There’s no better way to celebrate your tenth year in business than to be named Advertising Agency of the Year. Well actually, there is: to be named Advertising Agency of the Year and then pick up 17 gongs at the Scottish Advertising Awards. The team at The Union will probably be feeling pretty pleased with themselves at the moment.
This has been a good year for The Union, but it’s not been an easy road for the Edinburgh agency, set up by Ian McAteer, Andrew Lindsay, Simon Scott and Mark Reid when they broke away from Faulds in 1995.
The Drum arrives in time to hear another in what turns out to be a long line of congratulatory phone calls to the converted church on Edinburgh’s Inverleith Terrace, which is home to the agency. And following what is always a highlight of any trip to The Union, a conversation with the bright and charismatic Katie King at reception, Ian comes along, bringing lunch, and we make our way into the boardroom.
When asked how he feels the first ten years have gone, McAteer surprisingly answers that he and the other directors do not see it as having been a period of success. They feel they have been paving the way for success. “I’m not sure we actually feel we’ve been that successful,” he says. “I do think that people come here, see the office, see that we employ a number of people and that they do good work and all that sort of stuff, but I think, like a lot of agencies in Scotland, we’re kind of frustrated by the ‘glass ceiling’. For us, where we are is not true success. For us, perhaps, true success is still to come. I think in many ways, the ten years of existence has actually been preparation for us to become a successful agency.
“There are good examples of agencies. The Leith Agency was ten years old in 1994 and that was just after I came to Scotland. And in 1994, The Leith Agency was reasonably successful in Scotland, but it wasn’t necessarily a national player. I think The Leith Agency has gone on to grow and do better. It is over 20 years old, and from our point of view, ten years is just preparing to get there.
“There’s a good example of an agency in Miami called Crispin Porter. It’s a fabulous agency, a really top US agency which did all that work for the Mini and were in business 15 years before they won their first major national, US account. Before that, they were basically a local agency. So I think there is something in business about being around for a long time and surviving and sustaining – then more opportunities come round.”
McAteer joined Faulds in the late 80s, moving from Saatchi and Saatchi. The breakaway from what was then Scotland’s most successful advertising agency came about in a very understated way. “I was very happy and had been offered the managing director’s job by Jim [Faulds] in the middle of ’95,” McAteer says. “One afternoon in the summer, Simon and Andrew said, ‘Ian, are you coming to get a sandwich?’ and I said, ‘Yeah okay, fine.’ So we went to the little park just down from where the Leith Agency used to be, sat on the grass and they said to me, ‘We’re thinking of starting an agency and we need an MD. Would you be MD?’
“I was completely taken by surprise and would never have expected it. I said no. I didn’t want to. I said to them, ‘I’m going to be MD anyway,’ and I was thinking that it was a good job, and it was Faulds, and it was 100 people, and it was making lots of money. I thought it would be crazy to leave that. But they were quite persuasive and I was 38 years old, and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.’ I was slightly worried that I didn’t have any shares in Faulds – Jim had 55 percent or whatever, and I knew he was going to sell out. I felt I could be a potential casualty along the way. So to cut a long story short, I decided to do it. we planned it in ’95, got Mark Reid on board and launched in March ’96.”
The first couple of years were tough. “Every single plan we wrote, every single client we thought we might get, we got nothing,” McAteer says. “Faulds was very good at locking in its clients and we were one of the most hated agencies in Scotland. To some extent I still think we are. My evidence for that is the peer pole where we don’t get any votes. I think, ‘Do they think we’re no good? Do they not like our work? Do they not see the clients we’ve got? Do they not see the people we’ve got? What is it?’ And I think it dates back to the start.”
The peer pressure could be quite sinister. “The Union, at the start, was referred to as The Onion,” says McAteer. “They said, ‘It’ll all end in tears.’ We got graffiti on our office building, abuse against Andrew and other stuff. Obviously they thought we were too big for our boots. We got a lot of PR, but that wasn’t us, we didn’t write that. That happened because the media were interested in this big story about the number one agency and the breakaway. I think it all kind of worked against us, and today I think there’s some sort of hangover from that.
“So the first year was a nightmare. We were in debt and I couldn’t sleep. At that point, I wouldn’t have advised anyone to start a business as it’s so tough.
“We were hopeless at pitching. We’d been doing pitches fantastically and suddenly we were hopeless. People generally don’t give new businesses an opportunity. It’s that whole entrepreneurial thing – you hear stories about people having to really graft before they get their big break. And it took us 15 months to get there.
“I’ll be forever grateful to some people: The Daily Mail who moved its business to us; Caroline Gordon from Fife Council who moved her business to us, a tiny account but we needed it; Seacat Ferries, which we had to pitch for won; Scottish Courage, because we got the trade marketing in our first month; and our first-ever partner, Caledonian Brewery, which gave us our first job and a £15,000 budget. And we still work with them today.
“Then there were two other key accounts that came on board at the beginning. We won Atlantic Telecom and CR Smith. Although CR Smith was a very tough and demanding account, it was fantastic and a great learning curve. People said it would destroy us and that it was a terrible account, but actually it was fantastic. We had a great time with CR Smith. Then we won Baxters towards the end of the second year.
“It was really by the second or third year we were starting to be accepted. Even after about five years people were still saying that we were going to go bust. But we outlasted Faulds, and that I’m actually quite proud of.”
Turning the subject to the departure of Simon Scott in 2003, McAteer believes it had little impact on the agency as a whole, but says that Scott’s personality was certainly missed. “Initially, when he said he was leaving, there was a bit of a shock,” says McAteer. “But I think what the outside world didn’t see was that for about 18 months, Simon – whether it was subconsciously or not – had been distancing himself from the business. So the actual impact, in terms of things that matter – clients, the bottom line, internal systems and procedures – was negligible and much less than perhaps I thought it would be.
“One thing that we did lose though, which perhaps we were conscious of, is that he’s a larger than life personality and he lifts any atmosphere. He can come into a room, say something and everyone will fall about laughing. In many ways – and I don’t think he’ll find this in any way insulting – he was the company jester. And every company needs a joker because it’s really good for morale and that’s what he provided. The reality is that if it hadn’t been for Simon, I don’t think we would have survived the first couple of years. Simon brought a level of energy, charisma and passion that we wouldn’t have had otherwise – I’m very down to earth and pessimistic, Mark’s very much a pessimist and Andrew’s typically red-headed. Simon was actually an important part of the chemistry of the launch.”
When asked what the general feeling among the group was when they learned of the demise of Faulds in 2003, McAteer answers in a typically pragmatic style. “To be honest, because it was eight years after we had left, enough time had past that Faulds was a different place from the one we’d run,” he says. “I felt quite sad. We all went round the offices during the closing down auction and we still have its client list display, which we bought for ten quid. And the reason we did that is that if you look at that client list, it’s fantastic. It’s got BBC Scotland, it’s got the Royal Bank of Scotland, it’s got British Midlands and Macallan, all kinds of clients. I thought, ‘How can you have all that and then just suddenly go bust?’ What it says to me is that there is something really fragile about this industry.
“We work on very thin margins, it’s clearly competitive and it’s getting tougher all of the time. So I take new recruits and show them that and explain that this was once the most fantastic agency in Scotland. It was making huge amounts of money, it was winning creative awards and winning national clients. It was a well-run business and a lot of people in advertising in Scotland came out of Faulds. Yet it went bust. That’s what happens when you take your eye off the ball.”