Golden: “Thank goodness for the recession”

At the start of this year, the recession claimed its first high-profile creative victim as the Designers Republic had folded. Out of the ashes of tDR at least one new studio has risen: Gavin Lucas meets Leeds-based Golden….

Golden was founded by ex-tDR staff Rob Brearley and Steve McKevitt. After their former home folded, the pair picked themselves up and decided to pursue a long-term aim to hook up with a third partner, Francis (Frank) Carolan, who had met Brearley when the pair worked together at Manchester agency Love a few years ago.

“I could never work out why Ian [Anderson] got me in to tDR,” says Brearley thinking back to his previous studio’s demise. “I’ve known him for quite a while and I’d tried it once before and it wasn’t quite right. I love tDR and have done for years but I kind of saw myself as more of an Attik lad: as a designer in the North, you either went one way or the other. The Attik route was a bigger, corporate machine where you work on big brand stuff and try and find your way through it – whereas the Designers Republic stuff was much cooler, small projects and more arts based stuff. I just didn’t really see myself as being that guy. I did enjoy working there though and I got on with Ian great but the projects we ended up working on were there to try and keep everyone in a job.” This underlines what Anderson told cr back in January when we spoke to him for our blog piece on tDR’s closing – that it became necessary to take on the kind of work that perhaps Anderson wouldn’t have chosen to do in order to keep a larger business going.

“When Rob and I met, we knew quite quickly that we’d like to set up something together at some point so we’ve kept in touch,” explains Carolan (whose background is as an ad agency account handler) of Golden’s inception: tDR’s collapse was the catalyst needed to kickstart their plans. “I was running an agency called The Engage Group in Manchester,” says Carolan. “I got a call from Rob saying ‘let’s get this together’ so I left my job.”

The trio decided to set up in Leeds when they found a studio space on the top floor converted loft space of a building on Call Lane – a stone’s throw from Leeds train station in the heart of the city. “It feels quite glamorous,” says Carolan of their studio. “Maybe because you walk out of the lift straight into the space. That and the fact that the landlord refers to the space as ‘The Penthouse’. It needed a lot doing and we’ve done a load of work to it but we love it.”

And it shows: The Penthouse now has the feel of a well-appointed loft apartment, with sloping ceilings, exposed beams, lots of natural light, a Chesterfield sofa, and some striking wallpaper featuring, naturally, a bold gold print. “A load of media agencies in Leeds basi­cally have the same white-box office,” claims Brearley. “You wouldn’t know if you’d acci­dentally walked into the wrong one! That’s not what we wanted to create for Golden. The type of stuff we want to do, there’s not many people doing it in Leeds,” he adds.

“Leeds has got some great agencies but they’re quite niche and there’s no-one doing the sort of large brand work that we want to do. It seemed that we could make a home here and still be in the north, not far from our roots.”

Carolan is quick to point out that their precise geographical location wasn’t some­thing they worried about. “I don’t really think it matters where we’re based – we don’t see ourselves as a regional agency. Leeds is a pretty cool city and when we found we could get a space like this on a road like this [Golden happens to be on the ‘party road’ in Leeds – all the cool bars and clubs are downstairs] it made total sense to be here.”

“So what you’re saying is that the fact that there are seven great bars outside justified the decision to be in Leeds?” asks Brearley. “Yeah,” says Carolan. “It’s worked out really well. Thank goodness for the recession too – we got a really good deal on this place.”

Having witnessed first-hand the demise of tDR, Golden has a very clear idea of how it wants to operate. “I was reading Adrian Shaughnessy’s piece in the last issue of cr,” says Carolan, “and he says that designers get the clients they deserve. I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Saying you need to be grown up about it sounds a bit wanky, but you kind of want to get on with these people and move forward together and that’s really where this idea of ‘together we are Golden’ comes from. Clients, suppliers, all of us getting together and producing something that’s top notch.”

“It’s quite an old-fashioned idea,” suggests Brearley, “creating a network of people you know you can count on – taking good people from all over and bringing them together for any particular project without necessarily employing them and becoming an 80-strong organisation.”

Golden’s recent work for Danish butter brand Lurpak is a case in point. While the agency was charged with creating a brand book, Brearley noticed that its type and the packshot used all the time in Lurpak ads were both of dubious quality. “The typeface the brand was using wasn’t particularly well drawn or versatile so we decided to create something better,” explains Carolan. “We collaborated with Jason Smith at Fontsmith to get a level of expertise we felt was appro­priate and the result is Lurpak Sans.”

As for the shoddy packshot, having realised a silver foil butter pack was extremely tricky to photograph, Golden called upon post-production company Taylor James to create a much better high definition cgi image the brand could own and utilise.

“The craft of design and things done well is what we’re hot on,” maintains Carolan. “It’s not that I see it as an old-fashioned approach, we just want to do things really deliberately and make sure that everything we do is ‘golden’, I suppose. We want to grow this so we’re known for the quality of our output. If we’re working with people from all over on different projects who are all on top of their game then, in theory, it should mean that our output is always top quality. The other good thing about working with external people is that they don’t have to toe the line. I think it’s good sometimes to work with people who don’t have to think ‘I’m employed by these people so if they tell me to make it bigger I’m gonna make it bigger’.”

So what about recruiting people into the Golden fold? “Recruiting is difficult,” says Brearley. “Getting the right people, especially middleweight to senior people, particularly if they’ve been working at a regional company for regional clients – they tend to be a bit browbeaten. Actually, what we found was it’s easier to take on someone who doesn’t know any better.” Golden recently took on Fliss Gibbeson, a graduate fresh from the University of Lincoln. Brearley maintains experience isn’t as important as finding someone “who wants to do great work and who can work on lots of different things be it with type, illustrate a bit, work with big brands and also work on the production side of things too – because we don’t have a dedicated production guy.”

“I think this is a better way of working,” Brearley continues, “because you learn about all aspects of each job and there’s no  ‘oh so and so isn’t in and I don’t know how to do it’. It feels more independent like this. It’s easy in some of the bigger places I’ve worked to drop responsibility but at Golden we want our responsibilities to be inherent throughout the company – maybe even have overlapping responsibilities so that we have people arguing in lumps – it’s got to be a labour of love!”

“When you’re this small, there’s no hiding place,” adds Carolan. “I’m often to be found mincing round with a feather duster keeping the place looking spotless. I’m happy to do whatever around the studio because there’s a pride here in what we’re doing. I wouldn’t ever want to lose that sense of pride in a job well done.”

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