In Feb 1999, I joined forces with a young retail agency in Queen Square, Bristol. Epoch Design were then busy making interiors in far flung places for Clarks Shoes and numerous tactical POS unitry for an assortment of clients.
I was impressed by their sales bravado; they seemed comfortable with hard work and we laughed a lot.
Initially we saw the opportunity for a small, dedicated graphics team (me) to help convert potential sales leads with Unilever who still had an office in Bristol at that time, and Hasbro Toys. I ported over a couple of my own clients too. We were pleasantly surprised by the immediate success of the 2d design offering: winning a lucrative POS launch for Star Wars I pretty much day one.
But we had no idea that graphic-based business would develop as it did. With the addition of a junior designer and a fellow Director working as account manager, we started humbly and worked hard over 2-3 years, growing and maintaining Unilever and then Toys R Us as key accounts.
Later wins at Coca Cola (CCGB & CCE) with the pan-European Powerade launch; followed by Disney and Oral-B account wins meant that by 2003/4, our modest graphic department was creeping up on the old POS side of the business for profit. But critically on far less turnover and less risk. Increasingly difficult trading conditions with rising UK production costs and narrowing margins were threatening 3d production as a viable offering in the long term. Following an internal merger to properly unify graphic and POS businesses; the targeting of more profitable graphic accounts from FMCG giants seemed to be the way forward.
My regular week entailed creative curation of everything that went out of the door – client presentations and everything that goes with new business and account development. Over the months and years, with a maturing team of eager and increasingly capable designers plus ultimately four separate artwork account teams, my duties resolved into new business pitching, strategic aspects of new briefs and a certain amount of mentoring & management. But as a creative bod I always relished doodling, scoping ideas and presenting to client – the best bits.
As an agency Epoch ultimately left the world of fixtures, fittings and shop interiors to focus on branding, packaging, point of sale & promotion – the fast-moving world of consumer goods.
By 2006, with no shortage of good news (Gillette, P&G, Nestlé), net profits tipping the £1m mark and as one of very few independent FMCG agencies remaining in the UK – boardroom talk turned to the longer term future. We set upon the idea that moving forward as part of a larger group might open doors and help spread the good news still further. The question was, could we find a suitable party to buy in?
Methinks the phone will ring.
Well it took nearly 18 months to finalise but late in the summer of 2007, we went to London, signed on the dotted line and merged with Loewy Group (then touting themselves as the fastest growing design group in Europe – now ‘Writtle Holdings’ no less). The M&A process was frankly baffling at times; expensive, protracted, an education… yet the charming characters involved seemed to fit the bill and, lets not deny it, the money was right.
So by Q4 2007, I found myself sitting across the table from big cheeses at Seymour Powell, Williams Murray Hamm and others, who had also merged with Loewy that fateful summer. I’m sure all of them wondered who the hell we were – they’re not even London-based. Frankly, having spent most of my career nez-dans-la-guidon, I certainly had little idea who they all were. But it was flattering to be in the club all the same. But I can’t understand anyone who’d want to work & live in London.
And then the financial world changed with an almost audible credit crunch. So life wasn’t all plain sailing but we adapted elegantly, restructured account teams and maintained profitability despite economic rumblings and a different business environment. The same could not be said of the whole group but that’s another story.
Hang on tightly, let go lightly.
Early in 2009, following a personally satisfying run of pitching & winning; nagging doubts about unfettered consumerism and personal circumstances conspired. And consideration of a relatively elegant exit seemed right. The full story involves a mushroom knife and fruit salad …I could go on. And so it was in June, with more than a little sadness, I quietly stepped away from my hard-earned role with a modest notion… designing for people and stuff I could better understand and appreciate.
Working more locally, for sustainable & ethical purposes when possible, seemed like an antidote to years of creating dazzling FMCG landfill and dubious karma.
Okay, hardly a seamless business plan, and certainly not a shrewd financial move, but a move I made nonetheless. And so far its been much more fun than I’d expected.