8 of the most successful independent design studios

There are thousands of small, independent design studios around the world. But once businesses get above a certain size, with offices around the world, this list grows much more exclusive.

Independence is even rarer in advertising. There are some passionate outliers, such as Wieden+Kennedy, but most agencies are in one of the 'big four' holding groups: WPP, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe or Interpublic.

These vast networks also include household names in design and branding. Superunion, Landor, ManvsMachine, AKQA and Design Bridge are part of WPP; Omnicom owns Wolff Olins and Interbrand; Futurebrand is in the Interpublic stable; Turner Duckworth is part of Publicis.

Staying independent

WPP has been all over the news recently after the departure of its founder and long-running CEO Martin Sorrell, while Publicis stole the headlines last year after announcing it would be pulling out of Cannes Lions to focus on other things. 

Most designers view these board-level machinations from afar, but when an agency reaches a certain scale, it may receive an offer to be bought... or it may choose to stay independent.

There are various pros and cons of both, and the networked agencies we've mentioned above create indisputably world-class work. But global growth is that much harder for an independent, so when it happens it's worth celebrating. 

So read on to discover eight inspiring agencies that have expanded globally, entirely off their own back...

01. Pentagram

American Express by Pentagram

Pentagram's partners have a huge global portfolio between them, including this recent AmEx rebrand by Abbott Miller

No list of successful indie agencies would be complete without the grandfather of them all: Pentagram, "the world’s largest independently-owned design studio".

Founded in London in 1972, the multi-disciplinary consultancy is famously constructed around a team of partners (19 at last count) each with their own team, who all contribute equally to the business and share the proceeds.

With nine partners in London, eight in New York, and one each in Berlin and Austin, Pentagram has spread its unique, never successfully replicated model globally.

02. DesignStudio

Airbnb by DesignStudio

Airbnb was a breakthrough project for DesignStudio, which now has offices in London, San Francisco and Sydney

Founded in 2009, DesignStudio is less than a decade old but has shot to global prominence thanks to high-profile work for Airbnb, Premier League and Deliveroo.

While its HQ remains in London, the agency has since expanded to San Francisco in 2014 – "to be on the doorstep of more brands who are as ambitious as we are" – and most recently Sydney, headed up by former design director James Gilmore.

The far-flung locations of these three outposts effectively means the sun never sets on the DesignStudio empire.

03. Elmwood

Fairy by Elmwood

Since 1977, Elmwood has worked with a huge range of brands, including P&G's Fairy – and has five offices worldwide

Founded in Leeds in 1977, Elmwood describes itself as the "world's most effective brand design consultancy" and has a string of DBA awards to back that bold claim.

Elmwood has also established a truly global network of studios in London, Leeds, New York, Melbourne and Singapore.

The agency's portfolio stretches from FMCG work for the likes of Fairy, Galaxy and Hovis to more playful challenger brands like Heck sausages and The Saucy Fish Co. 

04. Jones Knowles Ritchie (jkr)

Domino's by jkr

jkr's extensive portfolio features many global household names, including Domino's Pizza

Born in the UK in 1990, jkr is the third-oldest indie on this list after Pentagram and Elmwood. And with over 200 staff spread across London, New York, Singapore and Shanghai, it's got a healthy global spread to shout about too.

Household-name FMCG brands such as Heinz, Domino's and Budweiser rub shoulders with challengers such as Hippeas, and boutique clients such as London perfumers Miller Harris and Penhaligon's.

05. Bulletproof

Swedish Fish, by Bulletproof

A much-loved candy brand in the US since the 1950s, Swedish Fish received a brand overhaul from Bulletproof

"We are not an agency, we are a tribe," declare Bulletproof's founders. Creating strategic brand and packaging design out of London, New York and Singapore, Bulletproof has retained a "fiercely independent spirit", as they put it.

Work for Green & Black's chocolate, Fort Hamilton whiskey, Strongbow, Ritz crackers, Apple & Eve juice and Swedish Fish candy represents both the premium and FMCG ends of the food and drink spectrum.

06. Moving Brands 

Netflix is one of Moving Brands' clients

With two offices in the US, Moving Brands has worked with  leading American brands such as Netflix and Facebook

Another proudly independent, truly global design consultancy, Moving Brands has developed four outposts in London, San Francisco, Zürich and New York since 1998.

Besides branding and communications, the multi-disciplinary agency also operates across experience design, product, and creative business consultancy.

Big-names on the roster include EA, Facebook, the BBC, Virgin, Google and Netflix - with plenty of other smaller clients spanning a broad range of sectors in between.

07. Pearlfisher

Ben & Jerry's by Pearlfisher

Pearlfisher works with icon and challenger brands worldwide, and overhauled US ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's

An "independent creative business made of the definitive partnership of Futures, Strategy and Design", Pearlfisher develops both icon and challenger brands from its outposts in London, New York, Copenhagen and San Francisco.

Since the agency was founded in 1992, Pearlfisher's delicious range of clients have included Cadbury chocolate, Havana Club rum, Lurpak butter, Jim Beam whiskey, Ben & Jerry's ice cream and Innocent smoothies.

08. SomeOne

UK Parliament by SomeOne

SomeOne's rebrand of UK Parliament was tailored to digital, and also featured this detailed marque for large-scale use

"Big ideas, beautifully made" is the tagline of SomeOne, which since 2005 has set out to "strategically launch, relaunch and protect brands worldwide".

The agency's 2018 rebrand of UK Parliament stoked plenty of logo-focused debate in the press, before its official rollout revealed a savvy digital-first strategy.

Until recently catering to a client list that includes Disney, Intel, Eurostar, Unilever, Chivas and Pernod Ricard from its London base, SomeOne now also operates out of Sydney and Berlin.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.