Two years and six months later…

by Scott Leonard

I thought the best way to start this post would be to go right back to the beginning. Here’s the first week of The Champion Agency, unedited, very raw and brutally honest. It gives you an impression of where we came from:

The Champion Agency log – week one – 30th April 2012
Meeting with potential clients filled the week. Nokia, National Maritime Museum and Fifteen. All seemed positive and served to validate the idea / model. Identity and site? Ruby Pseudo also agree to partner. Excitement creates energy that masks doubt. There’s still lots not worked out, including how, where and when we’ll work. In hindsight it’s amateur. Rosie, the MD of Ruby Pseudo tells me I look a little scared; she’s not wrong, I’m really scared. This is now for real and we’re doing it.

I remember the overwhelming sensation of actually doing. Having spent almost three years saving and planning, the theorising part was over. I was scared like never before. Sure, I’d taken professional risks before; I vividly remember Mark Waites questioning whether this new start-up called ‘Mother’, that had just offered me a job, would last six months and whether or not it was worth the risk? I left London for Amsterdam and Wieden & Kennedy, then left Ogilvy to go ‘client-side’ as the Brand Director of Steetcar/Zipcar, but all that seemed like a natural progression as opposed to the very surreal situation I was now in. Shit. There I was, launching a creative agency that was also a social enterprise, on my own, in the third year of a global recession. I’d always believed in the underdog, and like to think I have more determination than most, but I’ll be the first to admit that I couldn’t have made it much harder…

…last month we became winners of the Smarta 100. Out of the UK’s 4.9million SMEs we were chosen as one the most disruptive enterprises of 2014. Joining the illustrious Smarta alumni is a great honour, but more importantly being recognised by a jury of such entrepreneurial esteem vindicates the madness and helps the self-doubt subside. I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur, let alone a social entrepreneur, I’m simply a creative that built a business the way I honestly thought it should be.

At this point I should explain a little more about why Champion is the way it is. To ‘champion’ something is to fight or argue for a cause on behalf of someone else, and for us this works in two ways: the first, being to champion young creative talent. They face an immense challenge breaking into an industry that encourages exploitation, discourages equality and accepts that there’s a ‘creative crisis’, quoting Neville Broady – Dean of the RCA. With the return of a two-tier creative education system, there are swathes of talent going to waste.

I come from a poor background, but thanks to the creative industry I’ve being lucky enough to travel the world. I received a government grant to study and worked several jobs to dodge student loans, leaving art college debt free, which today would be almost impossible. To make matters worse, there’s an estimated 20,000 art and design graduates leaving education each year to discover only 300 industry positions available at their level – quoting Marc Lewis, Dean of the School of Communication Arts. Once in the industry, there’s a much bigger conversation about how much creative opportunity is actually possible within today’s agencies; marketeers have more accurate analytical understanding, consumers own the dialogue surrounding the brand, and traditional advertising is suffering from a lack of potency, but that’s for another day. Secondly, but importantly, we only champion those (clients) we believe in; for if we can’t justify the value in something to ourselves, how can we possibly expect others to believe in it?

As creatives we are professional problem solvers, but surprisingly few actually employ their talents to create change beyond the client brief, be that social or simply for good. The industry itself is slow to applaud thinking that goes beyond the traditional. This year GravityLight won awards, but it’s game changing design received the same accolade as a direct marketing campaign, completely ignoring it’s life saving potential. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if the creative industry awarded inspiring problem solving far beyond punny headlines or speculative commercials that we all know only ran once in the early hours of Sunday morning?

Two years and six months later, what’s the news? I’ve never being more creatively challenged in my career, both in terms of directing the creative work and the agency. Champion’s hybrid nature of commercial and social models forces us to constantly redefine ourselves, an ‘untraditional agency’ seems the most appropriate for what we are. For that reason we can’t be easily compared to other creative agencies. I recall one conversation I had with a big agency CEO, who couldn’t understand why anyone would start an agency without an exit strategy. They couldn’t fathom out how you can’t sell a social enterprise. Within that model is a constant battle between ethics and profit, yet without it we’d just be another creative agency so it can’t ever be ignored or forgotten.

We’ve championed change at all levels, with an amazing collection of clients with whom we have working relationships like I’ve never experienced before nor enjoyed. The creative work we produce is gaining a reputation for not only being innovative and effective, but it looks great too. We produce more brand, identity and design work than I expected, as I think advertising in its conventional sense is not as important to our clients. They offer something that has more social or positive value, meaning therefore there’s less need for the hard sell or, in some cases, even a sell because it’s such a great idea. The campaigns we create are very considered and culturally aware, because of our unique social mission. Those creating the work are diverse in age, experience and background and better reflect the world we all live in. To date we’ve employed 39 young creatives, with the youngest aged 15. We’ve been quoted in Forbes, featured in the Guardian and been the pick of Design Week. Creatively our reputation is strengthening, and we’ve achieved some impressive results, but we can’t forget we’re only ever as good as last project so every opportunity has to count.

So, what’s the plan for the next two years and six months? Definitely more sleep. I forgot to mention that my son Duke was born 18 months after opening and wasn’t factored in to the business plan, and I’ll be the first to admit long days and noisy nights don’t mix well. We’re on business plan number 7, and our success relies on us constantly adjusting to change, so we have to continue to expect the unexpected, and react positively every time we’re greeted by the unknown. We’ve recently had some serious conversations about the possibility of launching a new enterprise in a very different sector, so I can definitely see us venturing beyond our design and advertising realm at some stage. KK Outlet is a great example of a mixture of agency, gallery and shop, but I’d expect Champion to open something beyond creativity, but to do it in a very creative, ethical and challenging way. We have to accept that when ethics is involved with growth, it will always be slower than just chasing dollar, but our ambitious plans require increasing turnover to accelerate us opening other offices.

Creatively, we comfortably punch above our weight. Making sure we have real creative opportunity is essential, and by that I also mean clients that actually want to challenge the status quo and applaud new approaches. The vision is to be the most successful creative agency across the UK with several regional offices that collectively better represent the Britain we all live in, and make Champion the first choice for national and local creative answers. Champion must become the first agency aspiring young creatives strive for. I envisage offices more akin to creative youth clubs than agencies, a British Bauhaus where anything is possible, from hosting artist’s residencies to defining policy change. Advancing creativity on all fronts relies on educating and empowering marketeers, as they are at the core of everything we do, we need to bring them closer to the conversation. We need to invite them to inspire us and in return be inspired by more than just our work. We should sit on our client’s steering boards and vice versa, integrating ourselves further than any agency has been before.

This might sound like far-fetched thinking, but so did Champion two years and six months ago…