BrandingInterview

St Luke's

There's only one verifiable saint in the world of advertising: St Luke's. This agency reveals what it's like dispensing salvation to brands that have strayed from the path of righteousness.

St Luke's is an interesting proposition. An ad agency with an ethical stance, a commitment to its employees and a genuine interest in exploring new ways of working. Specialising in understanding the often entrenched problems of its clients and finding clever solutions to them has brought the agency a strong reputation based on quick thinking and collaborative development.

"We don't like having the answer and telling clients this is how it is," says Al Young, Executive Creative Director. Instead, the St Luke's philosophy is one of engagement with its clients, working together to achieve the best possible results. Head of Art, Julian Vizard, describes the client profile: "They're companies who need a little bit of us. Brands who've had a tough time and want to see some change."

Including names such as BT, Clarks and the Inland Revenue, they aren't exactly struggling, they just have troubles. "They generally seem like quite knotty problems," explains Al. Summing up his company's approach pretty neatly, he adds: "They need us to be in it together."

Meet the family
St Luke's isn't exactly what you'd expect from an advertising agency. Of course it makes adverts and tenaciously fights a corner for the brands it takes on, but it's a question of attitude. One of the first things the two team leaders agree on, with a bout of good humour, is Al's observation that St Luke's is "a very good-natured company - it's quite a familial place."

Following that train of thought, Julian plays on the traditional picture of agency life: "It's not like everyone's just brisk and professional." (An image of Jaws in a suit swims by.) "If you do get into the shit, people here will help you out. In a lot of places they'd enjoy just watching you sink deeper." This family atmosphere doubtless stems from the fact that the firm is cooperatively owned. It has different DNA to other agencies.

And the St Luke's family is expanding, from 70 to around 100 in London as St Luke's joins forces with graphic design firm The Nest. While around the world, from India to Stockholm, an extended family is also taking root. It's enough to warm the cockles.

On the run from Omnicom
St Luke's used to be the London office of one of the biggest ad agencies in the world: Chiat / Day, the company responsible for many great advertising moments including Apple's breakthrough 1984-style TV spot of the same year. When, in 1995, the parent company decided to sell out to the giant Omnicom, making St Luke's part of TBWA\, the reaction in London was close to insurgency.

"Many of us just couldn't accept it," recalls Al. So a plan was hatched: "The whole thing was being referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission so they didn't want anyone making waves." The team therefore decided waves were the way forward, as Al explains: "We basically made ourselves a thorn in Omnicom's side." This tactic paid off. In fact, it was surprisingly easy for St Luke's to cede from the new parent company. The buyout wasn't about London, explains Al: "We even got a pretty good deal on the business." It was the sensible thing for Omnicom to do. They couldn't make the staff stay on - forcing the issue would have got them nowhere fast. As Al points out, "They would have been buying an empty building."

"London had been struggling," says Julian, fleshing out why Omnicom hadn't been overly concerned about the loss of the London operation. But things had begun to pick up even before the merger was announced. Al again: "There was a lot of new blood, new management too, and they'd started to turn it around."

The quest
After the split, which became official in October 1995, St Luke's was established on a footing that would ensure a similar set of events could not befall them again. The new agency was set up as a Qualifying Employee Shareholder Trust, or QUEST. "We're totally jointly owned," beams Al Young. And before you start, that doesn't lead to decision by committee, "Jointly owned does not mean jointly run."

Today the employees at St Luke's continue to have their say on the business side of the venture, something which imparts an immediate feeling of belonging, lending weight to Al's earlier claims for the familial nature of the firm. "It also keeps your ego in check" - both Al and Julian find this comment very funny.

Still laughing when the subject of ethics is broached makes Al's answer sound suspiciously like a gag: "We offset our carbon output by planting trees in India." It turns out he's serious though: the firm also donates a percentage of its profits to charity each year. Then it's Julian's turn to talk company ethics: "Last year, the Sunday Times found us to be the second best company to work for in the UK." The story turns to more laughter when he gets to the bit about caring management.

Get inventive
"We try to get creatives involved as early in the process as possible," says Al outlining how briefs are handled. "We like to get inventive early." This isn't always the best plan of action though, as Julian explains: "Creative people have a tendency to react too emotionally." This isn't a bad thing, but it can muddy the waters - the client-agency relationship is crucial.

Al's thinking here is interesting: "It's more helpful to try and disguise your preferences," he says. "That way the client feels the process is more like buying than being sold to." This is important because: "Once you have a client who realises you're not just concerned with your own creative agenda - that you have their best interests at heart - you tend to find they're more willing to take a chance."

So, ironically, more creative results can come about from keeping back the creatives. "Of course it used to be the case," says Julian in a confiding tone, "that creatives were kept out of sight because it added to the mystery of creativity." Doubtless, this is still a side benefit, as it is in any creative work, but times are changing. "We're happy to get the creatives involved at an early stage; it can only help our understanding of what the client needs."

Rolling on
Advertising changes all the time; it has to if it's going to convince an increasingly savvy audience that the latest thing really is the latest thing. But the nature of the business itself is also changing. "It's a rolling press," observes Julian. "Things move a lot quicker than they used to; there's less thinking time."

Another notable change is the emphasis now placed on branding. Al chips in with a handy definition of the term: "It's a personality that exists around the product to add value." Reflecting on this, Julian observes: "We never used to think about brands." It seemed more practical: "It always used to be products."

Julian continues: "It used to be more of a vibe," reflecting a time when that personality thing was more ephemeral. At St Luke's, when they did away with the office furniture they brought in the 'brand spaces'. Now, clients are met and dealt with in rooms which reflect their particular business, almost a logical extension of mood lighting.

"You have to remember, the advertising business has just gone through the biggest recession in its history," says Julian, highlighting the one factor which has been a major catalyst for change in the ad world. "People had to go from creative mode to survival mode." This can't have been easy, with the excesses of the 1980s still pretty fresh in most memories.

Perhaps as a conditioned reflex to the whiff of pessimism, Al demonstrates the ad man's ability to detect a silver lining: "It's a phase advertising is predicted to come back strong this year". And Julian backs him up in this respect: "With one or two exceptions, less has become more." These days, advertising is a more 'sensible' business he says, even if the world has gone into consumer overdrive.

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