photo | Saffron Brand Consultants
Wally Olins, brand guru and a huge influence on my thinking about all things branding and much else, died yesterday. It feels like the end of an era. As for me, I’m devastated.
Wally pioneered the concept of corporate identity back in the late 1970s by insisting that an organisation’s reputation can be shaped just as much by its products, its behaviour and its environments as by its marketing and communications. That this is taken pretty much for granted these days is a tribute to Wally’s conviction, determination and tenacity. And those were qualities he had in spades. He was also a penetrating thinker and a great communicator.
I first met Wally in 1982 when I was studying for an MBA at London Business School. Of all the visiting lecturers whose talks I attended, his was the most insightful, entertaining and delightful. I remember him talking about how much you can deduce even from apparently insignificant objects. He illustrated this with a series of coat hangers, asking us to imagine their owners: one was padded and covered with pink satin, another made of mahogany, a third was the wire type you get from dry cleaners but twisted out of shape to make an ad hoc aerial.
I joined Wolff Olins, the agency to which Wally gave his name, in 1984. Back then the company lived in an old butterscotch factory at 22 Dukes Road near Euston station, furnished with a mix of old bentwood furniture, kilims, plan chests and, in reception, Rover chairs by Ron Arad. It was wonderfully eclectic, slightly bohemian and very stylish.
There were about 35 people and two cats. Visitors were always struck by the fresh flowers and fruit on the tables, and the downstairs restaurant where employees and clients would eat together. It was a brilliant idea: it meant that the food had to be great; it provided an irresistible incentive to socialise over lunch; and, of course, it spoke volumes about Wolff Olins and what it stood for.
Wally could be a pretty terrifying figure. He would say what he thought and would not tolerate second-rate thinking, writing or communicating. We all got balled out at one point or another, some of us frequently. If he didn’t like your work, he told you to do it again… and again and again. He could also strike fear into the hearts of clients, and there were those who would appoint us only on the condition that he would not be on the project. Most, though, came to Wolff Olins for Wally.
He didn’t change as his and his agency’s reputations grew. He would make a point of passing through reception regularly, introducing himself to and chatting with clients, freelancers, job applicants and anyone else who happened to be there. He made a point of being accessible – not just working in an open-plan office but also making sure that the news and feedback he got wasn’t filtered by well-meaning colleagues.
I learned a lot from him, not least the power of a simple storyline and striking visuals, but also the importance of integrity and persistence. I remember various occasions on which I wanted to give up on a project – the client would be difficult even unpleasant and undermining, the work would be going nowhere. Wally insisted that we stick at it. And, more often than not, we’d pull through and get a result.
I worked with Wally at Saffron too. He became chairman there after Wolff Olins was bought by Omnicom. There was no way he was going to be reporting to anyone else. We worked together on Saffon’s first UK project – developing a brand for the housing association sector. Wally relished it for its challenge and although the brand we created never really took off, I’ve heard from my contacts in the sector that our work changed the sector’s thinking – fundamentally shifting the focus from properties to neighbourhoods.
There was a very warm side to Wally. He really cared about people and after I stopped working with Saffron it was easy to keep in touch. I always looked forward to seeing him and I can’t believe I won’t be seeing him again. He was a great man and you can get to know him a bit better via his website.