Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise has emerged as one of the biggest and most profitable design groups in Design Week’s Top 100. With turnover and fee-income reported at almost 20m, the WPP-owned group ranks as the second UK player in this year’s Top 100 table.
Given STE’s track record, such a ranking is not surprising, but what is more astounding is that the founders of such a successful group have never courted media profiles for themselves. Neither set out to become design egos when they first set up their own business in 1976, which perhaps explains why they have no qualms about changing the group’s name to fit within WPP’s Enterprise Identity Group.
STE chairman Terry Tyrrell reveals both he and Sam Sampson, who now heads WPP’s design and identity business in Europe, have always had “a burning ambition to prosper and work for companies where design and corporate identity are taken seriously”. They have built their business from humble beginnings into one of the top corporate identity consultancies operating in Europe, working with clients ranging from Castrol and Shell to Saab and Safeway.
The ambition doesn’t stop there. The acquisition of Sampson Tyrrell by WPP in 1986 opened an international door for the group. STE is now on the verge of becoming part of a truly global corporate identity group under WPP’s Enterprise brand. All of WPP’s identity businesses – STE in London, Anspach Grossman Enterprise in New York, SBG Enterprise in San Francisco, Artistree Enterprise in Hong Kong and O&M Identity Enterprise in Taiwan – will move to a single group some time this year.
The consultancy’s strengths lie in building strong relationships with clients and having a genuine understanding of how to develop their brands. Tyrrell recalls that, in the early years, “we began to see there was a bigger potential for us to really get established in the world of corporate identity. We were trying to tell our clients that design linked to business strategy had a place – though in those days we were carrying a lone flag.” But from the start the consultancy’s expansion has been carefully controlled, and avoided the mistakes made by contemporaries during the boom years.
Tyrrell had what he calls an “incredible grounding in what was to become modern day corporate identity”, by working at Henrion Design Associates when he left art college. “Henrion was [about] very purist design. In a sense he wasn’t creative – it was about geo-metry.” It was there that he met Sampson.
Tyrrell left Henrion to work at Unit 5 Design on a wider variety of graphics projects, before receiving a momentous phone call from Sampson, asking him to help out on the implementation of an identity for British Gas, which was then being nationalised. “It wasn’t an easy time to start up, but we were fortunate in having this project to get our teeth into. The early years were formative years – trying to find out what our real strengths were and what the market was demanding,” says Tyrrell.
The offer in 1986 from WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell to buy the consultancy for 5m came at the right time. Sampson Tyrrell was one of the first design groups bought by Sorrell, but Tyrrell recalls, even then, “we got a clear feeling this was something we should participate in”. He says the major benefit at the time was “achieving our international ambitions”.
Although he and Sampson wanted the group to grow, they were cautious about over-stretching it. “We always wanted to work for the large corporations and become successful. A lot of people felt the way to do it was skit around Europe opening offices and watching the money roll in. We never did that – we controlled our growth and did it all from here [the London office].” STE chief executive Dave Allen joined in 1987 as marketing director from Kodak. He claims: “The best decision we made was to run a global business from one office. You could see the bubble was going to burst.”
In the late Eighties, the group took the bold move of running an above-the-line advertising campaign, masterminded by Allen. The ads in The Economist seemed to work – between 1987 and 1989 turnover grew from 2.5m to 7.8m. STE even expanded during the recession, taking extra space at its Covent Garden offices. Allen states: “When we hit the recession we actually doubled our marketing budget – we didn’t go bust, we came out with an increased market share.” Both Tyrrell and Allen believe the group’s reluctance to open offices abroad in order to keep a tight reign over standards paid off. “We’ve always been ruthless in controlling relationships with our clients. Sam is quite a visionary on the IT side and even then we were talking about working more and more remotely with our clients,” says Allen.
Despite WPP’s rocky patch over financial restructuring during the recession-hit early Nineties, Tyrrell claims there have never been any regrets. “It has done everything a holding company should do,” he says. Revenue from cross-referral has averaged at 15-30 per cent of annual turnover, helping STE to achieve an impressive 30 per cent compound growth over the last eight years, claims Allen.
Tyrrell and Allen have been working over the past couple of years with Sampson, Sorrell and the other four identity businesses to create a combined brand, the likes of which will offer serious competition to rivals such as Landor. As part of the plan, Sampson Tyrrell Corporate Marketing, which specialises in corporate literature, was separated from STE and has been merged with Addison, which was bought by WPP last year. The move enables STE to focus on identity and brand projects and the split makes sense given the restructuring of the identity groups under one name.
Although Sampson moved away from the group to head WPP’s design interests in Europe, he remains a director of STE and has been instrumental in integrating the identity businesses. “He’s helped manage other identity businesses that were in Europe and acted as a mentor as well,” says Allen. “Now there are five very successful companies all with a common set of shared values and common ambitions.”
Tyrrell declares he is not in the least worried or sentimental about relinquishing his name: “To get to where we want to go it’s a trade-off. You can’t trade as five different brands.” He points out that the restructuring has been planned for some time – it’s not a sudden change and proves they can practice what they preach. “We’ve seen the design industry do some silly things yet we tell our clients that changing identity doesn’t happen overnight.”
Allen claims the Enterprise group can offer “five centres of excellence knitting together into one company” and adds they have been “obsessed” about getting it right because research has shown clients are sceptical about finding global brand and identity skills. According to Tyrrell, Enterprise’s strength is that “it is a true global local approach”, with established offices worldwide.
Allen adds that focus now will be to build a “specialist brand creation unit” at the London base and grow its reputation in this field as well as in other areas related to identity work. “Resting on your laurels is highly dangerous,” says Tyrrell. “We’ve always had ambitions, but WPP taught us the discipline of creating plans – and we’ve pretty much delivered those plans.”
Sampson Tyrrell company history
1976 Terry Tyrrell and Sam Sampson set up Sampson Tyrrell
1986 WPP buys Sampson Tyrrell, which has made a name for itself in corporate identity work, for 5m
1987 Dave Allen, current chief executive, joins from client company Kodak
1989 Sampson Tyrrell registers Visual Management – a term intended to conjure up the discipline of creating, building, exploiting and protecting identities – and introduces brand workshops in the early Nineties
1990-91 Despite the recession Sampson Tyrrell doubles its marketing budget and increases its market share
1995 WPP’s Enterprise Identity Group is formed to integrate identity resources throughout the world. Sampson Tyrrell becomes Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise
1996 Sampson Tyrrell Corporate Marketing is created to separate the consultancy’s corporate literature business
1997 STCM merged with Addison
1998 Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise becomes truly integrated into WPP’s Enterprise Identity Group with a name change later this year