Still swimming against the tide, three start-ups later

Still swimming against the tide, three start-ups later

Jon Forsyth looks back on launching three agencies, including Neverland, which has just turned one.

I’m on my third start-up, Neverland, which turns one today. Before Neverland, I co-founded Adam & Eve and, before that, I was employee number six on the good ship Naked Communications. My career is about to turn 20 and, alongside being at home more than usual, it’s prompted a quick walk down memory lane and some reflection on how three very different agencies have quite a lot in common.

For the youngsters in the room, Naked was a media creative hybrid based out of a boat. The agency defined and occupied a new space between media and creative agency where "media-neutral" ideas prevailed. And Naked prevailed thereafter, winning Campaign's Media Agency of the Year, plenty of pieces of business and many awards. Naked’s stellar rise was fuelled in part by its willingness to be the client’s whipping stick – used to make sure creative agencies were thinking beyond TV ads and media agencies beyond TV ratings. It thrived in these uncharted waters.

Which needed unusual people. Not just the brilliant, extremely charismatic founders, each of whom had a unique skillset and a unique… strangeness, but the whole agency team who, when brought together as Naked, would made clients laugh, cry and rejoice at what was possible. Together, we were Naked’s "brilliant misfits"; the annoying, scruffy-looking upstarts at the back of the room, asking the uncomfortable questions other agencies didn’t want us to. But it worked. It really worked and my respect to founders Jon Wilkins, Will Collin and the sadly deceased John Harlow will always be upmost. And the parties? Well, they were legendary. To this day, I can still claim to have fitted into Will’s kitchen oven.

Out of the oven and into a small NoHo coffee shop, where Adam & Eve was born. Straight into the belly of a global recession and to watch my new, unbelievably tenacious partners take on a tough, year-long legal fight with one of the world’s biggest media tycoons. 

Adam & Eve started on the premise of good things happening when interesting people come together. We didn’t have the obvious outward quirks that Naked had. We didn’t have a boat. But we had our houses on the line and a big lawsuit against us, which created an extraordinary hunger to survive. 

We were no less unusual a mix of personalities, though, and behind the scenes operated with just the right dose of dysfunction. And my fellow founders, James [Murphy], David [Golding] and Ben [Priest] were just as brilliant, charismatic and enthusiastic. Our formula for success wasn’t an obvious match for the time. We believed in big famous advertising campaigns at a time when everyone was trying to cut budgets and funnel what’s left into Facebook. 

Again, though, we thrived by swimming against the tide. 

And just like Naked, when brought together, looking like a middle-aged Barbour-clad boy band, we had clients believing something amazing was possible for their business. Particularly potent in the context of that recession. 

Again, it really worked. We won Westfield. We won John Lewis. We won lots of new business. And lots of awards. And the chance to work on reviving the great DDB UK brand. And then Agency of the Year and Agency of the Decade. 

Before I could find out whether James' oven was big enough to hold me, and with the formidable Mat [Gof], Tammy [Einav], Rick [Brim] and Alex [Hesz] helming a 500-strong world-class agency, it was time to move on again.

One year later – a year ago today, in fact – Neverland was born. It feels more like my first agency than my second. Still no boat, but it’s another hybrid agency model. The agency has combined brand strategy with creative comms. Simple, sensible and yet against the way that everyone’s used to doing things.

I’ve combined with a new business partner, Simon Massey, a brilliant brand strategist and agency founder from another part of the industry. We met not through executive search or an IPA golf day, but as two dads with kids at the same school.

So Simon and I launched Neverland, while still hunting for a heavy-hitting creative partner. Somehow, we were invited on to a global pitch for Jacobs, midway through, against a fierce line-up of global network agencies. And, somehow, we won it. We won Cath Kidston and have produced five campaigns for it. The most recent campaign is somehow still happening, despite Covid-19 sending the retailer in and out of administration first. We’ve been given the chance to launch a news network. Now 15 people, we moved into brand new offices in Shoreditch, only to be sent home three weeks later with the rest of the country. 

Strangely, it’s beginning to feel a bit more like year one of Adam & Eve. Another recession, another existential threat. This time, it’s a virus rather than a holding company lawsuit that we’re up against, but it’s impossible not to see parallels. 

Out of adversity, we get better; in trying to survive, somehow we find a way to thrive. In the past six weeks of lockdown, we’ve maintained our 100% pitch-win rate, winning two out of three (waiting for the third; cross your fingers for us). Our first TV commercial was finished and aired. Our first nationwide poster campaign went out for End Youth Homelessness and we have finally found the perfect creative partner to complete our line-up.

People that are comfortable in uncharted times – the brilliant misfits out there – seem to be able to thrive faster.

The same is true of agencies. 

When they find themselves in uncharted waters, it’s nothing new. Great agencies seek it as a matter of course. Unusual has always been the norm for them.

I feel hugely lucky to have been surrounded by so many brilliant misfits over the past two decades, in the agencies I’ve mentioned but also the industry we all work in. 

So I feel a huge amount of optimism for Neverland and for all of us in the industry as we plot our paths ahead. By embracing the people and the attitude that leans most fiercely into the unknown and the unusual, brilliant things will happen. And, of course, we always know how to throw a good party too. Simon tells me he has quite a big oven.

Jon Forsyth is a co-founder of Neverland

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