Speaking of the agency’s evolution, Sommerville says: “We’ve had a few different skins over the years as we’ve reacted to changes in the market. I think one of the most significant periods for us was in the early 90s, when Will [Travis] came on board and things started to happen.
“We realised there was an audience we were able to communicate with – the young adult group. This was born out of the flyers and record sleeves we’d been doing in the very early days. They stood us in good stead for the likes of MTV and Sony Playstation. Although they were on a much smaller scale, it was essentially the same target audience.”
The agency’s evolution also had an impact on location. Offices were opened and later closed in London and Sydney, while the firm’s headquarters has moved from Huddersfield to Leeds. However, it’s the agency’s success in the US that has eventually led to the Denstu acquisition.
“In 1997 the whole Cool Britannia thing was in full swing,” says Sommerville, “Labour had taken over power and Diana [Princess of Wales] had died. Britain was really on everyone’s mind over here [in the States].”
Travis is the other man looking out of the window at New York’s famous landmark. He remembers those early days, taking the agency’s portfolio over to the US: “The style of design over here was, at the time, still quite safe,” he says. “When James and I came on a reconnaissance, we found that what we had was very different to what was being done in the US at that time. The multi-layered print work, in particular, was something fresh and people were really excited by our portfolio.”
During the mid to late 90s, the heavy-layered look became Attik’s trademark. However, at first, the agency struggled to make a real impact with clients on a one-on-one basis. Its first work stateside, on the launch of Kodak Digital, was actually contracted through Saatchi and Saatchi and Sommerville and Travis quickly eyed an opportunity.
“To get respected and find a client willing to experiment with something new was hard,” admits Travis. “So, we purposely changed tact and approached ad agencies and began doing what we often called ‘turd polishing’.
“Quite often, the agency would pitch our style of work to the client and they’d want them to produce it. Then, we’d get brought in to bring the quality of the work up.
“Being from the north of England, we just got our heads down and got on with it. We were just fearless and were seen to be bringing something brave and fresh to the US market.”
The fearlessness paid off. The agency’s reputation grew and so did its staff count.
“We had momentum and it just kept rolling. We got to a point where we had around 30 staff in the US alone. However, some people still felt we were a satellite office for the agency in Huddersfield and London.
“It was important to be accepted, rather than just be a British agency that came to rape and pillage work to send back home. And so, with James working hard to build the agency in New York, I went to San Francisco to launch there.
“What we had was more of a partnership with the UK team – we were like a brotherhood of creative – and we were breaking new ground. We were building a great deal of respect for our work. We were the new boys on the block.”
Attik’s success in those early days paved the way for a number of others to make the leap across the Atlantic. The agency even had an “open door” policy for anyone wanting to meet with the directors and get a few tips on how to successfully crack America.
“I’m surprised there aren’t more [UK agencies coming over to the US],” says Sommerville. “We’re a talented country and people have incredible respect for the work that’s done in the UK. But there’s very few people attempting to launch in the US. I think people can be put off by the need for an export strategy, when all you really need is a passport.”
So is Attik still a UK agency in the US or has it firmly established itself among the country’s own suppliers?
“There’s a handful [of Brits working in our US offices], but there’s something to be said for that cultural knowledge and nuances that only Americans can have. It’s a balance, really.
“One thing we always tried to do, though, was to employ a receptionist with an English accent. It seemed to give that impression of there being lots of Brits running around the agency, which people responded well to.”
However, Attik’s development has not been without its fair share of struggles. After 9/11, the agency was hit and forced into a number of cutbacks. “We never tried to hide it,” admits Sommerville, “we had to shrink to survive.”
He adds: “The euphoria of the previous five years were over and, as an independent, we learned very quickly over a two or three year period how to run a business. Before it was a bit of a roller coaster, but at 15 years old, the business now faced a serious challenge and we had to learn what was needed to survive.”
The agency’s London and Sydney offices were closed and Needham joined the San Francisco team to head up its creative output. Attik US also became full service, adapting to the changes in the industry and competing with the increasing number of ad agencies moving in on the design world’s turf.
“We had to check the business into a health farm to get ourselves fit again,” explains Sommerville, “We kicked the bad habits, such as taking on too many people, and knew we needed to run the business more efficiently. We came out the back of that process fitter than ever before. We were more educated and it became a stronger business.”
One of the major factors for Attik’s return to health was Toyota. In 2004 the agency was appointed to launch the car manufacturer’s Scion model and has held onto the account ever since. Many believe Dentsu will use the acquisition to tie up the Toyota contract.
“We didn’t have many boxes left to tick,” says Sommerville, “so we were keen to move the business onto the next level. Toyota is a highly sought after piece of business, so we always felt it might make us more attractive to a bigger group that could grow the account.”
Details on the deal remain undisclosed, but Sommerville, Needham, Travis and Attik president Ric Perelta remain focused on growing the business, particularly in the US. Dentsu is keen to expand its presence stateside and Attik’s reputation for creativity may be the key ingredient to ensure Denstu fulfils its potential as the world’s largest adverting group.