Walk into On Road’s office in Shoreditch any day of the week and you’ll be met with what seems like half the teenage population of London. The space is one of the city’s best kept secrets among its younger residents; functioning as a workspace for the studio’s staff but also as a youth centre for kids who are looking to book meeting rooms, do their homework, or even just want a safe space to hang out with their mates.
It’s a far cry from your average market research agency, but then On Road doesn’t really function like a typical agency. Launched in 2017, it has already worked on a number of projects for Nike – including its hugely successful Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign last year – alongside other youth culture-focused brands such as Boiler Room, and agencies including Mother and Grey.
Founders Taro Shimada, 26, and Tarik Fontenelle, 28, have both been ingrained in the market research and ad world for a number of years, and previously worked together on various research projects before deciding to go it alone. “Me and Taro have done this for such a long time that we both have stupid networks of people,” says Fontenelle. “That was basically my job for the first five years, knowing everyone in a bunch of different cities. We came in with one really clear methodology around how to grow and build networks, but we had a headstart because we knew so many people as well.”
Using the £5,000 worth of savings that they’d managed to cobble together, Shimada and Fontenelle functioned as a two-man team at the beginning, working with kids who were fresh out of school, alongside a group of more experienced freelancers. Two-and-a-half years later, the studio has eight full-time staff in its London office, silo offices in New York and Barcelona, and has worked on projects in cities everywhere, from Paris to Moscow.
“We still work with a lot of young people, but we haven’t been hiring a lot of kids fresh out of college because we’ve been trying to get them to go and do other stuff, like go to university,” says Fontenelle. “When it comes to the creatives that we work with, we always prioritise young people…. A lot of them don’t work for us anymore, but they are setting up their own businesses. We’re helping them, we’re giving them resources – whether it’s equipment, space or time – showing them how to not get fucked on tax.”
Considering how young On Road is, it’s surprisingly tricky to pin down exactly what the studio does. Alongside its research work, the team is regularly asked by clients to produce adverts, films and magazines, help out with castings, go into other agencies to do diversity talks, and run events, among other things.
“We do research, we’re a research company, but we’re not a market research company,” says Fontenelle. “That’s the thing, we haven’t even tried to masquerade exclusively as a market research company because we make far more money doing other work than research; it’s just that research is the core tenet of everything we do. What we kind of trade in is being really close to kids, or consumers.”
We do research, we’re a research company, but we’re not a market research company.
Whatever the commission, the studio’s signature style is to do a deep dive into the lives of the community or individuals it is working with. When the team was asked by Boiler Room to create a social media campaign around Notting Hill Carnival, they captured testimonials of more than 100 people from the Carnival community, including mas band players, costume designers and sound system owners.
The same goes for its recent film for Nike celebrating the UK’s American football community and focusing on local team London Blitz, who they are still in touch with on a regular basis. Then there is Nothing Beats a Londoner – On Road’s biggest project to date and one that has made a huge impact on Nike’s clout in the capital. Working with Wieden + Kennedy, the team spent time in youth clubs and estates, nosed around teenagers’ bedrooms, and hung out on street corners to find out what really makes young Londoners tick.
Nike’s decision to go against the grain of most global-focused brand strategies and delve into the local was risky but, as Fontenelle points out, has successfully set it apart from more cautious brands. “The biggest problem with brands in 2019 is … they can’t move as fast as the kids they’re trying to keep up with. People say sub-culture is dead and it’s like, that’s crazy. It’s absolutely everywhere, but it’s just so big now that you can’t think of it as a small wave.
“Brands are orienteering to try and speak to a global audience, but the problem with that is the joy and the beauty and the wonder of culture doesn’t work like that. You have to get into the nuance, you have to get into the granular, you have to get into colloquialisms for it to work.”
A big part of On Road’s success so far has arguably come from Shimada and Fontenelle’s determination to do things differently. To start with, it helps that they are both genuinely representative of the young people they are speaking to on a daily basis. “I think we have these experiences of us being young ourselves and understanding really what it’s about in terms of helping people out, particularly the dynamic in London,” says Fontenelle.
“Honestly I’ve been in situations where I’ve seen the most embarrassing shit by VPs, directors, big-ass people. I’ve been in rooms where I’ve seen presidents say to kids, ‘No, but this product is great, you should like it for these reasons’, beating them into submission until they say, ‘Actually, I do like it.’ It’s like, ‘nah mate’.”
The duo have also invested their time in building up a huge amount of trust with their community of young contributors, and – crucially – giving back. The studio charges a set fee to every client for this specific purpose, which is put into a separate bank account and used for everything from buying books and putting on exhibitions in their studio space, to funding kids to do courses and getting them studio time.
We call ourselves a relationship company half the time because that’s basically what it is; we’re nothing without our network.
“We call ourselves a relationship company half the time because that’s basically what it is; we’re nothing without our network,” says Fontenelle. “I do not want to do anything transactional. I never want a kid to walk away and it feel unfair.”
“With almost every research agency, everything is a transaction. Half the time they aren’t even meeting the kids in their own spaces. We once bid for a project and the client came back to us after reading our proposal and said, ‘Oh, what about the two-way mirror room?’ That is still a really big thing,” Shimada adds.
Shimada and Fontenelle are applying their philosophy to the creative industries more broadly as well and have worked with agencies including Wieden + Kennedy and Grey London on their diversity programmes. “We know how this industry works – myself and Taro have worked in it for such a long time. It’s gone from rooms where I would be the only person of colour, and one of very few PoC in organisations,” says Fontenelle. “I think big companies are [now asking], ‘How can we be more diverse, how can we stop the rot of nepotism, how can we do some interesting shit within communities, versus just tap in and tap out?’”
As for what the future holds for On Road, Shimada and Fontenelle have plans to expand more into other markets such as the US. They are also being asked more and more to set up and manage permanent spaces like their own office-cum-youth centre for other companies.
One thing that won’t be changing though, Fontenelle says, is the approach that they’ve been taking to their work so far. “What we saw when we came into setting up On Road, as much as anything, was [the opportunity] to do the right thing. You can call that a gap in the market if you want, but it’s just our way of doing things. I think we’re very lucky that we’ve set this up at a time when companies are like, ‘Hey, we want to do the right thing too’, so let’s get involved.”