vauxhall all setting the tone for a new type of Wolff Olins scheme which often revolved around a symbolic or humanistic mark drawn in a distinctively similar way.

And now, the Nineties, where the work can be adeptly summarised by the recent projects for Orange, Credit Suisse and Channel 5. Often very simple, very colourful and unashamedly “modern”, the “new” Wolff Olins has again adapted itself to the times. Once the standard bearer of Thatcher’s Britain and the “logo louts”, it has craftily aligned itself with the Blairist view of a branded Britain and features strongly on several of the pitch lists for the departments and commissions created by the new Government, even preparing ideas for a recent Money Programme on the issue of a new brand for Britain.

Interestingly, the new approach is couched in a vocabulary which is notable for the omission of the once fundamental word “identity”.

As “brand” has replaced “identity” as the boardroom buzzword, the company has rebuilt itself around a new mantra, that it provides “vision, image and culture” and leadership for companies. “We’re not in the symbol business anymore,” says Hamilton. “We’re about big true stories.”

It is now as likely to talk about film, animations, multimedia and scripts as it is about typefaces. When teased about not knowing what kerning is, Hamilton admits that he’s “waiting for someone to tell him why it’s important”.

There’s a sense of liberation from its identity shackles. For directors to talk excitedly about screen work and employing producers, not designers is quite a change from the over-systemised and plodding company that trained this writer in identity analysis. For the company that turned its back on awards for a couple of decades to now mention awards (and its desire to win them) is quite a change in behaviour.

The new owners admit there was, in the past, a “false arrogance” about the company’s public face. Designers now actually want to work for it because of the revival in its creativity, as opposed to the handful of job applications that it used to receive in the mid-Eighties.

Some doubts do remain, mostly to do with style. It’s paradoxical that a company that preaches uniqueness of style and approach for each client has often had a perceivable house style in each of its key decades. For Seventies, think animals. For Eighties, think human forms and swooshy curves. For the Nineties think simple, sans serif, colour, cut-outs and white space.

Confronted by this observation, there are a few nervous looks around the table and tacit admissions that there seems to be a certain similarity of approach; a “new modernism” following from ideas concerned with clarity, simplicity and transparency, to use a few of the current buzzwords. There’s a logic to this, it’s difficult to preach minimalism of thought and structure and then practise maximalist design. Hamilton’s reaction to the point is to quote Eames – “things which are more universal last longer” which is as clear a design mantra as you can get.

Another adjustment to the new Wolff Olins is that Wally, as far as the UK is concerned, has gone. While he retains a roving, global role, he isn’t on the new board. So the man who almost single-handedly dragged company image on to the agenda and wrote the two basic textbooks of the genre seems to be in a form of semi-retirement. The new regime is keen to keep a link back to their founder. As Williamson says: “When we did the buyout it was important that things changed, but he stayed on.” A tacit admission that it makes business sense to keep their “big-gun” for the short-term at least while he remains one of the world’s experts in the area.

The team has a lot to live up to. While they have scored well with Orange, the jury is out on some of their other products. Channel 5 may become another big hit for their Nineties portfolio – some people have said that the brand identity is better than the actual programmes it puts on.

The truth is that, having negotiated an expensive management buyout, the last thing the new team are going to do is let it slide, for their’s and the bank’s sake. And the rest of us will just have to adjust to the danger of Wolff Olins not only getting great jobs, but potentially doing great work as well. Now there’s a scary thought.

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