Ten years ago, when Mike and I decided to setup Toward we did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people, just to make sure it was a good idea. We returned to uni to seek advice from our lecturers who said we’d drive ourselves mad by 40 (that might still happen!) and we spoke to family and friends who all offered their own unique brand of advice. We also spoke to a couple of people who had already done it. The consensus was it was a good idea and we would probably be a good fit for each other.
Back then we loved the work being done by large London agencies like Johnson Banks and Turner Duckworth (we still do), and we had the great fortune to make contact with Karen Welman, one of the founding partners of Pearlfisher.
Pearlfisher are without doubt one of the top branding and packaging agencies in the world. They have won over 200 international awards for design and they currently sit 2nd on the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards table.
They now have studios in London and New York and employ 80+ staff.
Cadbury Dairy Milk packaging by Pearlfisher
A few months after starting our first jobs, Mike and I packed our notepads and pens and travelled to London. We rang the big brass bell and wiped our feet on the Pearlfisher branded welcome mat. We were welcomed by a receptionist who lead us upstairs, where we sat on bright orange designer chairs and waited. There were glass partitions breaking up the studio and we could see people typing, clicking, drawing, cutting, spray mounting, chatting and generally having a brilliantly creative time. Yes, this was a proper design agency.
After a short wait, a smiley, bubbly, but professional lady introduced herself as Karen, one of the founders. Together we entered a bright, white meeting room with white walls, a white table and white chairs. On the walls were white shelves sparsely adorned with bottles of Absolut Vodka, Innocent Smoothies and beers, bars and boxes of Green & Blacks chocolate and other random, but beautifully designed pieces of packaging. All designed by Pearlfisher.
This Water branding and packaging by Pearlfisher
We talked for a while about our vision for Toward and what we wanted to achieve, but mostly we just sat and listened. We listened to story after story about clients, projects, pitches and design. She spoke honestly and frankly about design and her views. She looked at our business cards and immediately told us to change our job titles (for some reason we had decided on “Creative Manager” and “Business Manager” – we were just a couple of upstarts after all). She told us to be confident in our service and skills. Not to be intimidated by clients, and to learn as much as we needed, to make sure we’d have control of any conversation about design.
She told us about their views on free pitching and free exclusivity, and their ethical take on design. One of the many stories she told was about how they decided to turned down the opportunity of working with McDonalds because they didn’t believe the product – A pretty big decision for any agency to make.
She also talked at length about the culture of the company. About how they treat their team and their clients. We learned a lot about how to be personable and make an impression with our clients from that. We also learned a lot about how important the culture within an agency (in fact, any company) is, and a little about how to achieve it.
We were buzzing as we left. I felt like I gained more in those few hours than I ever have reading a book about design or business. I remember we were pretty quiet as we trundled down the M4 in Mike’s mother-in-law’s Toyota Carina, going over in our minds what we had talked about with Karen, making sure it stuck.
Although we haven’t directly and exactly tried to replicate what Pearlfisher is or does, and we’ve formed our own views and opinions, I’m sure that meeting has had an impact on the company we run today.
Yeo Valley packaging design by Pearlfisher
So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I heard that Karen would be speaking at the Arnolfini in Bristol, an event set up by the West of England Design Forum. She was going to be speaking about the work of Pearlfisher and their culture. Without reading any more I booked tickets for myself and Gareth to go.
It was brilliant. Arnolfini is a great venue if you’ve never been. A lovely open bar serving local brews and delicacies. It was packed too. Around 140 people had turned up to watch as Karen spoke about their work and the business.
She spoke candidly and openly about the tough times they’d been through, which I could identify with, and also their growth and expansion into the US. She spoke at length about the internal workings at Pearlfisher, and the deeply embedded culture of fun, hard work and creativity. She showed examples of their christmas cards/videos (something we clearly have in common – here and here).
Another part of the talk that struck a nerve was the way she talked about the ‘Pearlfisher experience’. One example of this was a pitch they did for Coca Cola, where they anonymously sent the marketing manager pictures of people wearing t-shirts with her name on, taken next to famous monuments all over the world. As she explained, it wasn’t really connected to the work they were pitching for, but it almost drove her crazy and she was desperate to know who was behind it. They got the job.
So I now sit here, all enthused once again, having listened for a second time to someone who clearly knows her stuff about running a design agency. If you’re thinking of setting up an agency, I really urge you – do whatever you can to get an hour with someone who has done it. Send them stuff, phone them, tweet them, massage their ego, do whatever it takes. You’ll learn a lot.
Just to be clear, all the work on this page is by Pearlfisher. We take no credit.
— Tom Lloyd