Crossing borders

By The Drum | Administrator

September 7, 2006 | 9 min read

For a man on the move, Elmwood’s Nick Ramshaw looks remarkably settled. Yet later this month he is set to fill the vacancy left by the departure of Jayne Barrett, who has headed the agency’s Leeds office for the last six years.

But, for the time being, he remains in the relative comfort of Elmwood Edinburgh’s impressive pied-Ã -terre.

Tucked away in Edinburgh’s cobbled Thistle Street, a stone’s throw from the bustling throngs common to the city especially during the busy Festival months, the calming shades of Elmwood’s Edinburgh office belie the busy period that the agency itself is going through.

It’s in the office’s vast meeting room that Ramshaw is sipping coffee reflecting on his decision to relocate to Leeds from Edinburgh, the city which he has called home for the last eight years.

“At Elmwood, there’s a tradition of moving people around the group, re-energising different areas of the business. Despite the Edinburgh office doing fantastically well, after three or four years in the role I was looking for a fresh challenge.

“I had been talking to Jonathan [Sands, chairman and founder of Elmwood] for a while about a potential move within the group, and Jayne moving on to another area fell at the right time.

“I am ready for the next challenge.

“We have a slightly unique position in Scotland... Because we have offices in other locations – Leeds, London and Melbourne – we have to concentrate on the Scottish marketplace for a majority of our business. In that respect, we’re slightly restricted. But there are still many opportunities. There are plenty of big brands and clients that we don’t currently work with in Scotland. Whoever follows me will help Elmwood continue its growth.”

However, despite leaving the office in fine shape, Ramshaw certainly won’t be an easy act to follow.

The office in Edinburgh has been party to a “steady” 25 percent increase year on year, with the growth in business being mirrored by a growth in staff numbers.

In fact, it’s been a quick expansion by the group as a whole. Within the space of three years, three new offices have opened, most recently with the launch of the Melbourne office in 2004.

“The opportunities that we have had have all been very entrepreneurial. We have seen an opportunity and we have made the most of it.

“I can see the growth continuing, although maybe not quite at the rate that we have over the last few years. We certainly have our eyes on the States, where we have working relationships with Wal-Mart and various other clients. That’s a distinct possibility.

“I doubt we will open another office in the UK. Our coverage is already pretty extensive. But we will respond to opportunities that arise.

“Other opportunities will come up. They might not always be about opening offices, though. It might be in the form of relationships with other companies or it could be selling the Elmwood name to other countries, allowing agencies to buy the right to use the name. But any successful expansion has to be based on sound business decisions. That’s the key to any successful office.”

Ironically, Elmwood opened in Edinburgh because its success elsewhere. The London office opened as a pure brand consultancy and managed to attract huge amounts of business from Scotland, working with the likes of Whyte and Mackay, Napier University, Curtis Fine Paper and Scottish Enterprise.

“We won a series of projects that amounted to quite a significant part of the business,” continues Ramshaw. “That was part of the decision making process of opening in Edinburgh. We also thought that our combination of brand and strategy work was a bit different to what was already on offer in the market.”

While Ramshaw has been based in Edinburgh for the last eight years, he is no stranger to the London market too. Meta – a German design agency with offices in London – was Ramshaw’s first foray into design. Then, following a spell at another London-based design team, he moved to Scotland to join a one-time Scottish stalwart of design – Pure – working at the agency for four years before completing his move to Elmwood, to head up the group’s Edinburgh office.

Ramshaw has not, however, always worked in the field of design. Yet it is his previous professional incarnation – as a chartered surveyor – that he believes has led to his success in the industry.

“Design and surveying are a lot more similar than you might think. I had to deal with clients. I had to manage their expectations. I had to manage projects, manage finances and present to clients. The skills are the same.

“However, chartered surveying is generally considered and perceived as a more professional industry than design. Traditionally, what designers tend to struggle with is the business side of running a company. So, perhaps my previous incarnation has given me an advantage.

“When you work in one of the ‘traditional’ professions you learn very quickly that client service is high on the agenda. How you communicate is vital. That really helped me move into design. And I’d like to think that I’m a more professional player because of it.

“The design industry, in general, needs to grow-up and become a little more business savvy.”

Now, despite experience of both the London and Scottish markets – as well as viewing Yorkshire as a home from home – Ramshaw is understandably anxious about his move to Leeds to take the helm at “the Mother Ship.”

“Leeds will be quite hard. I’m going in without the profile that I now enjoy in Scotland. I’m sure there will be a lot of people watching me very closely. Elmwood has a great heritage and everyone’s aware of that.”

He continues, “Leeds has been going very well. The financial performance has been very strong and there are some really interesting relationships with the likes of McCain and Durex, as well as ASDA.

“What I hope to do is simply build on the good things that are already happening. There is no need to start again. Initially I hope to take on more responsibility for business development, fuelling the growth. But I won’t fix things that aren’t broken.

“For 15 years Leeds was the only office, so it’s still very much seen as the HQ. It grew, servicing clients all over the UK and internationally. We then opened in London five years ago. Clients moved down, staff moved down. Then, four years ago, we opened in Scotland, and a number of clients bedded in with the Edinburgh team. And then we opened in Australia two years ago.

“Leeds has suffered a bit. While it’s the head office, it’s had to sit there and watch other exciting developments taking place.

“I want to regain that certain sense of identity for Leeds within the group. That’s what we’ve done here [in Edinburgh]. We’ve created a team and an identity – we all pull together. Leeds could maybe benefit from a little bit of that.”

One way for Ramshaw to introduce himself to the market is through his DBA links. He is currently a director of the DBA, a position that he’ll retain. However he will transfer his regional activities to the north of England... “so, incidentally,” he adds, “we will also be looking for someone to carry the DBA torch in Scotland.

“I want Leeds to become a bigger part of the local design community, like we are in Scotland. When Leeds was growing up it had lots of local clients. When it grew on a national and international scale, it perhaps didn’t have as many clients locally as it should do. We work with ASDA, but, apart from that, there isn’t an abundance of local clients on the books in Leeds. I will certainly be trying to redress that.

“Each office has a degree of autonomy. Yet there is a good connection between the teams. We keep the Elmwood-ness common in all. We like to share ideas and share experience. There is a good cross-over for us, and a good cross-over for clients. However, the core business of each office is self-sustained and sustainable. That is vital.”

Still, the Group’s entrepreneurial streak persists. Agency founder and chairman Jonathan Sands sits on the Wal-Mart Strategy Group in Miami and that has led to various opportunities in the States.

“Until about two years ago Jonathan still had his own team and his own clients,” says Ramshaw. “But he had to step above that, to work in the areas of the business that need him most.

“Setting up Australia has been high on the agenda, but he’s also been working in London a lot too, where the business is developing.

“The retail knowledge Jonathan has is world class. That really gives Elmwood the edge. But he’s still really hands on... just try telling him ‘no!’

“We’ve recently turned down an opportunity to pitch for work in the States as we felt that we couldn’t do it justice. It’s a balance. We can’t take on too much before we are there. At the same time we are glad to get the opportunities.

“The structure is there to grow. Our business plan is to grow substantially over the next couple of years. And that is the target.

“That growth will come through acquisitions as well as organic growth – especially in Edinburgh. Due to the space we have here, we could strip out a number of costs from any business that we acquire. A business that might be making modest profits or breaking even could be turned into profitable units very, very quickly.

“The digital side of the business is one that we are keen to expand at the moment too. It’s not inconceivable that a small digital business might be added to the fold in the not too distant future, adding to our expertise and offer.”


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