What's in a name? Meet Thom Newton and Lee Hoddy, the pair reinventing Conran Design Group

Elliott Haworth
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Lee Hoddy and Thom Newton (Source: Conran Design Group)

The concept of a personal legacy is intriguing; the notion that, when you cease to exist, the impact of your life will still be felt by others.

Most want to be remembered for their achievements, their ideas, their contribution to a field. Sir Terence Conran has an impressive and growing legacy: famed restaurateur, retailer, writer, and designer. But having formed the Conran Design Group in 1956, his first design agency, he sold it to Havas in 1990. When one inherits an eminent name like his, big boots are left on the doorstep.

Stepping into his size tens were Thom Newton and Lee Hoddy, respectively chief executive and creative partner at Conran Design Group, who have worked together for some 20 years. On a Monday lunchtime, we meet at a restaurant near the new Havas village in Kings Cross, and after deciding a bottle is better economy than three glasses, discuss the changing face of a company they entered “sort of by accident.”

Sort of by accident

“This is the first time we’ve done one of these, you’ll have to go gently on us,” Newton says, before we’re interrupted by a bottle-laden waiter. I ask how one “accidentally” takes the helm of an internationally renowned design agency. “Havas were working out what to do with the Conran Design Group,” he says. “They bought the brand from Sir Terence several years earlier, but it wasn’t really developing and flourishing in the way they hoped, so they were looking around, and at the time we had a business (35 Communications) that sort of dove-tailed with Conran, but didn’t compete. So we were effectively brought into the group in 2008, and then latterly, two years in we merged.”

The agency is a startling growth story. Winning contracts with a plethora of household names has accelerated growth to 167 per cent over the last four years, far outpacing others in its field. The growth was achieved through ground up restructuring, by reinventing the brand’s output, focus, and purpose. “When we first came here it was much more niche, much more aligned to retail design, identity work. There wasn’t much breadth. It was fairly pure play and quite small – probably only £2.5m of income, with 35 people,” says Newton.

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Sir Terence Conran founded Conran Design Group in the fifties, but sold it in 1991 (Source: Getty)

Big name

“When the Havas group invested in the name it was exactly for that reason: it was seen as a real iconic British brand that was synonymous with design,” says Newton. “And then when they got it they kind of didn’t know what to do with it. But in that period it became less attuned to the current design environment, and subsequently, less relevant. I don’t think it would be fair to say it was declining, but it certainly wasn’t growing. It had lost it’s way – stagnated a little bit.”

Why then, if the business was plateauing, would they stick with the Conran name, rather than their own, successful brand? “At the creation of Conran there was a philosophy – ‘the democratisation of design’ – which is about helping people understand how design can be relevant in an everyday context, and we really bought into that,” says Newton. “I think we always felt that it was a massive opportunity if we could get it right; if we could bring it up to date, make that heritage relevant in a modern context, then it would be a real asset,” adds Hoddy.

Carrying that weight – of heritage and legacy – while making their own mark, seems an unenviable task. How do you keep the flavour while adding new ingredients? “In the early days it was a bit of a weight to carry,” admits Newton. “You’d go into a meeting and everyone would know the name, and they knew it was British, and they knew it meant design. But they didn’t know anything else. So you spent the first portion of any meeting resetting their expectations around what we did, and the relevance of that.”

“It was like turning an oil tanker around a little bit,” adds Newton. I ask whether such prestige in a name was both boon and burden. “It really was,” he says. “It was great because it got us in the door. But then when we got there we had to spend quite a bit of time re-engineering what it meant!”

Reinventing the wheel

The sea change at Conran Design Group spawns from the evolution of the industry the pair have witnessed during their careers. “How old do you think we are!?” Newton roars, when I suggest he might have started off before ubiquitous computing.

“The problem that the design industry had is that it was seen as being a little bit precious,” he says. “A client would bring a brief to an agency, they would go away and conjure up some black magic and then bring back a solution. It wasn’t very accessible; it wasn’t very collaborative or open to input or discussion. I think what we were drawn to was exactly the opposite, it was about showing what design can do.”

It works across myriad fields, from producing prestige gold embossed financial reports for Burberry, to creating 3D design environments for Royal Dutch Shell. But the work I think best exemplifies its purpose is with the pharmaceutical industry.

“The role design can play in a pharma or healthcare business is really quite profound,” says Newton. “Just by trying to connect patients, carers, or people involved to those who can support their requirements. It’s making packaging clearer; it’s making the usage criteria easier to understand. Just really basic stuff that’s easy to fix, but pharma companies had never really looked at it in that way. They tend to be technical practitioners, rather than from a communicator industry.”

Despite having sold the agency some 17 years prior, Sir Terence Conran kicked up a fuss in 2008 at the first whiff of international expansion, concerned that his name would be discredited. But Conran Design Group today, while bearing his name, is not his legacy alone. It has been tastefully reborn with a nod to his mode and philosophy.


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