CAMPAIGN CRAFT: THE CREATIVE ISSUE - Why Limelight went from UK commercials boom to bust. The kitchen-table start-up couldn’t rekindle its glory days. Emma Hall reports

The news had long been antici-pated, but Limelight’s announcement of its closure last week still sent a shiver through the commercials production industry.

The news had long been antici-pated, but Limelight’s announcement

of its closure last week still sent a shiver through the commercials

production industry.

’It was an enormous company with tons of directors and amazing kudos,’

its chairman, Steve Barron, says, referring to the five or six years in

the late 80s and early 90s when Limelight hit what he calls ’the big


Limelight’s two biggest directing stars, Daniel Kleinman and John Lloyd,

stuck with the company until the very end but, for the past couple of

years, have operated almost as brands in their own right, outshining the

once-famous production company that housed them. Their credits include

Barclaycard and Goldfish (Lloyd) and John Smith’s (Kleinman). Matt

Forrest, who left Limelight ’suddenly’ in 1994, introduced ’Tango man’

to the British public.

For a large part of its 20 years in business, Limelight was tagged ’one

of the leading names in UK commercials production’, but by 1994 the

description had changed to ’troubled’.

Limelight was set up in 1979 by Barron, his sister, Siobhan Barron, and

Adam Whittaker. It was purely a pop video company until Harry Rankin was

brought in to set up a commercials arm in 1987. Rankin says: ’Limelight

was held together with string and ceiling wax. We started out in a

kitchenette in Soho Square - just me and a runner. Within three years we

were one of the top five commercials companies in the UK. We borrowed

from Limelight’s family atmosphere and our stature grew.’ At Limelight’s

peak, Ran-kin was representing 22 commercials directors around the


But the family atmosphere dissolved as Limelight’s founders moved on to

pursue other ambitions.

’I saw a progressive com-pany sliding into backstabbing horror,’ Rankin

says. He was unexpectedly sacked in 1992.’I’ve never had an explanation.

It was odd after I put all that effort into starting the company. I had

no holidays for three years.’

Two years after Rankin’s ejection, another long-time Limelight employee,

Jean Richardson, left the company after eight years. She had been

working on pop videos, for which Limelight became famous during the

early 80s as it grew alongside MTV. Like Rankin, Richardson grieves the

loss of the com-pany’s atmosphere. ’It’s like a football team - if the

spirit has gone it’s just people going through the motions. In the end I

felt I was running with the ball myself.’

Perhaps Limelight’s most important contribution was to legitimise pop

videos as a training ground for commercials directors - Kleinman being

the most sig-nificant example. The commercials division started at a

time when, according to Rankin, ’the industry didn’t like pop video


With its US divisions and pan-European presence, Limelight also helped

to break down international barriers and expand the outlook of the

parochial London advertising scene.

But Limelight’s success in the UK was not enough for Steve Barron, who

is also a film and video director in his own right. The company opened

promo and commercials divisions in Los Angeles and New York and moved

into feature films .

Barron threw himself into features and in mid-1992 appointed the

American, Rick Karo, as chairman of the Limelight group, which was by

then co-owned by Virgin. Within six months, Karo had called in the

police for a fraud investigation, seen off Rankin and installed

Whittaker as a caretaker.

The US had taken over. ’It grew into a corporation,’ Richardson


’The US offices were in control. People thought London was just the cute

home office but it was where all the talent was.’

In July 1993 the two Barrons returned from the US, with Siobhan

replacing Whittaker as managing director of the commercials division.

But Siobhan stepped down in June 1996, saying: ’I’ve spent the past

three years dealing with peoples’ period pains.’

Only two years ago, Limelight was still opening new UK divisions,

seeking a return to its glory days .

But according to Rankin: ’It really went six years ago. I’m surprised it

lasted as long as it did.’ Steve Barron says: ’I had been thinking about

closing the company down for some time. Limelight needed rejuvenation

and I didn’t want to spend my time doing that.’

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