The new faces of Pentagram: Naresh Ramchandani

Its unique business model requires a constant stream of new blood, so the fact that two partners are joining Pentagram — one in New York and one in London — is not in itself remarkable. But Naresh Ramchandani and Eddie Opara represent more than just the next illustrious names to sign up with probably the world’s most highly regarded design group…

Ramchandani, as the group’s first advertising partner, represents an intriguing addition to Pentagram’s capabilities but, perhaps more significantly for the design world at large, he and Opara are Pentagram’s first non-white partners.

Here CR’s Eliza Williams talks to Ramchandani about joining the illustrious design group, while in a companion article Patrick Burgoyne speaks with Opara.

Pentagram has appointed its first advertising partner. This shouldn’t really be big news, as Pentagram already represents practitioners from a diverse set of industries, including architecture, product design, graphic design and digital design. Yet the company’s image is graphics led, and with graphic design and advertising historically having a somewhat tense relationship, the arrival of Naresh Ramchandani is certain to raise a few eyebrows.

Ramchandani comes to Pentagram via a career in advertising that has been spent in some of London’s most creative agencies, a couple of which he founded himself. He entered the industry with a desire to make a living as a writer. “I was toying between journalism and advertising,” he says. “At the time advertising had a cultural place and power that I think it’s struggling to find, or rediscover, at the moment. It had an allure and a glamour.”

His first job was as a copywriter at HHCL, the agency that introduced a blast of creativity into 1990s advertising, with campaigns for Tango, Maxell cassettes, and Ronseal. HHCL promoted the idea of ‘hot desking’ in an attempt to break down some of the divisions between the creatives and account teams, which proved hugely influential on many UK agencies that followed, including Mother. “I always think of them as the punk rock agency of advertising,” says Ramchandani. “Because they were very much about ripping up the rules. Their central tenet was that there’s lots and lots of messages out there and there’s no point saying the right thing if people are not going to engage with it.”

This approach struck a chord with Ramchandani. “I thought that’s the only way to be, it really, really chimed with me.… I got to work under Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott, who just turned out to be the best mentors I could possibly work for. Both very inspiring and very nurturing and they just threw me in the deep end.”

Ramchandani’s first job at HHCL was to work on the launch of First Direct bank. His second was a campaign for Maxell cassettes, which went on to pick up the coveted Cannes Lions Film Grand Prix in 1990. Set to the soundtrack of Desmond Dekker’s reggae hit Israelites, the memorable ad features a man holding placards that reveal his humorous misunderstanding of the song’s lyrics, before advising that using a Maxell tape might provide extra clarity. Winning such a huge award so early in his career proved liberating for Ramchandani. “With all that award nonsense done it left me in a very nice place,” he says, “because I think I was then free to try some stuff.”

After further projects at HHCL, Ramchandani and his partner at the agency, David Buonaguidi, were headhunted to join the London office of Chiat/Day as creative directors. Chiat/Day had been an inspiration for the HHCL way of working, so it was a natural move for the duo, though a short-lived one with the agency being sold to Omnicom not long after they joined. Keen to avoid being “swallowed up into the TBWA office”, the two left and founded their own agency, St Luke’s.

At St Luke’s they continued the creativity-led approach that had served them so well so far. “Dave and I, with our Howell Henry training about doing things differently, put a very different creative department together, with creatives from all over Europe, some that weren’t necessarily trained conventionally in advertising,” says Ramchandani. “I think we got some very interesting answers as a result of it. I think for about a year and a half, our creative department was doing the best creative work in London. It had a real purple patch.” This period included distinctive work for brands including Ikea and Eurostar.

The unusual structure that Ramchandani and Buonaguidi had created at St Luke’s eventually worked against them though, by causing confusion and turmoil. “It was like a live yoghurt, seething away in a pot,” Ramchandani says now. The duo  left and for a year went their separate ways. During this time, Ramchandani worked on a few projects at Wolff Olins – where he got his “first taste of another way of looking at communications”.

He took these ideas into his next venture, Karmarama, an agency formed again with Buonaguidi in 2000. The duo could see that the world of advertising was changing, with digital media exerting an increasing influence, and knew their agency needed to reflect this. “We were very interested in exploring the different ways that seemed to be emerging in the media landscape for brands to connect to consumers,” says Ramchandani. The agency won back the Ikea account, and also created striking pieces of self-initiated work, including the ‘Make Tea, Not War’ anti-war poster, which stars Tony Blair with an upside-down tea cup on his head.

Ramchandani left Karmarama in 2005 (citing “creative differences” with Buonaguidi), and his career since has followed an eclectic path. He set up an environmental charity, Dothegreen­- thing.com, with Andy Hobsbawm in 2007, an enterprise he will continue while at Pentagram, and has been involved with various freelance projects, including YouTube’s first advertising campaign. He also realised his early ambition to become a journalist, writing a regular column for the Guardian on advertising.

His first collaboration with Pentagram came in 2007, when he worked with John Rushworth on a project for Armani’s hotel brand. “Naresh was brought into the project because we felt that there was a need for some advertising thinking around the brand,” says 2 3 Rushworth. The partnership was successful, and was repeated again on a later branding project for another hotel chain. Rushworth feels that Ramchandani’s advertising approach brought a unique vision to the two projects. “If design seduces the audience, advertising goes out and gets it by the scruff of the neck,” he says. “And a little bit of both of those things working in tandem is not a bad formula for winning the affections of the object of your desire. Really what we found ourselves doing is taking an advertising concept, and then building a design communication behind it, which really amplified it, and brought a fresh way of thinking to the particular sectors we were working in.”

Despite the success of these collaborations, Ramchandani was still surprised when Rushworth proposed that he become a partner at Pentagram. “My trade is not visual,” he says. “Even though I have lots of experience working with visual people, my craft delivery, to use Pentagram words, is very much words. Then John explained that they were very interested in adding a slightly different skill or experience into Pentagram. That for me made it interesting, because that meant that Pentagram is interested in evolving.

“I can’t really go into a place unless there’s some job to be done,” he continues. “I can’t go into a place if it’s just a bit more of the same. So it’s a brilliant challenge to try and bring something a little bit different into Pentagram. Also to hit the standards that they have set. They’re some of the best designers in the world. So to try and do my product and try and meet those standards, but also put in all the things I love about communications, which is making things that are a little bit different or disruptive, I think that’s the real challenge.”

Before joining, Ramchandani had to meet all the other partners at Pentagram, to see if he would fit with the company’s ethos. While an intimidating process, he describes it as “right”. “It’s very, very rigorous, and very, very careful, and I think that’s right,” he says. “Partly because it’s a partnership, and everyone shares in the running of the company, and in its finances, so therefore it’s a shared responsibility to bring someone in. Also what I’ve started to find out is that your existence at Pentagram as a partner is very much in an ecosystem with those other people, so you have to be able to be part of that ecosystem, or family, or whatever the right word is.”

Ramchandani’s quest to join Pentagram was aided by a piece of work that he made alongside Rushworth at the end of last year, which proved to be hugely successful for the company. What Type Are You? is a website created as a sort-of Christmas card from the agency (though it has no seasonal references), which invites visitors to answer a series of questions before being designated a certain typeface. It utilises many of the skills Ramchandani brings to Pentagram, including excellent writing, as well as the contacts to create a series of films on the site and to commission original pieces of music. It undoubtedly helped explain to partners who may have been less certain of his relevance to Pentagram what he could bring.

“His way of thinking is very different and fresh,” says Harry Pearce, another partner at Pentagram who is currently working with Ramchandani on a project. “The lovely thing about it is it’s in the real spirit of Pentagram, which is a collaborative spirit. He’s just another one of those kinds of minds.”

Both Ramchandani and Eddie Opara bring a different emphasis to Pentagram in terms of the work that they do, as well as a welcome ethnic diversity. While the latter may be purely coincidental, Ramchandani’s arrival in the London office certainly reflects Pentagram’s recognition of the need for today’s creative industries to be flexible and always evolving.

“Pentagram’s always had this rather purist vibe about it, but that’s just history, it’s not actual reality,” says Pearce. “I think that’s just because we’re all passionate, and the fact that that’s broadening slightly doesn’t change the spirit of Pentagram at all. In fact it’s very in the spirit of Pentagram. We’re not turning into an advertising agency or anything like that, we’re just broadening
the mindscape of the place.”

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