Now’s the time to sharpen your agency’s focus

In this brutal climate, it pays to think more strategically.

The world’s in lockdown. Remote working is likely the norm for your clients as well as your agency. Video chats are a way of life, professionally and personally.

We’ve all had projects paused, postponed or cancelled. These are testing times. For anyone working with clients in the hardest-hit categories, such as travel and hospitality, it’s particularly brutal.

Protecting the health and job security of your team, and the long-term survival of your agency, are the order of the day. You need to hit the ground running once the dust settles.

Social distancing in the age of corona. Photo by Jake Bradley on Unsplash

To do that, it’s more important than ever to review what, and who, your agency is for. Short-term cashflow from current clients is key, but you must also keep communicating to prospective clients why design is an investment, not a non-essential cost. Of course, you must also convince them that your agency is best placed to add that value.

That’s where your content strategy comes in. When all the hatches are battened down, it might feel like you’re running to stay still. The priority list is long, and there are plenty of fires to fight. Clarity is what you need.

Read more: Why your design agency needs a content strategy

In recent months, I’ve been collaborating with three very different agencies to help clarify and communicate exactly what makes each of them special.

Two of them are industry veterans with already stellar client lists, looking for laser focus to explain the unique appeal of their purpose and process to the next great client.

The third is an exciting start-up with a compelling niche, keen to persuade brands of the value it can add.

With every brand imaginable filling inboxes with their take on the coronavirus outbreak, news feeds stoking anxiety and uncertainty, and the day-to-day filled with the practical challenges of handling the crisis, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. But it’s essential to do so.


Need help getting focus amidst the chaos?

Celebrating 50 years of the Virgin brand

  • Client: Virgin / Thames & Hudson
  • Disciplines: Content strategy, interviewing, copywriting, brand voice
  • Duration: 10 months

I am the author of Virgin By Design, a premium ‘coffee-table’ book celebrating 50 years of the Virgin brand.

Collaborating closely with the Virgin Group brand team and the book’s publisher Thames & Hudson, I helped develop a content strategy to appeal to brand designers, creative marketeers and ambitious entrepreneurs.

Rather than a chronological retrospective, we agreed it would be more compelling to tell the story thematically, exploring the unique characteristics that make the Virgin brand special.

Buy a copy of Virgin By Design on Amazon

The process involved over 120 interviews with CEOs, CMOs and other influential individuals responsible for shaping the past, present and future of the Virgin brand – from the early days of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic in the ’70s and ’80s, through to present-day innovations from the likes of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Voyages.

Drawing on hundreds of thousands of words of transcript, I crafted the many diverse stories into 10 distinct chapters. These explored areas such as Virgin’s ‘cheeky start-up’ mentality, the importance of taking risks and innovating, the ‘feel-good experiences’ and ‘magic moments’ at the heart of the brand, and how Virgin can stay relevant for the next 50 years.

With multiple senior stakeholders involved – including Virgin Group’s chief brand officer and global CEO, as well as Richard Branson himself – my copywriting brief was to capture Virgin’s brand values, while remaining engaging and entertaining for an external audience.

Nick helped us shape a cohesive narrative from multiple voices. He was quick to understand Virgin’s brand principles and history, and convey it seamlessly throughout the book. Nick’s skill in finding compelling stories translates to a joyful yet comprehensive read. He was a joy to work with.

Charlotte Bufton – brand manager and project lead, Virgin
Virgin By Design’s 10 thematic chapters. Image credit: Virgin

Fascinating archive photography, striking campaign visuals and playful commissioned illustration bring the featured stories to life.

The design, by Pete Rossi at RM&CO, encourages different levels of engagement. Readers can flick through for visual inspiration, or deep-dive into each chapter’s theme.

Content formats vary from bite-size captions to long thematic reads, bound-in as inserts amongst full-bleed images to maximise visual impact. Gatefolds expand the canvas at key points to do milestone campaigns justice.

Virgin By Design was published by Thames & Hudson in March 2020.

“Nick’s deep understanding of how branding and design work within a business, and his industry knowledge and contacts, make him an invaluable member of a creative team.”

Andrew Sanigar – commissioning editor, Thames & Hudson

Why your agency shouldn’t write everything in-house

Have you found the right balance between in-house and freelance copywriting skills?

In my experience, every design agency sees the relationship between words and design slightly differently. That includes the role copywriting plays in your process; at what stage it’s considered; and who actually writes it.

Perhaps you outsource all your copywriting needs. Or you might handle some of it, but bring in specialists for particular projects. Some agencies have fully fledged in-house departments to take care of it all.

Whatever your set-up, copy is most powerful and effective when it’s baked into the design process from the start – not bolted on as an afterthought. It should be a collaborative, two-way relationship.

That’s particularly true when working with an external consultant. If you’re not on the same page, you risk wasting time and money. But get it right, and both you and your clients will benefit from a totally fresh perspective.

So what does this look like in practice?

Two years ago, I left my full-time role as a design journalist and editor to become a freelance consultant. It wasn’t a snap decision: I’d spent the best part of a year considering how my editorial background could best complement different types of agency model.

Part of this was translating journalistic skills into compelling copywriting and brand storytelling. But while freelance copywriters are plentiful, it’s a lot rarer to find someone with an in-depth understanding of the design industry, and how the creative process works.

I’ve spent years interviewing designers to get to the heart of how they work, and find the most interesting way to tell the stories behind their projects. I’ve scanned more agency press releases than I care to remember, and reviewed thousands of entries to the Brand Impact Awards.

Presenting the Brand Impact Awards in 2018. Image credit: Future

All this has taught me that it’s not just your clients that need great copywriting. It should play a big role in your agency’s internal operations too – because that’s what sells your creative approach to the next client.

Read more: Why your design agency needs a content strategy

Why work with an external consultant to do this? As one client said to me recently, it’s all too easy to get ‘snow-blind’ when you’re too close to things.

I know what’s unique – and crucially, what isn’t – about what your agency does, and can help you develop a content strategy that tells that story in a convincing way. And if it works for you, it’ll work for your clients too.


Does your agency need a fresh perspective?

Why your design agency needs a ghostwriter

Full of strong opinions, but short on time to articulate them?

At its best, design is a thoughtful, considered profession as much driven by bold ideas as aesthetics. And as a cursory dip into ‘design Twitter’ will attest, there’s no shortage of opinions in this business.

But be honest. How often do those opinions become part of a joined-up, effective content strategy for your agency to win new clients?

Read more: Why your design agency needs a content strategy

Whether selling a bold solution to a wary client or crafting a brand strategy to win over sceptical consumers, designers are in the persuasion game. But current client demands come first. Getting thoughts down on paper in a coherent way takes time to do properly. And you need to do it properly.

It’s no use forcing out opinions for the sake of it. If it’s not your authentic standpoint, what’s the point? You need to find an engaging, relevant angle that sheds light on how you work, how you think, what makes you unique.

If all this sounds familiar, but you struggle to prioritise getting it done, I can help you articulate a client-winning thought-leadership strategy – including persuasive content that’s ghostwritten in your agency’s voice.

My editorial background helps me get to the heart of your story quickly, and craft a convincing narrative pitched at your target reader. And whether it’s a one-off piece on a particular theme, or a big-picture content strategy that runs for months, it begins with an in-depth, face-to-face chat.

This is a great opportunity not only to gauge what your opinions and attitudes are, but how you express them – from general style and mood to particular turns of phrase. Tone of voice is a crucial part of any branding toolkit for your clients, so why neglect your own?

Once we agree on an angle, tone and format, I’ll collaborate closely with you to get the content spot-on.

So what does this look like in practice?

I worked with the Red Setter team on a provocative thought-leadership article about ‘brand euthanasia’ for their client B&B Studio, to fuel its reputation for empowering disruptive, forward-thinking challenger brands.

Marmite: B&B’s example of a heritage brand that has stayed relevant. Image credit: City AM

In the firing line: lazy, slow-moving brands that have lost their relevance, but are kept on life-support by empty ‘brand refreshes’ and nostalgia.

Fuelled by expert insights and contentious opinions from B&B’s senior team – including bylined strategy director Lisa Desforges – the short, punchy ghostwritten article was placed by Red Setter in City AM’s opinion section.

Case study: B&B Studio on brand euthanasia

I also helped Studio Output produce a long-form piece to reflect its new strategic positioning: the agency helps brands to adapt and thrive in a connected world.

Following an in-depth briefing session with the senior team, I worked closely with ECD Rob Coke to express the agency’s sector-leading creative approach in written form – using three case studies to show it in action.

Case study: Studio Output’s strategic repositioning

Looking forward to 2020, I’m collaborating with three very different UK agencies on their longer-term strategic content plans, which will start rolling out in the coming months. More on that in due course.


Need help turning your in-house expertise into client-winning thought leadership?

Why your design agency should invest in video

Is your approach to video content working?

In my six years chairing the Brand Impact Awards judging panel, I’ve seen a growing trend for polished videos supporting entries. The best examples function as mini documentaries, telling the story of a project from the perspective of the client as well as the agency.

Clearly this route is more accessible to larger, better-resourced agencies. Bespoke video content doesn’t come cheap, certainly compared to submitting some static images with a written supporting statement. Small, boutique studios may struggle to compete on a level playing field.

But if you only see video as a cost, you’re looking at it wrong. With the right approach, it can form a key part of your design agency’s content strategy.

Read more: Why your design agency needs a content strategy

Told in the right way, the story of a ‘portfolio centrepiece’ project will draw people in and add depth and colour to your creative process. Putting your people on camera also gives your agency an engaging, human face that makes it more accessible and relatable to prospective clients.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. That means you need to pick your battles, as costs can add up quickly. Some projects have a rich, visual story that video can bring to life effectively – others don’t.

You don’t need a Hollywood film crew to shoot an Oscar-winning masterpiece. But telling that story in a compelling way takes more than a camera operator, a sound recordist and someone to edit it together. You need an editorial eye.

So what does this look like in practice?

As discussed in my last post, video was a crucial part of my content strategy for Taxi Studio’s global Carlsberg rebrand.

There were several strands to be explored editorially, and the particularly close collaboration between agency and client on the project merited input from both sides of the table to tell the full story.

Filming Taxi Studio’s Spencer Buck and Carlsberg’s Jessica Felby in Copenhagen [Watch here]

Accordingly, as well as conducting in-depth on-camera interviews with the creative team in Taxi’s Bristol-based studio, we filmed several members of Carlsberg’s brand team in their Copenhagen HQ.

With three agency-side and six client-side interviews to work with, careful scripting was required to cut between multiple perspectives within a few short minutes. Liaising closely with Taxi’s in-house editor, I structured a smooth, engaging narrative for each video.

Case study: Video series exploring Taxi’s Carlsberg rebrand

For the launch of The Clearing’s new book Wild Thinking, I worked closely with the agency’s marketing team, and publisher Kogan Page, to put video at the heart of the content strategy.

The premise of Wild Thinking is about asking challenging, provocative questions to get to the heart of a brand. That lent itself perfectly to an interview format, digging deeper into the themes inside the book.

McLaren CMO John Allert discusses how mediocrity is a motivator [Watch here]

I conducted on-camera interviews with three of the featured brands: McLaren, Dropbox and Royal Ascot. With almost an hour of footage from each interview, I then scripted punchy three-minute videos – as well as shorter cuts for use on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Case study: Video interviews to promote Wild Thinking

There’s an art to steering an on-camera interview, particularly if people aren’t used to being in front of the lens. If the conversation feels natural, an interviewee feels more comfortable and their answers flow.

This often requires changing the line of questioning on the fly to ensure the most interesting content is captured, and in a usable format. For short-form video, you need engaging soundbites that can be edited together easily.

It’s a skill I’ve honed over many years. At Channel 4, I produced regular short-form video documentaries showcasing emerging creative talent.

During my tenure as editor of Computer Arts, I produced a long-running series of video profiles at top agencies across the UK. These included Pentagram, JKR, The Partners, DixonBaxi, SomeOne and many more.

CA studio documentary filmed at JKR. Image credit: Future

Rather than just focusing on media-trained founders and creative directors, these videos were designed to present a cross-section of agency life. We interviewed people from different tiers and departments, all of whom had plenty of interesting things to say, but were rarely in the spotlight.

Watch now on YouTube: CA studio documentaries

For many clients, my varied experience in the editorial and broadcast sectors, combined with in-depth knowledge of agencies’ creative and strategic processes, makes an ideal sweet-spot when it comes to video.


Does your agency need to rethink its video strategy?

Why your design agency needs a content strategy

Is your portfolio working hard enough to win you new work?

I’ve heard the same problem from agencies of all sizes. Time is tight, the team is stretched, and hours spent updating the website aren’t billable.

Once a project is wrapped, it’s onto the next one. Writing the case study is all-too-often a necessary evil to keep the website fresh, perhaps feed into awards submissions further down the line, hopefully get some design press attention.

Stop. Look at it differently. Invest a little more in telling the story in the right way, and your completed projects don’t just show off what you did for one client – they show off how you can work with any client. They sell your creative process, not just your creative output.

Case studies can tell a powerful story about what makes you unique, and why clients should hire you. But to get it right, you need a content strategy.

People fetishise ‘thought leadership’. And if you have something genuinely thought-provoking to say, or an inflammatory opinion on the latest hot topic, it can be a great platform.

Read more: Why your design agency needs a ghostwriter

But to achieve real impact, you need to apply the same kind of strategic rigour to how you talk about your work. Use your case studies to add colour to a wider narrative about how you think, collaborate and solve problems – not just why you chose a particular typeface or colour palette.

So what does this look like in practice?

When Studio Output set out to redefine its strategic positioning – the agency “helps brands to adapt and thrive in a connected world” – I worked with the senior team to help craft a centrepiece article, setting out the stall.

At the heart of the piece was one core message: the experience of your digital products is what defines your brand. In order to thrive, established brands must adapt, embracing the potential of brand-led user experiences.

Image credit: Studio Output

Case study: Studio Output’s strategic repositioning

Crucially, the piece didn’t just discuss this topic in the abstract. Case studies for BBC Sport, Auto Trader and Pottermore were an integral part of that narrative, adding colour and substance to the argument, and making a compelling case to clients facing similar problems in different sectors that Studio Output’s approach could be the answer.

Sometimes a single project has enough value as a portfolio centrepiece to benefit from its own content strategy. Before the launch of Taxi Studio’s global Carlsberg rebrand, for instance, I collaborated with the agency to help identify the most interesting angles on the story.

My strategy was to split the project into three strands: re-crafting the core brand assets; developing a holistic packaging system; and exploring Carlsberg’s wider sustainability story, in which the rebrand played a key role.

Image credit: Taxi Studio

Case study: Taxi Studio’s Carlsberg rebrand

After conducting a series of on-camera interviews with key figures involved with the rebrand from both agency-side and client-side, I scripted three short video documentaries – and worked with Taxi’s in-house editor to help tell the story in a succinct, engaging way. I also wrote accompanying long-form articles to dig deeper into each facet of the story.

The strategy worked, piquing the interest of different corners of the design press: Computer Arts went behind-the-scenes on the reworked brand assets; The Dieline ran an exclusive deep-dive on the packaging system; and Creative Review explored the sustainability story in more detail. The videos were also used in many successful awards submissions.

Read more: Why your design agency should invest in video

These two examples represent opposite ends of the same scale: one uses multiple case studies to add substance to a larger narrative, the other expands one case study to tell a multi-tiered narrative. But both offer value far beyond showcasing completed projects, and show prospective clients how these two top agencies solve creative problems in style.


Is it time your agency had a content strategy?

Asking provocative questions of top brands

Cover of Wild Thinking. Image credit: The Clearing
  • Client: The Clearing / Kogan Page
  • Disciplines: Content strategy, scriptwriting, video
  • Duration: 10 days

I helped The Clearing produce a series of videos to promote its new book, Wild Thinking.

Wild Thinking features 25 unconventional solutions to business challenges, from pioneering thinkers at global brands. I developed a content strategy to draw out particularly engaging themes from the book, and conducted piece-to-camera interviews with key contributors.

Read more about Wild Thinking on Kogan Page’s website…

Working closely with publisher Kogan Page, I then scripted a series of short-form videos. This included exclusive cuts for LinkedIn and Twitter, posing bonus questions from The Clearing’s ‘Wild Cards’ – the pack of 100 provocative questions that inspired the book.

Selection of cards from the Wild Cards pack. Image credit: The Clearing

Read more about Wild Cards on The Clearing’s website…

Here are three of the videos:

How mediocrity can be a great motivator

CMO John Allert discusses McLaren’s unapologetically uncompromising culture, and why a fear of mediocrity keeps the team sharp.

Why leading from the top is outdated

Former Dropbox PR chief Nick Morris shares his tried-and-trusted collaborative approach for engaging and inspiring a team.

What ‘brand purpose’ looks like in practice

CCO Juliet Slot explains how Ascot Race Course translates abstract brand values into meaningful everyday actions for its employees.

“Nick has a unique offer – he’s a writer, a thinker, an interviewer and a burst of energy. He immediately became part of our team when we launched our Wild Thinking book, driving content and building relationships for our short films. It was fun, and it delivered great results.”

Jules Griffith, marketing director, The Clearing

Rolling out tone of voice for a European bank

HROD logo showing four quadrants. Image credit: 31% Wool
  • Client: 31% Wool / EBRD
  • Disciplines: Copywriting, tone of voice
  • Duration: 9 days

I helped 31% Wool make EBRD’s HR department more engaging and approachable.

31% Wool’s verbal narrative for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s newly formed ‘HR and Organisational Department’ (HROD) is based on four ‘quadrants’ that play on banking terminology.

All communications are framed in terms of assets, liabilities, risks and returns. HROD might describe people as its “greatest asset”, for instance, or discuss “unlocking returns” for its staff.

My brief was to translate this conceptual approach across a range of materials – from landing pages to onboarding packs – while balancing the need to be punchy and direct, but also warm and welcoming.

Read more on 31% Wool’s website…

Landing pages from HROD website. Image credit: 31% Wool

I also wrote guidelines to help HROD staff maintain this tone of voice across other day-to-day applications.

Tone of voice booklet for HROD. Image credit: 31% Wool

“Nick quickly grasped the intricacies and breadth of the client’s verbal comms, and brought to life some previously quite generic pieces with our new verbal language and a consistent tone of voice. He was happy to turn around some tight client deadlines, and I hope we’ll be working on more projects together in the future.”

Julia Woollams, creative director, 31% Wool

Telling the story of Carlsberg’s global rebrand

Carlsberg’s re-crafted logo. Image credit: Taxi Studio
  • Client: Taxi Studio / Carlsberg
  • Disciplines: Content strategy, scriptwriting, video, copywriting
  • Duration: 12 days

I helped Taxi Studio develop a content strategy for its award-winning Carlsberg rebrand.

The strategy focused on three core areas – the re-crafting of the mark and other brand assets; the holistic design and packaging system; and Carlsberg’s wider sustainability story, in which the rebrand plays a central role.

Working closely with Taxi’s in-house marketing and creative teams, I conducted piece-to-camera interviews in both Taxi’s Bristol studio and Carlsberg’s Copenhagen HQ, then scripted and edit-produced videos that have since formed part of many successful awards submissions.

The videos were accompanied by ghostwritten articles to tell the story in more detail. These became core case studies on the Taxi website, as well as attracting the attention of specialist publications such as The Dieline.

Part one: Crafted to Last

How the rebrand translates across packaging and POS. Image credit: Taxi Studio

We’ve collaborated with Carlsberg on a major global rebrand, unifying its diverse markets with a simple yet versatile identity system that champions the principles of great Danish design.

Following extensive research into the brand’s 171-year heritage, Carlsberg’s famous brand elements have been carefully re-crafted for the first time in several years, striking the perfect balance between form and function...

Read more and watch video on Taxi’s website…

Part two: Danish by Design

Different variants in the holistic packaging system. Image credit: Taxi Studio

At the heart of our global Carlsberg rebrand is a simple phrase: “In constant pursuit of better.” Drawn from the ‘Golden Words’ penned by Carlsberg founder JC Jacobsen, this pledge drives everything from the quality of the brew, to the company’s sustainability credentials, to how its brand is presented to the world.

With no holistic look and feel to tie the regional variants together, or clear set of rules to govern how different assets were used, the Carlsberg brand was presented inconsistently from market to market. Another challenge was to unify all expressions of it as part of a coherent, master brand-led system...

Read more and watch video on Taxi’s website…

“Nick is an excellent writer with a particular set of skills, skills he has acquired over a very long career, skills that make him a dream for people like you. Try him once and you’ll be taken. Just like I was when we worked together on the Carlsberg brand – he’s a trusted ‘go to’ for us.”

Spencer Buck – creative partner, Taxi Studio

Arguing a strong case for ‘brand euthanasia’

Image credit: City AM
  • Client: Red Setter / B&B Studio
  • Disciplines: Thought leadership, ghostwriting
  • Duration: 1 day

I collaborated with Red Setter and their client B&B Studio on a provocative thought-leadership article about ‘brand euthanasia’. In the firing line: lazy, slow-moving brands that have lost their relevance, but are kept on life-support by empty ‘brand refreshes’ and nostalgia.

The article argued that old-fashioned brands that no longer cater to a real need or desire should make room for the next generation of challengers – and moreover, that no one will miss them when they’re gone.

Alongside high-street failures Woolworths and Blockbuster – too sluggish to adapt in the age of Amazon and Netflix – this included the counter-example of a heritage brand that has managed to stay relevant: Marmite.

Fuelled by expert insights and contentious opinions from B&B’s senior team – including bylined strategy director Lisa Desforges – the ghostwritten article was placed by Red Setter in the City AM opinion section.

Read the story on City AM