New from old

Dentsu may have been founded in 1901 but its London outpost has one of the most radical new agendas in advertising

It’s an exciting time to be an advertising start-up. With the industry in flux, as it struggles to react to the ongoing impact of digital technology, there is an opportunity for nimble, forward-thinking teams to step in and help brands set the future agenda. Yet, with the financial downturn making clients nervous of change and budgets tight, a start-up can seem an even riskier move than ever for a big brand, so how does a new company convince them they can be trusted with their business?

One solution can be found in Dentsu London’s agency model. The company is part of the Dentsu network, which has an enormous presence in Asia – its Tokyo headquarters alone houses around 6,000 staff and even has its own subway stop – but has struggled to make a big impact in the west. Founded in its current form last year, its London office is tasked with becoming the network’s flagship agency outside Asia, and the team there have been given the freedom to build the company on their own terms. “The landscape there is very different,” explains Dentsu London’s managing director Ida Rezvani. “In Tokyo and in Asia, Dentsu pretty much has a monopoly. I think for us, setting up here where there are lots of agencies operating in different media, it’s a pretty saturated marketplace. It really made us think about how we were going to position ourselves. We come from digital and traditional agency backgrounds, and we took the best bits of both and abandoned the rest. Some of the things we found limiting in those agencies just aren’t an issue here: we don’t think in any set media, we’re more experimental in our approach. We’re way more open to collaboration, in an attempt to make work that hasn’t been seen before, or done before.”

Design through experimentation

Executive strategy director Beeker Northam sees the backing of the network as crucial to the agency being able to take the risks needed to create something new. “It’s a golden opportunity, and has allowed us to explore quite a bit in our first year, and that’s where some of our most exciting projects have come from,” she says. “They all lead to a business case or a commercial case eventually, but sometimes you don’t necessarily start with that, and that’s really valuable to us. If you’re trying to do new stuff, you can’t guarantee that everything’s going to work first time, so we’ve had the room to experiment.”

The benefits of this experimentation can be seen in the agency’s output so far, much of which is far removed from what is traditionally seen as advertising. An early series of projects responded to the agency’s philosophy, and tagline, Making Future Magic. Rather than simply adopting this as a slogan, the agency approached creatives outside the company to help bring it to life. A number of illustrators created their own visual interpretation of the words, while Dentsu London also worked with design company Berg to create a series of films on the theme.  Among these was a film of the successful iPad light painting technique, which uses stop-motion and an iPad to create 3D light sculptures.

Making Future Magic: iPad light painting from Dentsu London on Vimeo.

Another of the Berg films suggests smart ideas for brands to use different media surfaces – from TV screens to train tickets – in unexpected ways.

The Making Future Magic projects proved good PR for the new agency – the Berg films in particular were hugely popular online and were recently displayed in the Talk To Me exhibition at MoMA in New York (CR Sept) – but have also allowed them to forge relationships with creatives outside the ad industry, another core part of the company’s plan.

“Something we’d all seen in advertising was the approach of just Googling for ideas and nicking a technique off YouTube or an artist, and sometimes not even crediting it,” says Northam. “We think it’s so much more interesting to be properly involved with those people and see what comes from working with them. It does take a different kind of approach and it’s more long-winded but the results are more interesting and the whole process more rewarding.”

It also puts paid to the notion that all ad agencies are out to steal the ideas of artists and designers. “People are happier to collaborate with us, because we don’t look like a big beast of a traditional agency where we’re going to take their ideas,” says executive creative director Paul Jordan. “We’re a bit smaller, a bit nimbler, a bit fresher and a bit more like them in many ways.”

A family of collaborators

Dentsu London is experimenting with different ways to aid the collaborative process, including setting up a workshop space within the agency, where creatives and external collaborators are encouraged to thrash out ideas, and see where they may lead. Clients are also brought into this process. “The collaboration has got to extend to the client as well,” continues Jordan, “because often you’ll be doing things that haven’t been done before and will require a leap of faith, so they’ll need to feel part of the creative process all the way through.”

Alongside the Making Future Magic films Berg has also worked with Dentsu London on developing Suwappu, a prototype series of vinyl toys. The Suwappu project incorporates augmented reality to create a digital ‘world’ for the creatures to live in that can be accessed via mobile phones and other screen-based devices.

Matt Webb, CEO at Berg, feels that Dentsu London’s genuine commitment to being experimental is what sets them apart in the industry. “We’ve not done work with ad agencies before,” he says. “The reason being, I think, is that world has a culture where you have the ‘big idea’ first and that is magical and initiates the entire project. Whereas because we have a design and making background, culturally we believe that the ideas come through making, you meet them on the way almost. You start with something, you investigate, you try it out, you see what the materials say back to you.”

This way of working can sit at odds with the rigidity of the big idea, but Berg has found it has been welcomed at Dentsu and sees it as key to the success of their collaborations. “There’s lots of communication and there’s the opportunity to be very nimble in the work,” Webb continues. “So if in the process of making something you discover that there’s an area that is a rich seam to explore, in our engagement with Dentsu we’ve found that they’re very keen to take those opportunities. That’s the perfect client collaboration for us.”

Design is central

Even when creating more conventional ad work, Dentsu London has taken a collaborative approach. They worked with biochemist and photographer Linden Gledhill to create a beautiful film for Canon that captured dancing droplets of multi-coloured paint, to promote the Canon Pixma range of colour printers.

The agency is keen to place design, and new design approaches, at the centre of all their work, and expresses frustration that the ad industry tends to think of design as a singular department. “Design in the broader sense is a really exciting field and a really exciting world,” says Northam. “That encompasses all kinds of things, from technology to crafting a really good print ad. To me, it feels really central and to have it siphoned off as a department and just about aesthetics seems to be really missing the potential of it. When you look at some of the most exciting players in the world, they all have design at the heart of things.”

Looking to the future, the team at Dentsu are refreshingly cautious about making any definite predictions for the company, preferring to continue with the organic approach that has served them well so far. The agency now numbers around 50 people and they are keen to keep it at that size, though they hope to take on some new clients over the next year, and aim to get the Suwappu toys onto the market in 2012 too. Their broader hopes for the company are also ambitious.

“We want to be defining what the industry’s doing as one of a new generation of agencies, with the intention of really changing the world for the better,” says Rezvani. “That might sound delusional, but the point of it is we don’t want to just do what’s gone before but to try and push things to a better place for everyone involved.”

“You become very aware that every time you make something, you’re putting something in the world, and we’re really keen for it not to be spam or landfill,” continues Northam. “We realise we’re making the world in a way, and actually that’s quite a big responsibility and we want to do it well.”

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