New York New York
Two – nil. And an almost whitewash in the second frame, to boot. A bad showing from The Drum. Toby Southgate has been in his role at Third Eye Design for little over a fortnight, but he’s obviously already added some supplementary skills to his armoury. We are in the basement of Third Eye Design’s spacious new Glasgow offices, testing our ability on the agency pool table as we wait for Third Eye’s MD Mark NoÃ« to join us. It’s Friday afternoon and the office has a quite buzz.
On reflection, the bustling studio upstairs leads The Drum to believe that Southgate may well have brought his pool playing skills with him.
Southgate left design giants Navyblue last month to join the Glasgow-based agency, a move that took many by surprise. Southgate, not yet 30, was a board director at Navyblue having spent the last three years at the Edinburgh designers.
Now, following a few weeks off between roles, he’s busy getting his feet under the desk preparing for his new task leading Third Eye’s imminent charge to New York.
“I’d been at Navyblue for three and a half years,” says Southgate. “I wasn’t looking for another job. But chances like this don’t come along too often. The ambition of Third Eye, and the ambition of Mark [NoÃ«] to open an office in New York matched what I wanted to do with my own career. So, it was a pretty straightforward decision to make when the scope of the opportunity was mapped out.”
Spoiling a chance of revenge (read: sparing any further embarrassment) at the pool table, NoÃ« arrives back from meetings to usher us up to the first-floor boardroom.
Sitting back in his chair NoÃ« wastes no time launching into the subject of New York. “It was an obvious choice for me. Everyone usually looks to London but, at the moment, the London market is saturated with very, very good companies. Going down there you will be one of, arguably, 50 companies who are similar to you, competing for work, getting battered down on price and scrambling around for the best work, often for little or no fee.”
He pauses for breath, and adds, almost as an after thought, “It’s never been an ambition of mine to open in London. It’s always been my ambition to open somewhere overseas. The challenge now is to replicate what we’ve done here. Besides, the buzz in New York is fantastic. There’s nowhere like it.”
NoÃ« and the Third Eye team have been enthusiastically researching New York’s opportunities, with NoÃ« himself embarking on several reconnaissance missions. However, Southgate chuckles when he admits that he’s never actually been to the city (although Third Eye’s next trip to NY should be well underway as The Drum goes to press. And Southgate will be on that plane).
“Like everybody, I have my impressions of New York. However, one of the things that really struck me was the amount of work that Mark, Stewart [Drummond] and Kenny [Allan] had put into researching the place.
“It’s a massive market in its own right. Manhattan Island has quite enough business to support a huge number of companies. There are two and a half thousand design agencies in the New York State, but there is a space between the giants of the market and the sole practitioners.”
“The small agencies tend to work in specialist areas,” continues NoÃ«. “arts, bars, fashion. We can offer a wider mix. I wouldn’t want to change the way we work. In fact, I want to replicate the way we work in the New York market.”
Avoiding the harsh New York winter, Third Eye is gearing up for a Spring launch next year.
“We know where we want to be, and we are hoping to secure an office and get contracts in place before we make the move,” says NoÃ«. “But there is a keen battle amongst the troops already to try and work over there. We’ve got a lot of young guys here, and for them it’s an amazing opportunity.
“We may work a rolling secondment programme that gives everyone the opportunity, whilst maintaining the quality of work, and keeping the same culture we have in Glasgow.”
Third Eye’s culture is guarded fiercely by NoÃ« having built the team up from the one-man operation that it was when he launched ten years ago: “It’s taken a long time to get here, but we’ve now reached our optimum level. I don’t want to grow the agency, physically, in Scotland any more. I reckon we have the best creative team in Scotland, at present. Claudia Chase, who joined us from Michael Nash, was voted Young Designer of the Year, and Jessie Earl has just joined from Pentaram. With seven designers in the building, you can get through a lot of solid work. Yet despite their experience and their ability, the team is still very young and hungry.
“But if you get much bigger than we are, you need to bring in a lot of support staff to back up the growth. The more staff you bring in the harder it is to maintain your culture. There is a limit to the amount of work that is available in Scotland, especially the right type of work. If you get too big you can turn into a machine. At the end of the day, you need to bill a certain amount each month, and you end up having to do work that the designers don’t get turned on by. I’ve taken a stance. I don’t want to get to that stage.
“We’re in quite a comfortable situation financially, because we have been very prudent. But, it’s managing the right balance of clients with the aspirations of the staff. Our success has been to show that corporates can use good design to benefit their business without falling into the trap of having to be seen to be staid. Third Eye Design has proved it can add value. It’s an attractive place to work. But a hard place to get into. We don’t recruit that often. And when we do recruit we hunt about for the best people. That’s a nice position to be in.”