Rounding the M25 southbound past Heathrow there's a massive billboard for motorists to admire. Lately it's been adorned with a colourful Coca-Cola graphic, the work of global design agency Attik. You're only as good as your last job - and placement like this is a promotional coup for just about any designer. But Attik has learned from years of experience never to rest on its laurels.
"The competition's consistently intense, and there's always somebody behind you that is creatively just as good, sometimes better. You've continually got to be marketing yourself," says co-founder Simon Needham. "We really do have to try and get out there in the public eye to some degree."
For Attik, the key is an ongoing project called Noise, which began in 1995. Ostensibly a series of creative design books, the agency has used it to make their name known globally. Taking their moniker from the attic in Huddersfield where they started in 1986, Attik now has offices in London, Leeds, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Their client list includes Adidas, Lexus, Sony, Sheraton, Heineken, Nike and the NFL.
The first edition of Noise was the first step in Attik's global conquest. It wasn't originally conceived to get the company out of Huddersfield, but the aim was to find newer, more exciting clients in London. Until then, their work came from manufacturing, engineering and utility companies in the North. Giving the designers free rein to create inspiring imagery, after enlisting support from a paper merchant, printer and repro house, they put it together in a book.
"It was an experiment," explains James Sommerville, Attik's other co-founder. "It was probably all done in QuarkXPress and Photoshop 1. It had a lot of hand-generated typography and textures. We were just manipulating and playing, trying to get our heads around the new software that was emerging. Lots of accidents happened and we thought it looked cool, so we saved it."
Thanks to cutting-edge creativity, Noise 1 became more than just a brochure. It was the calling card for the team's new London office, and they began winning work in music and the emerging computer games sector. Designers and art directors were seeking the studio out, offering to buy it.
"At that point, being entrepreneurs, it was like: 'So there's money in this, then.' As soon as we realised there was an opportunity to turn a profit, we decided to go ahead and plan something a little bit more serious. We soon realised that the guys in the studio just loved doing this stuff. Any downtime was an opportunity for them to do some cool stuff," Needham remembers.
"That's when the penny dropped," adds Sommerville. "We could use this not only to speak to more interesting clients that we would really love to work for, but we could take this away from the corporate brochure sector to something where you could walk into a bookstore and say, 'Can I have a copy of this?' That was a big shift in the way we perceived Noise, so rather than being a promotional brochure, it became this book."
Noise 2 arrived the following year at 200 pages. With special finishes and wrapped in flock wallpaper, the emphasis was on generating desire among an in-the-know design crowd. Attik got select bookstores to sell it, and used it as a calling card - an arty book with real leave-behind value. The team also took it out to New York.
Attik opened an office in the city, marking the occasion in 1997 with Noise 3. The imagery continued to reflect gleeful creativity and experimentation, and the team showcased more special finishes, shipping the book in a case made by British Steel. "The late 1990s in the US was a great time for British designers. There was this wave of new Britain, new Labour, cool Britannia, and it felt like it was hip to have a British design firm working on your business," says Sommerville.
Despite the physicality of Noise 3 - quality paper, glorious finishes and metal packaging - the new work was coming from broadcasters. MTV, ABC, NBC, HBO, Syfy and ESPN became clients. This was partly due to the way Attik embraced new versions of Photoshop. The aesthetic really excited TV companies, who wanted to replicate the look on screen.
"We were in a meeting at MTV," says Sommerville. "We'd gone over to present Noise and our print work, and there was a guy who said, 'Is this a frame from a moving sequence?' My partner at the time - Will, the new business guy - just said 'Yeah.' So the guy at MTV said 'Great, get your producer to ring me. We've got an on-air project we want you to do.' So we left that meeting thinking, 'Wow.' But had no idea what a producer was."
Besides motion graphics projects, Noise 3 got them through the door with creative teams at big agencies. They worked with Ogilvy & Mather, JWT and McCann- Erickson, on accounts like Heineken, L'Oral, MasterCard and American Express. These weren't Attik clients, but they worked the Madison Avenue scene, making contacts and expanding all the time.
The next stage of their invasion took them to Australia. There was a huge buzz about the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 1999 Needham headed out there to open a studio. Naturally, he'd need a new Noise under his arm, but there was no time to produce a fully-fledged edition. Almost like a software company they came up with Noise 3.5, a publication with fewer images, but produced in a larger format. Things in Sydney went well and the office grew to over 30 staff.
Three years passed after the release of Noise 3, and although Noise 3.5 had taken Attik down under, the agency was too busy to produce a Noise 4. The tale took a new twist when Harper Collins came calling. The publishing giant wanted a book of 500 pages. Special finishes, varied paper stocks, extra colours and innovative packaging gave way to four-colour printing in Asia. Harper Collins would print 20,000 copies - at least three times more than previous editions - and distribute it worldwide.
That sweet cherry was hard to resist, but Attik's relationship with the book turned sour. It wasn't just the stifling of creativity; the world was changing. "The day we got our copies was 10 September 2001. We were excited and said, 'Let's have a few beers.' The next morning our idea was to have a board meeting and talk about how we were going to really leverage on the back of it," says Sommerville. "But obviously the day after it just felt like it didn't matter what you sent anybody, nobody would be interested."
The book was actually a success, and attracted clients in Japan, India, Russia and Latin America. But they still associate it with the bad times after 9/11. The Sydney and London studios closed in 2001, with many clients reconsidering their advertising strategies. Attik had to consolidate, and it would've been foolhardy to try and top Noise 3 and 4, so they didn't even try. In 2007, Attik joined Dentsu, a Japanese advertising group.
Back to form in 2008, it was time to exorcise the ghosts of Noise 4 and embark on Noise 5. Released last year, it includes a retrospective of previous editions, client work, a company history, and great dollops of new and exciting artwork. It wasn't just a renunciation of the previous book, but also a backlash against the unreality of digital. Inside are nine paper stocks, over 40 print finishes and a classy dust jacket.
"In terms of self-promotion it's doing its job because people have responded really well to it," says Sommerville. "They'll call us and say 'Hey, you know this stock or this print production technique you've used on this page, or the way you've done that? We'd like to talk to you about maybe bringing some of that through.' They can use it for a print and design reference book, if you like."
Re-energised, Needham and Sommerville already have great new plans for Noise. They've been working with an art agent, printing imagery in a 40-inch square format that will be sold in limited, boxed editions to collectors. Yet even as it breathes the ozone in the lofty realm of fine art, Noise hasn't lost its original promotional dimension.
"People who are in the comfortable financial position of being able to afford that level of art, are generally connected in some way to a business of some nature, or businesses. So what we're actually doing is connecting with owners, or very wealthy individuals, or parts of groups of businesses, who have a decision-making role within their business. If they are interested in our style of work on an artistic level, then maybe they'll be interested in talking to us on a commercial level too," Sommerville concludes.