Robert Horne Scottish Design Consultancy Review
Grimly grasping at a glass of cold champagne, as though my life depends on it, I toast best wishes, on two fronts, to the directors of Stand. It is the morning after the night before. Well, ok, it’s actually the afternoon. However, sore heads are still being nursed by the directors of Stand, as well as a certain journalist from The Drum, following yesterday’s Robert Horne Design Consultancy of the Year lunch – a lunch that, for many, stretched well into the late evening. And all gathered in the flat in Glasgow’s leafy West End, bar one, are looking as though they lasted the full distance. And more, perhaps.
Having launched just over two years ago – or “26 months”, as Mark Stephenson, Stand’s managing director, is almost too quick to point out (as though he’s been counting the weeks) – the design agency has been gaining plaudits from the start. In fact, for the last two years Stand has been voted the One to Watch at these very awards, winning that accolade for the first time just a couple of months after the agency’s emergence.
Finally dispelling the clinging honour of being the next big thing, Stand, took to the stage to scoop the top title and the considerable bulk that is the Agency of the Year hat stand.
However, one of Stand’s directors was missing from action, celebrating some good news of her own – a baby boy.
So, it is with that news, combined with Stand winning the Consultancy of the Year hat stand, that I find myself in the almost surreal surroundings of one of Stand’s founding director’s living rooms, rather than the agency boardroom.
Maggie Croft is less than an hour out of hospital, bunches of flowers still deck the floor, waiting thirstily for someone to find them the time for a vase of water. The fire is hastily lit and Croft appears from the back of the flat, new baby in arms. But it appears that the excitement of a new child is not enough, Maggie is keen to celebrate the success of her other little bundle of joy too. After all, she, along with the rest of the Stand team, has worked hard for that right.
It has been a busy two years for Stand. Since launching at the tail end of 2002, when Stuart Gilmour and Maggie Croft left BD-Tank, the Glasgow-based design agency has built up a strong raft of clients, including Jim Beam. YoungScot, Johnstons Cashmere, a number of property developers, Glasgow Art Fair, the massive Clydebank Rebuilt project and the recently launched Glasgow International. Add to that Tennent’s and being one of only a small group of design agencies appointed to the Interbrew UK rosta.
During this time, Stand has also relocated from serviced offices to its own, custom-designed, space in the heart of the city centre while gradually building the team, to the point where it now employs 11 staff.
A key appointment came just weeks after the agency launched with Mark Stephenson, former new business director at The Leith Agency, joining in the role of managing director – although he points out that this is more a term of convenience, “we don’t have titles, as such, we only apply them when we need to.”
Stephenson joined the agency following a recommendation from Simon Malinson, the successful production house owner and Stand’s fourth, and silent partner. “We spoke to a lot of people initially about the possibility of coming on in a senior role,” says Gilmour. “We felt that we needed someone like Mark, with the skills that he has, to add even more value to the team that already existed.”
So, with the team in place the agency has gone about busying itself. “We’ve been doing loads and loads of work for Tennent’s, and we are constantly expanding the scope of the jobs we are doing,” says Croft. “It’s hard work, but hopefully the work that we do this year will set us up for the possibility of work with Interbrew, outwith the Tennent’s brand.”
“We have brought in a few bits of new business in the last year,” continues Stephenson, “as well as the property work that we are continuing to build. Between now and June, I think, we’ll have about seven property sales projects on the go.” Gilmour and Croft nod in agreement.
However, despite this steady growth, one of the reasons for Stand’s continued success from day one, is the fact that it has not been narrow-minded in the range of work that it will undertake – from property sales to the massive brand experience projects that the agency has undertaken in the last couple of years for Tennent’s at T in the Park. Stand has done packaging work to town signage. Gilmour has even designed the new Motherwell Football strip.
However, Stephenson points out: “We are creative and strategic, not another small one or two man ‘creative’ design consultancy. Everything we do has a strong basis in strategy.”
This point is perhaps highlighted by a branding project that Stand recently completed for a technology client. When the job was complete, and the client came to brief the agency, it was said that, not just at a marketing level, but at a commercial level too, the team had got to grips with the client’s business faster than even Deliotts. “I think that underpins what we are doing strategically,” adds Stephenson.
Having all come from relatively large agency backgrounds, owning and running their own small business is seen by the directors as their opportunity to now put the knowledge that they have acquired along the way to good use.
“It’s very different [running your own company]. The pressures are different,” says Gilmour. “The rewards are too. You work just as hard, but you are doing it for different reasons, I suppose. The drives are stronger, ultimately.”
“For me,” continues Stephenson, “one of the biggest and best differences is being in absolute control of the creation of the agency’s culture. We can decide who works with us, how we work with each other and how the agency functions as a team. We obviously want the very best people to work at Stand. But that’s not necessarily just the best in talent, but the best in attitude and fit too.
“A great idea can come from anywhere. It can come from myself, Maggie, Stuart or it can come from one of the office juniors or a designer. What matters is recognising a good idea. When we are working on a project, we will get five or six of us sitting around a table to generate ideas and concepts. There isn’t any preciousness as to where the ideas come from.
“It’s down to the little things, like the way the studio is laid out. Everyone has a window to look out, which means all the screens face into the room. But that wasn’t by accident. When we send a brief out to a designer it’s not like, hidden.” (He makes the age-old primary seven test manoeuvre, hiding the paper in front of him with his body and hands.) “You can make progress faster when people are open.”
Openness is a trait that runs through Stand’s approach to business. The way the agency operates internally – the openness, lack of preciousness, and sharing of workloads – also translates to how it deals with other agencies. Stand works closely with a number of other agencies, including Burt Greener, Newhaven, MMI, Brand Ambassadors and Material, to handle brand work for clients like Tennent’s and Jim Beam.
“There is quite a lot of cynicism out there, and it can take quite a lot of bravery to be honest, open and to share business,” says Croft. “Sometimes that level of honesty can be taken advantage of; sometimes that level of openness can be reciprocated. But this is a part of who we are and how we work, so it’s something that we’ll stick with.”
“We like working like that,” continues Gilmour. “Every one of the agencies can come together and bring their specific skills to the table. If you can work together, and work in harmony, it makes lots of sense. You don’t get fragmented activity, either; brand consistency is achieved.
“With Tennent’s the inter-agency collaboration has really kicked in a lot more this year. We’ve been working very closely with Newhaven and Material. Limone are now involved too. It’s been a fairly equal and open relationship that we’ve founded – everybody doing what they are good at doing.”
“It’s a common sense way to operate,” adds Croft. “It’s a very client-driven way to operate. Every client wants their budget to work as well as possible. No client wants to work with an agency that joins its rostra and falls out with all the other agencies. The client wants problems solved, not added to.
“What clients like Tennent’s have is great. But it’s very hard. It takes total commitment from all the agencies involved, sharing information and working together. Perhaps that’s why other brands don’t operate in this way. It is hard work.”
So, as another champagne cork pops, I ask the Stand directors if they have had any regrets or even just a few scary moments since starting the company?
After a bit of head scratching Gilmour pipes up, “I wouldn’t say that we have necessarily had any scary moments. There have been moments of extreme nervousness, and excitement. We’ve been given great opportunities, and we have, thankfully, been able to convert those.” Highlights include re-pitching for and retaining Glasgow Art Fair, Glasgow International and pitching to the Stella team for an Interbrew rostra position, “which was by no means guaranteed.”
“Yeah,” interrupts Stephenson. “You always remember the successes and edit out the bad bits. But the vast majority of pitches that we’ve gone for we’ve won. Our strike rate’s been very good.”
One pitch that Stand didn’t win, however, was for the West of Scotland Bowel Cancer awareness communications. Stephenson says that was one of the pitches that Stand wanted to win, passionately. “We really wanted to win that account. The work that account would have involved would deal with issues that really matter; work that you really can get passionate about.”
The glasses of champagne are drained as Maggie, Stuart and Mark carry on their conversation. As the last sips are dredged, other disappointments are echoed – being pipped at the post in a bid to work on Glasgow’s millennium-esque Clyde Bridge project; and other celebrations are toasted – winning The Drum’s annual report review for the YoungScot report, an area that Gilmour is keen to expand in.
And the future looks even brighter for the team. After months out of action, Stand’s office building lift is working again – the hat stand could have proved difficult to manoeuvre up the, what feels like, 30 floors (in fact it’s about six) without it. But already, just one day after the awards, the hat stand is in place in the office. Furthermore, the agency’s website is, at long last, set to launch this month too. But, more importantly, the agency and its staff continue to build relationships and produce award-winning work. The “shitty” long hours – late nights and lost weekends – are paying off, and, as the baby in Maggie Croft’s arms lets out a small cry (only its second of the hour-and-a-half long interview) I can’t help but think that many more sleepless nights and working weekends are in store.