A view from Claire Beale

Why St Luke's reminds us of what's really possible

If you work in advertising and have heard of an agency called St Luke's, the name will mean one of two things - depending on...

If you’re a relative newcomer, St Luke’s is (just) a small-ish ad agency that trundles along doing nice work for some quite nice clients such as Strongbow and Littlewoods. The agency is celebrating its 20th birthday this week and – let’s be honest – if it had always been as it is now, we wouldn’t be handing over two pages of this week’s issue to mark the anniversary.

But if you’ve been around for more than a decade or so, then the St Luke’s name will conjure all sorts of delicious stories about its crazy collective culture, a disastrous Channel 4 documentary and one of the most spectacular rises and falls in advertising history.

It’s hard to overstate the impact St Luke’s had on the industry for a time. It was thrilling – growing furiously and producing some exciting work ("chuck out the chinz" for Ikea, the Eric Cantona ads for Eurostar); it was ridiculously silly – a collective, where everyone had a say in the management of the company, with all-staff meetings to decide what colour toilet rolls to buy and the type of cereal that should be available in the cafeteria; and it was provocative – challenging industry conventions on collaborating with clients and a pioneer of  hot-desking at a time when other agencies favoured individual offices and siloed working.

By the time a Channel 4 film crew arrived to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary, the agency was so high on its own Kool-Aid that the public ridicule that followed was catastrophic; as staff were shown rowing about the ethics of sending each other flowers to reward hard work, the reputation of the agency was sunk and the reputation of the wider ad industry was holed.

But, but, but. What St Luke’s had was an amazing chutzpah – partly born out of a wide-eyed naïvety – which freed young talent to believe everything was possible. There was an exhilarating, damn annoying, passion, energy and confidence at the agency and that helped make the industry feel interesting, vibrant. It wasn’t sustainable, of course.

St Luke’s legacy, if it has one, lies partly in the industry leaders it helped shape – from David Abraham, now the chief executive at Channel 4, to the CEO of Guardian Media Group, David Pemsel, Kate Stanners, the chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, and Dave Buonoguidi, a founder of Karmarama and now the CCO at Crispin Porter & Bogusky London.

But its legacy is also to remind us that breaking the model, doing things differently and naïvely believing you can change the world can create magic. For a while.