What's in a name? isobel's Paul Houlding talks independence, supercharging and bacon

 
Will Railton
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The best that media will be is efficient, says Houlding

Sometimes in advertising, you need to be wrong to be right – to produce a tension,” says Paul Houlding, managing partner and co-founder of independent creative shop isobel. It’s that kind of thinking which led him and his three partners to christen their agency with the middle name shared by their daughters when they started the firm in 2003.

“We should have used our last names – Houlding, Hastings, Alexander, Fletcher – as was the trend at the time, but we chose a girl’s christian name instead. We try to do that with our work – you need to have one foot in the comfort zone and one foot out.”

Thirteen years down the line, and isobel’s ethos has changed little – to produce creative which will change consumers’ perceptions of a brand. “We’re persuaders, not publishers,” insists Houlding. He tells City A.M. why he thinks creative isn’t talked about enough.

Where do creative agencies end and media companies begin?

It’s a muddle in the middle. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but everyone’s fighting for territory. In reality, people are simply expanding their businesses. It’s natural for a media agency which operates in a lot of channels to start their own content division. Activation content is an easy space for them to play in; it’s just about being more efficient with your media. But it’s not really in their culture to get involved in creative.

I’m borrowing this quote, but I believe that the best that media will be is efficient. Creative, however, can be magic. Isobel is much more interested in producing hero content which will change people’s minds about a brand and foster a fan base. If our creative can work three times harder than that of our clients’ competitors, their media spend becomes far more efficient than if their media buying was simply better.

It might entail a 30 second TV ad or a relationship with a publishing house – the big, magical idea drawn from insight into the client’s business and which supercharges it. And that takes time. It’s a mistake to think that, just because we’re in the digital age and communication is quicker, that good ideas can be thought up in an instant.

It’s not always about paid media then?

Not necessarily. We’re currently helping the bacon brand Danepak relaunch in the UK. Because it’s a fast moving consumer goods product and scale is important, there was a natural place for TV ads. But while we were building distribution, we wanted to start sowing the seeds of the Danepak brand.

When we travelled to Denmark, we were struck by how seriously Danish Crown, Danepak’s parent company, took its operations. We noticed a real commonality with the Danish attitude to life – they’re serious about what they do, but there’s a sense of humour in it. So we came up with a Facebook channel, Serious Bacon Club, which is a fan club for bacon lovers.

It is light on Danepak branding, because the approach isn’t about selling to people. The meat sector is not a branded sector – it’s 95 per cent own-label, Danepak had big, tough targets to hit, and some of the engagement figures have been phenomenal.

We’ve used it as a prelude to the TV spots. The juxtaposition of seriousness and humour runs through both channels. The social part cost a fraction of the TV but is equally engaging.

What are the advantages of being an independent agency?

Independence gives you control of your own destiny, but there are two sides to that. The one thing which genuinely makes a difference is commitment to the cause. There are no political agendas here.

I would say that, when you start an agency, you might not be confident, but you have to be clear about why you want to do it. Regardless of your size, a clearly defined culture and spirit is important as well. Interestingly, I spent 10 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, which had grown to 600 people by the time I left, and there was the same entrepreneurial spirit as in the start-up I left it for.

Is the value of creative discussed too little?

There is so much noise about channels, data and insight to the exclusion of creative, which is quite damaging. People are starting to write about it a bit more, but I would struggle to name more than three creative directors of other agencies. What irritates me about a lot of content agencies is that they think that descriptors for a piece of clothing are the same as award-winning effectiveness. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but there’s a lot in the middle muddying the waters.

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