Inspired by the scary fact that 2018 marks 15 years since Rich and I decided to take the plunge and start our first agency, Unsuitable, we thought we’d look back at some of our journey and tell the stories behind a few of the projects.
To kick things off let’s head back to 2002 and those first few steps towards independence.
The agency we’d worked for since 1994 and dearly loved, Wallis Tomlinson, was bought by Palmer Hargreaves. As a result of the takeover we were plucked out of our Birmingham home and transplanted into Leamington Spa. A Warwickshire town which is quite lovely to live in (so I’m told by numerous colleagues) but not where you want to be creatively. My three hour commute (each way) didn’t take in a single poster site. Bliss you may think – but not when part of your job is to immerse yourself in the industry’s output.
From day one the culture didn’t feel right, WT had such a maverick work hard, play hard vibe and was full of passionate characters. In all honesty, it would have been near on impossible to retain the feeling we’d gained as Adline’s (now The Drum) agency of the decade for the 90s.
At first the agency took up residency in the WT Birmingham office, then it was decided rather quickly that we all needed to decamp to the sleepy Spa town. This was followed by the loss of some well respected, talented colleagues along with quite a few accounts. This inevitably led to a rather unpleasant atmosphere in the agency. Redundancies followed and our creative department went from a healthy 12 down to four (Rich, me, a designer and an artworker) so the Creative Director roles we’d assumed were suddenly pretty meaningless.
We had a meeting with the CEO and agreed with him that we’d give it twelve months to see if things could be turned around.
One of the few original WT clients that we had managed to retain was the Solihull shopping centre, Touchwood, which we had launched in 2001. As a follow up to the first campaign, we’d sold them a great TV, press and poster route titled ‘Little touches’.
The TV spots were directed by the madcap but amazingly talented Bluey Durrant through The Gate Films in Manchester. As far as shoots go, this one had passed pretty much without incident. It was studio based and not relying on any acting talent so it had all been rather relaxed and jovial. The client was however, unbeknown to us, feeling the pressure.
This was her first TV ad.
During the post-production in a London edit suite, I was sat with the client when she turned and asked where the Account Director was. I hadn’t a clue and blagged that he wasn’t actually needed as we had everything under control. She then went on to express that she thought the agency (since the takeover) had lost its vibrancy and culture. This was to be her last project with us and as soon as everything was in the can, she would be looking for someone new.
I was both astounded and angry at this. Here we were putting the finishing touches to a great campaign on one of the few creative accounts the agency still had and we were going to get fired, not because of the work but because of a seeming lack of love and attention shown to a client by the account management team.
Big lesson learnt that day in that darkened room in Soho.
I asked who she was thinking of talking to and she just replied “Have you and Rich ever thought of setting up your own agency?”
Returning to the office the next day I instantly probed my oppo for his thoughts. It was something we’d talked about being a possibility ever since we’d teamed up at college in 1991. We’d already decided to get our book together with a view to seeking employment elsewhere. Should we risk our half-decent salary, pension and company car on a punt? We both had young daughters and sizeable mortgages. Within a couple of weeks we took the client for fish & chips at Bank in Brindley Place to discuss whether it had just been an outburst in frustration? It hadn’t.
She put the agency on notice. In our faux anger to the announcement we also handed in our resignations.
Touchwood now needed a new agency within three months and we had a six month notice period to work.
On hearing news of our departure, Steve who had been one of four surviving members (us being two of those) of the original Wallis Tomlinson team asked what we were up to, he was instantly on board.
‘Unsuitable’ was born. A name and ethos created in anger against the (in)actions of the account director in that edit suite. Another lesson, don’t do anything in anger. The name and positioning of being an agency without ‘suits’ closed far more doors than it ever opened. That said, to this day we still love being face-to-face with our clients and discussing problems and solutions first hand. Old habits die hard.
We had told our employers we were off to Manchester to freelance for a while.
Then the latest edition of Adline landed on desks with the story that creative duo Elwell and Harrison were to depart PHWT to set up Unsuitable.
To date we still don’t know how they got hold of the juicy gossip. The remaining notice period was uncomfortable and we had to start servicing our new client by working under a tree near the library sending artwork to print via connecting to a Nokia 6510. Remember, this was 2003. A small file would take hours to transfer and run up a massive data bill.
On the morning of October 13th 2003 we officially opened for business.
The phone didn’t ring and the email didn’t ping. Had we done the right thing? Too late now.
We should have enjoyed that brief period of calmness as what followed was two years of working 9am to midnight four days a week (we finished at 8pm on a Friday) and many, many weekends. Apart from the odd day, none of us took a holiday. Such was our desire to over deliver to all our clients and show the love that had been lacking previously.
We worked out of Steve’s box room for the first couple of months, then his wife fell pregnant so it needed to be transformed into a nursery. Cue finding our first office in Digbeth. 117 The Custard Factory.
The ink was still wet on the lease when our new client announced she was leaving.
We went on to retain the account for a further six years, experiencing the churn of four marketing managers into the bargain. As for the agency we left behind – 15 years on they appear to be thriving, having gone global and are still working with many of their original automotive clients.
We still retain some of that Unsuitable fighting spirit, regularly sticking two fingers up to the establishment, and although 2003 was a while back now – it’s amazing how it only seems like yesterday.