Lockdown Economy UK in a Strategic Brand Communications Agency with Darren Richardson

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Megha Shyamili Purushothaman

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview, we meet with Darren Richardson, the Co-Founder of Gardiner Richardson, an award-winning strategic brand communications agency specialising in brand development, strategy, design, PR, social media and content creation based in Newcastle upon Tyne. A discussion centred around the changes implemented and challenges faced by the global COVID pandemic. From a shift too remote working and harnessing the best practice use of technology, to visualising a nurturing and supportive growth and development culture. All have allowed Gardiner Richardson and its people to grow and succeed in unprecedented times.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Let’s maybe start by telling me a little bit more about your firm when you founded it?

Darren: Yeah, Gardiner Richardson, as you mentioned, are a strategic brand communications agency. We’ve been going now for twenty-three years so we’ve lived through quite a few different times, a few recessions. Probably nothing like we’re living through in the last year. We have our base in Newcastle. There are eighteen members in the team and we operate in the northeast in the UK and across Europe and the US.

In your mind, how did the lockdown and the pandemic affect your business maybe think about the key challenges that you guys faced and how did you go about solving them?

Darren: With everyone, I suppose the immediate thing was just the actual shock of it happening and it isn’t, as I mentioned- we’ve lived through recessions and you could see recessions coming. You had forewarning and you lived and worked through them so you knew the things to expect. You knew there was going to be financial hardships, you could start a plan and put things in place. I think the big difference with the covid pandemic was just the fact that it was like nothing we’d ever experienced and the speed at which it happened. The challenges that we faced were probably from a- there’s practical challenges as well as emotional challenges and the practical challenges were just adjusting to the fact that we suddenly had a fifty to sixty per cent drop in revenue on a monthly basis because the communications industry is an industry that often gets hit hard. We’ve known that from previous recessions; when people have hardships, they stop spending within the communications world. They’ll stop with the advertising, PR agency and they’ll wind things down because they’ll retreat in. They’ll try and save money and we’re in one of the great barometer areas where we can sense when there’s something coming because people stop spending.

I suppose the key thing was that we had to adjust financially and think of a new model so how many people do we need in the business. The fuller scheme was an absolute godsend as that allowed us to think about who do we need in the business and on the outside of the business, who is going to furloughed, who are the people that we need to retain to manage the projects we’ve got and to also build that new offer that we knew we needed to create based on the fact that we knew that everything was going to change fairly rapidly.

So I think there were some really practical things and then on a real practical level, we had a massive studio of three and a half thousand sq. ft. in the middle of Newcastle county and then we’re suddenly all stuck at home. We had a big office space which we all love and is a major part of how we work; it’s a very collaborative industry, the creative industry. It’s where people like being around each other, it’s those conversations that you have, the spark, those ideas, thoughts that we all need and crave, really. Then there was the emotional side of it, of actually suddenly being detached from people that you’re normally in that space with. So that’s the practical expense of a significant monthly outgoing in a space that is no longer needed. And then being separated, it was quite rapid- I remember being in the office and then we’re all suddenly asked to work from home and saying this to everybody- we’re now going to work from home. It’s in some ways saying it seemed easier than doing it and then the reality of actually than all working remotely when you have to try and adapt to a brave new world where normally, you could do that in a space together collaboratively and feel more supported and more in control because you’re there with a number of other people and there’s an element of confidence that that gives you.

I think that the challenges, like I said, being practical and emotional and how we would start to look after the team when we’re not in the same space and that’s been a real challenge and not just for us but for everybody when a major part of Gardiner Richardson is our ethos, our philosophy, our culture. Lucy, my co-founder and myself have very similar ethos and view of people and looking after people- we’re the only agency that I know of in the Northeast that has an HR director, we have a director that looks after our people, Judith. We care about our people and we want them to know that they’re supported and looked after and to suddenly go from that as a really tight-knit group of people who work very well together and have a- I genuinely feel our studio, there was a real sense of psychological safety in that environment where people could perform at their best because they know they are respected, trusted and they’re given that freedom and support when they need. To suddenly then be wrenched apart and try to maintain that remotely; that has been a huge challenge.

With regards to solving some of these challenges- you mentioned the difficulties of remote working. How did you go about addressing it? Was it driven by performance?

Darren: In terms of how we looked at the team and who we had to fill because we were looking at the operational model where who we had to furlough and who we needed to keep in the business really just had to come down to what were the projects that were left remaining when the walls came tumbling down when things stopped. Some of our clients were fine and some of them obviously were massively affected and some of them actually found themselves with a huge opportunity. We just had to look at the team and who the members were that we needed that were going to be with the projects that were remaining in terms of the practicalities of it. In terms of how we adjusted working remotely, we obviously, like everybody, are now very familiar with Zoom, Teams and Webex. I’ve worked on every conferencing platform that there is.

The big thing for us was not just the technology which we all had to get used to; it’s making sure that we could give time to people. We have a regular Thursday social now which is quite important; it’s just about how people are. Beyond that, it’s also about just speaking to people about how they are and really understanding their personal circumstances and not just thinking of work. I’m sure you’re familiar that leadership isn’t just about alpha males out there winning business and shouting and screaming. It’s about empathy, support and looking after people and when you are suddenly remote, you have to try even harder and put more emphasis on how people are getting on. Some of the team have had to homeschool when they’ve got young kids. I’m fortunate I’ve got grown kids now so I’m not in that same predicament but I have to then put myself in their shoes and think of how that might feel. It was really about spending some time, Lucy and I, just checking in with the team regularly, individually like ‘how are you?’, ‘how’re things?’ and ‘how’s the family?’ We all know their families, their family situations because it’s who we are anyway but you have to try just even harder to figure out how they getting on. When someone knows that you genuinely care, it’s not just done for lip service, I think it makes them feel a lot more secure, they feel confident because, at the end of the day, we often say that we give confidence to our clients but we have to give confidence to our team that we’re in control, that myself and Lucy and my fellow directors are in control of the business and we can look after the business and the individuals in the business. We can’t control our things around us but we can look after the things in the business.

One of the big challenges we found is that; I’m sure everybody was getting information on what’s happening- was whether that was through the furlough scheme, financial and support. We were actually one of the first businesses in Newcastle to get one of the businesses the CIBIL’s loans which we did very quickly because we thought “let’s just get that, just in case we need it”. We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t used it but we were great for the fact that we could get that. I have to say that a big part of the shifting to online as well and being remote was not just the team, it’s looking after the team, it’s how our network of advisors and people that we know around us that are really important and I think it’s also our clients as well, Peter. Our clients are looking for the confidence, to tell the truth, they’re all suffering.

That’s the next question I was going to ask about. How are your customers doing, your competition doing? What’s your knowledge about how they’ve evolved?

Darren: I’d say that some work we do with say, for example, we have clients in the Northeast, we have clients nationally and internationally and we have them in different sectors so we’re not sector-specific. We work in professional services, manufacturing, FMCG. We work for Grand Central trains which is a train operator which operates across the North of England to London. Obviously, no trains are running now so therefore, their retainer was stopped. We also operate with people like Fresh and Balance which are drink and smoke awareness offices through the government which we worked for about ten years. Obviously, that was still quite an important thing particularly drinking at a time when, prior to this pandemic, we were going into a period where there was high awareness of depression, of mental illness. Going into a massive lockdown, preventing drinking, smoking; these are two things that the government was keen to keep promoting the health benefits of. So we were actively still busy in those areas but then, one of our clients over in Austria, Agar, who we have worked with for years, their business dropped by 60%. They’re operating in 23 countries and are just under 2 billion euro company but everything ground to a halt because obviously manufacturing stopped, people are not doing the building, their construction stopped and when the construction industry stops, a lot of support services around that sector stop.

But then we’ve noticed that the other clients have seen opportunities. We do work with a company in London called Leaders In Sport; they work with a lot of elite sportspersons around the world in the premier league, the NBA, NFL. They saw it as a massive opportunity to go from physical events to online events. We worked with them really rapidly to develop models to help go out and spread the word and bring more people to virtual events. So instead of getting six hundred people at an event, they might get six thousand at the virtual event. So there’s a lot of people who were adjusting to this new remote working, taking opportunities. I’d say that going back to Agar who is a client we’ve had for many years who really suffered massively at the start of lockdown, now they actually can’t match the demand for their product because there have been more people at home, more people doing home decoration, home renovations, people doing extensions making their homes better; they literally can’t meet demand in the UK at the moment. It has gone from one extreme to the other so out of that adversity comes some light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly they’ve seen everybody’s at home but they’re wanting to do something with their home, whether that’s across Europe or in America or in the UK.

So we’ve seen real ups and downs of some of our clients because we do quite a lot of work in the health & well-being space, we’ve been quite semi-sheltered and we also do a lot of work with a company that’s based over in Paris which is a charity that’s been fighting TB for the last hundred years and it’s the first alliance of 23 different countries to come together to fight the issue of TB across the world. Obviously with lung health and covid, they’ve had a huge issue of actually sharing their knowledge so we’ve been helping them to share that knowledge through virtual conferences. So that health and wel-being space has been quite active for us, we have a client in the States who’s set up a company that looks after people with their health & well-being. We’ve been doing a lot of work with them.

We found that certain pockets are fine whereas others obviously areas; we’re very fortunate that we don’t do much on a high street really. If we’re on the high street, I think we’d be feeling the pain a lot more. We’ve been fairly fortunate in many ways and we’ve seen a lot of clients now starting to come back and realize that they have to do something and I think people are more acclimatizing to the new environment and looking at the opportunities. People are coming out of those different stages of shock and now there’s that sense of “you’ve gotta look at pivoting and what I can do to take opportunities”. That’s not just for our clients but it is also for us that we’ve had to pivot and think about how we can help our clients- we’re having to change in our sector and our business about how we can help our clients.

Yes, that was another question I was going to allude to. How is your business going now and what’s your plan for the next two-three months?

Darren: It’s actually and I feel like I should touch some wood! It’s actually, things are going alright at the moment. We’re actually looking to potentially recruit someone. We’ve seen the backend of last year, things start to pick up and I think that part of that is what we’ve done to address how we can help people. Also, it’s down to the fact that people are- our businesses are realizing that they can’t just stay dormant and they have to do something. What we’ve done for many years, we’ve been working quite strategically with many different clients whether that’s helping develop a value proposition for a product whether that’s helping the British architects develop their membership communications activity, whoever that might be. What we’ve realized is that people don’t want to spend a lot of time.

So trying to address and discover their purpose, even though they know it’s a time right now where the purpose is really important and brands that have a social role and a public role and really important. But people haven’t got the time so they need to really very quickly discover who they are and how they can and what they offer and prevent that in the most compelling way that’s going to help cut their customers come to them. So exactly what we’re doing, we have to do for someone else, for our clients. What we’ve done is we’ve taken the work, the knowledge that we have and we’ve compressed down something that might take a few months into something that can take a couple of weeks because we have to work fairly rapidly so it’s almost like strategic sprints- how do we actually get to what you need to understand really quickly with you.

We’ve probably turned around last year a dozen or so projects that were fairly hefty strategic projects that normally would have run on for quite a bit of time. In a really short window of time and spend less time on the thinking of the positioning and when I say less time doesn;t say it wasn’t well thought through because I think we bring a lot of knowledge to it, a lot of years of experience. But we can compress that down because of our experience then spend a lot of time activating it and one of the big things we’ve changed is we’ve created strategic alliances now with two partners who are based in our studio so we have a media partner and a web partner and we’re bringing in a research partner this year. In our room, we’ve created almost our studio which is fairly vast, we’ve created almost like an ecosystem of like-minded businesses who work and come together as a consortium. We actually work as three different companies on one project but bring the best value of what that client wants and needs. We work so well together that we create a seamless experience so it makes it easy for them. We’ve made it as easy as possible for them to activate things really quickly. We’ve delivered some amazing results for our clients because of that in very short time windows. We’ve managed to turn things around really rapidly and not jeopardize the quality because we just tried to do things in an agile way. We’ve developed new models and ways of doing things that allows our clients to understand and give us clarity and focus and direction that they need very quickly. That’s what’s helped our success rate in terms of wins; it has helped our revenue and helped cut our overhead costs because we brought two people into our studio now with some blank space so we’ve reduced our operating cost and started to maximize our sales revenue. Our model has helped us both manage our costs as well as grow our adaptations. It’s been great because also about the network of people around us that we work with, whether that’s our accountants, our lawyers; they’re really important but it’s also friends and clients. I find I get mentored by our clients and I feel like it is a counselling session sometimes when I’m with clients because they need someone to talk to about their business. Likewise, I need someone sometimes to talk to about where we’re at and it helps you gauge and benchmark where you’re at, whether that’s about information, the market trends.

A big thing we’ve done is trying to listen to more podcasts on what’s happening because you just need to know and get insights from people. A good friend of mine is head of strategic futures at Kantar Counselling; they do a lot of work looking into the future of what’s emerging. I was really actively discussing things with Lloyd and also looking at their podcast to find out. They’re getting data from different markets to understand what are those changes so that we can take that and learn from it and help pass that knowledge to our clients as well. In some ways, it’s been a painful but really liberating experience. In the same way, it’s almost been enforced learning. But I actually feel more invigorated by it now than I do concerned about it, it’s a massive opportunity to help reset.

I think that’s important especially with the economy and where we’re going at the moment. The global economy has changed and we are very much a post-pandemic economy whilst we’re still going through the pandemic but we need to evolve and change and harness technology to adapt. Also, as you said earlier, to look at our individual staff members and change almost to become like a value culture and let people know that they are respected and cared for. If you’ve got a caring culture internally, the likelihood is you’re going to get better quality performance.

The last question I’ll chat about is: what would you say would be the two to three things that you feel that you need help with?

Darren: I think information and knowledge are always useful because it helps you make sense of what’s happening. As human beings we need to make sense of the world around us; it’s vital. It allows us to make decisions when we have knowledge. It was tricky in the early stages because this (the pandemic) was totally unprecedented.

Another big thing is connections and networks- in terms of finance, we’ve found that the banks and the UK government have addressed the business support packages really well for businesses. Things have been administratively a bit slow at times but that’s because we appreciate what everyone’s trying to pull out of the bag. The key thing for us is about growing that network not just in the UK; I’ve got calls next week with the DTI, the Department of Trade Industry and with the Nordic states I’m speaking to with representatives in the embassies in Copenhagen and Oslo. So I’m waiting to look at creating connections in the Nordic states. We do a lot of work in Europe; Germany, Austria and in France and in the US. I think the one thing that was happening before this is the people are not that bothered really about the where you’re based and you mentioned before, it’s about people and people buying people and I think that- I’ve got a call this week with a Dutch company who we’ve been recommended to speak to and I think what’s interesting now is that we’ve always worked with people around the world extensively in the US and we’re keen to optimise that knowledge that we’ve gained from all those different brands that we’ve worked with; we’ve worked with Mars, Playstation, Bayer, we’ve done a lot of different projects with major brands and we can take that knowledge and we can help companies around the world that we don’t necessarily need to be in our own city or country. It can be wherever really. Working this way remotely it’s really about experience and recommendation and we get a lot of our work through recommendation. We’re keen to grow that network and it’ll be fascinating speaking with the representatives in the embassies in Copenhagen and Oslo next week to see what the appetite is.

The one thing is it’s about those networks and connections because it is a bit like- people get to know people. There are authentic people and there are people who you maybe- we have this saying a lot in the office- ‘Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh’. There’s a lot of people who can tell you that they’re funny and there are not many people that can really make you laugh. What we focus a lot on is the delivery and the quality of what we do and that’s something which it’s — it’s a cliche but it’s so true; just do really great work and you don’t have to worry about too much because people will say great things about you and pass the word of mouth.

We did a piece of work for Playstation and a guy left there and went to work for Quickbooks and we did a piece of work for Quickbooks. We worked with a client but they left and went to a client in Paris and now we’re working with a client in Paris. That’s the way it goes. It’s networks that we really always value and those connections that people can bring because when it’s trusted support and recommendation, there’s a high likelihood that you get a conversion. Financially we’ve had great support from the government, practically from our local authorities. They’ve helped us with business rates. The government has been great in terms of phasing payments, our landlord’s been brilliant in helping us. We used to pay our rent quarterly now we’re paying it monthly. Little things that would sound little are actually quite important when you’re paying substantial chunks of money to help the cash flow. We’ve been fairly fortunate that we’ve got some great relationships with all those individuals and that’s really helped us. We’ve had a great relationship with our bank for years and that’s really helped us. It’s the networks that we can expand into and I’m using the relationships with the Chamber of Commerce that we have and use their networks of friends to help introduce us to their friends. So it’s about finding more friends around the world

That’s the thing- with the pandemic, a lot of people are to adapt to the use of technology in a more regular basis but equal to that is the opportunities that come with the availability of positive partnerships that you can get through various different networking sites so interlinking with other organizations and their wider networks, LinkedIn is a great example; you see a lot of similarities to what people do and you can harness positive relationships through just quick introductions and exploratory conversations so-

Darren: And I think there’s also an appetite for people. It feels like there’s an emerging time for independence. The communications world is being driven a lot by major WPP by big agencies like Interbrand and Future Brands, Saatchi & Saatchi- all the big boys will always be there. There’ll always be a role for them because people buy people and big businesses can have some tiers of people in terms of quality in there. Sometimes people go to the good ones and what’s interesting now is that clients want to buy people and they want to buy a great relationship and someone that’s going to do the job. When we won this project for Edgar the year before that we delivered last year which was to deliver a global campaign for a 2 billion euro business. There were 18 people in Newcastle and we were pitching against a company in London of a couple hundred and a company in Munich of three of four hundred and they chose us purely because they wanted someone who would work with them collaboratively and they want to work with people who are going to do the job.

Relationships are for businesses nowadays more so than an ambassador.

Darren: I think there is an appetite now to not suddenly say “we’ll get the best by going to the biggest”.

There’s that viewpoint especially during the pandemic has been put to the side because if you look at it in realtime, the biggest isn’t always the best. We spoke about agility and often with large firms, though they have a lot of positive, the negative which is well known in the industry that the large firms aren’t as agile and as adaptive to things such as pandemics si we’ve witnessed that throughout the globe with regards to responses to the pandemic and how companies have gone about their duties and grown and developed in some cases. It’s great to share your insight and that’s what I would probably say now for anybody watching this video is should you want to look more into Gardiner Richardson, there’ll be links below.

About the Guest

Darren is co-founder of Gardiner Richardson, company director and creative director. He is a collaborative designer and innovator with over 30 years’ specialist knowledge in corporate identity and brand creation.

His work focuses on the use of engaging and imaginative methods to provide client organisations with strategic brand focused Innovation and transformational consultancy to create greater commercial value. With a career spanning three decades and involving the creation of global brands in the aviation, automotive, transport, tourism as well as FMCG sectors, he has both a diverse and extensive knowledge in building compelling brands.

Darren has a BA Hons degree in Graphic Design from Newcastle Polytechnic and is an associate member of Chartered Society of Designers as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts.


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