Spotlight on Family
With the recent demise of 1576 still very much front of mind Family is determined to avoid the same mistakes of becoming stuck in that deadly no-mans land of being a middle-sized traditional advertising agency.
As 1576 founder David Reid reflected recently: “In order to survive agencies have to be either very large with a good spread of clients, or very small with a hope of keeping overheads under control.”
A new structure and business model has now been imposed - which led to the launch of a new digital joint venture recently - after a series of, what were no doubt difficult, Family conferences. But Family are fighters, who have seen real challenge before. Their very launch would have been too much for less spirited souls.
In the Spring of 2002 the founders; Ian Wright, Jill Taylor, Kevin Bird and David Isaac were working towards an MBO to buy the Scottish operation of Newcastle-based Yellow M.
Then, in the eleventh hour, the deal was put into jeopardy as Yellow M went into bust. Luckily, however, the Scottish office was trading as a separate company, which bought enough time for the deal to go through.
Family was quick to make a mark, winning the high profile work for the SNP’s 2003 election campaign. It also gave a home to the staff at McCann Erickson Scotland as it closed its doors, adding accounts from Martin and Frost furniture and Biggart Baillie law firm. Its roster continued to grow as it added the likes of the Dunfermline Building Society.
But five years later the honeymoon period is well and truly over. Wright himself admits “it’s been quiet” and, for some time, rumours circulated the industry that the agency was in trouble.
Such rumours were probably born following a turbulent period for the agency. In August it resigned the Lloyds TSB Scotland account following a drop in work attributed to “changes with the firm’s London regime”.
This news came as the agency denied merger talks with rival Edinburgh agency Ten Alps MTD. More recently property developer client Applecross opted to take its marketing in-house and further speculation suggests that CR Smith has also moved its advertising account out of the agency.
Having gone through a period of change, with a stream of staff leaving the agency, Family has kicked into gear plans to push forward.
Throughout the period of transition managing director Ian Wright maintains that rumours of the agency’s demise are much exaggerated.
“I don’t understand where that comes from. People may look and say ‘Family is smaller than it was,’ what does that mean? What it means is that we’ve reassessed our business model and we now work in a different way. That’s all that that means.
“It doesn’t mean that Family is going to be closing. There is a very small minded attitude in Scotland, which drives me mad. Businesses change. People leave, clients move, that’s what happens. It’s what happens in every business, in every sector. Our industry is no different.
So much nonsense
“Speculation is part of life,” he says. “Sometimes it’s sad because we’ve got so many other things to deal with in our industry in Scotland, and there’s so much nonsense and gossip and bad mouthing.”
Wright, though, does concede that there was a certain truth to some of the rumour: “We did talk to Ten Alps, but we decided that it wasn’t right for us and we concluded discussions very amicably. We are friends with these guys and who knows what might happen in the future. But at the moment we have no intention of selling, we’re not talking to anybody, it’s as simple as that.”
That is unless the offer was too good to refuse. “But who wouldn’t,” adds Wright. The Ten Alps deal began “through an intermediary”, explains Wright, and while “meaningful discussions were had” between the agencies no deal was done.
“They were clearly interested in us, and wanted us to be a part of the Ten Alps Group but in the end both parties agreed that it wasn’t quite right for either of us at that particular stage.” said Wright.
Family’s current confidence is down to a new joint venture with Storm ID. The two companies have formed the join venture Perfect Storm; a digital marketing agency, headed by former Dow Carter and 1576 director Vivienne MacLaren.
The move puts an end to Family’s long-running search to build a digital capability; which stems back to the departure of James Oliver in 2003. It also unveils Family’s plans for future growth as Wright reveals that this move is only one of a number of partnerships that the agency is forming in order to extend its client services offering.
“The plan is to drive the business model that we’ve got forward,” says Wright. “We’ve just launched our joint venture with Perfect Storm, we have others under consideration.”
Wright would not elaborate any further on the agency’s partnership strategy other than to say that “we are currently talking to another organisation, although it will be a little while before that is a signed and sealed. That will happen and we have other people and organisations in mind.
“We have wanted to have a digital presence since we began Family. Digital is exploding and we need to be in that market. Our view is that the joint venture will give us a much faster burn.”
While there are now fewer staff at Family – 18, down from the 26 which were part of the Family just a year and a half ago – Wright insists that those numbers will soon be boosted with the recruitment of a new creative team. An appointment sorely needed following the departure of its last team [other than Kevin Bird and David Isaac] to The Union.
The agency will also be leaving its Princes Street offices within the next few months as the lease runs out; which may also free resources to invest in the team.
Once in the door, the new creatives will work on new wins such as the Scottish Charity regulator as well as Craig & Rose, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, National Museums of Scotland and Carnegie College.
The agency is also currently in the process, alongside most other agencies in the country, of competing to retain its place on the Government roster.
“Clearly the roster is crucial,” says Wright. “It’s a big bit of business, it’s extremely prestigious, but probably more important than anything, when you do work for a Government organisation you’re doing something to help the country. It’s a different satisfaction from a more commercial client.
“The Government account is really important, everyone knows it; particularly in the context of the continued migration of commercial business to London.”
Despite the recent account wins, Wright reports that new business is a challenge at the moment, but says it is one that is faced across the Scottish marcomms scene in Scotland.
Indeed, according to Wright all businesses are having “a tough time” in the current climate, and while there is no “God given right” that Scottish agencies should be winning work in Scotland, he is clearly aggrieved at the progress, or lack of, in stating Scotland’s case for clients to keep – or for that matter bring back – their work for Scottish agencies.
“We have never truly managed to persuade clients of the quality of marketing services on offer in Scotland. But if you compare our charging rates with those of other industries, lawyers and accountants for example, we really are under-valuing out service.
“That does us no good and it doesn’t allow us to invest in the future or invest in research or invest in a new generation of people. This is an old but fundamental issue that we face in our industry.”
It is an issue that is currently a hot subject within the industry, following an initiative which saw the Scottish marketing and communications sectors gather in Parliament to gain support from MSPs and plans by the Scottish Marketing Association to launch an advertising campaign to help tackle the issue.
“We need to push that forward. It’s been a good start and we can build on it.”
And no doubt that is a good mantra for Family itself.
And so to the future now for Family – later in the year, the agency will move to a new home when the lease for its current home, on Princes Street – complete with incredible views over the famous castle – comes to an end after four years.
Wright doesn’t yet know where the new Family residence will be but at least it will relocate in the knowledge that the rest of the industry knows that it is an agency on the move forward once again.