Naked Ambition

Ten years ago, three 'scruffy blokes in jeans' launched a start-up that changed the face of media agencies.

Naked founders: John Harlow, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin
Naked founders: John Harlow, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin

The early days of Naked Communications were intoxicating. Those who witnessed the bond between its three founders, John Harlow, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin, couldn't help but be impressed.

The trio launched the business on 1 August 2000, having met at New PHD. In the early days, based at a floating office on the Thames aboard the HMS President, there appeared to be an energetic enjoyment in approaching media and communications that hadn't seemed to exist for the decade or so since media had been scooped out of the creative agencies.

As Wilkins puts it: "We wanted to be honest, straight-talking and intelligent. We believed that things could change and we also wanted to have fun: we always said that we'd sell our ideas in ten charts, and those values are still held by our offices around the world."

Naked ten years on is a global entity with offices in 13 cities across three continents. Collin and Wilkins remain on board but recent events at its parent company, Photon Group, to whom Naked sold in February 2008, have seen the agency become tangled in a corporate mess that a decade ago it had launched to avoid. And, in the UK at least, it appears to have become an agency that has evolved far beyond its "media-neutral" communications roots into something more resembling a creative agency.

At time of writing, Photon's shares remain delisted from the stock exchange in Australia as its management attempts to secure backing for a refinancing programme to secure its debts. As part of this picture, Photon has also been attempting to renegotiate substantial remaining earnout payments to businesses including Naked.

This corporate mess could result in one of a number of scenarios for Naked (remaining part of Photon; being sold should Photon be unable to struggle on; or the opportunity of staging a management buyout).

Naked sources are keen to emphasise that it remains one of the more successful companies in Photon - the suggestion being that it made £5 million profit last year and that its partners and others in the earnout have so far received around £33 million from Photon (£16.5 million upfront, with the other half paid two years into the deal). A final, uncapped, earnout payment is due in February 2012 but it seems less than certain that this will happen now.

Whatever the outcome, it's a far cry from the early days when Naked was characterised as scruffy blokes in jeans and T-shirts with a reputation for "toilet stunts" for the likes of SuperNoodles. This may have been a somewhat harsh perception given that Naked was launched on the basis of what Wilkins terms "an opportunity to give advanced, objective communications advice" but while attracting admiring glances from ad agencies, Naked appeared to get on the nerves of more than one media agency which felt threatened by its existence.

In one sense, Naked was nothing new. Michaelides & Bednash launched in 1994 with a very similar communications proposition; then, in 1997, came the launch of Unity, with future Naked partner Ivan Pollard as a co-founder. But two things made Naked stand out: a slightly offbeat way of working and a sheer energy and ability to pull projects off that the other planning start-ups lacked. Its timing also seemed inspired - media choices were becoming increasingly complex and "digital" advertising was set to take off.

The offbeat, "do it our way", positioning was apparently honed during the exposure of the Naked founders (while at PHD) to the maverick Jonathan Durden. This was backed by a strong planning heritage - both Wilkins and Collin had worked at BMP before joining PHD - and helped Naked land early clients such as Metro and Credit Suisse.

Momentum may have taken a while to build but, soon, Naked, swept along by Harlow's relentless new-business energy, was making waves with award-winning work for the likes of 118 118 and Selfridges. The agency always had plans to grow - both internationally and through UK joint ventures - and there was soon evidence of this.

Joint ventures were hatched with three UK ad agencies (Naked Ambition with Grey in 2003; Element with WCRS in 2004; and then the digital businesses Happen and Hyper with Fallon). Hyper aside, these ventures were relatively shortlived but showed the potential for communications strategy to work under one roof with creative agencies. Naked's overseas activities have been longer lasting with operations in Australia (launched in 2004) and New York (2006) helping to grow the Naked empire.

The business recruited a fourth partner in the shape of Pollard, also a renowned BMP planner before he launched Unity. So what attracted Pollard to the business in 2005? "Naked was doing something that I believed in and had tried to do with Unity - we didn't get it right, but they did," he says. "They had brilliant ideas and actually went off and made them happen and I wanted to be part of it."

Overseas launches, especially the office in the US led by Paul Woolmington and MT Carney, created excitement around the Naked name even when its influence in the UK was apparently on the wane. The Photon deal may have resulted in a mess but Wilkins is adamant that it was right at the time because Naked didn't want to sell to a more traditional ad network: "We had offers to go in and help sort out networks but we felt that Naked had enough growth potential on its own so we didn't just want to be 'Mr Fixits' within an ad business."

Since the deal, which was struck in Australia by Wilkins and the Naked group chief executive, Nigel Long, key players have departed. Carney, who did so much to build its New York operation, left this April to join Disney Studios while Harlow, who had been experiencing personal problems for some time, has also departed (though Wilkins - who is now based in Australia - remains hopeful that, one day, he will return).

Meanwhile, Naked's UK operation, under the managing director, Jane Geraghty, has taken a new direction, executing creative work for the likes of Gatwick Airport and the FA as the market for pure communications planning became more competitive. The suspicion remains that this is a move motivated by necessity and the need to fuel an earnout but Wilkins defends it. "We're being asked to hone an idea more than when we started so it's a natural evolution - a lot of creative talent is now as frustrated as planners were with the large agencies so we are increasingly being approached by creatives," he says.

Ten years on, Naked appears to be attempting reinvention and the Photon situation, while breeding uncertainty, is only likely to contribute to this process. Managed correctly, this could help Naked in its ambitions to "take the fight" that it arguably won with comms planning to areas such as the creative process and digital.

Pollard argues that there is the opportunity to provide a model similar to that of Anomaly and Droga5 and that Naked's heritage will help to grow this opportunity: "The iconoclastic nature of the three founders, especially Jon and John, which took on the establishment still exists. But the fight is over in terms of communications in planning, certainly in London at least, so it's time to take that spirit and fight to new areas."


Sue Unerman, chief strategy officer, MediaCom

"What it did brilliantly was give the creative agencies the media departments they had always wanted. Media independents had become very successful at assessing things neutrally - of being very considered about creative and giving a view based on ROI. And then Naked was just massively enthusiastic and gave creative agencies the chance to amplify their genius creative idea. It filled the gap of media coming out of creative agencies and created a market for amplifying creative work. This served as a reminder to media agencies to work more collaboratively but I think that this was an adjustment to the market rather than something that really lasted."

Jed Glanvill, chief executive, Mindshare

"Naked was three very talented guys who were able to excite the industry about what creative communications planning could be. What they did very well was marketing and packaging that service area. Most good media agencies were providing that service - they just hadn't packaged it and marketed it in the right way so Naked forced media agencies to raise their game marketing themselves. Naked has been positive for the industry and they are good, talented guys but I always felt they were a bit reliant on the founders as individuals - as soon as they started hiring planners from media agencies, clients began asking: 'How are they different?'"

Faris Yakob, chief innovation officer, MDC Partners (and Naked 2004 to 2008)

"The world was a very different place ten years ago when three men opened the world's first pure-play comms strategy agency. The first dotcom bubble was cresting, AOL had just bought Time Warner, Sony launched the PlayStation2 and '405 The Movie' became the first film we called a viral. Naked heralded a new media landscape that was, and still is, emerging. The Naked boys let me create myself a job and call it 'digital ninja', and taught me more than I can remember along the way. There are now lots of comms strategists, and a growing number of 'digital ninjas' it seems, but there is only one Naked."


Naked founder Jon Wilkins on a decade of being "potent, fresh and global"

Learning to love change would probably be my overarching thought about the past decade. That goes for the world we operate in, the company we keep and the service we offer.

Turning down golden handcuffs to become three painters and decorators, with John and Will, on our lovely first office, HMS President, was a thrill.

Our launch party on the boat was a "choppy night" with Puppetry of the Penis manhandling their wares and clients throwing up off the poop deck.

Winning our first international account was a proud moment. They said they wanted to ISDN us the creative work and set up a conference call - which posed some challenges. The easyInternet cafe got us online to download the work (took a good few hours), and a BT payphone (liberally sprinkled with cards of a more naked variety) acted as a perfect conference call space, although the three of us crammed into the red box got a few strange looks.

Winning more clients, doing great work, hiring great people, having bucketloads of fun, and learning that the more we said "no" to work, the more people wanted to work with us, was a buzz.

When we won Agency of the Year for the third year running, we got our whole agency on stage to rounds of "boos" from the crowd. We knew we'd arrived, and Nicole flashed her boobs at the soothsayers for good measure!

Our Naked "brand strategy" has always been to be potent, fresh and global. We've opened in 12 countries, created 14 businesses, learnt how to deal with karaoke and massage in Japan, how to interview correctly in the US (illegal to do so in a pub, which is where we found our start-up team), but, more seriously, we've seen how our objectivity and our approach has been copied by every major agency in every major market - luckily for us, copied badly too.

We know we've left our mark. For Will Collin and I, a definite highlight was rocking out to Doves at Naked's Hacienda Party, with Peter Hook from New Order on "the wheels of steel".

We always have great parties and a few Christmasses ago managed to get eight staff into a Jacuzzi in a boutique hotel in Brighton, only to fuse the joint - a lot of cold turkey the next day.

Eventually, leaders of the industry (big and small) started offering us sums of money (big and small) for our company. We decided to sail the good ship Naked into the Australian sunshine. The only certain next step for us is more change, gotta love it ...