Feature

Naked picks sensible suit for a more business-like style

Its new managing director isn't a stereotypical Naked employee, Ian Darby writes.

The signs that Naked Communications is still crazy after all these years (three to be precise) hit you as soon as you step out of the creaking old lift on the fifth floor of a converted factory in Clerkenwell.

Naked has spent its ill-, or well-, gotten gains (depending on your view of its work as either the emperor's new clothes or the Alexander McQueen of media) on making its offices resplendent.

Resplendent that is, if you like the look of a 70s granny flat (mock fireplace and cheesy paintings) combined with minimalist open-plan office chic. It's very Naked -- ironic yet affectionate and leaves you smiling while wondering why any of it really matters.

Into this quirky reception area steps Tracy Darwen, Naked's new managing director. She's dressed in a combination of trainers, jeans and a smart striped shirt that even has cufflinks, a sartorial combination that you can't help feeling symbolises Darwen's role at the agency. It combines its near-Hoxton cool with a formality that is now incumbent on a business that has reached a headcount of 32 and recently imposed its first formal management structure.

Darwen, 35, will act as mortar in holding together Naked's three new divisions (insight, strategy and innovation) and will free up time for its three founding partners (Will Collin, John Harlow and Jon Wilkins) to focus on whatever it is that they do best.

She says: "The chaos here is brilliant because everybody is an individual, but you get to a staff of 30 and there is a need to apply some sort of process. A bit of chaos and friction is good but this is about getting people to work better together."

Darwen joined Naked nine months ago from Starcom Motive. Having started in research, she had the credentials of having worked for seven years as a client (at Whitbread) combined with traditional media agency experience. Naked's founders had earmarked her for a managerial role when hiring her and now her time has come.

But why Naked in the first place? While at Starcom, Darwen worked on some fascinating stuff -- developing the Stella Screen film sponsorship she'd helped to introduce as a Whitbread marketer -- before taking more international and managerial responsibility.

She says: "I was impressed by Naked's approach and belief about what media could be. Starcom understood but couldn't break its model."

And here we get to the nub. Naked's belief, approach, vision, call it what you will, has its many sceptics. Which is easy to comprehend, given that the majority of its fame has relied on laddish washroom stunts and men in 118 118 T-shirts getting pissed at Wimbledon for the cameras.

But, Darwen argues, this is not the whole picture. Naked is involved in more interesting activity than mere stunts, she says. She cites its recent capture of a communications planning brief for Dulux as an example of where it will work with an advertiser on a whole new direction.

Darwen certainly seems the woman to bring solidity coupled with senior marketing experience. She's bright and experienced but apparently quite dull.

This might seem harsh but Darwen says that the amazing thing about Naked is "its unconventional approach -- there are people here who get excited about brands but also have hobbies as varied as DJing, rock climbing." But, then, when asked what she gets up to outside work to make her one of these "unconventional" people, she doesn't have anything to say.

Which is no bad thing perhaps for a managing director. After all, most at this level in agencies have little time for an interesting life outside. But is it not a little sad that Naked has followed in this pattern?

Ah, but it hasn't, say those who know Darwen. Kevin Brown, a partner at Soul who hired Darwen in his Motive days, says: "Tracy is a great, great girl. She's got absolute integrity in her professional standards but really likes to enjoy herself and lives that cliche of works hard, plays hard."

And in her approach to work at least, Darwen has sought out some interesting challenges -- leaving Starcom because "media agencies are all about managing money", for starters. While a client, she worked across several jobs at Whitbread including a product development role that inspired the launch of the iconic park-bench drink Tungsten Super Strength lager.

Darwen feels such experience can bring a new dimension to Naked's management and she says there are misconceptions about Naked and its people: "There's the stereotype that everybody wears baggy jeans, carries a skateboard and has a Hoxton haircut but it's really diverse, that view isn't quite right."

And Darwen is the proof of this. She's a reflection of the fact that Naked has moved on from its early days into a more serious, business-like mode.

The Darwen file

1990 AGB, research executive

1992 Whitbread, market analyst to marketing controller

1998 Starcom Motive, communications director to business director

2003 Naked Communications, strategist

2003 Naked Communications, managing director

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