The word multidisciplinary is something of an understatement when it comes to describing Fold7. So how does this London-based agency maintain quality while working across so many areas of design? The secret is to always keep your eye on the brand.
It's easiest to ask Fold7 what it doesn't do. Okay, technically, there appear to be no topiary, architecture or clothing designs in the pipeline, but everything including print, video, web, interiors and exhibition stands have so far been thrown into the mix.
Why precisely does the company do so much? According to founder Simon Packer, there is no particular reason. Whenever someone interesting offers the company a project it considers challenging, it takes the work on. It doesn't matter whether it's a website for architecture firm HOK, or a video trying to find "the fun side" of The Cure to promote MTV's Icons series.
At the risk of invoking 1980s clichs, Fold7 is all about taking it to the max. You can fold a piece of paper in half a maximum of seven times - that's how to get "the most out of it", says Simon Packer, and that's how this company approaches its work.
In the beginning
It all started when Packer met co-founder Ryan Newey during undergraduate studies in the early 1990s. "He trained as a photographer, I trained as a graphic designer, and Ryan was like the very first person I met at college," Packer remembers. "I'd seen his photography and thought I could use it in my work. So we started working together and everything seemed to click. We had a good time, and our projects were well received and successful."
From there, the pair went on to postgraduate studies in Bournemouth, using their university's facilities as a studio and managing to secure work from both Boxfresh and Ted Baker along the way. That was ten years ago. Within five years, the company had cemented a reputation for youth marketing, enabling it to attract a range of big-name clients, such as MTV, Nike, Molton Brown, Muji, the Ministry of Sound and Orange. The team now has 16 members, including creatives, account handlers and admin staff in a rather airy and jauntily themed office on the outskirts of Hoxton.
Fold7's design output is guided by the hand of creative director and one-time David Soul devotee Nikki Austen, who joined full time in 2004, after a spell freelancing, working at Interbrand, and as an in-house graphic designer at Ted Baker. "We don't very often get what you would call a traditional brief anymore," she admits. "We're delivered a problem, so we may decide we need to do more of this, or we need to promote a bit more of that, and we come up with various ways of meeting the client's needs."
"Some of our bigger clients - the Nikes and the Oranges - will come to us with a problem and we'll often respond with more solutions than they expect in terms of the channels of communication," adds Packer. "They'll come to us and say, 'We want to do this', and we'll say, 'you don't want to do an advert; you want to do a website with a bit of guerrilla'. It's all about coming up with the right creative solutions to get to the end result. Generally that incites people, engages them and keeps them edgy."
In order to work this way, the team makes sure it watches the industry very closely. "It might just be an article that you read in one of the industry magazines, or it might be something that you see of them, sponsoring a particular event, a new product that's come out in the market, or tradeshows," says Austen. "By the time we have managed to get a meeting with somebody, we already know all about the sort of things we can help them with, and where they are with their brand image."
"We are very much about being in tune with the brand," Packer continues. "We understand why [companies] behave the way they do."
The perfect relationship
The working relationship between Fold7 and its clients is of utmost importance. "There's no point in going to somebody who's already got a very good agency that win all the awards for their creative work - brands that are already at the top of their game," says Austen. "We're looking for people who are slightly further down the food chain, that we can help do that together. We only offer our services where we think they're really needed."
Because the company prides itself on its working relationships with its clients, much of its work is gained through reputation. Increasingly, however, it finds itself pitching - paid and free. "It's the only industry in which that's accepted," says Austen. "You wouldn't ask a plumber to come and fix your boiler, and then decide to pay him if he did a better job than anybody else. If there was a way around it, everybody in the industry would embrace it. But the way creative services are purchased by marketing departments means that they almost want to see the job done before they spend the money."
Despite this, Fold7 believes that market conditions are working in its favour. "People are starting to realise that you don't necessarily get the best work or service from a large agency," says Packer. "The large agencies will probably put the same number of creatives on the job that we would. In a smaller outfit, you get a much more personal approach and I guess, in a way, we tend to be a bit more passionate because we're smaller. Clients appreciate that."
"We've been very lucky as a business," Packer continues. "We started in the recession in the 1990s. We rode it and came out on the other side only knowing hard times. So everything we did was streamlined to make us successful. Whenever the economy is going well, we tend to do better, because the business is run fairly efficiently."
In 1998, Fold7 received a call asking if the team worked with video. "Yes" came the answer, although at that point the company had no video experience. However, a few phone calls later, Fold7 was able to assemble a team of like-minded motion graphics professionals and put a showreel together, winning the work offered by the speculative phone call - a set of Canon bumpers that would frame the ad breaks for the 1998 World Cup, held in France.
Since those days, the company's video output has thrived - statistically, the team put out just shy of one commercial per week in 2005. Most of the work is for the music industry, but Fold7 also creates video bumpers and corporate presentation motion graphics. The section is overseen by John Farnham, a former print designer fed up of dealing with crop marks and static typography.
"I was given the opportunity to work on a film title - for Ali G in da House - and I then started getting more opportunities to work in that area," Farnham recalls modestly. "So I just learned After Effects, and then editing. Then Final Cut came along and I got to grips with that, too."
Packer is under no illusion that the company's success in this area is largely down to the power of today's desktop computers. "It was the preserve of the big, expensive Soho Flame systems," he says. "The Mac gave us the opportunity to produce equally high quality work on the desktop at a fraction of the cost, which made us really competitive in the marketplace.
"You can pretty much do what you want. It's just down to the speed of rendering. It's great when you go down to Soho and you can see it live, but on the kit we have, you're not paying £1,000 an hour just for the operator to do a little tweak."
Fold7's outlook remains positive. "There's more sharing between industries," says Austen. "The design industry is less rigid in its approach than it was five or six years ago. Everyone was trying to do it all themselves, rather than buying-in expertise and working with the right people for the job."
"The whole industry has become so competitive," adds Packer. "Good skills are spread out, so you get loads of good design. Look at the high street, with places like Muji and Habitat. People are buying good design for little money, and the same applies to graphic design. You can come to places like Fold7 and you'll get very, very good service and design, whereas in the past you had to go to ports of call that would have been presented to you at a premium."