What I learned from St Luke's: 20 lessons in 20 years

The start-up that championed agency culture long before it was fashionable is celebrating two decades of independence. Here, its executive creative director reflects on the journey.

Very 'everyday stylish' (2013)
Very 'everyday stylish' (2013)

In joining Chiat/Day London (the agency that became St Luke’s), I left a big, lumbering agency for one a tenth of the size. It was a revelation. The best stuff happens when the different disciplines sit together, not in distant departmental silos. Although getting everyone in the same place geographically and intellectually is simpler in a smaller agency, it’s not impossible at scale. Small is beautiful; no matter how big you get, act like you’re small. 

Extraordinary circumstances led to the genesis of St Luke’s. A great team was running Chiat/Day; we were winning new business. Then it was suddenly announced we were to be sold and folded into a larger network. Instead of a catastrophe, the agency’s leaders saw a stunning opportunity. Support was sought by clients, a buyout was secured and an extraordinary culture was created. No matter how bad your circumstances, there’s always a way to lever them. 

We’ve enjoyed long relationships with many clients. That inevitably means changes of marketing direction. When new marketing chiefs arrive as clients, we avoid any "knee-jerk protectiveness" over what has gone before. Instead, we take the best of it, learn and build something better together. When a new broom arrives, you can be part of the dust or part of the broom. 

Although you can’t expect writers and art directors to love every product they’re asked to sell, we do expect them to love the audience they are selling to. By that we mean: identify a point of real sympathy, find something to respect or admire, then stand up for those people; lionise them. It’s not enough to stand-offishly "un-derstand" who they are. When your brand loves its audience, the audience will love it back.

"Don’t forget whose brand it really is." This was hissed into my ear by a client at a drunken party many moons ago. I was being cocky and he was 100 per cent right. Be opinionated, be passionate, but don’t be too big for your boots. If we want to keep our place, know our place.

You find out what you, and those around you, are really made of during recessions. Tough times helped us define a far smarter way to work and find new ways to help clients. Adversity will prove the finest teacher you’ve ever had.

Having a tight, aligned management team means we survive crises. But having principles and processes that every person in the business can get behind is what has let us thrive. I think that’s what has kept us in Campaign’s new-business league for three years running and led to existing clients awarding us more business. Success demands alignment beyond management.  

I wish more advertisers understood that the simpler a script, the greater the value for money they will get from production suppliers. They will fight to work on it and give it everything they’ve got, even if it means taking a hit on the money. The better the idea, the lower the price tag.

Although St Luke’s is growing quickly, recruitment here can sometimes feel agonisingly slow. But a business that lasts isn’t one teeming with people, it’s one that picks the perfect people. No matter how fast we’re growing, we will hire slow.

It’s easy and dangerous for the highest-paid opinions to silence all others. I insist on getting every perspective on our ideas – grilling every reticent freelancer or junior account exec for doubts and reservations – because what they express will likely emerge as client concerns or in unsettling research debriefs. I don’t act on every opinion but do want to hear it. Every voice has value. Every voice counts.

Immediately post-pitch, work out if you need any next steps or follow-ups. After that, don’t speculate, don’t fantasise, don’t fret – it’s a waste of time. The only worthwhile post-pitch discussion is: "What’s next?"

While I was on the D&AD executive, when the brilliant Tony Davidson was the president, my father died. A few days later, Tony called (oblivious to my loss) and I didn’t recognise his name, let alone his voice. No matter how much you love your job, there are times it won’t matter a jot.

The real action in advertising is in the mass market. Not selling cool brands to the elite but big brands to the rest of us. For me, this demands creative people from ordinary backgrounds because they’ve got insights and experiences of ordinary life. Street-smart can be smarter than Oxbridge.

Some senior managers believe they’ve seen it all and start to focus on passing down wisdom like a tribal elder. Yes, mentor and train but, ultimately, the young take from us what they need. Their media habits are different from ours. Worry less about teaching and more about learning.

For us, professionalism is being honest, keeping your agreements and doing your best. It doesn’t come from taking yourself very seriously, talking in jargon or adopting odd hand gestures. Maintaining an act is exhausting. Be yourself, reveal the talents you have outside work. That way, workmates and clients will quickly work out what projects you’re ideally suited to. We work long hours and life is short: bring the real person to work.

Comments like "the client was too stupid to see it/too cowardly to run it" are the worst kind of baloney that gets pedalled to creative people. It’s designed to soften the blow of rejection. Good creative people are smart and analytical – they hold false flattery in contempt. Give the creative people the truth; no matter how messy the truth is, they can handle it.

The thinking is the most valuable thing an agency produces. Breakthroughs can occur when there’s no execution and no purchase order. Find a way to charge for your thinking that isn’t about time sheets.

The great marketing academic Tim Ambler invited me to make a presentation to executives on "what makes a great creative brief". I rambled on about the need to identify the biggest problem faced by the business, sharing it clearly and simply, and how agencies are most alive when given the raw issue to tackle. At the end, Tim summed up my 20 minutes in five words: SHOW THE DOG THE RABBIT. Great marketers keep it simple and give you freedom.

Every month, we share our output with the entire agency. Not just the nice, shiny work we send to Campaign. We drag it all out – the mutated, the mangled, the emergency stuff rushed out the door – because amid the ugliness are lessons in how it might have been avoided. Share the stuff that missed – it helps you miss less.

In 1995, Andy Law and David Abraham said they wanted taking a job at St Luke’s to mean taking a job for life. I thought that was too far-fetched. Always keep an open mind.

A view from the alumni

Dave Buonaguidi, chief creative officer, Crispin Porter & Bogusky London

I was the joint creative director at Chiat/Day London when we were bought by TBWA. When the deal was announced, we all knew pretty quickly that the London office would be wiped out, that all of our clients would be swallowed into TBWA\London and that we would all be out of work.

In an emergency management meeting, we discussed options and I remember David Abraham suggesting we don’t do the deal, that we run off and set up something new – which is exactly what we did.

I was only 28, single and carefree, so the next few weeks were really exhilarating as we ignored all the standard rules and processes for setting up a business and went about building something totally incredible.

We created a missionary business in a sea of mercenaries and, I have to say, that fucking insane buzz of the "start-up" is something that is still a worrying addiction to me.

I have mixed feelings about my time at St Luke’s – lots of great memories but also lots of frustrations that it never really took off and became something truly amazing.

Ten things I learned
1. You haven’t lived until you have done a start-up.
2. Be very, very careful about who you set up a business with.
3. Be ambitious and, through your business, make the world better.
4. Constantly adapt and challenge yourself.
5. Happiness is way more valuable than money.
6. A business without egos is a beautiful place.
7. Don’t screw the crew.
8. Without values and principles, you are nothing.
9. Only employ passionate people with energy and let them be great.
10. Never, ever let anyone do a documentary about your business.

Kate Stanners, chief creative officer, Saatchi & Saatchi

The best bits
We were a team that trusted each other implicitly – and we were naïve, which was a brilliant quality because it gave us the freedom to be fearless, to take risks, to do things differently from everyone else.

The worst bits
See above. In the end, our lack of focus was the problem and we started to follow our own personal agendas.

Ultimately, it taught me that nothing, however brilliant, can stay the same indefinitely. Teams need to change, together, to build something truly sustainable.

David Pemsel, chief executive, Guardian Media Group

St Luke’s taught me that nothing ever beats talent and culture. You can have the best business plan but, if you don’t stand for something, it’s pointless.

What St Luke’s represented at the time simply attracted the best talent and no-one could touch us for several years. It was scary, liberating, a lot of fun, bloody hard work, but we were invincible! (Oh, and I met my wife, Kate [Stanners], which was a bonus.)