Close-Up: Live Issue - Big is not necessarily better for Rattling Stick

Despite picking up a BTAA award, the founders plan to stay true to their small-scale launch ethos, Noel Bussey writes.

When Danny Kleinman, the world-renowned director, and Ringan Ledwidge, his less well known but just as skilful partner, set up Rattling Stick in 2006, it was with the intention of rounding up a small number of like-minded directors who wanted to work on great projects.

They also wanted to keep the business small - no matter how successful they might become or how many scripts they might get sent.

Two years later and the company, which still only has seven directors (including the two founders), managed to win Production Company of the Year at the British Television Advertising Awards.

At this point, most people would be thinking "right, let's build on this success, get in a couple more heavyweight directors and really grow this business", and you wouldn't blame them for it.

But not Rattling Stick. After talking to Ledwidge, Kleinman and Johnnie Franckel (the producer who helped launch the business and now runs it on a day-to-day basis), all three say that the company is at just the right size and that it would be detrimental to its health and future to grow it further.

"When a company gets too big, it grows by default. More people means more support and more infrastructure," Kleinman says.

Ledwidge adds: "Because of this, there are more overheads, which means you often feel pressured into accepting jobs to carry the other directors. We have growth meetings every now and again, but they always end up with us deciding it's just not right for us."

However, Franckel also offers a word of warning about a possible downside to this attitude that became evident early on.

"It can sometimes come across as being a bit cliquey. If you're not careful, you can scare possible clients off because they can become intimidated, but hopefully the talent just speaks for itself."

Both directors have worked at larger companies before and both claim to have been "burnt" by the experience. This relates to Kleinman's time running the aptly named Large and Ledwidge's time at Harry Nash - on both occasions, the companies eventually folded.

Paul Silburn, the executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi and the BTAA jury chairman, says: "I've been friends with Danny for a long while now and I know that when Large went down, he felt extremely responsible for a lot of people's jobs. I just don't think he wants that anymore. I don't think either of them do."

After this, both went solo with Kleinman and Franckel launching Kleinman Productions and Ledwidge launching Small Family Business. In fact, before this happened, the duo talked about a possible start-up, but put the idea on the backburner because Ledwidge went to Hollywood to direct the feature film Gone.

With this fear in mind, and a desire to hire just the right people, the pair were extremely choosy about their hirings once the business was up and running.

Kleinman says: "The mixture of people was of vital importance. It's what we set the business up around. If we'd gotten one hiring wrong, it could have ruined everything."

First up, in June 2006, were Tom Vaughan and Lenny Dorfman. The latter joined the company from MJZ in the US (spending half his time in the UK and half his time over the Pond), while Vaughan, best known for his VW "small but tough" ad, had been working on a freelance basis.

After a year of building a reputation as being small but extremely talented and choosing just the right projects, the company went on a mini hiring spree in 2007 by adding Serious Pictures' Ivan Bird, and Red Bee Media's Steve Cope, who had just finished the "Elvis" spot for BBC Radio 2.

The plundering ended in October, when Fallon's then executive creative director Andy McLeod was enticed into directing.

"I can't think of anyone better to work with creatives; he uses his years of agency experience brilliantly," Kleinman says.

However, that is definitely the last hiring for the company. Well, almost. "You can never say never, but it would have to be the biggest talent in the world for us to employ someone now," Ledwidge says.

Amazingly, the pair also say that they won't budge even if they become overloaded with scripts.

"It's tempting, but it's not a road to go down. The bigger you get, the more personality you lose. We don't have an enormous hierarchy of bosses, so it's more like a directors' collective than a company," Kleinman says.

With this freedom, it's no wonder that the company picked up so many awards this year, culminating in the BTAA gong (which is handed out to the agency that has amassed the most awards over the year). This included ads such as Levi's "dangerous liaison", PG Tips' "the return", "sea" for Smirnoff, and work for Barnardo's.

Silburn says: "It was very close, but, along with the golds and silvers, Andy, Danny and Ringan put in a lot of bronzes, which I think is due to the fact that they aren't forced into working on projects they don't believe in."

As well as respect for the company, there is a lot of respect for the founders themselves, as you would expect for two such names.

Yan Elliott, a creative director at WCRS and BTAA juror, says of Ledwidge: "He's brilliant. He listens to your vision before he decides whether he wants to work with you. But when he does, he'll always come back with more ideas.

"He also has a fantastic attention to detail and has a brilliant skill of making the technical disappear. As a watcher, you don't want to see every little thing."

While Silburn says of his friend Kleinman: "He's an all-round lovely person who gets the best out of anyone he works with. However, his biggest talent is being able to turn his hand to any style, whether it be comedy, visual or sentimental - there aren't many directors that can do that."

However, despite the obvious industry appreciation of their talents (they often both get sent the same scripts but will never pitch against each other - "We let the agency decide who they want and send that person. It stops any complications," Kleinman says), Ledwidge still doesn't have the same global stature as his partner.

Franckel says: "I think this is down to the fact that Danny's output is so immense. He just loves working on ads, whereas Ringan may well disappear for a couple of months to write a film, or a couple of years to direct one."

He also points out that the management style of the agency leaves any director free to work on feature films if they so desire, something he thinks Danny may well do in the near future.

Although neither of the founders pitch against the other, there is still a healthy, yet friendly, competition between the two that both say pushes them on to keep creating better work.

"It's a bit of a cliche, but it's nice to have someone on a similar standing and wavelength to either bounce ideas off, or push you on to better things," they say.

Whether feature films loom or ads take precedence, it seems that the pair are determined to stick to their launch principles by keeping their company small and creative with a focus on the work and not the profit.


- Danny on Ringan

"He has a whimsical artistic and graphic sensibility that he often laces with a psychological element.

"He also has an extremely inventive mind and is very technologically accomplished.

"His major strength is making intense special effects look normal. It's one of the hardest things for a director to do and he is extremely good at it.

"He is charming, likeable and friendly. He has more friends in the industry than anyone I know.

"He also makes girls look extremely good on camera, which is something I think he enjoys immensely."

- Ringan on Danny

"He instinctively understands a good idea. He has endless enthusiasm and, overall, just loves ads.

"He has a lot of experience, especially on the technical side, so he can work on pretty much anything.

"He's also extremely versatile and can handle any type of direction, whether it be technical or comedy.

"Although one of his main assets now is his brand, he hasn't really made a bad ad for years and so many people want to work with him. He's extraordinarily well-respected, which means that he brings a lot of work into the company."