Feature

Let's start at the very beginning: founders on their agencies' inception

Campaign spoke to the founders of five top agencies taking them back to the very inception of their businesses to recount how plans were hatched, nerves overcome and challenges faced up to.

Let's start at the very beginning: founders on their agencies' inception

If walls had ears – be they the dark-stained ones of backstreet pubs, the subtle-toned, uplit ones of a posh hotel, or those bearing the trademark artwork of a restaurant synonymous with the "loadsamoney" 1980s – what tales they might tell of the potentially life-changing discussions between adfolk about to do their own thing.

Would their shared excitement born of a close working relationship be enough to see them through while trying to create an agency capable of establishing a foothold in a ruthless market?

Was that client being serious when they promised them their business should they decide to go it alone? Were there enough clients out there to buy into their vision and beliefs? Would their courage remain with them in those challenging early days?

Also – heaven forbid – what it if all went wrong? Could they go back to what they’d been doing? Or would the damage to their reputations caused by a failed venture be too great? And that’s not to mention those little problems that no amount of discussion in the pub – or around the kitchen table – can envisage. Adrian Coleman, one of VCCP’s founders, recalls using his credit card to buy 25 laptops for the new venture, and then being unable to find anybody who could link them up.

Lucky Generals found to its cost that a one-digit error in its new phone number meant it was inundated with calls not from new business prospects but customers of Hard to Find Wines. "It got to a stage where I actually took an order from a guy for 2,000 bottles of Shiraz," Danny Brooke-Taylor, the agency’s creative partner, says. "He’s probably still waiting for it."

Now Campaign has taken the founders of five top agencies – VCCP and Lucky Generals among them – back to places they laid their plans and asked them to recall those heady but nervy days.

In the kitchen

Charles Vallance, Rooney Carruthers Adrian Coleman and Ian Priest

VCCP | Charles Vallance’s house, Balham, London

It was a disparate cast of characters that first sat around the table in the swish designer kitchen of Charles Vallance’s home in Balham, South London, 18 years ago to talk about launching an agency.

Vallance, a mild-mannered intellectual with a reputation as one of advertising’s outstanding strategists; Rooney Carruthers, a pugnacious, award-winning creative who didn’t take kindly to taking orders but was deeply respectful of Vallance ("He’s the only person in the business who can tell me what to do"); Adrian Coleman, a smooth and level-headed operator; and Ian Priest, honest, reliable and a highly regarded account man. 

Their diverse backgrounds are succinctly summed up by Priest. "Rooney and I were the yobs, Adrian and Charles were the nobs," he declares, much to the amusement of his erstwhile partners. Coleman simply says: "We were good mates and trusted each other. It’s impossible to get a cigarette paper between us."

What transcended this was a clear and united vision about what their start-up should be like. These views were honed as their career paths criss-crossed at agencies that included WCRS and HHCL & Partners.

Their large-agency backgrounds defined their kitchen conversations and an agreement to position themselves between here today, gone tomorrow creative boutiques at one end of the spectrum and unwieldy global networks at the other. VCCP wanted a place at the top table but not to adopt the snobbish habits of some others already there. Hence there were no hierarchies and no distinctions drawn between below and above the line.

VCCP would be built to withstand the tests of time.  Nevertheless, the founders’ pedigrees couldn’t ameliorate the risks. "We were all taking 50% salary cuts and our houses were on the line," Coleman remembers.

As for potential clients, they were confident that the telecoms sector would be their happy hunting ground. Not surprisingly, since both Vallance and Carruthers had been key players in the launch of Orange while at WCRS.

'Rooney and I were the yobs, Adrian and Charles were the nobs'
— Ian Priest, founder, VCCP 

What followed was a result of those with the right expertise finding themselves in the right place at the right time. "You won’t believe this," Carruthers told his partners as their launch plans were being finalised. "But I think we’ve got our first client." 

And not just any old client. 02, British Telecom’s newly demerged and rebranded mobile communications division, had sensationally decided to dump Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Britain’s biggest agency, and put its £45m pan-European account into a two-week old minnow.

Will Harris, 02’s then marketing chief, fearful that AMV, an agency that once employed him, wasn’t cracking the brief, had decided to let his friend Carruthers take a peep at the brand’s Lambie-Nairn-designed logo – the now familiar bubbles against a blue background – that was still under wraps.

It caused Carruthers to seek out a photograph of a dog under water. "The picture was full of bubbles," he recalls. "I knew I’d found the visual solution." It seemed to embody the whole idea of weightlessness, simplicity, enablement and a world without limits the agency principals wanted to convey. Peter Erskine, 02’s chief executive, liked what he saw so much that he was willing to give the business to an agency yet to be born.

It was a huge gamble for both client and agency. Vallance was only too aware of the suffocating effects of a huge account. And, as Coleman points out: "We had 100 days to launch a new brand across four European markets. Had we not succeeded, it would have been the end of us."

In fact, 02 proved to be VCCP’s sail rather than its anchor. "Start by winning something big and everybody thinks you are big," Priest explains. "I’m sure the arrival of clients such as Coca-Cola and ING Direct was because people thought we were so much bigger than we actually were. But, at heart, VCCP is still a start-up."

In the Bleeding Heart Tavern

Andy Nairn, Danny Brooke-Taylor and Helen Calcraft

Lucky Generals | Farringdon, London

The Lucky Generals founding trio rather liked the idea of planning their new agency over coffees at a gastropub, in a cul-de-sac, a gemstone’s throw from Hatton Garden and bearing the intriguing name of Bleeding Heart Yard.

"We thought the Bleeding Heart Tavern had our name on it," Andy Nairn, one of that trio who met there in 2013 remembers. "We were bleeding hearts ourselves, in that all three of us have a soppy, romantic side. And it was a factor in our determination to create an agency that did good things."

Alas, Nairn and his prospective business partners, Helen Calcraft and Danny Brooke-Taylor, were to discover that there was no charming backstory to Bleeding Heart Yard. According to London legend, it got its name because a woman, murdered there in the 17th century by her former lover, was reportedly found at dawn with her heart still pumping, spurting blood onto the cobblestones.

Some might conclude that this sad tale more accurately reflects the circumstances that brought together Nairn, who had a reputation as one of the industry’s best planners, Calcraft, one of its most talented suits, and Brooke-Taylor, a multi-award-winning creative most famous for the "Go on lad" Hovis commercial, to put previous heartaches behind them and build an agency reflecting their beliefs and aspirations.

The transplanting of MCBD, a well-regarded creative agency, where the three had been senior executives, into Dare, a digital specialist, was compelling in theory. In practice, their hearts weren’t in it.

Nobody was to blame, Calcraft believes. It was simply that each side had a different way of working and neither dominated in what was a merger of equals engineered by a private equity owner. "We couldn’t get enthusiastic about what we were doing and we were pretty terrible at it," Nairn acknowledges. "Some people are prepared to put themselves through the mill but that’s just not us."

By the time they met at the Bleeding Heart the three had either put the Dare experience behind them or were in the process of doing so. Brooke-Taylor had joined Mother, Nairn was negotiating his gardening leave and Calcraft was doing marketing consultancy for a US company.

It was Brooke-Taylor who suggested the agency’s moniker, which was inspired by Napoleon’s famous remark that he would rather have lucky generals than good ones. It was also the name of a band in which schoolboy Brooke-Taylor had hoped to make his fortune. "We were going to fill stadiums on our world tour," he remembers. Like his ambition to play football for Derby County, nothing came of it. But Calcraft says: "The name appealed to us because it was so unusual and memorable."

The partners, though, were determined to make their own luck to complete what Calcraft called "unfinished business". But was it going to be a risky business, too? Even though the founders had agreed to draw no salary for the first year all would have been highly employable had Lucky Generals actually proved luckless. 

Calcraft suggests the greater risk was to their reputations as their agency, established just four doors away from the Bleeding Heart, started with neither additional staff nor clients. 

However, all were certain the strong bond between them would be enough. "We agreed that either the three of us would start an agency together or none of us would," Calcraft says. "What’s more, we didn’t have to worry about not getting on. We knew we would." 

At one of their first meetings at the pub, she brought a pack of Post-it notes on which to set down their start-up thoughts. One bore the words: "A creative company for people on a mission." This message remains part of the agency’s credentials presentation.

Today, the founders of the UK’s 24th-largest agency believe they have built something that remains true to that premise, even if the price has been turning down more new-business opportunities than they’ve taken on. The result, they claim, is a politics-free culture, no hierarchical structures, a clutch of clients capable of inspiring the agency’s bravest work and success that extends beyond the UK.

"Our merger experience was painful," Calcraft says (not to mention heartbreaking). "But good things have come out of it."

In Langan's Brasserie

Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO | Mayfair, London

Seated at their table in Langan’s Brasserie, Peter Mead and Adrian Vickers are talking about good fortune. They claim to have been blessed with an awful lot of it. 

Mead has been dining at Langan’s almost since its opening in 1976, having stumbled across it through its proximity to his then office. The pair still lunch there from time to time, either at the window table that Sir Michael Caine, one of Langan’s original partners, regularly frequented or at the corner spot under the famous portrait of Peter Langan, its hellraising founder.

Their views about luck may surprise lots of their admirers who believe that their founding of Britain’s biggest – and arguably most successful – agency was down to perseverance, a clear vision and David Abbott’s creative genius. Vickers, though, begs to differ. "When I tell people that luck is a major player in life, they say: ‘But you were determined to make it.’ I reply that, without luck, all the determination in the world won’t help you. And David was our biggest bit of luck."

As he and Mead tell the tale of how Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO came to life, it’s easy to see what Vickers means. Had Abbott turned down the offer to join their new agency – and he nearly did – the course of UK advertising history might have been very different.

And it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Vickers, minus a job when he bumped into his old friend Mead, not eagerly accepted his invitation to join him at what was to become Mead Davies & Vickers. (Guy Davies, the planning director, who was never a comfortable fit, left shortly afterwards.)

Also, the agency that was the precursor to AMV had a couple of other lucky breaks. One was Mead’s long-time friendship with David Williams, the boss of David Williams & Ketchum, then a major UK agency, who persuaded his masters to pay £30,000, a huge sum at the time, for a 25% stake in what was then a tiny player in the industry.

'Without luck, all the determination in the world won't help you'
— Adrian Vickers, founder, AMV

The other was the credit insurance that allowed them to claw back almost all the £100,000 owed to them when a client went out of business. "Without that insurance, we’d have gone bust," Vickers says. However, Mead still had to treat the bank manager to a Langan’s lunch to plead with him to take a flexible view of the agency’s overdraft limit.

Later, Langan’s was to be the setting for an even more important discussion. Peter Mayle, yet to become a bestselling author, had been overseeing competent output as the agency’s creative chief. But Mead and Vickers felt a creative shot-in-the-arm was needed. Over lunch one day in 1977 they drew up a "wish list" of creative directors. Abbott, then at French Gold Kenyon and Eckhardt, was the first name on it, although wishful thinking doesn’t begin to describe their ambition. It was akin to Mead’s beloved Millwall FC attempting to sign Lionel Messi. 

Both knew Abbott – Vickers was with him at Oxford and Mead had met him at Doyle Dane Bernbach – and thought they might as well sound him out. Vickers invited him to lunch. "By the time the coffee came I still hadn’t posed the question," Vickers remembers. "When I did, he replied: ‘I thought you were never going to ask.’ It was typical David. He had an ability not just to listen but to hear. He knew from the outset what I really wanted."

Mead and Vickers had timing on their side. Promotion had taken Abbott away from writing ads, which he loved, into an international creative "fire-fighting" role, which he hated. Nevertheless, he remained reticent. "It just doesn’t feel right," he told Mead. Vickers couldn’t contain his frustration. "The thing that had seemed impossible but had become possible was slipping from our grasp."

More luck arrived, though, in the form of Abbott’s wife, Eve. It was she who brought her husband and Mead together for lunch in Soho. "Before I sit down," Abbott declared as he arrived, "I want to tell you I’m coming." He added: "It was the way you both responded to me saying I wasn’t coming that made me think I should."

The rest, of course, is history. If the trio’s seamless blending was down to luck, Vickers believes there’s an important lesson to be learned. "The only advice I’d give to industry people thinking of starting up is to do it with friends," he says. "You’ll probably go through some tough times at the beginning and it can be much harder if you find your partners reacting in ways you’ve never seen before and don’t understand. We were never like that."

In the pub

Ben Hayes and Andrew Stephens

Goodstuff Communications | The Devonshire Arms, Marylebone, London

The Devonshire Arms, a tiny unpretentious pub in London’s Marylebone, has been a recurring backdrop to the events that have shaped Goodstuff Communications.

It was there that Ben Hayes and Andrew Stephens, Goodstuff’s founders, sat at one of the stripped-wood tables staring into their pints as they drank in the astonishing offer to them from a major client of the media agency, based only a five-minute walk away, where the pair were senior executives.

It was there, nine years later, that the Goodstuff team gathered to celebrate the agency’s success at seeing off some of media’s big beasts to capture the media planning and buying account of Taylors of Harrogate, maker of Yorkshire Tea. It was Goodstuff’s first big win since repositioning itself as a full-service media agency. "Not a lot of tea was drunk," Stephens recalls.

And it was there that Goodstuff – now 100-strong and with Campaign and Media Week Agency of the Year Awards under its belt – celebrated its 15th birthday earlier this year.

It was a far cry from that decisive day in 2004 when Hayes and Stephens met to discuss a proposal from James Kydd, brand director at Virgin Mobile, whose business the pair handled at Manning Gottlieb OMD. The pair thought Kydd was having a laugh when he said that if they were prepared to do a comms planning start-up they could have his business. But Kydd wasn’t joking. The problem was he needed an answer right away. "You either do it or you don’t," Kydd bluntly told them. "No messing."

It wasn’t feelings of disloyalty to Manning Gottlieb that caused Hayes and Stephens to ponder in the pub – Kydd’s offer was predicated on the fear that his business might become suffocated as OMD got bigger. What worried them was that they didn’t know how to run a business. Even though they were Manning Gottlieb board members they had had no say in the running of the company.

However, the pair, long-time friends since their careers began in Saatchi & Saatchi’s media department – Hayes was a media director, Stephens a media manger – found the risks energised and spurred them to build an agency on the bedrock Virgin provided. "We knew we couldn’t be a one-client agency," Hayes says.

There was certainly reason enough to believe Goodstuff could make its mark. For one thing, its offering would be unusual – only a handful of agencies was offering broad communications planning at the time. For another, Kydd’s Virgin was always going to be a comfortable fit. "It’s been six years since we split with Virgin but its entrepreneurial impact on us has been indelible," Stephens declares.

In fact, the founders’ concerns about a lack of business nous were quickly allayed by an unlikely source. Manning Gottlieb, adopting a pragmatic view about the start-up, took a minority stake in Goodstuff (the agency bought it back two-and-a-half years ago) and helped the partners manage the business in order to protect its investment.

With the fundamentals sorted, what kind of agency did the founders want to create? Hayes says, quite simply, that it was to become "the world’s most innovative media agency" and there’s a clue in the choice of name about how they would attempt to make that happen. Goodstuff was the title of a folder on the desktop of Hayes’ computer into which he kept every piece of outstanding work he could find, whether from his own agency or elsewhere. He envisaged a collective Goodstuff folder that would become "a repository for everything good in our world". 

Hayes remembers an early meeting at the Devonshire Arms which helped define the start-up’s modus operandi. "Andrew pulled out a list of clients he thought we should be speaking to," he says. "This wasn’t surprising because he was heavily involved in new business at Manning Gottlieb.  "I couldn’t match that. But, being a collaborator, I did know a lot of independent creative agencies – Karmarama and Leith London among them – with whom I knew we could work well and build relationships."

A good few pints later, the founders are pleased about what Goodstuff has achieved. But they are eager for more. "We’re reasonably well known and we have a voice in the industry," Stephens says. "We never thought back then in the pub that we’d ever employ so many people. But has it remained in essence the business we started? Yes, it has. But we remain restless. It’s never finished."

At One Aldwych

Greg Delaney, Richard Warren, Tom Knox and Mark Lund

DLKW Lowe | Covent Garden, London

The conversation is almost as comfy as the sofa on which Greg Delaney, Mark Lund, Tom Knox and Richard Warren are lounging. Close your eyes and you might imagine you’re tuned in to an easy-listening BBC Radio 4 chat show, they say. And they’re right.

Knox is doing an impression of Michael ("Calm down, dear, it’s only a commercial") Winner that Rory Bremner would be pressed to match. Then he creases up his companions as he tells the tale of staring out of his agency office window in London’s Wellington Street in the 1990s and into the dressing room of the Lyceum Theatre to see a cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar snorting a line.

Delaney has pulled out a sheet of paper to remind his partners of the clients DLKW expected to have at their launch along with the projected income from each account – and to marvel what a wonderful thing the accumulated hindsight of 20 years is.

The agency founders are meeting at One Aldwych, a luxury hotel and monument to Edwardian grandeur standing on one of the capital’s busiest thoroughfares. Situated barely 150 yards from where Knox had his startling apparition, the hotel’s lobby bar and Indigo restaurant were the places where the four plotted their escape from True North, their US parent network that wanted to merge their then agency, Delaney Fletcher Bozell, with its FCB sibling.

To the Delaney Fletcher management team, True North’s planned marriage of its Bozell and FCB operations worldwide might have looked like a good idea in New York but, for them, it was a very bad one. Not only was it going to throw up horrendous account conflicts and create cumbersome management structures but also stymie an agency where business was booming. Lund presents a particularly raunchy analogy. "It would have been like being shot in the back in the middle of having sex."

The quartet’s loyalty to each other, however, overrode everything else and proved robust enough to withstand offers of what would have been high-flying jobs for all of them within FCB. "We had total trust in each other," Delaney confirms. "We worked well together, we had the core of an agency with a good new business machine that just needed ramping up." 

'It would have been like being shot in the back in the middle of having sex'
— Mark Lund, founder, DLKW Lowe

In the end, David Bell, True North’s chairman, had to bow to the inevitable, acknowledge there were too many conflicts to make a merger viable and allow the four to go their own way and hold on to its domestic accounts while all international business was consolidated within FCB. True North was also to take a minority stake in the start-up. "Nobody wanted a fight," Delaney remembers. "The deal with Bell was a friendly one."

Cutting loose proved the easy part, though. "We needed a £1.8m loan to set up," Lund says, recounting how seven of the nine legal documents they had to sign in order to get it were about what would happen were they to default. "It really concentrated our minds." 

"We had fear but no doubts," Delaney insists, recalling how some doomsayer lawyers suggested they could be ruined within 18 months. Fortunately, adland’s leading brief, Lewis Silkin’s Roger Alexander, wasn’t among them. "He thought it was a fantastic opportunity," Delaney says. "He radiated optimism." Campaign’s curt observation that "there is no getting around the fact that (DLKW) will be a very small agency" stoked the fire in the founders’ bellies.

And although DLKW was a top 10 shop when it was sold to Creston for £28m in 2005, it looked as though Campaign’s initial assessment might be justified. The agency’s first six months were torrid as clients felt destabilised and business walked. However, Halifax’s arrival at the end of the first year was transformative and with Howard, the singing counter clerk, DLKW cemented its reputation for hard-working ads that – in Warren’s words – were for "taxi drivers, not awards juries".

Reunited at One Aldwych, the DLKW partners, who all benefited from significant windfalls from the £38.3m sale to Creston, could claim to have done nicely. Lund is chief executive of McCann Worldgroup UK; Warren is director of marketing communications at Lloyds Banking Group; and Delaney is semi-retired but still gets involved in creative projects. Knox is the only one to have stayed with DLKW from its inception through the Creston deal and its 2010 acquisition by Interpublic in order to shore up Lowe London. He is currently executive partner of MullenLowe. 

As Lund asks: "Who could have predicted such a denouement back then?"