St Luke's: "The agency for brands that see crisis as a reset moment"
The St Luke's management team on future growth and how its culture continues to defy crisis
St Luke’s is marking its 27th anniversary with its annual feast day - celebrating the eponymous patron saint of artists, doctors and surgeons. Balloons, tinsel and a go-karting track day is on the menu for this year’s festivities. But the celebrations this year are more than just marking the annual day on the calendar. The agency is looking back with pride at the last few years of its resurgence and its resilience as an indie shop, during a period of turbulence for the industry. And getting ready to step up a gear in 2023.
Following a spate of new wins in 2020 (which included Ocado) and 11 new wins last year including South Western Railway, River Island, i newspaper, and Butterkist - the agency has since doubled in size and revenues. This year it has announced four new client wins including Heathrow Airport.
Creative Salon sits down with Neil Henderson, chief executive; Al Young, chief creative officer; Dan Hulse, chief strategy officer; Rich Denney, executive creative director; and Jess Gibb, chief marketing officer to discuss what does doubling in size and expanding its offices mean for St Luke’s and its future.
Those with long memories will remember St Luke’s as this utopian-styled shop founded by the maverick founder Andy Law in 1995, which built a strong creative reputation in its heyday attracting major-league clients such as BT, the government and BSkyB, despite its highly unconventional business approach. Subsequently rocked by a series of management rifts leading to a very public ousting of Andy Law in 2003.
A lot has changed since. The last few years have certainly seen a heady mix of disruption and transformation of the industry. Something that the agency seems to thrive on. But without the signs of the very public dramas of its past. For Neil, who is celebrating his 26th anniversary at the agency on St Luke’s feast day, there's little appetite to reminisce or dwell into history books. And rightly so. Time to build, and grow further. But what does the future hold for St Luke’s? Is there a sale on the horizon, or an international expansion on the cards?
The economic, social and political turmoils are of course significant headwinds for all businesses. But for indie shops without the cushion of the support network provided by a holding company, the freedom of choosing your own destiny can’t be appealing all the time. In the race towards new opportunities for its people and clients - would St Luke's ever think of hitching its wagon to a likeminded network? The answer is not a firm no. But the freedoms offered by its independent ownership is what is currently setting the pulses racing for St Luke's.
The management team has however started writing its next chapter, with new characters and a few new plots. Al Young calls the agency "a self-rejuvenating company" and the agency is keen to adapt and thrive whatever the challenge. The story's hotting up.
Following is the excerpt from the interview with the management team at St Luke's.
Creative Salon: How would you describe this period of growth for the agency? What's making clients take note of St Luke's to help you with soaring new business?
Neil Henderson: During a time of incredible change, St Luke’s is the agency clients have turned to. We won Ocado during lockdown when all eyes were on online retail and helped them become the UK’s fastest-growing brand. We were chosen by South Western Railway when the big conversation was about WFH versus returning to the office, successfully persuading lapsed commuters to enjoy being in town again. When the world was opening up and everyone began travelling again and there was intense media focus on airlines and airports, Heathrow chose us to define their agenda in the context of Brexit and the climate crisis. As the country looked on in dismay as the Partygate fiasco unfolded we put Butterkist in the heart of the action. And as the world grows ever more divisive and the truth harder to find, we were chosen by i Newspaper to deliver their unique promise of impartial journalism. When the world talked about ageism, we had a 65-year-old intern. And as outrage about the cost of UK childcare grows we addressed the UK’s largest barrier to returner mums with our £500 pm childcare policy.
Dan Hulse: The clients and the brands we attract are the ones that see the challenge they're facing as a bit of an opportunity. Brands like Ocado or The Daily Mail that see their moments of existential threats as a chance to really express themselves...
Al Young: ... to express their superpowers.
Al Young: We've the freedom to create a different kind of workplace, one that attracts and nurtures talent. Great talent means great work. That’s the draw. And we’ve never ever had our next generation of management sorted out. Absolutely brilliant people, and it couldn’t get more exciting.
CS: You pride yourself on your independent ownership, but as clients increasingly look for one agency partner that can offer more depth and breadth of capabilities and resources, what does the future look like for St Luke's?
Al Young: Having a proposition that we believe is scalable, is critical. We have a brands-first approach, and not channel-first communication. It's not about doing great one-off TV campaigns, and it also allows us to increase our capabilities in a very natural and often required way. We are starting to grow our digital capability, for instance. Experiential, CRM, PR - our clients want more from us. And the next thing is having a great culture, and everyone getting it. Neil especially is so good at spelling out what the values are. So we attract people who naturally share them. It's not necessarily about getting people to comply to them, they naturally buy into that.
Neil Henderson: Clients that are attracted to us are the ones who see crisis as their reset moment. Right in the middle of the pandemic, for example, when all eyes were on online grocery shopping in general, Ocado desperately wanted to express the brand as the future of shopping.
We doubled in size in 2021. We can add another 50 cent to that, without doing anything new. We'd have to reinvent ourselves, though the capabilities we've got now and what our clients want from us could carry us through up onto the next level. Obviously, we've got crisis in the economy to deal with that. But in terms of capabilities, we can definitely do that. We've done a joint venture with Tag. And so we can deliver in any channel anywhere in the world. In any language. That's relatively new.
But the big question for us is what it will take for us to be what you call a really big sized agency. And that's all about added services. New capabilities. Either we do that on our own, or going back to your sale question that is done with a partner. But yes, then doubling again. It's a big question for us.
In terms of expanding outside of UK - we'd love to do that. I think a lot of agencies struggle with it. So we wouldn't just set up shop in Amsterdam or New York. No, we will do it with a client. What we've got is a really clear model, and really clear way of working.
CS: St Luke’s made no redundancies during the pandemic and experienced a low churn rate (around 8 per cent). And you continue to grow and hire. And talk a lot about agency culture in the context of agency growth. How does your culture reflect your leadership values?
Al Young: We're a self-rejuvenating company. Neil & I have been at the agency for more than 20-odd years, and every year has been different, has been better. Let me tell you this story - Michael Wolff was once sat next to the head of HR for Nordstrom [the American luxury department store known for its brilliant service]. And he asked the HR person: "How do you what do you do? How do you train your people to be so good?". And he answered: "They're not dogs or horses. We just make sure we hire the right people who really, really love serving people". That's what we do at St Luke's. We hire very slowly but hire the right people. If you get the culture right, the rest will follow. Get the right people in place and you will attract brilliant clients, and you will hang on to the people you prize.
Rich Denney: Our energy is different, and there's a sense of play in how we approach things. It helps us to attract certain kind of clients, who then allow us to work with that mindset. Everyone wants to get stuck in. Like we had almost the entire agency dressing up for the Tyrrells crisps pitch. When we were pitching for the Heathrow Airport, we had people turning up dressed up in summer and winter holiday gear and a few turned up with surf-boards. These were the staff not pitching for the business. It's having a culture that allows people to enjoy that moment of crisis, or that moment of optimism and energy.
Jess Gibb: As an agency we appreciate the individuals, the humans we have here. We try to individualise our benefits. We empower and respect our people and listen to what they need. That's the reason you can see a spirit of adventure, but not the frivolous kind, at St Luke's. Also the reason we haven't got people Quiet Quitting. If we want people in three days a week, people are in three days a week. And they roll up their sleeves when needed for big pitches. We have so many clients coming in to work from this beautiful space, and they can feel this fantastic working environment we have created.
CS: Finally, what is it that you are most excited about going into 2023 and what is it that you're looking over your shoulder for?
Neil Henderson: I'm most proud of the culture we've created that has defied the crisis, and it will see us through all that next year has in store for us. Great people, brilliant clients, great ideas. Every year, I've had a better year in my career.
But what I fear is efficiency taking all the joy out of it. [Which is] what an agency does - by being together, creating brilliant ideas and great work, and the commitment to it. But a recession will again get us all back to a conversation where that momentum can be easily killed off.
Jess Gibb: I think one of the initiatives that we've done this year, and there's lots to choose from, is the way we tackled ageism and wanted to do more than just talk about being inclusive. We hired Mark Denton- 65 year old paid intern. It was a brilliant experience that we all loved and learned from. A really positive thing that we did at the agency, as well for the industry.
Rich Denney: What I'm so excited about for me is our creative product. And it isn't one thing. It's great to have a piece of work to rely on as a showcase. But we haven't, it's everything we're doing here - from Butterkist hijacking a topical news event and making headlines (the Partygate scandal) to when we made a social media-friendly call to arms urging the British public to stay at home and reversed the NHS logo to say "SHN" – Stay Home Now. And there's more to come and that's what makes my hair stand on edge.
Dan Hulse: What we've got now is a culture where we've got people surprising us all the time. Teams that are beavering away and spotting ideas and opportunities off their own backs. All of that makes everything we're doing so worthwhile.
Al Young: I want to talk about what I love. I love Uncommon and I love, I love, really love, Mother. When I pitch against them, and lose to them I know the business is not going to the enemy. And our industry needs that, brilliant people, brilliant agencies and where we are all supporting each for the work that we are producing, creating.