A big bang in adland: how Atomic London was born
In the last 11 years the creative agency has grown to offer clients truly integrated solutions - but how did it all begin?
01 February 2024
Atomic London is soaring through the 2020s. Not only has the agency produced plenty of award-winning, brand building campaigns over the years - now collaborating with brands such as Clearscore, Yeastie Boys and Stansted Express - but late last year it launched Supernova, a social creator agency, and Atomic Altitude a performance marketing agency, rounding out its already innovative and expansive integrated offering.
But how did it all begin?
Just over 11 years ago Atomic London entered the advertising atmosphere. Jon Goulding, the chief operating officer for DDB UK Group at the time, decided to break away from a network structure and “light the touchpaper” on an independent agency that he felt the industry, and especially clients, needed.
2012 was a year synonymous with the London Olympics, and also marked the end of the recession brought on by the financial crash of 2008/9, but it also saw the birth of a creative agency that sought to help brands solve big marketing challenges. Goulding wanted frustrated clients to experience an agency collaboration that didn’t involve internal qualms between ‘traditional’ and ‘digital’ arms, but rather an outfit that had access to the best talent on “both sides of the fence”. As Atomic’s positioning states: “We are one unified company with the expertise that a modern marketer needs under one roof, working around one table.”
For Goulding, the real inspiration to create a new agency came from working for 10 years at a network agency and being responsible for all things integration, “across ad agency, digital agency, production businesses, content businesses and integrated agency”. He adds: “The last 12 months of my life in a network agency involved clients queuing up to complain about how none of their agencies were joined up, even though they were under the same roof. They were paying twice for everything and having competing offices.”
The “deafening” noise of problems from clients that Goulding experienced made him think that there had to be a market for Atomic. “It felt like the right moment to do it,” he adds. “You can only start an agency if you can identify a proper problem - otherwise, you're just a small business owner because there’s millions of creative agencies. There's a difference between being really good at creative and providing another solution for the market, versus trying to identify a real problem.” Goulding admits that not all clients were attracted to Atomic’s offering, due to companies’ remaining desire for control and competition within their agencies. “But there are certainly enough clients now that don’t have the budget to fund multiple agencies or frankly are getting substandard work because they can't get agencies to work together.”
When Atomic was launched, integration was a popular term. “But now it's obviously on a whole other level. There used to be probably five agencies that would work together and now there's probably 15 agencies that don't often work well together. The issue of integration has got bigger and as a result there is greater demand for it.”
Goulding believes that start-up agencies have to be born from founders disliking their jobs to the point of wanting to start something new. The Atomic London founder and CEO does not regret “one minute” that he worked for someone else, but he “definitely” never wants to do it again. “I was mentally ready and had a problem I thought I could solve. When these two things happened for me I knew I was ready.
“I'd just got a promotion and remember getting a new business card on a flight back from New York. I looked at the card and thought: ‘This gives me zero joy.’ I wasn’t interested not because I was being disingenuous but I just didn’t want to be ‘anybody’ anymore. I wanted to see if I could build something that didn’t exist. It was a real turning point in what I aspired for. The truth of it was that it was a real coming together of emotion and timing.”
Creative Salon: You celebrated your 10th anniversary last year. Would you ever do ‘this’ all over again?
Jon Goulding: There’s definitely loads of things I would do differently, but I don't have any regrets because I made the best decision at the time based on the information available. Like all people that run their own business, however, we could have gotten twice as far in the same time and made half the mistakes. It’s definitely tough on your mental fitness. As everyone says, the highs are high, the lows are low and they can all happen in one afternoon.
The real thing I didn’t necessarily expect to happen is that when I was working for someone else I was incredibly stressed - running around constantly, being barked at by people, on flights all the time - but when I started my own business, I had the pressure but not the stress. It's a very different feeling. It’s the pressure of wanting to succeed and not wanting to fail. It feels a bit like when you first have kids and you realise you’re going to worry about them forever. There are days that I'll cope with that better than others. But there’s no stress because when you get something wrong there’s no one to tell. It’s an internal pressure as opposed to external stress. It takes a while to get used to it.
How has your idea of success changed over the years?
When we started, we had a slightly different idea of what we wanted to do. We didn't want to start an ad agency and sell it to a network five years later and get our old jobs back, having fought so hard to get out. I was still quite young when we launched Atomic so I used to think it was a miracle that we were airborne.
We deliberately wanted to do something that was not like the other startups at the time, which was ad agencies with three founders - even though that was a route to success. This meant we had to be twice as committed to prove a real meaningfulness of what we started. How will we be truly different? It's taken a lot longer and a lot more business acumen to achieve that because you can't just do that organically. You've got to invest money. What we've done in the last 12 months, I would have done four or five years ago, if I'd known what I knew now. The lessons I’ve learnt are overcommit, borrow money, be bolder and quicker, even if it feels scary, because it will come good, particularly if you're trying to be more distinctive.
One of the biggest moments for me was also getting access to people who are very experienced investors or business growth people because they’re very hard to come by in the independent agency sphere. We get exposed to experts in advertising and other disciplines, but there's very few commercially driven entrepreneurs. Finding that someone is a massive untapped opportunity because they can help business owners behave like entrepreneurs, not just think like them. Despite the feeling when you start that there’s far fewer people around you, you can only be successful with those types of people around you. You can’t be successful on your own.
You had a very busy end of 2023 with the launch of Altitude and Supernova - did you know when you first started how the shape of advertising might change?
The shape of advertising is always changing. In truth, in our first five years the original premise was that our clients wanted really great creativity and they wanted it joined up. That was enough to get us on lots of pitches. We had to over commit.
As the creative agency market really started to shape shift - in the last three years it shape-shifted immeasurably - you realise that it’s never changing back. It's not like it would be three years of a difficult economy and that it would just bounce back. It’s a necessity now to invest in areas such as Supernova and Altitude because no creative agency is going to rebound when the economy improves. The landscape has changed in that it was once about being distinctive and it's now about accepting that this is the new business that we're all in.
Tell us about one great success story that defines who you are as a business?
Winning Homebase was a really, really big moment and a turning point for us, because it was the first time that a big high street brand - for us at least - said: ‘The way you genuinely care about how this works across our whole ecosystem is so palpably different.’ It was the first time that a major brand and retailer in that space admitted that they were no longer interested in multiple agencies. It was a real affirmation of where we thought things were going. Now, every single enterprise level brand recognises the need to reduce complexity and get their agencies to work better together. And we did some of our best work and won awards around marketing effectiveness not just creative effectiveness. We had one of the best-rated Christmas ads, despite it being one of the lowest spends. We emptied our entire toolkit of the way we do things to improve the entire customer journey. It was a really big transformational case.
Do you have one big failure story you can share?
There were a few cases of things we wish we did a year ago - ie failures of time - and of course many other failures. We are also a small agency with a team of 50 people so we’ve had to make sure we’ve had the right people on board because we are such a tight knit team. Also, I’ve realised that the quicker you deal with nagging problems the better.
Another thing was when we had to fire a client, which we’d never had to do before. It was a very well known brand and we had to make a difficult decision. But when I came in to tell everyone the bad news I got a round of applause that was louder than any pitch we’d ever made. You have to be prepared to protect your people and morale.
Have you changed significantly as a leader?
I’ve changed a lot. When I worked at an agency I was accountable for a lot but not really responsible for a lot. Accountability without control is actually the definition of madness, and why mental health issues are so bad amongst senior leaders in big corporations. So when you're your own boss it comes with 1,000 per cent more accountability but you can do whatever you want. It's very empowering. However, no excuses can be made, which means it can be quite lonely. But also, it's down to you to really push and be more visionary than perhaps you've ever naturally been.
As a leader, you realise how important resilience is. You have to learn how to deal with the highs and the lows, but not give the impression that you're going through the highs and lows. When you’re going through a tricky period you can’t hide. You have to be incredibly conscious of your own behaviour.
I've also become more absolute about wanting to build a business that people leave having said: ‘That was a defining moment in my career.' It is as important as the business being successful. Everyone remembers a job in which they had a colleague or boss who really helped them and a job in which they may have done the best work in their career. That’s success for me - it’s not all about commercial success.
What is the one thing you are making your big bet on for the future of the advertising industry?
There's no doubt the creator economy is going to be enormous because the growth around it is phenomenal. We’re excited about it and also Supernova because creative agencies are using the skill sets of creators, celebrities or talents to help build brands just as successfully as the best agencies have in the past. Some of the best ads ever made were basically just using creators by another name. It’s an exciting way for us as a creative agency to reinvent creativity in its traditional sense and it's such a great growth opportunity.
The other thing which is really exciting is the fact that a creative agency like us can access all of those brands, of which there are thousands, who are trying to break into that next top league. Historically, I think ad agencies have been blocked from those types of clients because there's a cost of entry to get into broadcast. Whereas now, you’ve got scaler brands with between £50,000 and £200,000, who are desperate to become major players. The fact that thousands of brands will suddenly get into the big leagues is really exciting because it will create massive market dynamism and there'll be many more brands being able to do cool creative work because there’ll be much more creative freedom. This is why we’ve doubled down on the creator economy with Supernova.
Also, the opportunity with Altitude to use first party data cleverly and creatively to unleash the power of data is a really important and exciting part of our offering. Typically, in this space creativity has not been as necessary or as important, whether it's performance media, CRM or targeted content. There’s a chance to do really cool and clever targeted things. You can now do really creative work in that space. Ultimately the opportunity for us to do something creative that properly affects a client’s business is huge.
How does the use of AI fit into Atomic’s future?
There's tons of AI tools available, many of which we use when it comes to concepting, production or writing. The basics are all fairly accessible and I think that will continue to grow, but what we're really interested in is AI with regards to high-end concepting - not just functional content.
Also, when it comes to the talent management part of our business [Supernova], which is very significant now, thousands of people contact us every day asking us to manage them. AI can help us manage those conversations and support creators in the future to help them improve their creative credentials. It’s an enormous volume game now because there's millions of creators and AI offers a brilliant way to help us nurture and develop them without having to speak to them - until they're ready to be handled directly. For example, there are AI tools coming out now that help Tik Tok creators improve their follower bases by improving their content.