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North of England Design Review

By The Drum, Administrator

May 28, 2003 | 11 min read

Ambition is nothing without talent, whilst talent is often wasted without ambition. But add the two together and chances are you’ll be left with something pretty special: LOVE. Now, before you reach for the nearest barf receptacle, let us explain. We haven’t come over all New Age on you, and whilst, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, we certainly appreciate the power of that particular emotion, we’re talking about a completely different form of LOVE.

The one that we’re focusing on is based solely in Manchester, shouldn’t give you sleepless nights and, on the strength of its recent work, will never break your heart.

Driven by the ambition of Alistair Sim and fuelled by the high-octane creative talents of Dave Palmer, Phil Skegg and Dave Simpson, LOVE has quickly accelerated from a standing start to a position where it is now jostling with the country’s leading creative vehicles.

Indeed, this year the agency appears to have motored past its more established Northern competitors and, as a result, took the chequered flag in the 2003 Robert Horne North of England Design Review. Which isn’t bad for a team in only its second full season on the circuit.


For those of you who aren’t up to speed with the annual race for the Robert Horne title we’ll quickly take you for a warm-up lap.

The review, now in its fifth year, utilises a number of judging criteria to identify the North’s top design denizens. The qualifying competitors, any team based North of the Midlands, battle it out over four rounds – financial performance, creative work, client satisfaction and peer poll perception – with the strongest overall performer stepping up to the podium to grapple with the imposing Robert Horne hatstand.

To ensure that the results are above board, the creative judging falls under the auspices of a team of crack Scottish designers, whilst the fiscal findings are examined by our good friends at Baker Tilly. Client satisfaction is investigated by MRUK and the peer poll is determined by polling the agencies’ peers. Simple, really.

This assiduous adjudication culminates in a lunchtime event where entrants wrestle for hegemony, kudos and drinks at the bar, with the most successful stumbling out into the cool evening air aglow with the warm embrace of success and the burning envy of their contemporaries.

Financial Poll

Cash. To some it’s a dirty word, to others it’s a shirt-chucking Wimbledon winner, but for all businesses, it’s essential to get the green stuff through the door and onto the bank balance. With this in mind, the natives of An Agency Called England, formerly Media Works, should be high on their own solvency as this year they swept to first place in the financial poll.

The firm served up a grand slam performance across the judging criteria of turnover, growth on previous year, turnover per designer, turnover per client and design fee as a percentage of turnover to jump the net and take the first title of the day. Congratulations, folks.

The Chase proved to be as financially buoyant sailing home in second place, whilst DA surprised some of the bookies’ favourites to take a highly commendable third. LOVE followed hot on their heels, whilst Poulter Partners slipped from last year’s top spot, but still found their feet with an accomplished fifth.

Peer Poll

In the design game most players would rather be an Alan Shearer than a Robbie Savage. Everyone wants to play in the top league, everyone wants to win, but if everyone else sees your work and instantaneously hates you for it, it must be a rather hollow sense of achievement. Ideally, you want your contemporaries to pat you on the back rather than rake their studs down your shins, but respect is something you earn, and if you don’t play the game right you’re never going to get it.

It must therefore be rather reassuring for The Chase that, after so long in the premier division, they’re still seen to be playing at the top of their game and remain admired for their sublimely silky skills. They emerged as champions in the peer poll stakes, scoring more votes than the Rooneyesque LOVE in second, and beating seasoned pros Elmwood into third. Thompson Design showed its growing stature by sharing Elmwood’s table position, whilst Iris put a smile on the faces of the united Sheffield fans with an impressive fifth.

The Creative Polls

It goes without saying that winning the main creative poll is one of the most coveted prizes for the design artisans displaying their work in the Northern gallery.

This year it was LOVE that the critics deemed had created the most masterpieces, with The Chase illustrating that they’re still old masters with a finely crafted second.

Both agencies dominated the Strongest Piece of Individual Work award, with the strength of their portfolios muscling the other competitors out of all top five positions.

LOVE placed fifth, third and second with (respectively) the saucy-sounding Graham Norton’s Pearl Necklace, Nesta’s Annual Report and the Youth Justice Trust Annual Report. In a reversal of the overall creative standing, The Chase fetched top honours with its eminently loveable annual report for Manchester Dogs’ Home, whilst arresting fourth place for the Murder Mystery poster.

NE6 ensured that the North East was well represented with a sterling third place overall, with Elmwood just missing out on the podium in fourth, followed by Thompson and Poulter Partners in joint fifth.

The Client Satisfaction Poll

A new addition to the Robert Horne race this year, we charged the good people at MRUK with discovering whether the clients of our competing agencies were wearing grins or grimaces. Each firm was asked to submit a cross-section of their client base, leading to phone interviews that were conducted across several “satisfaction criteria”. The best performing agency took the plaudits, and again, as with so much in life, it proved distinctly gratifying to be in LOVE.

The Manchester agency consolidated its claim for the overall title by taking top spot, although it was very nearly a photo finish with Thompson Design chasing them all the way to the line. NE6’s toon army launched a successful assault on third place, with Elmwood, The Chase and True North advancing in charm offensives behind them.

Best Design Director

Ben Casey – a name that means a great deal to designers and the wider design cause throughout the North, and a popular choice for this year’s Robert Horne Best Design Director. Jonathan Sands, Casey’s and The Chase’s rival/friend/fellow design ambassador, summed up the prevalent feelings of the creative congregation when he said: “I was really delighted to see Ben Casey win the individual award. Very much deserved. A real artisan and a thoroughly nice person, to boot.”

For Casey, who has put so much back into the industry he has taken a living from, it was a richly deserved accolade.

Ones to Watch

This year it was felt that two agencies were making ever louder and more persistent noises on the region’s design radar, as they continue their missions to home in on clients and awards with ruthless efficiency. Sheffield’s Iris and Leeds’ Thompson Design have both had excellent years, recruiting high-profile new crew members (Phil Dean for Thompson and Paul Reardon and Peter Donohoe for Iris) whilst succeeding in creating beautiful design of form and function for clients such as Ragdoll (Thompson) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Iris). As a result, it was felt that both teams couldn’t be separated and so, for the first time in the event’s history, there were two Robert Horne Ones to Watch. Lose sight of them at your peril.

Final Results

As the event drew to a conclusion it became clear that it would be a duel between two of Manchester’s sharpest creative shooters for the overall title of Design Consultancy of the Year. In the end, LOVE was deemed to have scored more direct hits across the judging criteria and rode off into the sunset weighed down with the hatstand. The Chase’s big guns fired them into second place, in front of Elmwood’s design arsenal and our Ones to Watch, Thompson and Iris.

Read on to see some handpicked comments from the cream of this year’s crop. Find out what they were vocal about and whether anyone said, “I’ll do anything for LOVE, but I won’t do that” when it came to settling the day’s bar tabs.

Finding Mr Right

In light of their success in this year’s competition Alan Johnstone asks some of our creative winners just how clients should go about identifying the consultancy for them?

How do you view the northern

design scene at the moment?

Ian Thompson (Thompson Design): “It’s obvious to anyone who works in the North of England that the scene lags behind London. It’s clear to me that any design company that produces award-winning work for Northern clients on Northern budgets is achieving a damn sight more than our Southern counterparts. But it is changing, and changing for the better.”

Alistair Sim (LOVE): It’s certainly got a lot more going for it than the advertising industry – when is one of the big agencies going to produce some world-class work? I think it’s been through some tough times, but we should have seen the worst of it now and I’m looking to the third quarter of 2003 for a recovery.”

Are clients appreciative of the

quality of design on offer in the North?

Phil Dean (Thompson Design): “In general, I believe that they are. But you still have to pick and choose quite carefully who you work with – in some quarters there is still the old-fashioned mentality of design being some frivolous, unnecessary expense. It is up to us to demonstrate that this is not the case and that we can add real value to their business.”

What should clients look out for

when sourcing good design?

Simon Farrell (The Chase): “A combination of creativity, insightful strategy, efficient account management, personal chemistry and value for money.

“I think all design consultancies must continue to improve all elements of their offer to make sure the quality of the design industry in the North continues to grow in reputation.”

Jonathan Sands (Elmwood): “An Elmwood logo of course ... what else?”

What should they try to avoid?

Dean: “Advertising agencies masquerading as designers – there’s a lot of it about.”

Farrell: “LOVE and Elmwood (only kidding). I think it’s important for clients to look for long-term design partners – people they can work with to develop the right solutions over time.

“I would urge clients to develop a selection process that looks at all elements of the agency’s skills over the long term to see which one they think they will be able to work with – rather than choosing the agency that develops the best design solution after a two-week pitch process. Unless, of course, it’s our solution!”

David Wood (Iris): “Companies who actually don’t know what they are doing, with lack of design knowledge and awareness. And clients shouldn’t get too hooked up on detail, the designers should be the experts, let them do the job you are paying them to do. If you don’t trust them you should question why you are using them.”

Any other comments folks?

Peter Donohoe (Iris): “Most clients could do with getting some form of rudimentary design education. My experience is that clients generally mess things up. Marketing and design is like an arranged marriage. Designers should be left to design – you don’t tell the dentist which tooth to pull when you’re sat in the chair.”

Wood: “Designers and clients should take a few more risks. It’s no good looking at the work coming out of London and saying ‘I wish we could do work like this.’ The talent is here, let’s use it.”


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