The founder and director of London-based brand and design agency Lantern, was in my class at Uni… then (as now) Ryan was renowned for intelligent work, brilliantly executed. I caught up with him almost a decade after we graduated to see what he’s been up to and what it takes to start up your own agency. Watch the new Lantern showreel, then check out our interview below..
Tell us a bit about the business – who you are, your story and clients etc.
In its simplest form, Lantern is a branding agency. There’s quite a few of them out there though, so we’ve positioned ourselves as The Brand Attitude Agency. It’s a reflection of the emphasis we put on the language and tonality of a brand during our process. The focus on the verbal identity, when combined with the visual side of things, helps to form the ‘attitude’ of a brand. We’re still hugely passionate about the craft of a logo or the detail of a typeface, but hopefully the tone of voice shines through the work we do too.
I set up Lantern at the end of 2014, having worked at agencies including Unreal, 300million and Brand Union. At the time of starting, I was inspired by the kind of work coming from down under. The likes of Mike Rigby and Chris Maclean, who then headed up Interbrand in Sydney, as well as Jason Little, who led the creative team at Re:Sydney (before launching ForThePeople) were putting so much character and personality into their work – it was fresh, colourful and undoubtedly language-led.
Amazingly, we’re just about to celebrate our third birthday! Over that time, we’ve been lucky enough to be involved in launching and relaunching brands all over the world. Our client base is pretty varied, from large scale brands like Universal Music and Siemens, through to smaller fitness and fashion brands, place-making projects, tech innovators and some incredible social enterprises.
Three years is a milestone in any company, how have those first years as an agency been compared to your hopes or expectations when starting out?
They’ve flown by! I can’t quite believe we’ve hit the three-year mark already but it’s a fantastic feeling. All the clichés you hear about starting a business are completely true, so it’s good to still be here!
Although I started solo, I wanted to present Lantern as a credible agency from day one, as opposed to freelancing my way into business. There were a lot of late nights in the run up to launch, building a portfolio of legitimate client projects rather than past agency work – but that was really important to me.
I also wrote a pretty detailed five-year financial and strategic plan, before going out to seek investment. It’s not the most common story you hear from a designer who starts up but, for me, the plan was crucial in understanding what I needed to do to stay in business and ultimately, grow. We’ve not hit every milestone in there, but it’s such a useful measure of success.
After six months, I moved Lantern out of my spare bedroom and into a WeWork. It was one of the best decisions I made, both in terms of reaching new clients and meeting new people. Starting out on your own can be a bit of an isolating experience, so I’m definitely a fan of the co-working revolution. We’ve now been a part of the WeWork network for two and a half years, recently moving from a three-person space in Moorgate to a six-person studio in London Fields.
One of the biggest surprises has been the amount overseas work we’ve had. Currently, around 60% of our work has come from outside of the UK, which keeps things very fresh. It’s taken the team to places as diverse as Morocco and Norway. We’ve also just put the finishing touches to a fitness fashion brand based in California. In that respect, the variety of projects we’ve had has been far greater than I could have imagined and a lot of our clients have become real friends of the agency.
Any advice for those who are perhaps considering the leap to setting up a studio? Is it worth the inevitable highs and lows?
It definitely is! This year saw us pick up three trophies at the Transform Awards, including a gold for best creative strategy, which had to be a career highlight as well as an agency one. When Henry Brown joined as our first permanent designer, that was another amazing milestone – we doubled in size overnight! He’s a hugely talented individual and I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for a few years now – good people make all the difference and I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved.
Of course, there are times when the tough days get the better of you. The projects you don’t win, the ones you do that never launch, the clients who don’t pay and the ones you end up taking to court… It’s easy to get hung up on all that. So, one bit advice would be to make time to look back on all the successes you achieve, no matter how small. It’s easy to forget them sometimes in the haste of agency life.
In terms of setting up itself, I guess it depends on your personality, but I’d definitely recommend a five year plan. Think about how many people you want to have hired in that time, factor in your overheads and work out what that means in terms of revenue growth. Also, have a plan for cash flow. Some clients will pay late, some might not pay at all. Big brands are great to work with, but they tend to have the longer payment terms, so make sure you can survive with that in mind. It’s not easy.
Above all though, have fun and enjoy the ride – every day comes with new and unique challenges, but that’s what keeps the job interesting!
What’s next for Lantern? Anything coming up in 2018 you can share, or would like to be doing more of?
We’ve picked up a few projects in the world of placemaking and destination branding recently, which has led to more work in the sector. One such project is for a world-famous location and it’s been on the go for over a year now. Hopefully, it will go live in early 2018, so watch this space! It’s a really interesting sector as every place has its own challenges and stories to tell, so we’re keen to be doing more. The ambition is to expand our experience into travel and tourism too – an airport and airline are definitely on the wish list!