The entry buzzer hasn’t yet finished ringing. The door is still in mid-swing. And already Peter Clayton is upon me. Brief pleasantries are swapped and we’re off. He whisks me first into the agency’s ‘soft play area’ before changing his mind and escorting me to the plush boardroom. Or third thoughts, a whistle-stop tour of the new – and might I add, impressive – offices.
There’s no surprise he’s in an excitable mood, though. With the agency having ploughed a small fortune into new, custom-designed office space in Glasgow’s salubrious West End, Mr Clayton is perhaps justified in his enthusiasm.
Tour commences. Reception area first, then on to the director’s office (soon to be E-Business space - the digital team having already outgrown their up-the-stairs accommodation). PR and accounts next, then soft play area (again) and boardroom (I’m struggling to keep up). Upstairs. Creative teams, creative director and E-Business (for the time being).
On return to the board room, with the smell of new furnishings still lingering in the air, Clayton is explaining the intricacies of the agency’s new (and expensive-looking) video- conferencing unit. Voice-tracking, no less.
The team of 23 at Clayton Graham have been enjoying the new space since August but new gadgets and fittings are still arriving. A lamp, cord yet to be untied, sits on top of a unit still awaiting its first use - it’s been a busy few months for the agency.
“The old building was rented,” says Clayton, after I finish marvelling over the video-conference thingy. “It wasn’t conducive to what we wanted to do,” he continues. “This is custom-built, designed by us. It wasn’t cheap, but the market’s incredibly buoyant at the moment. You have to bear in mind that everything else an agency touches goes down in value, be it cars, machinery, computers. Everything is a depreciating asset. If you rent a building and spend all that money on it, it’s not yours. This fixes the age-old agency problem of a lack of assets.”
‘‘And the age old problem of pension funds?’’ I offer, as an aside...
“Everyone has made the joke about pension funds. The directors had the opportunity to buy the building as part of a pension fund, but didn’t. The building belongs to the company. The directors do not own the building. This gives the staff security. It increases your fire-power in terms of borrowing and it is one of the few things that goes up in value,” continues Clayton.
“I believe passionately in the company and the employees - as opposed to what you can get in your pension fund. It makes the company stronger, which, theoretically, makes the employees safer. In the past, a few people have offered to buy us out, but that leaves me wondering what would happen to our staff. Self-employment is a wonderful thing, but you have an unbelievable responsibility to the employees.”
Clayton Graham has been operating in Glasgow for over 13 years now. Headed by Peter Clayton, Mark Graham and Alasdair Gibbons, the agency boasts a growing list of high-profile companies, including Hewlett Packard, The Herald and Sunday Herald, Black and Lizars, Braehead, Audi, Maxxium, NHS 24, Royal Bank of Scotland and Sprayway.
However, despite an ongoing growth in new business, Clayton is quick to admit that the market-place remains tight, with agencies often doing little to help themselves.
“In this tighter spending market there is a land-grab process taking place. ‘We can do this, we can do that, and we can do that too’,” says Clayton, pulling large bundles of imaginary business closer to him. “But most can’t really.”
“We’ve been through-the-line for 13 years. Now it seems to be very vogue because the market is so tight. Agencies are fighting for a bigger slice of the same pie. We are not jacks-of-all-trades, which seem to be where through-the-line has gone. We have bespoke teams that will only focus on one specific area.
“We, like all agencies, have in the distant past flirted a little bit with other areas. But now we have bespoke people in bespoke roles. Advertising, E-Business and PR are all separate companies. But they are owned by, or the majority shareholder is, Clayton Graham Communications. We are now a group of companies.
“Primarily, we are a marketing business that can execute various formats. I personally don’t give a monkey’s what formats the clients buy, so long as they are the right formats for them to get their message across effectively. That has given us a real edge, as we have absolutely no vested interest in what route a client takes. I daresay that an independent PR company would recommend PR. Advertising agencies would only advise advertising... What else can they recommend?”
Glasgow may be going through a bit of a renaissance in advertising at present with The Bridge, Framec and Guy Robertson, among others, all riding high through a purple patch, and Clayton believes that there is a quiet confidence in the city.
“People in Glasgow don’t tend to shout too much. Glaswegians often don’t want to risk getting above their station for fear that they will be brought down a peg or two. But there is a great deal being done. There is a lot of diversity. But you just get on and do it.”
In saying that, Clayton is not shy in coming forward with his views on the industry.
“We want to work with clients that want to do the best work and will pay you for it,” continues the agency’s MD. “I can’t remember getting paid to pitch for a piece of Scottish business. We get paid nearly all the time to pitch for London business.
“Imagine you have a speeding fine and you ring up three legal firms and you invite them to come into your boardroom... ‘I’ll pretend to be the judge and the jury. Defend me. Come in for an hour and a half, explain the defence and whichever defence I think will give me the best shot I will go with.’
“The same with your accountant. You don’t ask four different accountants to audit the entire year, produce the audit, file it at Companies House and then choose the one that you think looks best for tax.
“Our industry is a professional service, and we like working for clients who are prepared to recognise it as professional service, and pay the going rates.
“Often in London, as part of the brief, they will volunteer payment for a pitch. You don’t even ask. But when you have smaller markets, you will always have competitors that will do it for free. As a result, everyone has to.
“It is often the industry’s fault that free pitching still exists. I don’t see a way out of it. Especially in smaller market-places.
“It’s just a numbers game, though. It’s not the case that London is better than Glasgow. It’s just that there are more agencies at every level.”
But Clayton Graham’s activity has not just been confined to Scotland and London. The agency recently completed a high-end interactive tour for client Hewlett Packard. After flying out to the company’s Houston headquarters in the US, the team was briefed by the firm to create the tour – “a significant six-figure job.” After success in the UK, parts of the tour have now been transferred to HP’s world manufacturing headquarters in Houston too.
Clayton is clearly in the mood to talk, and as he pours out a fresh cup of tea (from a shiny silver flask), the topic of conversation turns to planning, and its importance in communications, an area that he believes is often left wanting.
“As markets get tighter, planning is getting more and more important. It’s as easy to do a phenomenally clever ad for a shit brief as it is for a good brief, but it’s the planning that makes it work.
“If a restaurant calls you in because they have no customers and they are going to go bust, but as the last role of the dice they are going to invest £100,000 on marketing to try and rescue the business, a lot of companies would then go and spend that £100,000 on an advertising campaign. But that’s not always the best way forward. You have to look at the business. If you spend £100,000 and you know that the restaurant is selling shit food, what you’ll do is pack it out for a couple of weeks, but then everyone in the area would know that they serve shit food. What you need to do is tell them that their food is shit. Find out what, locally, is working, how it’s working, why it’s working. Find the areas in which the customers live, change the menu to do A, B and C. It will be far more appealing. The planning process is far cheaper than spending money on a campaign immediately. It is the best money a client can spend.
“The job all depends on the quality of the brief, and the goals, the business plan and the objectives that have been set out - and how they have been set out.
“The role of planning isn’t to find the cleverest way to talk to the customers, it is to find out why on earth we are talking to them in the first place. That is how clients can get the best return on their money.
“It’s too simple to say that you currently sell one million tins of beans and you want to sell 1.5 million tins of beans. You might want to sell 750,000 tins at double the price. You have to be very clear about what you want to achieve – and it’s not just about sales any more - it could be margins, it could be efficiency.
“Marketing, for many companies, is not seen as an investment. It’s heat, light, cars, computers, marketing – it’s a necessary overhead evil. And I don’t think there have been enough checks and balances in place to make sure that a rate of return is guaranteed.
“If I was your bank manager and you gave me half a million quid in January and I came back to see you at the end of the year to give you half a million quid back, I’d probably get struck off. You assume a rate of interest for your investment.
“But gradually the industry is becoming more accountable, and that is maybe playing into our hands.”