Design industry perceived wisdom dictates that, to be really creative, you’re much better off being small and independent. Certainly, that’s how consultancies tend to start life, and what start-up wouldn’t also at least consider itself creative?
After all, last year’s Creative Survey chart topper Williams Murray Hamm was once small and independent, as were Turner Duckworth, Lewis Moberly, Johnson Banks and The Partners. It helps in these matters if, like Johnson Banks, you have a culture of entering awards, and a lot of accolades are aimed at the graphics and branding sectors. However, you can build a reputation for creativity without chasing or winning the gongs, as Dew Gibbons, North and Sea have proved. And groups in other sectors, like Universal Design Studio, Casson Mann and Digit, are also known as creative, despite mostly operating outside the graphics and branding world.
For some start-ups, the idea of being creative is so ingrained that they barely think of it as a differentiator. And, in fact, starting out is about earning. This is management consultant Ian Cochrane’s experience. ‘I haven’t noticed that creativity is high on their agenda, it’s about getting money in the bank,’ he says.
But, for a designer leaving a big and/or corporate group, which prides itself on offering strategy as much as, or perhaps more than, design, creativity will be ‘front of mind’.
This must be the case for former employees of the Landors, Interbrands and FutureBrands of this world. And, indeed, SomeOne and Pajama specifically talk about leaving much of their strategic legacy behind.
Cochrane doesn’t see this as necessarily damaging. ‘A lot of clients don’t want that big, strategic stuff,’ he says.
Of course, a new group launched by people with decades of experience between them in big, strategically-inclined consultancies is hardly likely to deny its roots. A few years ago, there was a spate of such start-ups, including Promise and Dave, offering strategy without the baggage of a big agency. More recently, Fortune Street has appeared, a spin-off from Interbrand whose founders comprise Tony Allen (former managing director and chief executive officer), Lynne Dobney (former chief operating officer) and Richard Village (who developed relationships with retail clients). These groups may be better positioned than the design-focused ones to prove the value that they add to a project, which is increasingly important for wallet-watching clients. ‘There is a swing more and more towards design effectiveness,’ says Cochrane.
While using creativity as a differentiator makes perfect sense (it is so hard to quantify, after all), keeping up your creative standards can be hard in those early years. Pajama’s Keshen Teo is realistic about this, and won’t mind taking the odd bread-and-butter job, as long has he can keep thinking about art and creativity. Wink breakaway Saturday believes it can be done, and, in fact, its creative standards have been going up, according to Eric Torstensson.
This is a best-case scenario that all start-ups should be aiming for, if it comes hand-in-hand with good business sense. ‘Creative businesses should also be profitable,’ says Cochrane. ‘They should have premium position.’
Operating out of a richly-hued studio on London’s Curtain Road, Pajama comes from established design consultancy stock. Co-founder Keshen Teo (who had had enough of plain white studios) was at Wolff Olins for 13 years, rising to creative director before he left last year. Its other co-founder, Paul Vinogradoff, was previously a FutureBrand consultant.
So, having fallen out of the Omnicom and Interpublic Group ‹ networks respectively, Teo and Vinogradoff had some ideas about what traditions they were going to continue, and what they would shed. And much of that had to with creativity.
‘Being creatively led isn’t just about pleasing ourselves,’ says Teo. ‘It’s how we can best serve our clients with ideas that are truly fresh, and work that is truly transformative, so that they can shift the paradigm in their markets and stake a claim to future dominance ahead of their competitors.’
Teo believes that size can restrict creativity – Pajama is five-strong. FutureBrand’s London office, on the other hand, has around 100 mouths to feed, and Wolff Olins has 20 or so more than that. ‘We are small, so I am quite willing to throw in something for nothing to help clients see the difference. In a big agency, you may not have enough scope to go that extra mile,’ says Teo, adding that you probably also have to fill in time sheets in bigger rivals – the bane of every creative’s waking hours.
Nor does a small, privately owned company have to worry about targets set by a demanding parent. ‘Money wouldn’t be the most important thing for us. It is work we are proud of, and making money will come naturally, the business will take care of itself,’ Teo adds. He sums up by saying that what he has left behind is a lack of freedom.
In his new guise, Teo is at liberty to combine branding and advertising with art, adding the caveat that, ‘We are not shy of strategy’.
The consultancy uses art, either to inspire clients or as a point of dialogue. ‘Clients come to us when they want something surprising, extraordinary and seductive. The fact that we don’t see things in neat boxes is very attractive to them,’ says Teo. Pajama has a retail client in the food sector outside the UK, which has been particularly responsive to this strategy, though he declines to reveal any further details at this point. ‘Art is relevant here, because it involves all five senses,’ he adds.
He acknowledges that it may not be possible to be highly creative all the time. ‘I’m OK with that but we won’t lose that drive, so we will make art to feel energised and when something comes along we will be full of ideas,’ says Teo.
And, of course,Teo’s Wolff Olins background has its benefits. ‘Wolff Olins is innovative, always helps clients to think big, challenges them, and reframes the brief, but not in an arrogant way. It has a challenging spirit,’ he says.
The evidence for Pajama’s creativity, so far, lies in its low-cost brand for German energy group E.on, called E Wie Einfach (meaning E is Easy), which launched in January.
And Pajama’s studio isn’t just about bright colours. Teo is now growing herbs and grasses to install there.
With its mantra ‘Big ideas, beautifully made’, SomeOne is out to cut through the process and deliver simply and swiftly. Its founders, Simon Manchipp and David Law, met at Central St Martins College of Art and Design as graphics undergraduates. Manchipp ended up as a partner at ad agency HHCL and Law surfaced at design consultancy Thomas Manss before they regrouped to form NoOne, a design and advertising crossover practice under the HHCL umbrella.
As Manchipp puts it, ‘After five years of employing our past experience on a broad spectrum of design and advertising projects, it was time to become independent, it was time to be SomeOne.’
The 18-month-old arrangement is that Manchipp, with his concept-led ad background, comes up with the big ideas, while Law’s responsibility lies in crafting the executions.
There are now staff, and much of the work is won in competition with established branding groups, Manchipp claims (though he declines to reveal names). But, he believes that SomeOne’s creativity is its point of difference. ‘We have won things because other consultancies’ processes strangle the product. They rely on their international networks, but there is a backlash,’ he claims. ‘When you want to buy a suit, you talk to the tailor, not the tailor’s accountant.’ So, SomeOne gets to the creative quickly by stripping out much of the ‹ process, and eschewing Powerpoint presentations. ‘Clients appear to be fed up with lengthy, management consultant-style presentations. They hire design groups to design, but what they often get is “death by Powerpoint”,’ he adds.
Manchipp claims the group’s clients currently fall into all, or any, of these categories: big, rich and sexy. In the past six months, the consultancy has done projects for Dyson, Heineken, Jade Jagger and Philippe Starck, who are linked through property company Yoo, the motorsport company ProDrive, estate agency Foxtons, facial implant company Neoss, insurance website CompareTheMarket.com, private investment house THS and dining location The Only Running Footman.
Being creatively led lies at the very heart of everything Manchipp and Law do, from how to create a new name for an African investment company (a work in progress) to how to structure payments. ‘We’re always thinking of the best way to approach new challenges,’ says Manchipp.
SomeOne operates out of an open plan studio in London’s Shoreditch. ‘Even our choice of location is creatively led,’ says Law.
Four-year-old, 16-strong Saturday has its roots in Wink, the branding and graphics consultancy set up by Tyler Brûlé as a complementary addition to Wallpaper magazine. One of Wink’s major projects was the branding of a new Swiss national airline following the collapse of SwissAir.
Saturday’s founders surely owe much of their entrepreneurial spirit to Brûlé himself, and his great faith in youth. After all, Swedes Eric Torstensson and Jens Grede were both just 20 when they started at Wink, ‘He put a lot of trust in young people. We were way too young, meeting way too important people on way too big brands,’ says Torstensson, adding that, at that age, most people are just making the coffee.
In 2003, Grede and Torstensson said goodbye to Wink as managing partner and creative director respectively, at the grand old age of 25. ‘We wanted to leave because the Wallpaper style felt tired and passé and we were stuck with it,’ says Torstensson. He now hopes that Saturday doesn’t have a style. ‘We just try to be modern and distinguished.’
In terms of clients, Torstensson says the initial intention was to focus on fashion and lifestyle, ‘helping to build brands through aspiration, through good design or ad campaigns’.
And, while they brought with them a sense of entrepreneurialism from Wink, they adopted a different approach to client relations. ‘We had a strong feeling from the start that we wanted to work closely with clients and to have long relationships,’ says Torstensson. He contrasts this with Wink, where he says there was less consistency of management.
This effort towards longevity has reaped its rewards. Saturday has worked with Boots for four years, and plays a prominent role on its roster. Kurt Geiger – including various sub-brands such as Carvela – is Saturday’s biggest client. Another important client is Cos (Collection of style), H&M’s new upmarket chain which launched on London’s Regent Street in March, with other outlets following in northern Europe. For its H&M brief, Saturday works alongside the retailer’s in-house agency Red Room. Saturday has also created the branding for a new haircare range from Toni & Guy called Model Me.
Client work is all very gratifying, of course, but their big excitement at the moment is their own creation. They have just launched the first issue of Man About Town, a biennial magazine on arts, business and men’s fashion.
Torstensson firmly believes that the consultancy’s level of creativity has gone up in the past few years. And, while nearly 70 per cent of its output is still design, the rest is fashion advertising, including TV commercials for H&M.
Saturday’s appropriately international staff are based in the Biscuit Building in London’s Shoreditch, and, so, is a neighbour of ad agency Mother, which holds a minority stake in the consultancy.