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Navyblue: Ten years on

By The Drum, Administrator

January 15, 2004 | 11 min read

Navyblue in the past year comp[leted the high profile bid for Scotland and Ireland's 2008 European Cup bid.

If you want to get noticed, the Harvey Nicks bar overlooking a dusky Edinburgh skyline is certainly a good starting point. The smart-as-ever navyblue team has just arrived, perhaps dressed to impress following a meeting with a client (at a guess, Bright Grey – which is just around the corner), but nevertheless blending in perfectly with the stylish bods who loiter in the penthouse bar and restaurant of the upmarket store. As the background music battles to be heard over the clatter of cutlery and murmur of conversation, glasses of Sauvignon Blanc are ordered before the conversation turns quickly to business.

Although it might not be apparent on reading the marketing press, navyblue has been extremely busy over the last year.

Douglas Alexander, navyblue’s co-founder and joint managing director, is quick to admit that the agency, which employs over 60 staff, is not great at its own PR – and, from the outset of the meeting, it looks as though he is here to change that. Flanking Alexander at the table are Toby Southgate (client services director) and Mike Lynch (business development director). Navyblue is now approaching ten years in business and, while the company has been steadily evolving over the last decade, it is the last eighteen months that have seen some dramatic changes. Although, unless you are a part of them, you might not have noticed.

“The major transformation was the transition initially of a collection of group companies, each with an individual specialism, to a true communications group,” says Alexander.

As a result, navyblue is now perhaps as far removed from the traditional graphic design company that Alexander set up with Geoff Nicol in 1994 as it possibly could be. As part of the restructuring, navyblue brought in Peter Nowell, former marketing director at Kwik-Fit and founder of the Nowell Partnership, to create and head a new strategic planning arm.

“We have just completed the first stage of a major piece of research into ourselves, as an agency,” continues Alexander. “We looked at existing clients, asking them how we have developed and how we are supporting them. We talked to clients that have lapsed, and asked why they are no longer working with us; we talked to staff and directors. And this will culminate in a new way of articulating our offer, making sure clients understand the scope of our capabilities. We'll be reviewing this on an ongoing basis”.

The research and restructure seems to be paying-off and now navyblue is capable (as well as comfortable) to handle projects that only a year or so ago they might not have been.

“Take a client like Bright Grey,” says Southgate, “with who we have been heavily involved in the creation of the brand. We are now capable of pitching for something which is outwith our recognised core business - the advertising account - against The Union, and win. It is a verification of the fact that what we are doing is worthwhile.”

“That is becoming typical now,” takes over Alexander. “In the past we would just be asked to create an identity, but for Newcastle Airport we are looking at an entire communications strategy. We are much more akin to one of the big brand consultancies that you would expect to find in London than a design agency. It is about who we are talking to, why we are talking to them, and what it is they want to get out of it. Once the comms plan is created and thinking is complete, we can deliver it through whatever channel we have, be it signage for Ocean Terminal or packaging for The Body Shop.”

However, despite the changes, which have also seen Alexander relinquish his creative director’s hat to Jonathan Evans, Alexander is not happy to just rest on his laurels. He has been busying himself over the last two years in identifying a new home for the agency.

“We have now found somewhere suitable and we will be in a new home in January of 2005,” says Alexander. “We are signing missives just now, but it is a major building in Leith, which we will completely refurbish, giving us a 12,000 sq foot design studio and gallery in the heart of Leith.

“It was very important to us that we remain true to our roots and stay in Leith, where we started.”

Alexander and Geoff Nicol founded navyblue almost ten years ago right next to the Forth Estuary – hence the name (navyblue) – with two non-exec directors (who were bought out in 2002 when navyblue became wholly independent).

“There wasn’t a strategy when we launched,” says Alexander. “It was a survival. All we had was a need and a wish to do something that no-one else would let us do, a reasonable belief in our own abilities and a hell of a work ethic.

“We went from seven to 12, to 16, to 24 staff, to an office in London and now there are 60-odd in the group, and we are not finished yet. With the new building opening in 2005, we hope to expand by another 20 people between now and then. It will expand organically; we won’t take on people for the sake of it. But the clients we are chasing, the clients who are buying into us, need that level of service.

“There are huge aspirations,” continues Alexander, “and I think that we have done incredibly well in the last couple of years getting to where we are. Yes, we had to make a couple of redundancies – three to be exact – which was really sad, but the fact remains that we have only ever had to make three redundancies in ten years’ trading. A matter of three months later and we were back up to a full work force and now we are looking to expand again in both Edinburgh and London.”

Following the departure of Andy Massey, navyblue has also beefed up its new media team with two high-profile appointments. Pete Burns, former creative director of oneswoop.com and the Internet Car Company, is joining to head up the new media side and John Dow, founding director of Dowcarter, is joining him to look at the back-end development. Furthermore, Alexander is fixed on opening up in Dublin later this year, although he is cautious about committing without noticing profitable reasons first.

“We won’t open on a whim; we did that before. We had a 3D workshop, but that failed abysmally, primarily because of the mind-set. We could not manage the painters and joiners. We lost a lot of money through that. A lot of money, but we learnt a hell of a lot of lessons from it as well. One of these lessons was that we would not open up an office in a location on a whim. It has to stand up and pay dividends and make profit before we do it. It might only make one pound profit, but it will make profit.”

Navyblue London was launched five years ago, and it’s been an adventure, says Alexander: “We had no illusions, we knew it was going to be a tough ride, but Geoff Nicol and his team have done a great job, and from day one he’s always delivered profit. The last quarter of 2003 has been a complete step change. London picked up the Scottish and Newcastle annual report in November last year, which was interesting, as we had an Edinburgh client buying from navyblue in London while we had Hilton, a London-based client, buying from navyblue from Edinburgh. That is the strength of our offer.”

“London has a culture of 'boutique' type agencies,” continues Alexander. “But what Geoff took with him was the very pragmatic, problem-solving approach that had served him well in the Scottish marketplace, which is clearly paying dividends in London.”

And just because the company started in Edinburgh doesn’t mean that's the head office: “We'll be delighted if London - or Dublin for that matter - expands to be bigger than Edinburgh” says Lynch “but the concept of a head office just is not a part of our culture.”

“Before the down turn in the market it was easier to make money,” says Alexander, sipping his wine. “But I think we were incredibly inefficient in the way we did that. The difficulties in the marketplace have actually made us look at what we are doing, what we are selling, why we are doing it and then become more focused on what clients need.

“We build relationships with clients, build an emotional tie to them and become an integral part of their communications. That is where we are at our best – as part of the company.

“The ‘thinking out louder’ strap-line is very important to us. It is the thinking first, then the delivery. Account management doesn’t mean sticking half-a-dozen guys in suits in front of the client while you sit the creative guys in the background drawing pretty pictures. It goes from business development right through to every piece of creative work that we present. It is about everyone on the team working to the same goal.

“As a result, many clients are now happy to share with us their views and aspirations because they trust us to help them have an impact and achieve these aspirations. Often it comes down to interpreting and delivering their vision.

“What we do well is interrogate. If they say they want another two-colour brochure, we don’t ask how many pages? How big a print run? We ask why?

“That is the big difference – ‘why’. What do you want a brochure for? Is that the right thing? ‘Well, I thought it was.’ Well it might be, but think again. Experience, size and reputation allow you to ask why. We have a vast amount of experience to draw from as an agency. We’ve done a lot of things ... some of it wrong, but a lot of it very well. We have a strong reputation, but we are just not vocal enough.”

Over time, client communications teams have grown smaller, but more often than not navyblue will be one of the most consistent parts of their comms team, boasts Alexander: “They might have had four marketing directors but still only one design consultancy. It has to say a lot for us that, when a new marketing director comes in, we are less likely to suffer from the new broom-mentality.”

So what advice would Alexander offer anyone looking to emulate navyblue’s success in a toughened marketplace?

“You’ve got to have a dream, but never believe that dream until it is a reality. If the business can’t sustain itself, then it won’t exist, no matter how creative you are. The market place will not pay a premium for creativity. Creativity comes as a matter of course. ‘That’s what we do, isn’t it? You are a design company? You’re good? So that means you are creative. So why would a client pay more? How are you going to service the client? What will they get back?’

“Fair enough. When you have proven that your work is not only creative, but also effective, then you can bargain.

“Good creative work wins accounts. Bad account handling loses it just as easily. Quality creative work will win you business, it won’t keep it from going out the door. A client will quickly forget that you designed their logo.”

With that, Alexander drains his glass to dash off and entertain “another exciting development”, which as it turns out was sigining up some senior members of staff from Northcross. But it’s all in a decade’s work for Alexander.

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