Our founders, Neil and Darrel, were recently interviewed by Gideon Spanier for the London Evening Standard. Here is the piece, featured in the Growth Capital article:
Neil Svensen and Darrel Worthington were drinking in a pub called The Red Lion when they came up with the name of their creative agency. Rufus Leonard is red lion in old English.
It is an appropriate name — enigmatic, with a hint of tradition — because the pair advise some of Britain’s biggest institutions including Lloyds Banking Group, British Gas and John Lewis on how a piece of branding or design magic can help transform their businesses.
Last year’s makeover of Lloyds — rebranding all its bank branches and its marketing in green and ditching the “For the Journey” mantra in favour of messages about the bank’s contribution to Britain — is Rufus Leonard’s most high-profile work of late.
“We have a tendency to embrace ‘backbone of Britain’ clients,” says Svensen, referring to the agency’s roster of establishment names. “It wasn’t a policy. They warmed to us and we warmed to them.”
The two co-founders talk intensely, sitting in their bright, high-ceilinged offices in a former Victorian military drill hall in Farringdon — another symbol of how their 25-year-old company mixes modernity with a sense of history.
The pair worked for celebrated brand agency Wolff Olins before launching on their own in their mid-twenties in 1989. “We didn’t write a business plan — we had blind optimism and youth,” says Svensen. “The work was plentiful, we were in a boom and we had been at a great company.”
From the start, a lot of their work involved internal communications for companies, rather than just external marketing campaigns aimed at consumers.
Shell was an early client. Svensen, 51, and Worthington, 48, worked on creating operational manuals for staff in the oil giant’s petrol stations.
Advances in technology meant that the Rufus Leonard duo were soon making CD-Roms, which were practically a tenth of the price of the manuals.
“It was almost overnight that clients went from traditional to digital,” says Svensen, who describes the change in the 1990s as “frantic”.
Some of their clients such as Lloyds date back more than 20 years. “We helped put together Lloyds and TSB. Now we’ve helped on separating them,” says Svensen, recalling the banks’ 1995 merger and their recent split. “We like longer-term relationships with clients. They are the best things you can have when times get tough.”
Big rebrands such as Lloyds will always get the most attention. “Wally used to say when you’ve got a new identity, it signals change,” says Worthington, referring to Wally Olins, co-founder of Wolff Olins.
Like its clients, Rufus Leonard has evolved. “We’ve moved from identity work to brand work,” says Worthington, who explains identity is “how a logo works” whereas brand is “not only the way a company presents itself, it’s the way it behaves”.
Now smart clients are looking for “big transformation programmes” like British Gas’s decision to equip its staff with smartphones and tablets in the field. Rufus Leonard has also helped O2 and the London Stock Exchange Group overhaul their internal sales and communications for the mobile internet age.
Growth has been steady, with annual turnover around £11 million, and the agency “has always made a profit”. Svensen and Worthington own 28% and 14% respectively. About half of the company is owned by an employee benefit trust for all 110 staff.
One of their few regrets is they didn’t buy the freehold to the drill hall, their home since 1998, as property prices have soared.
They admit they are considering a sale “potentially in the next three to five years” and their decision to stage a Rufus Leonard discussion panel at the recent Cannes Lions advertising festival looked like a profile-raising exercise.
Branding and communications have risen so far up the agenda that they are arguably too important for a client to outsource, but the Rufus Leonard duo believes every business still needs an external agency.
“For our clients, brand communications is not a skill they’ve got,” says Svensen, who claims their agency offers high-powered consulting to rival a McKinsey or Accenture.
“We understand business processes. We understand change management. We can help clients define what they want to do and communicate it.”
The first battle is often for the client to convince fellow board members to back a new idea, so the agency likes to create a series of simple visuals or a short film which they dub “glory boards” or a “glory film”.
Svensen says: “The days of monumental PowerPoint presentations are dying. Clients want it whittled down to a few key points and delivered in an emotional way.”