Indie powerhouse Isobel on turning 20, embracing mischief and “working with brands that are in the shit”

Nestled in a small corner of London’s never-ending metropolis, indie creative agency Isobel is about to celebrate a very special milestone.

Now in its 20th year, its founders will no doubt be reflecting on all they have achieved in that time – but also on what remains to be done.

Priding itself on its holistic, human-centric approach, the agency brings a particular colour and vibrancy to London’s agency scene – something that is perhaps lacking at times in the larger, more established international firms.

This ethos is also reflected in the ways in which it interacts with the communities around it – its Summer School offers local GCSE students a glimpse of the inner workings of the ad sector, while its hugely popular ‘Isobelly Laughs’ comedy nights are always a big draw.

With a clear pattern of growth and client acquisition, Isobel is clearly moving in the right direction. So how will it kick on as it enters its third decade?

Jamie Williams

“We tend to work with brands that are in the shit”

Isobel isn’t very orthodox. You don’t go knocking on their door if you’re looking for more of the same. You come to them when you need something different – when ‘more of the same’ simply isn’t cutting it anymore.

“We don’t inherit strategies from other agencies and continue those on, we work with brands that need a step change or a big change in momentum”, explains managing partner, Jamie Williams.

“We also tend to work with brands that are in the shit and really need help. They’re losing share and shelf space – their awareness and consideration are falling and they really need a massive gear change – or ”supercharging’, as we call it.”

Shirking brands that favour a ‘steady Eddie approach’, Williams reveals that Isobel is frequently chosen as a brand’s first-ever agency, helping them “explode into broadcast advertising” once they have outgrown other mediums. These brands are typically considered “mission clients”, looking to “take on and challenge categories”, rather than just “ticking along with an existing strategy”.

While Isobel remains laser-focused on creating “unignorable, creative work”, Williams believes a lot of advertising is a “waste of money”, pointing out that “the world is full of sensible brands doing very sensible things, and no one will ever notice them”.

“There’s no point in doing it if no one’s going to remember it.”

“The most provocative beer ad of all time”

Striving to create memorable and ‘unignorable’ work has created a distinct portfolio with a remarkably diverse range of brands – from established legacy players such as Royal Ascot to confrontational disrupters like BrewDog.

By playing on the key creative tool of human emotion, Isobel’s creatives are able to tailor each campaign to a brand’s image and marketing strategy.

“There’s all sorts of different emotions that we can we can play off and they need to suit a brand’s tone of voice and a brand’s DNA,” Williams says, highlighting the use of ‘mischief’ for BrewDog’s highly successful ‘Rate Beer’ campaign.

“Mischief is a great one, and it works very well for challenger, provocative brands like BrewDog – it works very well for their brand tone of voice,” he adds.

The ‘mischief’ in question was placing the beer brand’s competitors at the very heart of the campaign, displaying their ‘Rate Beer’ scores in comparison to BrewDog’s flagship Punk IPA. Calling out such illustrious names as Carling, Foster’s, Stella Artois and Budweiser, the out-of-home led campaign created a significant stir.

Reflecting proudly on the work, Williams continues: “The media spend wasn’t huge, but the awareness it drove was massive. There was a huge conversation and debate on social about it.

“We call it the most provocative beer campaign of all time, because who else has ever actually used someone else’s pack shot and the competitor’s advertising line in their own ad?”

Other honourable mentions include last summer’s award-winning, but somewhat divisive ‘Forecourt Dramas’ series produced for petrol station brand Jet – considered comedic genius by some, highly annoying by others.

Williams admits to being somewhat bemused by the response to the advert, but says: “If it’s causing a reaction and getting remembered, then you’re in the right place – polarising advertising can often be very powerful.”

Personally, Williams singles out a campaign he led for ice cream brand Kelly’s of Cornwall in 2016, which was in dire need of a revamp to attract younger customers. Settling on the genius idea of running an ad entirely in Cornish – without subtitles – he struck gold.

“It got covered in literally every newspaper. I mean, it was on the BBC News. It was on Sky News. It was on ITV News.

“Everyone in my mum’s village now still buys Kelly’s of Cornwall ice cream because of that campaign – even with a really small media spend, the PR value was unprecedented.”

“We don’t get bogged down by bureaucracy”

The ability to think outside the box and stretch creative boundaries makes Isobel a unique player on the London ad scene. It’s status as a fully independent outfit helps it remain agile, able to respond more quickly to client demands and changing circumstances.

“We don’t get bogged down by bureaucracy, by the layers of politics, ego and internal conflicts that disrupt doing great work,” says Williams, praising the agency’s process.

“Being fully independent is incredibly powerful for clients as we don’t have to answer to boards which are trying to drive profit in areas that might not be good for either our clients or our creativity.”

The lack of a rigid hierarchy at Isobel has facilitated an extremely healthy, collaborative working culture, Williams says, adding that the agency is “only as good as its work, and only as strong as its culture and people.”

Apologising for his choice of clichéd language, Williams continues: “We’re people in advertising, not advertising people.”

This human aspect is clearly reflected in the range of events and initiatives that the agency embraces – as well as its famously bonkers Christmas Cards which see the entire agency donning fancy dress according to a yearly theme.

2011 Xmas card ‘Master of the House’

20 years in the making

Has the original team achieved all that it set out to 20 years ago?

“Yes and no”, says co-founder and executive creative director Rob Fletcher. “We’ve achieved so much as an agency. We’ve employed some brilliant people, we’ve worked with some brilliant brands and some brilliant marketers, and produced campaigns that have been absolute gamechangers for businesses.

“In some cases, our work has literally saved brands, or propelled them into unimaginable growth. We care deeply about what we do, on every single piece of work, for every client, so it’s taken hard work, and blood, sweat and tears.

“But, there is so much more to do, so we’re never satisfied. And that’s what’s exciting.”

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