Feature

Naked's next generation steps up to the plate

As the founding partners shift their focus from the UK, what challenges do the new managing partners face?

You know that Naked Communications, now well into its sixth year, has grown up when it's organising a staff conference. But, Naked being Naked, the recent event was held at the Bistrotheque in Hackney, a venue almost in keeping with its painfully fashionable positioning.

High up the agenda was the need for change at the agency's London headquarters, especially in light of Naked's foreign adventures (it has offices in Australia, The Netherlands, Norway, France and, since December, the US). The feeling was that the original founders of the agency, Will Collin, John Harlow and Jon Wilkins, plus the new recruit Ivan Pollard, were far too stretched with globetrotting and client issues to continue running the UK operation.

Time to install a new UK management line-up. Naked opted for continuity through internal promotions, promoting Niku Banaie, Geoff Gray and Jo Pearce to managing-partner status.

This is not Naked's first stab at introducing a more coherent management structure in the UK. It hired Tracy Darwen, a former Starcom director, as the UK managing director in 2003. However, with Darwen increasingly pulled in the direction of global client business (she has been elevated to the role of managing partner on global accounts such as Nokia and Heineken), the agency has finally decided to get its head around embracing its UK status as an agency of more than 50 staff and 60 clients.

The big question on the lips of Naked's contemporaries and competitors has always been: what has it got beyond its founding team? Scratch beneath the surface and its talent pool is desperately thin, its critics argue.

Naked's new management line-up now has the chance to rubbish such suggestions.

Collin, who along with Pollard and the global creative director, Matt Hardisty, will continue to have a presiding say over the Naked product implemented in the UK, explains why Banaie, Gray and Pearce were the right team: "First, they're an internal appointment and we want to encourage everybody in the company to step up. Second is the diversity of their backgrounds, which mirrors the diversity of myself and the two Johns with backgrounds from account planning, research and media planning. Third, they're ready for it - this is the right time for them to step up."

Internally, the three are respected. Gray is identified by one source as the "natural leader" of the three, and works on Nokia, a piece of business that has become increasingly important to the agency. Gray did not have an easy time of it initially at Naked, having joined as one of the founders of its Naked Ambition offshoot (alongside Matt James). Naked Ambition was plagued by difficulties due to its on/off relationship with Grey and was eventually forced to close.

Gray, 33, who comes from a branding consultancy background, says: "We'll refocus some energy in the UK, create some forward momentum. We'll be feeding people in from the bottom." Part of the challenge for the team will be to introduce this talent and to bring it through with the right training and guidance.

Another priority for the managing partners is to evolve perceptions of the agency from that of an office populated by scooter-riding Hoxton types devising cool stunts for Pot Noodle and 118 118 to that of a broader-based agency, which, according to Pearce, is based around "creative problem-solving and business solutions".

Pearce, who incidentally is the sister of the Fulham defender Ian Pearce, is perhaps the most experienced of the trio in pure advertising terms.

She is a former Unilever brand manager on Olivio, and also worked for several years as an account planner at McCann Erickson and then TBWA\London.

She was then part of the launch team of the now-defunct Malcolm Moore Deakin Blayze before becoming the planning director at Soul. She joined Naked three years ago.

Pearce says: "The main challenge is to walk in some pretty formidable footsteps. A lot of clients perceive Naked as Will, Jon and John, but this is a great opportunity for Naked. There are some diverse people here with some weird and wonderful skillsets."

The three managing partners will continue to handle their client business, something that the triumvirate structure should encourage. Banaie is the relative junior of the three, with just five years' experience in media, first at Carat International and then at Naked. He has an interesting background comprising both business administration and design qualifications, and sees himself as the keeper of Naked's creative flame in the UK.

He plays down the daunting task of following in the footsteps of Naked's founders: "They're not going anywhere or leaving their client responsibilities; it's just that the day-to-day management in the UK will move over. It will be good experience but we've got some fairly unique skills that will be needed, as there are big challenges with competitors all around that are pressurising our offer."

The trio will be helped by the ubiquity of the Naked brand in the niche communications planning sector. However, as Banaie puts it: "It's an interesting dilemma for us because the work that people see - the Orange film activity or the 118 118 stunts - is great but it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Exposing the rest of the ice floe is clearly a priority for the new Naked generation.

NAKED TIMELINE

July 2000: Three PHD executives, Will Collin, John Harlow and Jon Wilkins, announce they are leaving to launch a communications planning agency.

December 2002: Naked announces its first joint venture with an advertising agency - Naked Inside with Clemmow Hornby Inge. Similar ventures with WCRS and Fallon follow.

December 2003: Naked appoints Tracy Darwen as its first UK managing director.

October 2005: Naked hires Ivan Pollard from Ingram as its "fourth partner".

March 2006: Naked announces new UK management structure as founding partners focus on global domination.

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