Agency Growth Stories: Superimpose on new business and agency propositions

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In their Agency Growth Stories series, The Future Factory interview some of the most interesting and successful agencies operating right now, to unpick and share what makes them so unique, and find out more about the mindsets that have fuelled their growth.

Superimpose have gone from being a well-kept industry secret to winning Creative Review’s Agency Of The Year, and gaining clients including Adidas, Burberry and British Fashion Council, it’s hardly the case.

That said, they’ve not taken the typical routes to growing and promoting themselves. You won’t find them stating their services or even sharing their address. They’ve set out to fundamentally change the agency model, and have already made strides to upturn the status quo.

The Future Factory spoke with Superimpose founder Ollie Olanipekun about his approach to new business, agency propositions and why Finance is the only topic he plays by the book.

The Future Factory: How did Superimpose start? Did you have a founding client?

Ollie Olanipekun: Prior to starting Superimpose I had been working on Adidas at We Are Social. I was the lead creative, so I understood the business and had relationships with Adidas in the UK and Germany.

We set up Superimpose, and Adidas gave us a chance. That chance was a global campaign for the biggest sneaker release in the history of Stan Smiths. That was the spark.

TFF: Amazing! Were there any issues with you having worked on them at We Are Social and then taking them over to your new venture?

OO: A lot of people ask that. We Are Social looked after Sports Performance and we work on Originals, which is the more culture-focused brand. They’re completely different parts of the business that rarely cross over. They are getting closer now, but back then agencies were given one or the other. I’m sure people thought “oh he's probably stolen their client” but no, not even close.

TFF: How old is Superimpose now and how many people are you in the team?

OO: Superimpose is five years old. We’re now probably maxing out at 45 people including full-time and specialist freelancers.

We just opened a satellite office in New York and we've got a production team in LA.

TFF: Wow. And how's that? That’s quite crazy. How old are you?

OO: I am 35.

TFF: That's good going. How much time are you spending in the States?

OO: Last year I was in and out of LA every two weeks for a good majority of the year. As most of our clients are global businesses with HQ’s dotted across the globe, we’re on the road a lot.

TFF: Gosh. That's hard work. What was your vision for the agency when you set up?

OO: We always wanted to have the business constantly evolving. We never wanted to be pigeonholed or categorised. We set up to be able to flex in any direction we wanted, because that's what I thought was missing in the industry.

I think there was a time when you could just set up as an integrated agency or a digital agency and for 10 years plus stay like that and be known for that thing.

Today, clients want an agency that really understands their audience and really understands the consumer. So if the consumer is changing constantly then as an agency we need to be.

TFF: Is that why, when you go on your website, you don't state clearly what it is you do? There's a lot of mystery.

OO: Absolutely. A big lesson from working at other agencies was that I'd come up with ideas for a client and I'd take them to the design team and they'd go, “oh I can't really do that/I haven't got the skillset for that/I'm busy on this” and before you know it all of the work being created for 12 different clients was all starting to look a bit the same.

With Superimpose I was very keen that we reinvent every brief. We bring in specialist talent according to the brief. Today we might be working on heavy CGI creative, tomorrow we might be doing a long form narrative based piece. Next week we could be prepping for a experiential that requires spatial design. Not one person can have all those skills. It's impossible for us to keep a full time team that can look after all that. So we do rely on specialist talent and freelancers, alongside a core creative team.

We like to surprise not only our clients, but ourselves too. It’s unpredictability in outcome that makes a creative agency exciting in my opinion.

TFF: That certainly doesn’t sound boring. But why no addresses on your website?

OO: London is the headquarters where the core team sit. We moved into a new space in Kings Cross recently. The office size tripled. I guess we haven't shouted about that as much as we could have. But yeah, we do like to be elusive.

We don't want to put our flag in the ground too much. We want to evolve and surprise. We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, but we are primed for this.

Physically we may be stationed somewhere but creatively we are globally active.

TFF: Ooh, I like that. Whatever you’re doing is obviously working well.

OO: Yeah. It is. We had five years of incredible success with year on year growth. That was based on coming out into the industry saying things need to change.

We launched SuperCurriculum at the start of the year. It’s an alternative education platform for young people seeking to enter the industry – our newest endeavour that’s close to my heart.

It was very clear to me, before Superimpose and having worked in this industry for 10 years, that there were holes I wanted to fix. Being of colour, I never came across anyone like me. Ever. There was the security guard or the cleaners. That made me want to challenge the industry.

So that’s one of the things we now feel should be our focus, alongside our commercial work.

TFF: That's amazing.

OO: One goal is to influence the state curriculum, because we feel like a lot of us who work in industry now, had no idea that this existed when we were at school. And that's a crying shame.

TFF: I agree! From a financial perspective, how have you found running your own agency?

OO: Over the first three years we bounced around from retainers to projects.

But in between those there were times where we were financially at risk, not knowing where the next project was coming from. We had to be super smart with our spending. Well basically we didn't spend anything. We acted so scared that we just left money in the bank.

We didn't have any advice from people to be like, hey, this is how much you can take as a wage. Nothing like that. I think we saw each project or each brief as our last. So we worked hard, put the money in the bank and then worked hard to find the next one.

TFF: So does that mean you and your business partner at the time, took minimal money out for yourselves in the early years?

OO: For three years we took minimal money from the business even though the business was growing at a very healthy trajectory.

TFF: And would you advise anyone else to do the same?

OO: Completely. When people talk to me about setting up their own thing, I always say, please think about having the client first before you have any conversations about where you want your office to be.

TFF: In those early years when you were taking minimal money out, did it feel worth it? Did you sometimes wish you could just be in a salaried job?

OO: Even in the scary times, I still think just that feeling of knowing we were in control of our own destiny, was enough.

There were times we lost clients and we were worried. But there was never another job out there that we would rather be doing, because we were running away from all of that.

TFF: What’s your approach to new business and attracting new clients?

OO: I came up with an idea that we should launch an open ended platform (Services Unknown) where we can showcase our creativity. Not all of the ideas you have for clients get the green light so for me it's about how we put those ideas to use.

The biggest one was in 2018. I was approached to develop a creative idea for a national campaign to reignite the interest in Brexit. I was invited to an office in Clerkenwell to give my thoughts and I turned up dressed as I do in a hoodie, not knowing that I was going to be sitting next to Tony Blair's chief campaign officer with a room of 25 middle aged white men, all in suits talking about what the country needs to do for a creative campaign. It was mind blowing to sit there and listen to these terrible ideas. At a time when they had just lost the absolute trust of the nation around Brexit.

I came up with a very simple campaign. It was called Swindled and highlighted expectation versus reality. For me it summed up what the nation felt around Brexit. The client didn’t buy it, so we ran it anyway, because we actually cared about the results.

We funded it, we got national coverage, had digital out of home in 18 cities across the country, we had the biggest billboard in the country on the M25 outside Heathrow. I was invited onto Sky News.

And then I had Barack Obama's campaign officer call me up from Washington to say he though it was the best campaign he'd seen.

It was crazy. One of the most surreal moments I've had as a creative.

TFF: That’s totally amazing, but could also be a huge distraction from the day job. Does Services Unknown bring success to the day job too?

OO: Absolutely. We launched Services Unknown as an opportunity to showcase what we're about. After the Brexit campaign Netflix and loads of other clients came knocking. It’s just an example of how our new business approach is different from other agencies but works for us.

TFF: What do you find most challenging about leading an agency?

OO: Definitely people management. I don't think anything really prepares you for that.

TFF: Do you ever turn to external experts to coach you and your senior team?

OO: Tim Lindsay, the D&AD chairman, helped me with in the early days, pointing us in the direction of financial advisors who had been incredibly important to us in terms of teaching us how the nuts and bolts of agency finances work.

When going through the procurement process of big brands, there's certain things you have to do as they expect. That's something from early on we didn't try to break the mould on. We did it exactly by the book.

Right now I'm speaking to a coach in terms of how to manage a team of 45 across different offices. When you go above 20 people, the access to me is going to be more limited. So I've been getting help to understand what I can do to make sure teams still feel they have access to me.

TFF: You’ve got a lot going on. I have every confidence we’ll be hearing more and more of you.

OO: We're a highly, highly ambitious agency so we could have probably got to where we are, and been like, okay cool, we've got success, let’s just stay in this lane.

But no, we always wanted to do more. We wanted to fix the industry from within, but there is also more we want to achieve outside of our industry. We want to achieve something no agency or business has with this model – because it’s about being comfortable with change. Therefore, despite these uncertain times we’re living in, we can only continue to do what we’re best at… being painfully attuned, adapting with ease and tapping into our unparalleled creative intuition.

Alex Sibille, owner and managing director, The Future Factory

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