Martin Lambie-Nairn on joining Red&White, the perils of expansion and the importance of kindness

Martin Lambie-Nairn is joining design studio Red&White as Non-executive Chairman and Creative director. We talk to him about the best way for design companies to expand (hint: don’t sell to a large holding company), and the enduring appeal of good manners.

Based in London, Red&White was founded almost four years ago by Paul Franklin, and has created work for brands including Sadler’s Wells, the British Library and Kodak Alaris. The agency was also recently appointed to BT’s design roster. According to Franklin, the studio “focuses on design excellence”. “We see ourselves in the middle of the big brand agencies and the boutique design agencies,” he continues.

Franklin and Lambie-Nairn have a working relationship stretching back over nine years, having previously worked together at Lambie-Nairn and Heavenly. “I’ve worked in this industry for a long time,” says Lambie-Nairn. “Occasionally one comes across a well-led group of talented young designers. Paul has built such a team and I would like to contribute to the next stage of their story.”

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Above and top: Work from Red&White for Sadler's Wells and the British Library
Above and top: Work from Red&White for Sadler’s Wells and the British Library

The team at Red&White is currently eight strong and the intention is to expand, but slowly. Lambie-Nairn will help with this process, drawing on his previous experience. “I’ve developed a theory of expansion within the design world,” he says. “There’s a wrong way of doing it and a right way of doing it in my view. The wrong way is just to sort of vacuum up everything, rather than being choosy about what you do. Because actually it needs to be good work.”

He is damning about the impact that joining a large holding company can have on a studio, and feels that his experience of this – the Lambie-Nairn design studio was bought by WPP in 1999, with Lambie-Nairn himself departing in 2008 – can help the Red&White team navigate its own expansion. “It needs to be good work and it’s very difficult for the larger organisations to keep that up, because most of them are owned by WPP or Omnicom or something like that, so the concern is always for the quarterly figures… Then a lot of the clients are not appropriate anyway, and the standard just drops.

“It’s crazy because it ruins everything. It ruins everything for the clients, it ruins everything for working relationships, it’s just a real killer. So if you can avoid all of that … we’ve lived through when it works and we’ve lived through when it hasn’t.”

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Work for the Poetry Society and wine brand Polîc by Red&White
Work for the Poetry Society and wine brand Polič by Red&White

Lambie-Nairn sees the solution as always making sure that the client has access to a senior designer, and as such, both he and Franklin will lead their own projects, with the intention of ensuring the highest quality of work as Red&White grows. “When you’re supporting dozens and dozens of designers and have one eye on the figures you nearly always take the wrong decision,” he continues. “We know what it’s like to be pushed by that totally commercial view, and we don’t want it. We’re actually reacting against it. It’s not that we don’t want to work though, we definitely do!”

Another key element for Lambie-Nairn is the need for trust, respect and kindness within a team. “You’re there to cherish your people and bring them on,” he says. “That’s one of the things that I’m really keen on, that you look after your people – I learned everything from people giving me space to learn and who were kind to me. I think kindness and good manners are massively important and I know for a fact that clients just want to be in that environment.”

redandwhitestudio.com

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