A conversation in Cannes with the CEO of small but agile UK agency The Gate.
Jamie Elliott (left), CEO of The Gate, with the author.
The original idea was to chat to Jamie Elliott over coffee. But the coffee never arrived, no matter how many times I asked. This was Cannes, however, and on the terrace of La Californie they were short of staff and keen to clear our table for lunch.
Fortunately, the chat went rather better. Some CEOs go out of their way to appear brisk and business-like, choosing careful corporate vernacular. But Jamie seems relaxed and affable – and presumably not just because of the Riviera sunshine.
After almost nine years in senior roles at MullenLowe London, he joined The Gate in 2017 with a mission to “fix” the agency. Or so I’d inferred. So what was the problem?
“Well, the agency we came to was a specialist financial services agency. But after the financial crisis in 2009 – Lehman Brothers and so on – that was a tricky sector to be in. There are still some successful financial agencies around, but in our case the mandate was to be transformative. We needed to go from niche to having a much broader appeal, with creativity driving what we wanted to achieve. It was less a problem than an opportunity to transform.”
He observes that The Gate as an entity has been around for years, with a historic – but no longer current – connection to the financial PR firm Citigate. Today the dust of the past has definitely been brushed off, and the agency even has a snappy brand positioning: “If you can find The Gate, you can walk through walls.”
Characteristically, Jamie finds the line amusing as well as pertinent. “I can guarantee you no-one else is saying it,” he smiles, before giving a more serious interpretation. “In fact, it’s a philosophical differentiator. The Gate was a name we inherited, so we wanted to make sense of it and give it an attitudinal resonance. We needed a tagline – after all, we’re a brand.”
The line came from Lucas Peon, The Gate’s chief creative officer. Jamie explains: “The wall is the thing you need to break through in order to connect with your audience and meet your objectives.”
"An eco-system with creativity overlying it"
It makes sense, even in slogan-rich Cannes. But The Gate is a small agency – around 30 people, according to Jamie – so it needs some extra dynamite to punch through the wall. This is provided by MSQ, a collaborative network of ten specialist agencies, including The Gate.
“MSQ is an absolutely new model – a disruptor compared to the big network propositions,” Jamie explains. “It has a global footprint, but it’s fundamentally about being faster, more nimble, and much more data and technology driven. It’s an eco-system with creativity overlying it. A lot of what we do at The Gate is connected in some shape or form with other disciplines provided by the MSQ family. It might be creative and media. Or creative with customer engagement. The point is that we’re able to flex and shape around a client’s needs – because every client is different. And at the core there’s always a data-driven approach.”
“Data” is a word that gives some creatives the chills, but Jamie has been a staunch advocate of the effectiveness of creativity throughout his career – in fact he recently sprung to its defence again during a live debate.
“With every year that passes and each new grey hair in my beard, I believe even more strongly that creativity is our power,” he says. “And you know what? I think clients increasingly believe so too. Lots of their businesses and industries have been massively disrupted by newcomers who’ve simply had – at a tech level – an idea. So they’re very receptive to creativity, because they’ve had to be more creative within their own organisations than ever before.”
"Creativity needs room to fail - and then succeed"
As an agency leader, what’s his tip for providing an environment where creativity can flourish?
“I think the one thing you need to do is give people the time and space to create. People like me tend to come from account management, so you want to deliver for your client. You want to exert control, which to some degree means exerting pressure. But creativity thrives in an environment where the pressure is taken off; where there’s room to think. Of course, we all know there’s a deadline. You just don’t need mention it every two minutes. Creativity needs room to fail – and then succeed. In a way I’m always fighting my own instincts. But ideas are fragile: they’re easy to kill. So I try to give them room to emerge.”
Interestingly, I’d discovered from LinkedIn that he started out as a school teacher (he later told me his parents were teachers too). It turns out that there’s at least one similarity between teaching and advertising.
“When I first stepped into that classroom, I stood at the front and all the kids sat in the back two rows, putting as much distance as possible between me and them. So what you learn is: there’s always a way of connecting. What many teachers are brilliant at is finding that one thing that will make the penny drop in a child’s mind, so they understand and engage with a subject. You have to be inventive about it. And you have to get to know your audience. What is your route to opening their eyes and minds to an idea? It’s not so different to seeing resistance to an idea from a client. You have to be nimble, flexible and resilient. Because there’s always a way.”
At the time of our conversation, Jamie was a little downhearted because the “Sex Never Gets Old” campaign – whose superb photography put the sex lives of older couples in the spotlight – had been ignored by the Cannes jury. Later, however, “Nobody Is Normal” for Childline won no less than five Lions, including a Gold in Animation.
In a way, both campaigns are perfect illustrations of the agency’s philosophy. “The wall” in each case is a sense of exclusion: whether you feel alien at school, or invisible in the media because your body is no longer influencer-style buff. Jamie says one writer with a strong stance against age-ism described the latter as “not so much a campaign as a gift to humanity”.
He grins: “As compliments go, I’ll take it!”
Jamie left teaching when he was young because he wanted to feel more “at the centre of things”. London and advertising fit the bill. “I felt that advertising was at the heart of so many things: creativity, commerce, media, technology.” He glances over at the Palais des Festivals. “And look around you – it still is.”