Just over a year ago Sir Frank Lowe shocked the industry by announcing he was returning to agency life to launch a start-up staffed by a team of heavy hitting executives.
Lowe, who had been ousted three years earlier from the ad network bearing his name, meant business. The then-unnamed agency snatched Lowe London’s £50m flagship Tesco account, and when it opened its doors in March this year it had about 25 staff.
Since then the agency, named The Red Brick Road (RBR) after the path Dorothy chose not to follow in The Wizard of Oz, has won Heineken’s global and UK accounts, and last week scooped the £8m Gala Coral business (MW last week).
The client list is impressive for a start-up that has been open less than nine months, with partner Paul Hammersley predicting revenue of £10m.
Yet there is a feeling that the agency has not won enough new business, relies too heavily on Lowe’s connections and has yet to prove its creative credentials. While the Gala win was a boost, RBR lost out on The Guardian to Wieden & Kennedy despite being seen by many as the frontrunner.
All part of the plan Hammersley, who fills the role of agency chief executive despite a reluctance to adopt such job titles, says much of this is deliberate.
He adds: “I know what people are saying – that we haven’t won lots of new business – but we are already a £9m or £10m revenue agency, which puts us in the league of Wieden & Kennedy and not far off CHI.” Hammersley, who resigned as chairman and chief executive of DDB London a year ago to join former boss Lowe’s new venture, continues: “There are headlines we could have grabbed that we have chosen not to grab.” He talks about a number of clients the agency has turned down, in part because “they were not prepared to pay the agency properly”, and he says the phone has “started ringing”.
Yet Hammersley stresses that the agency’s responsibility lies in servicing existing clients rather than going all out to win new business. An easy thing to say, some would counter, given that the its founding client was Tesco.
Hammersley is adamant that the industry’s focus on new business league tables is wrong. “It has become the currency of success in our industry, but chasing after new business for the sake of headlines and rankings is a mistake,” he adds.
“I would be entirely happy if we added just two clients to our mix in the next 12 months.” The agency is, however, in talks to employ a new business manager.
When RBR produced its first work for Tesco, industry pundits described the handover as “seamless”, such was the similarity to the Lowe London-produced campaigns. It is effective work, says Hammersley, although few would call it creative. “Have we produced a lot of creative work in the first nine months? No, but it is early days yet,” he admits.
“We opened our doors just over nine months ago. In that time we have grown from 25 people to 63 people. We have produced a huge volume of work. The Guardian is the only pitch we have done this year that we didn’t prevail in. We were very proud of our work but there was an opinion at The Guardian that they had seen something better. I know that was not a unanimous decision.” Time to deliver With Lowe’s close ties to the Heineken family, it seemed inevitable the agency would land the brewer’s business. But now, suggest some, RBR must also prove that it is able to stand on its own two feet and win “independent” accounts.
As Hammersley says, it is early days for the fledgling agency, which has made great strides in 2006. But 2007 is when it must really cement its credentials and stand up to its critics.