Welcome to 2012's first start-up: The Corner

The allure of launching a start-up on their own terms without network constraints proved too tempting.

The Corner founders: Hourston, Simpson and Ewart
The Corner founders: Hourston, Simpson and Ewart

JWT, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, WCRS, Saatchi & Saatchi ... 2011 seemed to be the year that half of London's advertising agencies changed their management teams.

And if you can cast your mind back to February, when the merry-go-round had only just started revolving, you may also recall the departure of Neil Simpson from Publicis London.

What Simpson was to do next was unclear, but when the Publicis executive creative director Tom Ewart followed him out a few months later, rumours of a new agency launch began circulating.

And with Grey London's chief strategy officer Neil Hourston resigning from his agency under similarly circumstances at the same time as Ewart, the start-up flames were well and truly being fanned.

But as 2011 went on, nothing materialised. Questions were still being asked (and assumptions still being made) but, rather than answers, there was simply silence.

Fast forward to the start of 2012, and finally a new agency has been born. The three founders are those expected, but having time on their side has obviously been helpful, as they are now supported by a further seven employees.

An office on London's Riding House Street has also been identified and refurbished, while a name and positioning has been decided upon and honed.

It has yet to announce a founding client, but The Corner is open for business.

A Social Leveller

Let's get straight to that name. Why The Corner? "Because the corner is where people meet and things happen," Simpson explains. "It's a social leveller. People from all walks of life meet at the corner."

And there was no way the founders' names would be above the door (and not just because EHS was already taken and SHE would look a bit odd for an agency launched by three blokes). "We all felt that would be counter-productive," Hourston notes.

The reason for that becomes apparent when you consider the trio's plans for The Corner - to create an agency based on collaboration. "A place where you're not going to be restricted by bureaucracy or have people more worried about titles than the job they're doing," Simpson stresses. "It needs to be an open and democratic environment."

"We can go on about how we're 'going to do great work'," Ewart says. "But even with the most talented people, you won't get that unless you provide them with the autonomy and freedom to facilitate their ideas."

It's clear that having the opportunity to define their own culture was a key driver in the trio biting the bullet and going it alone. All have spent the past few years at network agencies, and while they won't go as far as explicitly admitting it, the restrictions put on them by a network set-up seems to have been a real source of irritation.

"If you're in an organisation where you feel that you can't effect any real change, then you want to have a crack at it yourself," Simpson says. "And the fact that the industry is changing so much means you want to keep moving as well and keep doing something fresh."

"From a creatives' point of view, I wanted to do something where we could allow the ideas that we have to go wherever they need to go," Ewart adds. "And the great thing about us doing The Corner is that we won't restrict those ideas just because it might not have been what was originally asked for, or because it's not a sexy channel, or because people don't think they're allowed to try something new."

For Hourston, doing a start-up was also about not missing an opportunity. "Neil and Tom just came to me at the right time," he explains. "The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it, partly because I felt I'd done the other things that I'd wanted to do, but also because I'd spoken to people who have perhaps passed the age of doing a start-up and they all seem to regret not having done one."

Demystifying the industry

While Simpson and Ewart had spent the past few years working together, Hourston only really knew the pair by reputation. But he liked what he saw, particularly their diverse career paths.

"We've all had different backgrounds and experiences over the past few years, and I think it's a good thing that has been the case," he says. "Only with diverse ideas and attitudes can you get really good creative work."

Hourston highlights Simpson's time on the other side of the fence, working client-side for Coca-Cola, Adidas and Vodafone: "It's going to be a real benefit that Neil has been on the ground at three big, scary, corporate companies. That can help demystify things for us; we'll always have someone that can bring us back to reality."

Keeping grounded will be half the battle. Especially when you're starting an agency in the middle of a recession. So perhaps it's wise that the founders aren't drawn into making any bold predictions for The Corner just yet. World domination would be nice but, for now, they just want the chance to create an agency in their own mould, away from prying network eyes.

"Anyone who does a start-up and says 'in five years' time we'll have won X, Y and Z and will be earning this much' is an arsehole," Simpson says. "Our only hope is that, in five years' time, we'll still have a strong culture, still be having those intimate conversations with clients, and still be looking for the next interesting thing on the horizon."

The Corner Founders

NEIL HOURSTON

Career stats: 1994 - planner, Grey London; 1995 - planner, GGT; 1997 - board planner, TBWA\London; 1999 - planning director, TBWA\London; 2005 - chief strategy officer, TBWA\London; 2007 - chief strategy officer, Grey Group EMEA

Career highlights: Led the planning across Europe on the Sony PlayStation account; worked on the Peter Kay campaigns for John Smith's and the European launch of the Apple iPod

NEIL SIMPSON

Career stats: 1989 - account manager, Ogilvy & Mather; 1991 - account director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty; 1994 - European advertising director, Coca-Cola; 1997 - senior vice-president, Adidas; 2002 - global brand director, Vodafone; 2007 - chief executive, Publicis London

Career highlights: Oversaw the iconic "Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola" campaign for Coca-Cola ahead of the 1996 European Championship; helped Adidas win Advertiser of the Year at the 2000 Clio Awards

TOM EWART

Career stats: 1998 - art director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO; 2003 - art director, Campbell Doyle Dye; 2006 - creative director, Shop; 2008 - executive creative director, Publicis London

Career highlights: Became the youngest-ever employee on the AMV board at 23; won a D&AD silver Pencil for the BBC One "rush hour" ad; created the iHobo iPhone app for the homeless charity Depaul UK and the "Megane experiment" integrated campaign for Renault while at Publicis London.

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