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12 January 2024

Robot Food at 15: Fearlessness, northern attitude and doubling down

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Robot Food has turned 15! And how else do you celebrate this teenage landmark than by sitting around talking nonsense with your mates?

We gathered together some of our longest-serving stalwarts to chew the fat on just how much this creative studio has (and hasn’t) changed, what it means to be northern, and where we’re going next.

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Here we are at 15… looking back to when we started, do you see any of those original core beliefs still burning brightly?

Simon Forster, Founder and Executive Creative Director: We’ve always been about doing things differently. Our fearlessness was attractive to people, has kept people interested, and has always been inherent. At first, we worked with a lot of smaller startups, then it was bigger companies wanting more of an edge – I guess we were thought of as sharper and a bit ‘cooler’ than a lot of the agencies who were designing FMCG packaging.

And as we grew and got more recognised, and became a genuine competitor to the established bigger agencies, our fearlessness allowed us to expand beyond just branding and packaging. We became a creative studio that partner with brands long-term, taking them all the way from brand positioning to wherever they’re seen by customers.

Dave Timothy, Managing Director: Although we’ve expanded our offer, we’re not a full-service agency. We’re still focused on that core idea that underpins each brand, and delivering great value through the quality of our creative.

Simon: The ethos and culture isn’t fundamentally different from what it was 15 years ago. The ambition was to do what we’re actually doing now and we’re enjoying it now more than ever. How it’s changed from back then is that there’s more of a science to it. It’s very difficult to work with bigger brands and not justify what you’re doing; it needs to be bought not only by the client, but also their chain of command - and we give them the ammunition to sell ideas internally. So as your clients get bigger that’s what you need to get better at.

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Do you think ‘different’ is how people on the outside have always seen us?

Simon: We like to work with people who are doing things differently. In the early days Martin (Widdowfield, Creative Director) had a big FMCG design background, but we were young and ambitious and wanted to make cool shit, so we would take influence from outside the category, like the skateboarding world, and apply that thinking to commercial brands – and they’d not seen anything like that before. We were doing something different from day one.

Martin: There was a blindness that was a benefit. Our naivety meant that we didn’t play by the rules because we didn’t really understand them.

Simon: Our first major break came from a biscuit manufacturer that was making Jammie Dodgers snack bars under licence. I went to present some concepts to the brand manager at Burton’s Biscuits and she showed us some broader brand positioning concepts that’d been worked up for them by some big-name agencies – and I was pretty vocal in my view that none of them hit the mark as they all pushed the brand into areas that just weren’t credible. She gave me a week to come up with something better. Because of the timescale, we chose to hit the mark with a single concept that got to the essence of the brand, which originally came from The Beano and Roger the Dodger comic strips. We explored a cheeky tone of voice and wider brand world and conceptual comms. We showed how it expanded the brand into chocolate and toffee products as they wanted… a week later, when we presented the concept and she just said: “I love it. How much do we owe you?” That concept went straight into pack artwork and onto shelves. So thanks, Mandy!

Jess Cook, Client Services Director: People have often come to us to get things fixed that other agencies had messed up. We would have a limited time to make it work.

Our clients know what’s wrong, they’ve identified the problem and it’s up to us to come up with the creative solution. A lot of places seem to exclude the client from their process. But I think that shows a lack of confidence and it’s not very respectful. We’ve learnt through experience that the client team needs to be on board from the start because they’re the ones who are going to help you sell your idea into the rest of the business. And ultimately, are the ones held accountable for the results.

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Robot Food was born in the North, and the last 15 years has seen the creative industry grow massively across the region. Was there always a bit of belligerence about being based in the North?

Ben Brears, Creative Director: We’re proud to be in the North, but we don’t look at ourselves as a ‘northern agency’. I’ve always thought Robot Food carried itself like it had a chip on its shoulder and it had something to prove – and I think we still do, in a way. We’ve always wanted to prove ourselves to be better than London.

Simon: This is a northern thing.

Natalie Redford, Senior Creative Strategist: A lot of northern agencies communicate that we’re ‘in the North’. The difference between us and other northern agencies is that they’re too geographical about it, whereas we’re more about the northern attitude.

Dave: You often see what some agencies in London will do for a huge sum of money and pass it off as brilliant, and they don’t deliver anything like the level of service or creativity in comparison.

Simon: We see a lot of graduates move to London thinking it’s the be all and end all, and we’ve always had a point to prove. Clients used to ask where we’re based, as if it’s a problem. There’s still a perception that big brands go to London.

Ben: But the pandemic broke those boundaries, and gave us a chance to reset that perception.

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So covid was another chance to adapt and put our foot on the gas?

Simon: The pandemic proved to be a great reset for us. We used to be asked where we’re based and now we never are. We have a lot more international clients, and from a mindset point of view it was the first time we called ourselves a ‘global’ agency. Beforehand, we would have thought we needed offices in global locations to realistically say that.

Martin: Where we saw the biggest change was in the amount of travelling. It was refreshing not to be wasting journey time to meetings. We’re much more efficient now. It helped to break down barriers and triggered a way of working that was more collaborative. Meetings became less of a performance, clients were more relaxed and the conversations were less formal. People were suddenly making video calls from their bedrooms, and that broke the ice.

Natalie: You can’t be intimidating with your washing hanging up in the background.

Jess: There's no really formal meetings where you turn up and perform. That plays into our hands, because clients aren’t looking for a wanky agency to come and take them out for an expensive lunch. They’re more down to earth, and realise that that big fancy London address and expensive lunch were just pointless, and it was coming out of their fees anyway.

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So we’re staying in the North, but where else are we going?

Simon: Well it looks like we may be facing a recession, or something pretty close to one. But they present opportunities. We started Robot Food in January 2009 at the peak of a recession, when clients were maybe looking to save money. It is a lot more challenging going into a recession when you have overheads – back then we were a two-man band. But in the scheme of things, we’re still a lot leaner and more agile than a lot of our competitors in how we operate. So while it’s hard to compete on price alone when you have overheads, we’re still on the front foot due to where we fit regarding cost versus value of creative. We’re still looking to grow. When recession hits, stopping spending is seen as the safe thing to do. But really it’s time to double down and invest, because that’s your opportunity to steal market share from your competitors.

Dave: It helps that what we do is pretty specialist and can’t be commoditised, and is high-end. It’s not stuff you can just buy on the cheap somewhere else. We’re expanding our client base in the US, and globally. We’re currently working on a really exciting creative project for a great brand out of Singapore.

Simon: It’s about being proactive rather than reactive. If you’re reactive in a recession, you’re fucked. So we’ll always be specialists in brand development, but we’re going to keep expanding in these new areas. We see clients going to ad agencies to brief them off the back of work that we do, and often the outcome just isn’t right. It’s not that the work is bad necessarily, just that it’s a new take on something that maybe isn’t yet even in the public domain, so the brand message and tone of voice isn’t consistent. We’ve never really been too bothered about how things are traditionally done – what makes us special is our ability to take a creative idea throughout the whole brand journey.

Dave: A lot of agencies will change tack entirely in a recession and that's not the thing to do, you should be really secure in terms of what makes you different and really just keep amplifying that out.

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And so what is special about Robot Food? What’s staying the same? You said the culture isn’t fundamentally different to how it began?

Simon: What’s special is the team and our strong culture. You can’t label a thing as your culture, your culture is your people. That’s it.

Ben: We don’t get the churn that most agencies experience. Of course, some people have moved on and the team has grown, but it's always felt like Robot Food. It’s not driven by individuals. That’s down to the dedication and passion of the people who’ve been here. Perhaps a benefit of being in the north is there’s less of a cluster of agencies, and therefore less chopping and changing of jobs. You’re more inclined to contribute towards a place’s culture if you see yourself there long term.

Martin: Most people grow with the company and we’ve been lucky to have people join us at graduate and even pre-graduate level who are now in senior positions.

Ben: A lot of the time when you go into a creative studio and they expect you to adapt to their culture and their way of doing things. But we've always seen new people coming in as people with new ideas, that we’ve wanted to learn from.

Simon: We’re aware that we don’t know everything and there’s still stuff to learn. At the beginning, we were essentially making it up as we went along, to build something tangible from scratch. We’re a lot more experienced now, but we’re still about embracing people and what they can teach us, instilling the attitude that anything is possible. There’s never been a standardised way of doing things. We just invite good people in and allow them to excel at what they’re good at, and that’s not going to change.