Australia Jo Coomber Elmwood

Life’s a Beach: Elmwood Down Under

By The Drum, Administrator

June 5, 2008 | 6 min read

Elsewhere in this issue you have read the views of Scots - or honorary Scots - working abroad. But what does Johnny Foreigner think of us?

It is David Cairns’ first time in Edinburgh. Elmwood’s airy New Town office is a million miles away (not quite literally, though as close as you can get) from his Australian homeland.

On a whistle-stop tour of Europe, Elmwood’s Australian-based business development director has arrived in Scotland via Paris and Amsterdam. He is on a steep cultural learning curve having just enjoyed his first taste of Scotland – a lunch of haggis and shortbread.

Cairns, 40, is in town for a series of strategy meetings and he will be joined later in the week by Elmwood’s Antipodean MD Joe Rogers, who will arrive in Edinburgh via a stop-over at the agency’s London office.

In the boardroom, Cairns talks of “a sense of history” and “a sense of place” gained from the little time he has already spent in Scotland’s capital.

He used to laugh at Jonathan Sands’ claims, when he’s in Australia, that the country has no history. But surrounded by the Georgian architecture and cobbled streets of the New Town, he maybe now appreciates his CEO’s baiting that little bit more. “It’s certainly a beautiful place. But I’ve yet to soak it all up,” admits Cairns.

Elmwood Australia was launched nearly three years ago, after the agency secured a contract to work with Coles, Australia’s largest supermarket chain – operating 740 stores throughout the country. It is now one of the largest independent design agencies in the country.

The 16-strong team now works with a wide-range of clients, including the Australian football team, Nike (picture right), BNZ Bank and the National Sports Museum.

However, Cairns is quick to point to the support gained from the other offices in contributing to this success.

“Victoria, where we are based, has a particularly strong heritage in food and drink and the knowledge that the Edinburgh office has in that market has proved to be a helpful tool for us.”

And that relationship is reciprocal. The four-strong network of offices – in Leeds, Edinburgh, London and Melbourne – share much of their experience.

Cairns cites a “boutique lettuce producer” in Tazmania, that his office has been working with, as an example of the group’s sharing of resources, with the case study being used by the Edinburgh team at present. “We find that there is often a cross-sell,” adds Cairns, also throwing in financial services and “soccer” as two other group-wide sectors that see a mutually beneficial sharing of ideas and talent. “There are a lot of sectors that we specialise in across both countries, so there’s a great opportunity to exchange stories.”

Strategic suicide

One area in which Elmwood continues to benefit from is CEO Jonathan Sands’ close relationship with US retail giant, WalMart, for whom he sits on its strategy council for the Americas.

This relationship has seen the agency win work with ASDA and, no doubt, this valuable experience contributed in no small part in it securing the contract that witnessed the birth of its office Down Under – Coles.

Elmwood’s work for the supermarket chain made headline news in Australia when the agency announced that it was to reinvigorate the chain’s house brands. Critics claimed that the move would be strategic suicide.

Own-brands are a young phenomenon in Australia – seen as cheap and nasty.

So it came as a shock to the national press in Australia that Elmwood planned to reinvigorate Coles’ house brand. The agency was slated.

However, Elmwood succeeded in turning perceptions on their head, turning shoppers on to own-brand products by building on the trend for realism and by putting recognisable faces on the packaging.

Yet Cairns insists that Elmwood’s Melbourne office does not rely too heavily on its launch client, making sure that, despite the success already achieved for Coles, it is by no means a one trick pony.

“The challenge has been to work as though Coles won’t be there tomorrow and to build the other strengths of the business. We’ve focused on growing financial services and place branding too.”

The team recently completed the branding for Victorian town, Bendigo – a town 90 minutes from Melbourne. And now, following the initial controvesy caused by its work for Coles – which included fears raised by local food and drink producers as to the future of their businesses following the supermarket’s move to push own-label products – the agency is adding to its list of food and beverage clients Down Under.

Although there are sixteen full-time staff already based in the office in Melbourne, Elmwood’s people are encouraged to move through out the company and experience the different working environments.

At present the Edinburgh office is readying to again dig out the haggis and shortbread when Vanessa Perilli, a designer at Elmwood’s Aussie office, relocates to the city for a stint. The mix of staff in Melbourne also sees a growing number of UK ex-pats, claims Cairns.

“There are about five or six staff who have come over from the UK for a short spell. However, they haven’t gone back because they’ve enjoyed the lifestyle and working there so much,” says Cairns. It isn’t just the cultures that blend well, though. The nine hour time difference allows the team to claw back many vital hours.

Just one example of this came last year, when the Edinburgh office pitched for McLellands’ seriously strong cheese. The team had just two days to prepare for the presentation. However, Jo Coomber – managing director of Elmwood Edinburgh – was able to utilise the knowledge of the Melbourne office, meaning that while she was on her way home, she could be safe in the knowledge that the team in Melbourne was just arriving, ready to work on the brief.

“Originally the issue of cross-office communication was always about how we could help each other win new business and grow relationships with existing clients,” says Cairns. “Over the last six months we have progressed that to look at how can we generate cross client relationships.

“As such, we are incredibly interested in what is happening on the other side of the world.”

So, as Cairns eyes a world of historical new town buildings through the boardroom window, a belly full of haggis and no doubt a couple of whiskies to follow that evening, when he attends his first Scots awards ceremony, it is perhaps a soft-focus view of capital life he is left with. But the recognition from the other side of the globe is nothing other than of a steely support as the agency sharpens its teeth for the challenges ahead.

Australia Jo Coomber Elmwood

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