999 Design profile

By The Drum | Administrator

June 18, 2003 | 7 min read

Rolling Rock Posters that were left on the cutting room floor

Twenty one years is a long time, particularly in the frantic world of Scottish design. Only a few have ever made it to such a milestone and the latest to get the key to the door is 999 Design. Katy Archer talks to 999’s Richard Bissland and Keith Forbes about the secret of their success.

In 1982, “Ghandi” won two Oscars, MTV was launched, and Britain was at war over a little known island just off the coast of Argentina.

Meanwhile, in Glasgow a company was being set up that would go on to dominate the Scottish design industry for the next twenty-one years - at least.

999 is celebrating getting its hands on “the key to the door” and founder of the company, Richard Bissland, and group managing director Keith Forbes were on hand to discuss both the highs and the lows of 999 Design’s history.

The consultancy was born out of Rex Stewart, following directors Richard Bissland and Bill Gaughan offer to buy the design end of the company out. The deal was accepted and the pair, along with ten other staff (seven of the original staff are still with the company) left to set up what is now 999 Design.

“Bill and I bought it out on the Friday. I remember that it was a bank holiday the following Monday so we hit the ground running on the Tuesday,” says Bissland, smiling.

“We managed to take a few clients with us. We had been quite happy working at Rex Stewart, but there had been a few things in terms of the management structure and costs that we just weren’t too keen on and felt that we needed to break away from that. So we decided to buy them out and do it our way.”

The company left its original offices in Bath Street, and twelve years ago they set themselves up in the more austere surroundings of Trinity Towers, just a short distance away from both the West End and the city centre of Glasgow, where they remain today.

With a client list that includes Orange, Sony and Reebok, 999 are a formidable force on the design, and also advertising, front.

The firm’s longest running client, Reebok, has been with 999 for an impressive 13 years. Bissland says: “What we try to do is build our clients up and they tend to stay with us for a fairly long time.”

There have been some major changes for 999 over the past 21 years – most notably its successful ventures into the Manchester and London markets. 999 has been in Manchester for the past six years and, following on from their success, they went on to open an office in London just last year. So, what do the pair believe is the secret of their success over the past 21 years, and how do they manage to stand head and shoulders above the masses? Bissland is quick to answer: “The design industry is becoming far more like the Scottish football industry, where there is a fragmentation, with only a few big boys leading the way and the rest struggling. Many just don’t have marketing strategies in place, and have set up a business because they have a Mac and some design know-how.

“But we have a structure in place that allows us to have big blue chip accounts, along with interior design and other design disciplines. We have people who understand us and can market us properly and I think that ultimately makes the difference.”

Nodding in agreement, Keith Forbes adds: “We are never too afraid to get our hands dirty in whatever type of work we are doing. Some of the stuff that we do might not, admittedly, be winning any D&AD awards in the near future, but at the same time it does get results for our clients. Our ethos is just to get our heads down and get on with it. No one has a monopoly on ideas; we sit and listen to everyone, which has helped us in terms of working with the big brands.

“We really take our time in cementing long-term relationships with clients, and that is where our success really lies.”

Bissland admits that there have been changes within the company over the past few years – and also within the design industry as a whole.

“It seems that these days there is a lot less gut instinct put to use when it comes to designing the work. Everything has to be researched, analysed and focused onto something specific. Clients are also becoming far more aware of what they want to get and what they need, so the relationship has changed slightly.”

Both agree that there have been numerous highlights during their tenure, especially in terms of expansion throughout the UK.

“The reason that we have been so successful within the industry is because we employ like-minded people who understand what 999 is about. That is why our staff turnover rate has been so low – people don’t seem to leave us. When we were setting up both the Manchester and London offices we thought about how to do it,” says Bissland.

He continues: “At first we thought that we could go down and make a huge impact on the scene all at once. But we thought about it and found that the best idea would be to let the company grow organically. Especially when setting up the London office.

“We have managed to find a model that actually seems to be working. We have offices through the spine of the UK, and we are growing all the time. Our main task will be to watch London grow and succeed to a size that we are happy with.

However, Bissland is fully prepared to admit that there have been some brands that simply have not worked, no matter how much time and energy they have put into them – Rolling Rock being a prime example.

“It was a campaign that we were really eager to do. We appointed David La Chapelle to do the photos and, as with all his stuff, the work came out magnificently. The client loved it and put us on to the roster. But at the last minute they decided not to use it and retracted the work as their strategies had changed. That really upset me, as it was fantastic work. That was the one that got away,” he says, shaking his head ruefully.

Both men believe that the outlook, at least for 999, over the next few months is quite bright.

“Since the start of the year we have pitched for about eighteen contracts and have won fourteen. We are constantly fighting for business in Scotland and we have realised that you have to look outwith Scotland also to get the contracts,” says Forbes.

Bissland agrees with this sentiment wholeheartedly “The past year has not been the easiest, but we were gutsy. Others have been conservative about the way they do business, but I think that we have been pretty fearless regarding the moves that we have made.”

Throughout the interview both men have talked with both pride and an air of confidence about them. And well they should – as Bissland points out, they’ve got plenty of reasons to be cheerful. “There have been so many highlights in the past few years – winning the Design Consultancy of the Year three times in the past nine years; bringing a new level of brands from an international scale into Scotland; working and meeting some great people from these brands. And I suppose one of the best things is getting the respect from our peers within this industry.”


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