Close-Up: Profile - Opposites attract for Karmarama

Nicola Mendelsohn's imminent arrival heralds a new direction for the agency, Kate Nettleton says.

We don't enter expensive and egocentric creative awards, we don't do big adland parties, and I don't tend to hang around with other people in advertising." These are the words of Dave Buonaguidi, the founding partner of Karmarama, in a letter to Campaign last year.

This attitude towards the industry permeates Karmarama, and has done since its conception, when Buonaguidi and his fellow St Luke's defector Naresh Ramchandani set up shop in 2000.

Even after a series of managerial shifts - with the departure of Ramchandani in 2005 and United's Sid McGrath replacing the planning partner Nick Barham in 2006 - its isolationist and left-of-centre attitude has been unrelenting.

So, it seems odd that Karmarama would hire adland's most infamous networker, the former Grey deputy chairman Nicola Mendelsohn, as its fourth equity partner.

However, the existing partners are resolute in their decision. McGrath says: "We're not networkers because we've always put clients first, kept our heads down and concentrated on the work, and to be honest we're terrified of sticking our head above the parapet. But if you look at where we are now, getting someone like Nicola, who not only understands but creates the network, is really the smartest business move."

Martin Jones, the head of advertising at the AAR, agrees that the match is an appropriate one: "It'll be a good marriage of the agency's requirement, which is to be a bit more outward-facing, and Mendelsohn's need to feel part of something that she actually owns and can make a difference to."

It is evident that Mendelsohn will provide the agency with some much-needed publicity, but some suggest that her abilities as a pathological self-promoter won't necessarily translate into success for Karmarama. "Her appointment will certainly raise Karmarama's profile, but Nicola isn't a great do-er; she's not going to be the person to transform the creative or strategic product," one source says.

Although its senior management team insists that the agency does not need strategic or creative leadership, a former colleague of Mendelsohn warns: "You've got to look at her record at Grey. She's very good at raising profiles, but that's not the same as bringing in new business."

But by giving her equity in the company, the agency has given Mendelsohn the requisite motivation to live up to her promises, get her hands dirty and forge a wider path for Karmarama.

She says: "As yet we haven't really nailed a strategy of how to achieve our goals. But the agency is a well-oiled machine that needs a bit of igniting to make sure people know about it."

This dramatic U-turn in the agency's outlook on publicity seems to have been prompted by a renewed confidence in its offering, which up until now was almost non-existent. "The way we ran the business from 2000-05 was just a disaster," Buonaguidi admits. "We weren't running it as a proper company, it was just a folly." They had also made some crucial mistakes. "Not knowing Martin Jones and not courting the press was pretty suicidal," the managing partner, Ben Bilboul, says, adding that the main error was positioning the agency so left of centre that many people did not even realise it made ads.

Despite the shaky start, the tide seems to be turning. 2007 saw the agency net the £20 million UK advertising business for Nintendo, rocketing its billings from £8 million to £33 million and reinvigorating its lacklustre client list. The agency's staff numbers also grew, and with 35 employees the business, although still relatively small, seems to have matured.

As one walks into Karmarama's new headquarters, a smart, minimal building in West London strewn with unpacked boxes, the excitement about this new phase in its development, and Mendelsohn's arrival in April, is palpable.

As well as developing a digital production arm in 2006, the agency has recently solidified its commitment to provide value-for-money creative work by launching an in-house production company called K Broadcast. The unit, which is run by the production duo Eddie Marshall and John Harvey, has already produced TV commercials for Nintendo and Goodyear, and is set to develop further content ideas in the areas of sponsorship and rich-media applications online.

Also central to its offering is Karmarama's new outlook on creativity, which it terms "dynamic creativity". To ensure its work remains fresh and teams don't become shoehorned into a particular genre, the agency pools its creative staff, who account for 50 per cent of the workforce, according to the brief to ensure partnerships do not become stale.

Yet there is one point on which the agency, and Buonaguidi in particular, remain resolute: refusing to enter awards competitions. Buonaguidi believes such awards are given only to specific types of creative, which often fail to satisfy a client's needs. "It's the same as going to a restaurant and expecting a nice simple meal with a great ambience - that's what our creative work offers - rather than a huge silver platter with a fucking parsnip and a carrot on top which costs £1,500 and is not really enjoyable."

It is clear then that the agency wishes to focus on its clients rather than creative accolades, and it would appear that this attitude has already had an influence on Mendelsohn's outwardly focused personality. "We need to stay true to the business - it's about how we feel we've done, not how other people feel we've done," she concedes.

It is this reinvigorated offering, new location and novel creative ethic that Mendelsohn will need to sell, and with a hefty contacts book she definitely has the means and determination to succeed. "We need to work with big clients and make sure more people know about the agency," she explains.

Yet maintaining the small-agency culture that makes Karmarama such a unique and desirable place to work, while embarking on a mission to secure bigger and better business, will not be easy.

Meanwhile, with a creative partner who admits he is "not a people person" and who harbours a palpable contempt for the industry's self-obsession, some are predicting a major personality clash. One source says: "I think with Nicola there's always that potential clash. She's a big personality and self-publicist - some people take that at face value, but it winds others up."

And even though Mendelsohn has yet to join the agency, she is already attempting to rein in her partners' unabashed honesty. When McGrath reveals that he sometimes wishes Karmarama could be completely detached from the industry, Mendelsohn exclaims: "You can't say that." And Buonaguidi's negative comments about the company's past performance are met with gasps of shock from Mendelsohn's corner.

Likewise, a jokey forecast from Mendelsohn envisaging Buonaguidi in a dickie-bow at a Wacl dinner goes down like a lead balloon. Yet Mendelsohn insists they are not as different as they seem: "We all started in really creative agencies at the height of their success. From that we have all garnered a shared understanding of why we came into the business and share the values of what we want to achieve."

The creative agency she is talking about is Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where she began her career. After that she was hired by Garry Lace, the former chief executive of Grey, in 2004. While at Grey she has ramped up her profile, becoming the president of Wacl this year and counting Matthew Freud, Jamie Oliver and James Purnell among her 278 Facebook friends.

Now this marriage of the networking-obsessed Mendelsohn with a hitherto industry-shy agency could be a fantastic success, providing Karmarama with the missing piece for its puzzle. Or, if personalities clash, it could spell disaster for all involved.

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