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Atomic’s energy is pushing the boundaries of brand and performance

Through-funnel creativity seems more relevant now than ever before

By ian darby

Atomic London opened its doors almost ten years ago now, in the heady London Olympics summer of 2012. Its launch seemed emblematic of the optimism that was emerging from what had been a difficult period following the great recession of 2008 and 2009, and which was finding expression in a buoyant advertising recovery.

Founded by a quartet of former DDB UK executives (Nick Fox, Jon Goulding, Guy Bradbury, and Richard Hill), Atomic’s vision was fundamentally the same as it is today – to build an integrated agency model that successfully marries brand and performance.

The independent agency’s adherence to this is now paying off like never before – in 2021 it won 100 per cent of the clients it pitched for, and boosted revenues 25 per cent above their previous pre-pandemic peak. Standout work for clients included the creation of the Homebase ‘Feels Good to be Home’ platform, a celebration of bringing people together for Star Alliance, global campaigns for Papa John’s, the ‘Let’s Roll’ brand campaign for East Midlands Railway, and its first work for Apex Rides, the smart bike brand.

Jon Goulding, now the chief executive of Atomic, argues that its success is based on a distinctive offer and firm principles that attract brands looking for more than a single creative spark. He admits that it can be a sacrifice to refuse to handle “creative one-offs” for brands, and that it costs the agency in terms of awards. But adds: “We have a philosophy that if it doesn’t work everywhere, it doesn’t work anywhere. Then the three executional principles are that you take that through-funnel platform and execute it with clarity of positioning and message, relevancy to audience and moment, and with brutal consistency, which are all proven to enhance the performance of a brand.”

That doesn’t necessarily involve Atomic executing every element across a brand platform. In some cases, for instance, a client’s internal teams execute the digital and performance elements of campaigns based on the agency’s model. Which, argues Goulding, produces strong results but also works to unify the client and agency relationship.

Goulding explains that since its early days, Atomic has striven to provide a real balance between the brand and performance elements of work for clients. This, he says, is possible due to a culture that balances people from different backgrounds: “We’ve said for the last five years that you have to have your creative product run by two joint-ECDs. One from a brand, traditional, top ad agency background, the other from digital and social, and they have to work as a unit, as a team. Then everything is built around supporting that joined-up creative product.”

This is a model that won’t change, says Goulding, in the wake of the recent departure of joint-ECD Dave Henderson. Atomic is already making progress in its search for a new creative leader to partner executive creative director Katy Sumption, who joined Atomic in April 2021, and has a strong background at agencies including Iris and Exposure, in addition to client-side experience at Dyson. At the same time, Atomic promoted Louise Rudaizky, its head of client services to managing director. Steve Hopkins, strategy partner, Jack Williams, head of new business and Matt Walker, finance director, are also important players on the leadership team (Nick Fox, co-founder of Atomic, remains involved as chairman).

Goulding argues that this team now provides a “genuine mix of skills and capabilities”, which in turn will lead to greater diversity of talent and output at Atomic. He concedes that there’s still work to do here, which is why the agency has also invested in initiatives including the ‘Equality in Access’ outreach programme, which includes elements such as Rope Ladder to educate and inspire people from different backgrounds about the creative industry.

In terms of the challenges ahead, it’s in Atomic’s favour that the advertising market is moving in direction towards the integrated model that it provides, reflected in a growing emphasis on consistent output for brands that combine big ideas with performance elements. This is also reflected in developments such as the role of the chief marketing officer expanding at some brands to also embrace the functions of the chief customer officer.

What does this mean for Atomic? Goulding believes that it will require an even greater focus on building a culture that “embraces brand and performance with equal love.”

“Clients are willing to give bigger, broader, scopes of work. So, now, under this proposition you have to be able to add depth of capability. It’s very hard as a 50-person agency to deliver all of that in one place unless you partner, joint-venture, or potentially acquire businesses,” he says.

Goulding highlights the importance of the agency constantly redefining its next chapter. He believes strongly that independent agencies have a particular obligation to focus on clear growth stories because “pre-Covid the creative agency world wasn’t in a good state. Covid has sent it backwards again, there’s a lot of talk about rebuilding where we were.” Instead, he says, Atomic embraces a forward-thinking mentality, which means every three years “checking your growth story is really going to push the boundaries, not just maintain yourself.”

For Atomic this will mean building into new areas and, potentially, making acquisitions, and “taking risks”. Goulding says that this will involve using its independence “to do something a bit scarier”: “Being a 50-person agency for the next three years and being independent isn’t interesting. For me, independence is about freedom to take you out of your comfort zone and do things you wouldn’t normally do.”

While there’s nothing definite to say on this yet, Goulding himself is thriving in the chief executive role and relishing the prospect of taking Atomic to the next stage: “What’s most rewarding is doing something that didn’t exist before. That was my driving force when starting an agency – I wanted to be able to fall off this earth being able to say ‘I managed to build something that wasn’t there before – that’s the driving, rewarding part of it.”

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