Scottish Ad Agency of the Year

By The Drum, Administrator

November 3, 2005 | 9 min read

When you walk into Newhaven’s offices in an old printworks in Edinburgh, you kinda know it’s not your usual kind of office. From the gymnastics horse in the main office to the fairy lights strewn across the beams, the office bears no resemblance to a place of work, although as its recent win of The Drum’s coveted Agency Of The Year prize confirms, the baby agency is well and truly placed on the Scottish advertising map.

When the agency was formed in 2002, many were doubtful the Scottish industry could support another agency. Launched with the heavy support of InBev’s £2 million Tennent’s account, the breakaway core from The Leith Agency had high hopes and ambitions. Now, three years on, this year’s ambition at least – of scooping the hatstand – has been realised, and its other ambitions of winning accounts to bolster the Tennent’s account are long-time achievements.

Newhaven swept the board at the awards for its creative work for Scottish Executive, Tennent’s and Powerleague, with the Executive also winning Client of The Year.

Depsite having the security of Tennent’s when it launched, when the agency was set up its most important ambition was culture-driven hence the unconformist approach to office life. Our interview takes place at a round table in the corner of the office – next to a garden shed, the presence of which is never explained. Paul Mason and Chris Harrison, the agency’s star creative team behind most of the award-winning work, are being interviewed upstairs on a sofa amidst football tables.

“We wanted to nurture our culture from the start and grow it slowly, rather than go into rented offices that were quite characterless,” says Gareth Howells, one of the launch team. “It might have killed our culture as people and as a very creative industry.”

Zane Radcliffe interjects, saying, “Everybody takes a risk when they’re starting a new venture. Some would say our risk was a lot less than others when you’re starting out with Scotland’s fabric lager brand. It was still a hell of an undertaking for us. It’s funny, when you start out you’ve great intentions of having a completely different culture, of doing things differently. And those intentions tend to dissipate in a lot of places over time. With us, we had the luxury of being able to concentrate on the things we wanted to do and get them in place without having to run around chasing lots of little bits of business, so ultimately you end up with a roster that dictates what kind of agency you are. We’ve been able to dictate who we are from day one.”

Tennent’s was soon joined by the Scottish Executive, which had been on the partners mind from launch. “There was a naive wishlist,” says Ken Dixon. “There were a lot of fabric brands [on it]. We sent lots of letters out to people.” You’d think there would be a smugness to the fact that many of those letters led to nothing, but there’s not. Howells mentions two brands that were on that list – Baxters and Tunnocks – saying “I’d love to work on Tunnocks.”

The 18-strong agency now boasts Whyte & Mackay, Maclay Murray Spens, Border Biscuits, Daily Record, Scotsman.com and Scottish Equitable along with project work for Tesco Scotland, Edinburgh Zoo and National Galleries of Scotland, among others.

“There were six of us sitting round a kettle and we’d say ‘by five o’clock have a list of people you’d like to work with’,” says Radcliffe. “Things like Edinburgh Zoo was on it. Scottish Executive. We’ve got both of them. You want to be on that [Scottish Executive] roster because it’s the opportunity to do really fantastic, life-changing, important work.” “At the time, that felt like a huge wish,” continues Dixon. “Because we were working on that one beer account and we didn’t have a huge amount of experience in that sector. It was only as we grew and looked at how their communications were changing and their needs that it looked like it was achievable.”

The proactive approach to growing the business has served Newhaven well, as Jonathon Shinton, one of the other founders, admits. “When you first make lists, most people sit back,” he says. “You do need to prove yourself. You may come with reputations but a lot of people will say ‘okay, let’s see how you do’. Certainly a couple of the most recent wins have been from people who have said ‘we’ve been watching you’. There is a need to establish yourself locally. You could quite easily sit here and say that we don’t want to be based in Scotland we want to go all over the world, but you need to catch yourself on. You need to establish your roots, where you’re from and what’s your culture about.”

“We weren’t as proactive about new business in the first year, but that was through necessity,” says Radcliffe. “There weren’t as many of us here. That has its benefits in that we could concentrate on this place. I suppose getting on to the Scottish Executive roster, that was where it was bearing fruit for us. Roger Williams [the SE client] was actually here wearing a hard hat, so they had to take a bit of a leap of faith in what we were doing.”

“I don’t think it surprised us [that the SE took such a leap of faith in them],” says Howells. “I think when you look at the Scottish landscape and what’s needed, it’s not as if the Exec operate in a vacuum in terms of communication. Their communication needs are the same as anyone else’s. I think it was clear that they were looking for some kind of change.”

“At the end of the day, they were selecting a group of roster agencies, it wasn’t like they were putting all the money on the one horse,” says Radcliffe. “I get the feeling that we were offering something with maybe a different flavour, which is always useful if you have a roster.”

“Our first meeting was ‘what’s your plan?’ not ‘show us a reel’ or ‘show us this or that’, but ‘what’s the plan here, what are you doing and why? What’s it to do with the building, what’s your culture?’” says Shinton. “Very much from the start they were here to find things out and make their own minds up and then obviously go through a formal pitch process. It was very suggestive from the start, it wasn’t just ‘coming down to have a look’. It was ‘coming down to see what we had to say’.”

One of the different ways that Newhaven works is in the people it hires. Earlier this year it hired the Fopp marketer Mino Russo and Mason is a former electrician who came to advertising following a stint studying journalism.

“It sounds like a cliché that it’s all about the people, but it really is here with us,” says Radcliffe. “What we haven’t done is become another version of a previous agency. We’d rather have a dozen really happy people working here, than 30 slightly jobbing it.”

“A lot of people hire for what they already have and not for what they need,” says Shinton. “Everyone keeps saying that media is fragmenting and that everything’s happening quicker and yet the age in agencies is what I call ‘mum and dad age’. Actually to have someone who’s working in a team who’s 21 or 22 and who’s part of and grows up with iPod and that kind of thing is great.”

All murmur a horrified ‘no’ when I ask if the agency was on target when it comes to its size. “Absolutely not, we don’t categorise in terms of size,” says Shinton. “It was, we want to do good work, we want to work with a range of clients, we want to find good people. It was much more of an emotional agreement among ourselves in that we want to grow an agency and a culture that we felt rewarded and looked for good ideas. There are always levels of where you break even and we knew exactly where they were. But it was less about numbers and more about what you’re trying to do and who you’re trying to employ.” Radcliffe agrees, saying “we’ve all been in places before that’ve maybe expanded a little too quickly or not managed that growth right”, before Howells interrupts saying “or picked up accounts that have almost pulled people in that they didn’t really want, that didn’t match their culture”.

“Play to your strengths,” continues Shinton. “We spent a long time with Jim [Faulds, the chairman] talking about what our strengths were and we knew from that point of view, if you’re a small agency and you’re trying to grow, there are obvious things you can do and people you can work with who might not play to our strengths. And certainly to keep the product and the culture concentrated, it came down to identifying those strengths and how can we go out and use them to make a difference for our clients.”

“You can’t hide in here,” says Radcliffe. “If you’re having an argument, everybody knows about it, so it’s not like other agencies where the board disappears. We always said we wanted to create an agency where everybody wanted to work but that it was really hard to get into. And also that everyone wanted to poach our staff. That doesn’t faze us at all, it means we’re doing something right.”

With no staff losses yet, Newhaven is obviously doing something right. But who would leave such a cool office?

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