Robot Food at 15: Designing brands, bad awards, and good ideas
In the second of our conversations looking back over the last 15 years of Robot Food, we chatted about how designing for brands has changed, how we’ve adapted our skills as a creative studio, and what parts of our approach are still the same, all these years later.
(If you missed part one, you can check that out here.)
So fundamentally, what’s different about building brands now, compared to when we started out?
Dave Timothy, Managing Director: It used to be that if you can get packaging right the rest will flow from there. Everything was designed for the shelf. Now brands are made up of individual elements across a mix of touchpoints – it’s all about the interchange and how the elements work together. There’s more fluidity around it, but you have to focus on the creative idea and build out from there.
Simon Forster, Founder and Executive Creative Director: Because of that, brands have become a lot more modular. There can be multiple distinctive assets to a brand; it’s about how those are applied across touchpoints to make a complete picture, and that’s really exciting.
Martin Widdowfield, Creative Director: The development of brand world has changed things a huge amount. In our early days, brands didn’t really have websites. And now even heritage brands like Heinz are designed for a digital world.
And that pushed us to think bigger, and take a more strategic approach to our work?
Dave: We grew from being a packaging design agency into more focusing on strategy about halfway through our journey. We’re now a broader creative ideas studio.
Natalie Redford, Senior Creative Strategist: With brand, we always keep it quite simple and core - we move away from demographics and more towards understanding a mindset. There’s a lot more crossover since the birth of digital channels, there’s a lot more that people can connect over. Before that, it was very much like ‘Asda Mum’ audience profiling. It’s not so easy to bucket people anymore – and for those who do it’s a missed opportunity now.
Whereas before, 8 years ago, when we were doing a creative strategy, we were asking: “What does this mean for your packaging?” The emphasis is now: “What does it mean for your brand and the way it communicates?” We’re thinking about your brand and packaging might be part of that. Your social, your real world, experiential and the path to purchase.
The mistake a lot of other agencies make is trying too much to fit into a strategic framework. That’s when things get overthought and it kills creativity. We do bigger thinking, focus on the big creative idea and we simplify to amplify.
Dave: We’ve always said ‘simplify to amplify’, we’ve always had a simple idea but now we pull on different levers.
Simon: The last 15 years in business have taught us many things. But perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learnt is how to adapt our approach to suit the needs of different organisations. What works for smaller, challenger brands often doesn’t translate to the global giants – but the key is showing them that you’re on their side.
Jess Cook, Client Services Director: Our job is to uncover who and what they stand for as a brand, and articulate this in a way that’s impossible to ignore. A lot of the time the golden nugget is right under our noses, ready to be extracted and built upon to create something unique and compelling.
Understandably, for big clients especially, this process can be scary. All their brand communication stems from this one big idea – and if they get it wrong, they get it really wrong. We’ve found that to ease this uneasiness, you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. So we take our time to learn their rules – and then, in some cases, explain why we’re breaking them.
So that’s why we’ve never developed a ‘set way’ of doing things then?
Ben Brears, Creative Director: We have challenges with people coming from other places and asking ‘is there a template’? And the answer is, well, kind of? But we change it every time – our creative flexibility is important. Too many clients get stuff created by other agencies and think: ‘What do I do with this?’
Jess: A lot of agencies are good at navel gazing and they’re really good at going around the houses, putting stuff in boxes, because they’re told that it has to be done. Whereas we’re good at applying the right level of thinking to a problem. We try to take away anything that’s not needed. There’s no need to over complicate things in order to sell it in.
Natalie: We always think about what's going to be the most useful. It should always feel like a useful thing.
Jess: So many clients have previously been working with people who’ve been given a thing and at the end of it they're like: ‘OK, but I don't get it.’
Dave: This kind of mentality is just built in, isn’t it? There’s a restlessness – we don’t sit still – we’re a dynamic creative partner.
Simon: And it’s meant we’ve been able to win pitches for types of work we’ve never done before. If you have dynamism built into your way of working it lends itself to that. StepChange went to agencies that had worked on those types of projects before, but we really wanted it. A lot of agencies have set processes and we have a more flexible approach. We work in the way the clients want to work.
Speaking of pitches, they don’t seem to dominate creative resources the way they do at other agencies. Is this just part of us doing things differently when it comes to design agency norms?
Simon: We don't do free pitching. A request for a free pitch is normally instigated by people who don’t really know what they want. If there’s an undisclosed number of agencies involved, and the budget hasn’t been disclosed, what are you doing it for? You don’t know what the prize is. There might be a one in ten chance of winning ‘an amount’ of work for an undisclosed sum. They usually come with really tight time constraints too, so you have to drop everything…
Because we’re not distracted by free pitching, all of our focus is on client work. And it’s the same with awards. Early on, Martin asked me: “Why don’t we enter awards?” and I replied: “Because you have to pay to enter,” and he couldn’t believe it. In order to compete with the most prolific award winners, you have to win more awards than them, but how can you when they employ 150 people and have the money to enter all the awards? And then if you do win, you’ve got to hold on to your title and keep doing it. They’re also from a resource point of view a real chore to enter, and so they’re just another thing that diverts your attention away from client work.
Seeking awards has to be your strategy otherwise there’s no point, and I don't understand other agencies where it’s not really their core business development strategy, but they do it anyway. I guess it’s just ego.
And have clients ever asked if we’ve won any awards?
Natalie: They're like GCSEs. Lots of work, quite stressful at the time, mean nothing.
But the way we deal with clients must have changed as we’ve grown - how have we learned through that?
Simon: I’ve learned to value project management just as highly as I do the creative. It’s one area where we’ve changed massively over the years. In the early days, I can remember thinking ‘Why would you need an account handling team? We can do that bit ourselves’. And then I realised I didn’t have the patience and wasn’t any good at it.
We now have a team who understands the dynamic between us and the client, and the makeup of their organisation. We invest as much time in our project management as our output, and that’s where we see ourselves standing apart from others.
Jess: Absolutely. When you’ve built a solid client relationship, you can be braver and more fearless. We respect our clients and their brands and that respect earns trust. They encourage us to push the boundaries and bring them along with us.
Simon: We like to think of it as a funnelling process, there’s stages along the way that need sense checking so you know what the parameters are. That way, when it comes to the creative concept stage you’re not showing them anything unexpected.
Jess: Instead they say “Yes that’s what I was hoping for!”, because they’re already bought in.
Ok, so when it comes to skills and qualifications, building and maintaining a successful design studio team for over a decade, what is it that we look for?
Simon: We’ve always been a studio where people have had to roll up their sleeves, but as you get bigger you need more specialised skills. Like project management… we always used to write our own copy, but then you end up needing a copy team. I’ve always said, if you find the right person, take them on and create a job for them rather than the other way round. It’s much easier to do - it’s easier to find the right thing for somebody good to do than find somebody good to do the right thing.
Martin: We don’t care where the idea comes from – there’s no hierarchy. The right idea gets shown. Now we’re probably more professional in terms of defining what someone's job is supposed to be….but if you want to do something outside of it, you can. Do your own thing.
Simon: That is to do with the fearlessness. Other agencies will take on somebody junior then limit their exposure. It takes longer to get to grips with things and feel like they can challenge the senior team. Whereas here, if you’ve got an idea, it’s an idea.
Ben: We’ve always said that we don't care where the idea comes from, whether it’s you or me or an intern or whoever, if it’s the right idea, then the right idea gets shown. Our last two interns have had concepts submitted to clients – one was chosen and one nearly was. We put them in there because we felt they were good enough to be in there. That’s how it’s always been, and always will be.