Even after 25 years the people legacy of our upstart agency Simons Palmer lives on

25 years ago today five of us announced the start of a new advertising agency with a front page splash in Campaign magazine. We all met up for lunch that day trying to figure what would happen next. We had no idea what lay ahead, failure or success.

In addition to me the line-up consisted of Chris Palmer, Mark Denton, Simon Clemmow and Carl Johnson. The unnamed sixth person was Steve Lepley as the finance king.

Our shorthand pitch was ‘Creativity that Sells’, not particularly original but it did express a combination of two related views; in the end advertising is there to help clients sell things otherwise what’s the point and our view was that distinctive, talked about creative work stood a better chance of working than average work. Again not a ‘splitting the atom’ insight, but it did set our stall out and set an agenda.

One of the downstream benefits of this approach was the quality of people who joined this fledgling business in the hope of belonging to this agenda.

Through a combination of luck, good timing, excellent coverage in the trade press, early clients buying great creative work and excellent client names, the agency took off pretty quickly and we began to enjoy a reputation that escalated the profile and attraction.

Perhaps one of the real successes was the calibre of people who became part of the Simons Palmer clan; a real clan of obsessive, focused, hard-working, talented folk.

A senior client said one day “it’s hard work being with you lot but it’s worth it” which I took as a compliment. We were constantly training for the final at Wimbledon with no time for cruising or second best. Quite a few younger people, mainly in account management, gave it a year or so and then left due to their perception it was all a bit too much a sweat shop open 24/7.

The internal view was ‘Just fucking do it’, taking the line from one of our clients.

However, from our clan, Charlie Rudd is now MD of BBH and Robert Senior is CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi EMEA. We partnered with two media boys to start Manning Gottlieb Media and now Colin Gottlieb is President of OMG EMEA while Nick Manning is CEO of Ebiquity. Hilary Roberts is CEO of PHD EMEA, and Robert Ffitch is CEO of MGM/OMD. The four of them were the start-up team.

We built a business around Stephen Maher who is now CEO of MBA, the business we helped him get off the ground. Another venture was Headlight Vision and Crawford Hollingsworth from there is now leading a class research business at WPP.

The original founders each went their own way at different times with Chris Palmer setting up Gorgeous, one of the UK’s top film production companies; Simon Clemmow was a founder of CHI & Partners, Carl Johnson (left) became CEO of TBWA/Chiat Day New York and eventually started Anomaly and Mark Denton is a founder of COY! Communications.

On the journey which lasted ten years we picked up a whole range of people such as Neil Christie now the MD W&K London; we had a very brief and difficult time with Trevor Beattie, plus many more, far too many to mention.

Some of the major foundation stones of Simons Palmer followed me to Ogilvy. Steve Lepley joined as CFO of O&M and is there to this day, Jeff Quilter also joined as operations director, and both of them had been with the business from the beginning or just after.

The creative accolades are frankly too many to list; we had a fantastic creative department who all contributed to the flow of awards over the years, many of whom have gone on to create their own agencies or take on big roles around the world. In addition to Chris and Mark we were also indebted to Andy McKay, Paul Hodgkinson, Guy Moore, Tony Malcolm, and many more outstanding names – they know who they are!

I think the lesson here is to hire the very best people, don’t accept second best, and don’t be shy about bringing in people better than you at their job.

The strength of Simons Palmer was clarity of purpose, therefore unity without any fudges, an acceptance that we were not all things to all men – combined with a huge collection of talented, intelligent people.

In a feature in Campaign they wrote: “Simons Palmer has an enviable blend of creative excellence and business brains”, a line we used for years with prospective clients. It felt like the original elevator pitch was converted in to a third party compliment.

The start-up team of six became several hundred over time and we never lost the grit due to the DNA that was ingrained across the breadth and depth of the organisation. David Birtles was part of the finance team and he sent out an email today to register the 25-year anniversary and said “here’s to the best ‘family’ I’ve ever worked in”. A great thing to read after such a long time.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.
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