SBHD: Martin Lambie-Nairn has steered Lambie-Nairn & Co to worldwide success with TV identities and a Queen’s Award for Export – so what comes next, asks Lynda Relph-Knight
Turn on, tune in … and you’ll probably soon find you’re looking at the work of Lambie-Nairn & Company. Wherever you are in the world, a flick of the remote is likely to bring it right into your room, and the chances are that it’s more entertaining than the programmes it links.
The London consultancy is acknowledged as one of the world’s most resourceful originators of TV identities. Its award-winning sequences for BBC1 and BBC2 here in the UK are legendary – and the concept has been built on by the broadcaster’s in-house team. London channel Carlton shot into poll position among the capital’s TV stations within weeks of its launch with Lambie-Nairn titles and similar success is being notched up by stations as far apart as New Zealand, Europe and the US. Relative newcomers to the Lambie-Nairn client list include the Franco-German arts network Arte, with its exquisitely shot moving imagery, and Orange, New Zealand’s catch-all channel.
Consultancy founder Martin Lambie-Nairn makes no bones about the fact that his team has made a concerted effort to push its talents worldwide in recent years. “We had to get out and do it,” he says. “But it’s the best thing we could have done. Recession gave us a sharp kick up the backside.”
A measure of the sharpness of that kick is the award this week of a Queen’s Award for Export Achievement (see News, page 3). In theory, that trophy – an unusual prize for a graphics group – will help the international drive spearheaded by the consultancy’s business development head Amanda Aldis. But Lambie-Nairn doesn’t really know how much weight it will carry. “Different countries have different ways of measuring things,” he says, though he thinks that it will probably go down well in Germany and Japan.
More certain to win favour in the fast-moving world of TV is the consultancy’s track record and what Lambie-Nairn claims is its unique proposition – the ability to meld strategic thinking with great design. Most designers in the TV graphics world offer a designerly solution, with samey images and pretty pictures – “logos, really”, he says. “For 80 per cent of TV folk it’s a me-too business,” he maintains, adding that in the US it’s fashionable for TV companies to change identity every three years. “We go in with a difficult message: `You can’t do it like MTV or whatever. You have to be you.'”
An example of TV identity as branding is New Zealand’s Orange. Brought in before the station even knew the nature of the material it would be screening – sports, arts, soaps or whatever – Lambie-Nairn’s team had to work on a name and identity that could cover anything. Like London’s Carlton it was what Lambie-Nairn describes as “an invisible job”.
In conversation with the client, the example of the UK’s thrusting Orange telecoms network came up. Here, the team argued, was a strong identity that had nothing obvious to do with the client’s business – and yet it worked.
As an exercise almost, the idea of an orange was worked up, using a bouncing orange for sports, segments to show the station’s range of channels, and so on. And it worked. The originality of the image, with its connotations of refreshment, is very positive; it can be used in various visual tricks; and, above all, it is unlike anything else around in New Zealand.
For the past six years Lambie-Nairn has been offering TV clients this kind of identity strategy, a means of making the brand effective and a means of measuring that effectiveness. “We can talk strategy, then deliver objective design,” he says. “We do high quality work, but it can be measured. We get to find out about the audience, work out a brand strategy and single-mindedly direct it down a road that everybody else isn’t already on.”
But what gave the consultancy the idea that it should offer strategic solutions rather than just work on the graphic design? “It was a conscious decision after an Anglia TV job,” says Lambie-Nairn. His team – ostensibly a pure design team back then – had delivered the visuals on what he describes as “a straight corporate identity job”; the ad agency had delivered the strategic side of how it was going to project the channel. But, unusually for the late Eighties, the design group and agency were brought together for presentations. The thought “we can do that” flashed across Lambie-Nairn’s mind when he saw the ad agency’s strategy – and now the consultancy does it, with the help of planners and skills “borrowed” from advertising.
Television is ripe for strategic consultancy, observes Lambie-Nairn. “There are still very few companies that have marketing departments,” he says. “It’s such a powerful medium, but so often you’re at the mercy of people who don’t understand design.” The only marketing director his team has encountered is at Sky Television in New Zealand (no relation to its British namesake). To communicate more effectively, therefore, his team has adopted that role in the way that the great corporate identity strategists might claim to. It is very much about language.
For Lambie-Nairn that language comes relatively easy, after some 25 years of working in TV. Trained as a graphic designer – “I was more or less a typographer,” he says – he went straight to the BBC’s in-house team as an assistant designer from art school in Canterbury, following on from other alumni who had already made the jump, people like Ken Brazier and Terry Griffiths. By 1969 he was a deputy senior designer at ITN.
Lambie-Nairn is convinced that his experience at the BBC has helped him through the minefield of broadcasting politics – and it’s won him friends. “I know the nobs in TV, and I know the troops,” he says. “It’s a bit difficult for people who’ve done non-TV corporate identity to get to talk to them.”
The key thing to the success of a TV project, he believes, is that you have a strong supporter on the inside. In the case of the BBC he was “pals together” with Greg Dyke and John Birt in the early days, and the name of his friend and ally Pam Masters weaves in and out of the conversation. But wherever the job, he believes in working in partnership with the client, forming a team which includes that person, alongside the consultancy’s creative director, planner and project director. “You make a lot of friends,” he says. “And one job leads to another.”
The friendship aspect is entirely plausible when you meet Lambie-Nairn. Even in a chat ostensibly about “the business”, I found myself talking to a creative leader, not a businessman, and Lambie-Nairn has retained his own fairly low-key image despite the consultancy’s obvious success.
Listening to him it all seems clear-cut, but by his own admission most people have a confused picture of what the consultancy is about. “People think we’re a design company, but that’s only part of it,” he says. The TV identity work is one of a number of design-related activities carried out by the group – and though it has evolved, it always has been just one aspect.
On the one side is Lambie-Nairn & Company, but it has a sister in Lambie-Nairn Directors, described by Lambie-Nairn as a production company working on TV commercials and the like. Then there’s Tutssels, the branding and packaging company set up as Tutssel St John Lambie-Nairn some two years ago with designer Glenn Tutssel at the creative helm.
There is an overlap in that Tutssels and Lambie-Nairn & Co might get involved in different aspects of a client’s work, but Tutssels is “Glenn’s show”, according to Lambie-Nairn, as Lambie-Nairn & Company is his, though he shares the creative role there with Brian Ely. Staff from either company might transfer over for a particular job – and be paid for by the host company – but Tutssel and Lambie-Nairn don’t work together as creative heads.
TV is increasingly competitive, Lambie-Nairn observes, with the breakdown of the old monopolies of state-owned versus commercial. Then there’s the growth of business TV and cable networks. He has worked on most of the biggies here, so it really has to be a worldwide market now. But what else? “There’s no reason why we should stay in TV,” he says enigmatically.