Elmwood profile

By The Drum, Administrator

December 15, 2005 | 7 min read

Three years isn’t a particularly long time to be alive. In fact, whether you’re talking about a person or a company, the first three years is usually spent just finding out how to stand up and walk.

If Elmwood Edinburgh was a person it would still be falling over, sticking its fingers in dangerous places and dribbling its dinner all over the kitchen table. The company, however, has achieved considerably more than just learning how to keep upright since its birth in 2002.

Setting up with an initial team of two, design directors Graham Sturzaker and Paul Sudron, the office has grown to a staff of ten, working with a client list which includes HBOS, Jenners and Scottish Water.

When the group, which also has offices in Leeds, London and Melbourne, decided to launch into Scotland it was after the newly-launched London operation had won some Scottish business.

Nick Ramshaw, chief executive of Elmwood Edinburgh, explains: “There was a hint of irony about it, because we’d opened in London the year before and ironically the people in London won a huge amount of business in Scotland. People like Whyte and Mackay, Napier University, Scottish Enterprise and Celtic. About four or five big projects, which were being managed in London and Leeds at a distance. It made sense to be nearer.”

Elmwood, which has always prided itself on being a brand consultancy as opposed to a graphic design business, planned to offer a different service to Scotland’s existing design businesses.

“Lots of people talked about having branding skills, but they didn’t have the depth of experience that we’d built up at that stage,” says Ramshaw. “So that was going to be our USP, and I think that continues today. Branding is much higher on the agenda. More people talk about it, more people understand it and more agencies talk as though they know what they’re doing when they’re developing it, but I’m not sure they know it quite as well as they’re making out.”

Sturzaker and Sudron were working at well-known Edinburgh design consultancy Graphic Partners when Elmwood chairman Jonathan Sands started making enquiries into the Scottish market.

Sturzaker says: “We were attracted by this thing about being different. We were at this point where Graphic Partners was on a high. We’d just won consultancy of the year. Big clients were getting in touch with Graphic Partners on the back of work we were doing but then we didn’t have the strategic side of things to follow it through.

“We were looking to do something else and so when we started speaking to Jonathan and he was thinking about doing something in Scotland we knew it was going to be with Elmwood.”

The two joined the Elmwood team in February 2002, and were joined several months later by business development manager David Robertson, who would leave the company eight months later.

Sturzaker states that from day one the company set out to display its credentials as a different type of design business. With offices purchased on Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, the agency was keen to establish an open-door policy. He explains: “We spent a lot of time trying to find the right space. We were in Leith and we wanted to be in the city centre. Then it was trying to find a building that had space that we could get people in. Design companies are usually very closed-door, they don’t really invite other designers in, so we wanted somewhere that would have space and that would encourage us to do that.

“It made it real then. I think a lot of people were a bit sceptical about Elmwood coming up. They thought it would just be a couple of people in a satellite office.”

Over the last three years the company has held a number of industry events in its offices, and has a dedicated gallery space on the ground floor where artistic work is on display.

After the departure of Robertson, Ramshaw - who was looking to move on from his position at Pure Design - began negotiations to join the team. He was appointed as chief executive in June 2003. He says: “It was easy for me because I’m just Elmwood. I’m an Elmwood person. It was an easy transition to make. It really opened up opportunities for me, not just in this office but within the group.”

The senior team now in place, Elmwood Edinburgh set about building on its early success with new staff and business wins. In its first year the consultancy had a turnover of £450K, growing to £600K in its second year and £800K in 2005. The team expects that, in 2006, the figure will easily reach £1m.

It’s been a steady period of growth, but not a straightforward one.

“For me the biggest challenge has been persuading clients of the value of the service you provide,” remarks Ramshaw. “If they don’t fully understand how brands work it’s very difficult for them to commit to spend a reasonable sum of money with a company like ours.

“The way we’ve overcome it is basically by using case studies. We get something like Debbie’s & Andrew’s sausage labels. Their turnover was forty grand in year one and in year four it’s four million. If you show people that case study nearly everybody just stops and goes ‘bloody hell, now I get it. Now I understand it.’”

The challenges haven’t stopped the agency’s growth, however. Last year the company was named as the Robert Horne Scottish Design Consultancy of the Year by The Drum, trumping some established agencies that have been operating north of the border for a lot longer. And, subsequently, incurring the wrath of some of those companies.

Despite some bitterness about Elmwood being an ‘English agency’, however, Ramshaw points out that Elmwood Edinburgh operates solely in the Scottish marketplace.

He says: “We source all of our work in Scotland. We’re probably the only one of our competitive circle that has to do that. Everybody else has opportunities to win work outside Scotland. If you were to strip out their non-Scottish work it’d be interesting to see how their growth rates vary.

“There’s not any Scottish accents, but we’ve been here for 10/15 years. You can imagine the industry thinking ‘oh fucking hell here comes another big player coming in’ because if we get the market share then somebody’s losing it. But we’d argue that we’re actually expanding the industry in Scotland by returning business.”

That returning business has included HBOS, whose annual report contract was won by Elmwood Edinburgh, bringing the account back to Scotland after several years with London agencies. Working with big brand companies is something the team is particularly proud of.

“It’s very rare that you get to a certain size, working with a certain kind of client, winning lots of creative awards and making money,” says Sturzaker. “It’s either very small, new companies that do very well then slip up and disappear again or the big companies that do very well financially but don’t win any awards. The biggest thing for us is to have won loads of awards and to be doing it with clients like Jenners. Winning over 20 awards in three years has been a big achievement.”

Continuing to work with big brand companies seems to be high on the Elmwood agenda as the company moves forward. Ramshaw is also keen to further expand the 10-strong team. He comments: “We’re looking to grow to around £1.5m turnover, so maybe increase to about 15 people. That would be our ambition, to be that kind of size, but with that size we’d like to be working with key brands in Scotland and with key individuals who share a similar mentality to us.”

Winning awards, building staff and working with big name clients? Not bad for a three year old.


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