San Francisco, 20 years ago. A boy, ten years old, meets Walter Landor. The boy stops dreaming of being a train driver, footballer or fighter pilot. He wants to grow up and work with brands. Sounds improbable?
Twenty years later and the boy in question is now facing his 30th birthday as president of his own design consultancy. Nicolas De Santis prefers to think of Twelve Stars as a communications company which has, at its heart, design.
But semantics aside, Twelve Stars is a design consultancy worth watching. Just six years old, the group now counts itself in the top ten of European identity consultancies.
De Santis wept when he heard of Landor’s death last year. But he feels the old man would have been impressed with what Twelve Stars has become.
De Santis met Landor at such an impressionable age because his father, Eduardo De Santis, was one of Landor’s pioneers in the globalisation of Landor Associates. Nicolas too was part of Landor but left in 1990. Eduardo followed in 1992 and is now the Twelve Stars chairman.
Ask De Santis junior and senior why they left Landor Associates to create Twelve Stars and their coyness prevents them from expressing the real reasons. It’s a case of not speaking ill of the dead, the dead in this case not being Landor himself but Landor the company when Walter was still in the driving seat.
The 1989 sale of Landor Associates to Young & Rubicam brought a change of culture which, when you believed passionately in what had gone before, must have been demotivating.
That was then. Now Twelve Stars preaches the new gospel of corporate image or vision, a concept going beyond traditional corporate identity. While Landor was duly hailed as the father of modern identity work, Nicolas De Santis wants to move the whole business on.
Twelve Stars’ major projects so far have a common theme of incredible thoroughness. An economics graduate, De Santis says he looks at a client’s challenge as “a question of management strategy, beyond the design itself”.
“We tell clients that they don’t just need an identity but a vision for people to follow,” he says. Those clients have included Spanish bank group Argentaria, industrial giant Teneo and meat company Campofrio (see News, page 7), plus Pepsi and NBC.
The fact that many of Twelve Stars’ bigger projects have been for Spanish companies is reflected by De Santis claiming to be Spain’s largest design player without a stroke of design work being done outside of London.
The design studio itself, in London’s Mayfair, is possibly among the most cosmopolitan in the world. The 18 designers hail from the UK, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Argentina and Peru.
Twelve Stars now has a total of 50 staff, including representatives in Brussels, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Milan and Lisbon. If there is one over-riding danger in the De Santis expansion plan, it is the very same as that faced by Landor when it lost its edge – the growing distance between the talent and vision at the top and where the work was actually being produced. Twelve Stars’ vision of itself as serving the unified market of Europe, much as Landor served the US so well, must survive the growth. And the 400 million population of Europe is a big enough arena in which to operate. Indeed, it dwarfs the 230 million population of the US.
Europe, and especially the idea of a united Europe, fuels Twelve Stars. Even the name is taken from the European Union flag. The consultancy is divided between its brands work and a section which deals specifically with the European Commission and Parliament. Watch out for Twelve Stars designing more and more how the Eurocrats communicate the Euro vision.
It may be that when the single European currency is finally in our pockets, the coins may carry, literally, the Twelve Stars identity.