• Transform magazine
  • June 14, 2021

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New Model Agency

The Dreaming Saboteur CRPD

Alex Clegg, co-founder of branding agency Saboteur, writes about the importance of change and evolution, particularly for branding agencies. He explores the radical changes Saboteur has implemented, taking the opportunity to start from scratch and focus on 'freedom.'

The irony at the heart of the marketing services industry was that it relentlessly preached the power of ‘new’ to its clients but remained very ‘old’ and stuck in its ways itself. Like doctors, agencies were rarely comfortable taking their own medicine.

More recently, the likes of Oliver and Been There Done That have showed it is possible to successfully do something new. Branding agencies are the segment of the industry that has evolved the least, and this ‘quieter’ corner could really do with some fresh approaches.

At Saboteur, taking advantage of the opportunity to start from scratch, we’ve focused on the notion of ‘freedom’. Our purpose is to ‘set brands free’, starting every brand challenge by exploring what they might be ‘free from’ and ‘free to do, or be.’

We’ve also taken this spirit of ‘freedom’ into the way we work. So, no limited number of holiday days contracted in advance because it’s too risky to trust each other. Take as much time off as you need, when you need and manage it with your team and clients. Some years you might need more, some less.

No pompous, inflated job titles. Just choose your own adjective that best describes what sort of Saboteur you might be and give it your all – The Unlikely Saboteur, The Spirited Saboteur, The Laughing Saboteur etc.

No inhuman silos that pigeon-hole people as one thing only; a creative, a strategist, a client service executive – no, we are not born that way. Before each project we decide who will make up the best team and outline the responsibilities for each individual, leaving plenty of space for surprises and initiative along the way.

No hidden cost structures, no secret meetings about the business, no exceptional salary arrangements. The business of an agency is simple and therefore should be transparent to all who work there. Regular updates and full transparency across all financial commitments. It’s the work that’s really interesting, not the money.

No overly complex fee proposals based on time, rates and a contorted staffing plan. Clarify the scope, charge on a fixed price deliverable basis and then take real responsibility for the quality and delivery of the output.

No pedantic distinctions between branding, communications and content development. To truly set a brand free, all require ideas.

Experiment constantly through collaboration, cognitive diversity, failure, non-spec initiatives and ideas, and people’s passions. Actively involve clients, audiences, investors, interns, friends, research, data, training, production & technology talent, IT, accounting and legal partners in the agency.

So, a year and a bit in, is it working?

Being shortlisted for three Transform Europe Awards is fantastic validation.

One with Vintner; wine for all and all for wine. It’s astonishing how ‘closed’ that category is to so many of its actual consumers. It’s great to pull down some of those brand barriers and set a wonderfully spirited brand, and team behind it, free.

Love Welcomes, especially those in the most urgent and vulnerable position such as refugees and displaced individuals. Artists like Banksy have led the way with their support. As have the founders of Love Welcomes. Brands should not hold themselves back but amplify the story and give it ever richer meaning and depth.

The work speaks to the sense of liberation and transformation we’d aimed to achieve at Saboteur when we decided we wanted to ‘set brands free.’

And yes, we’re growing and profitable.

As with everything, you’ve got to start with yourself first if you really want to do something new. One year on, we most certainly feel set free.