One big ambition

Becoming ‘the best creative agency in the world’ may sound like an unattainable goal, but its sheer ambition is key to The Partners’ success. Greg Quinton
considers the nature of inspiration as he looks back over his consultancy’s route

How do you define creativity?
A brilliant idea. Perfectly executed. There. Easy. Except… it’s very hard to achieve. Getting both elements just right, at the same time, is like bottling lightning. In other words, it’s bloody difficult.

How have you sustained your record for creativity over so many years?
We don’t like looking backwards, but to answer the question I’m going to have to delve into our history a little. Twenty-five years ago The Partners set up with the ‘modest’ ambition of becoming ‘the best creative agency in the world’. So it sounds blunt. So it sounds arrogant. But it’s simple, big and even immeasurable, which is surely the point. It means that collectively we know how high we’re aiming. Every one of our 50-odd people shares the same passion for what we do and each individual has a creative contribution to that ambition,whatever their job title. After all, you’ll never get anywhere near your destination unless everyone pulls in the same direction.

How would you describe your work?
I like to think we don’t have a house style, but a house approach. We love the variety of our jobs, from giant brands to tiny start-up companies, because despite the change in scale our thinking remains the same. Which confuses people and makes our work difficult to categorise. I am, however, proud that much of our archive has a timeless quality. We’re bombarded with thousands of brand messages and images every day, and with the rise of the Internet and blogosphere it’s starting to feel more like millions. That’s why simple ideas are always relevant. Style is seductive, but combine it with a great idea and it will outlive the whims of fashion. An interesting example of this is our Stanley Honey packaging project, which cropped up time and again on the book and blog circuit recently despite being produced about six years ago.

How do you generate your ideas?
Probably the same way as everyone else, but specifically, we make sure we have a proper understanding of our clients’ business and what their vision and goals are. We spend a long time getting under the skin of each problem, looking for the insight that we then capture in a creative brief. The insight gives us an original angle from which new ideas can flourish. Ideas then get stuck on the wall in sketch form first – which can get messy, but it’s crucial to the mindset of working here. It can be intimidating, but, ultimately, it’s liberating – it aids objectivity as ideas aren’t judged on appearance, and it speeds up the whole process. And those fledgling ideas are in for a really hard time. We interrogate them. We cross-examine them, look for weak spots and give them a good kicking. If they survive long enough to make it in front of the client they’ll go through other rounds of inquisition, but we’re confident that the idea is sound. We have our methods, but sometimes the right idea will hit you on the way to the presentation and there can be some frantic visualising in the back of the taxi.

How do you sell your ideas to the client?
We listen to them and make sure that their concerns are reflected and answered. We give them what they want. And then we give them what they need. We always remember that it’s about them, not us. We want to make a tangible and commercial difference. If the process has been successful, the logical solution will provide not only what they are asking for, but what they really need. Incidentally, we have also found that if it’s the right solution it really doesn’t need a lot of selling.

What makes the best clients?
We try to work with people who want to make a real difference – entrepreneurs, mavericks and ambitious characters within big established brands. Some of our defining projects have come through – and because of – long-standing client relationships that are built on trust and mutual respect, and we put a lot of effort and time into building that trust. Many projects take years to come to fruition. The National Gallery, for instance, grew to a full branding programme over four years and culminated in The Grand Tour, which in itself took two years from initial brief to completion. We still work with one of our first clients, Thrislington Cubicles, 25 years on. How many consultancies can say that?

How are you structured?

Our goal is that the teams – strategic, design and project management – work as one with the client. We create teams around the client. The way we work is always evolving as the size of the business has fluctuated. We have been bigger – too big, in fact – and the culture suffered as a result. Currently, in the London studio we have two teams of about 20, with two team leaders each, one on the project side and one on the design side. We also have a New York studio, which is run on the same template.

What is the culture like?
We are lucky that we have such great people. Many of them come through the ranks of our placement scheme. They tend to be passionate, but modest. We’re not trying to be famous. We’re not trying to be rock stars. We don’t cultivate – or pander to – egos. And we genuinely get on (most of the time). At the start of every week, the teams get together to talk about the weekend before launching into work, and every Friday the company gets together to share a beer at our ‘pub’. We invite guests to talk on a monthly basis and put a lot of energy into the personal and cultural development of our staff. The social life here has been crucial in creating a sense of shared responsibility, so that we can celebrate together in the good times and help each other through the bad.

Has the nature of the work changed? Put it this way – we used to produce £2m of print a year. Now it’s no more than £200 000. Technology hasn’t changed the nature of the work we do so much as open up more exciting ways of communicating ideas. We can create a film, for example, that can be seen across the world instantly without being bound by the geographical practicality of a printed piece. I think that some of the work we’re doing now gets right to the heart of the problem, perhaps in a more fundamental way than in the past. For example, we were recently asked to design a screensaver for Deloitte, the global accountancy firm. This didn’t sound promising until we turned the brief on its head from an initial insight: screensavers don’t actually save screens anymore. Instead, we developed an automated system that shuts down thousands of screens, saving massive amounts of energy a year. The system calculates the global and individual saving and translates that information back in a meaningful and entertaining way for each user. Now, that isn’t what you’d call a design idea as such. It’s deeper than that. It’s a classic case of giving the client what they need without being seduced into creating a meaningless exercise in graphic style.

How important are awards?
Because it’s so hard to quantify and count up creativity, awards are a very useful external gauge of how we are doing. For our people they are a great spur and a reward for their relentless efforts through the year. Creativity is not the exclusive preserve of the design teams and we’re at pains to make everyone feel included in any successes we achieve. In fact, we have our own, albeit tongue-in-cheek, annual awards to recognise those efforts that are absolutely crucial to the running of The Partners.

Do you have any good advice for new designers and consultancies?
Have a simple ambition. Make it big, arrogant and immeasurable. It’s worked for us so far.

And finally, what’s next for The Partners?
The same as every year. Trying to be the most creative agency in the world.

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