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HarrimanSteel owners on retaining independence, remaining adaptable and rethinking data

Twenty years ago, Julian Harriman-Dickinson and Nick Steel founded creative agency HarrimanSteel in London, with an ambition to craft bold ideas for brands that ignite emotion and affect culture to connect with consumers. Their mission remains steadfast to this day: to generate brand lust outside the constraints of traditional advertising.

Steel and Harriman-Dickinson have had the privilege of working with a select bunch of prestigious clients including Nike, Patagonia, Sonos, Toms, Louis Vuitton, Eley Kishimoto, V&A, Philharmonia Orchestra to name a few. Occasionally Harriman-Dickinson still directs commercials and content for HarrimanSteel campaigns, helming ads for the likes of Nike and Pepsi.

In the run up to Julian featuring at this year’s European branding conference, OnBrand, the pair reflected on how the role of creative agencies has changed and where creativity sits in the modern workplace.

This year, you celebrated 20 years of leading an independent creative agency. Why have you decided to stay independent all these years?

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: The analogy of the ‘speedboat vs oil tanker’ comes to mind; being independent gives us agility. We have creative freedom to partner with who we want, to pivot, and continually evolve. Being an indie also gives us creative freedom to embrace risk and experimentation.

How has the agency landscape changed in the last two decades?

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: The biggest shift we’ve noticed is the rise of digital, and the ever growing importance of data to measure, inform creativity and provide valuable insights.

Nick Steel: Another major shift is that brands are now building their own internal capacity with in-house marketing teams and creative studios. This is happening at a really fast rate - in a way I’ve not seen before.  

In this landscape, what do you think is the role of creative agencies today?

Nick Steel: Agencies need to adapt; our role is to act as an extension of a brand’s marketing team and offer an external and independent perspective in a way that internal departments can’t.

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: The relationship between an agency and brand today is much more intimate and nuanced - they really need to work together as real partners.

What do you think the biggest challenge for creativity is today?

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: The growing number of touchpoints and the always-on consumer means that there’s more pressure to create more content at a faster pace. It’s fair to say that this isn’t the most conducive context for long-term brand building. Faster isn't necessarily the answer.

Nick Steel: The danger for brands that try to be everywhere at once is that they create much lower quality storytelling - as they have much less interesting things to say. It also means brands tend not to navigate this new landscape with craft or care. Which in turn, only means that they become bland and invisible to their consumers.

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: Creative thinking and creative solutions aren’t under threat, but the quality of creative output faces challenges.

Nick Steel: I think creativity is more important than it’s ever been; we need to think about how we can stand out, be useful remember the importance of creating an authentic, human connection.

Are modern organizations set up to nurture creativity? Has this changed?

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: I started HarrimanSteel having directly left a large ad agency. I had been working in a traditional siloed structure where I knew I was just a link in a long chain. Back then, you hoped the creative wouldn’t dilute through the process.

Nick Steel: But when we established our business 20 years ago, we wanted to carve out a space in between the worlds of advertising and design - without the chain. Our vision was to create an independent business that could be fluid, adapt to the market and respond to culture. We work closely as a team and always work to ensure conceptual thinking is married with real craft and attention to detail.

With a growing emphasis on data-driven effectiveness, how can modern organizations ensure they’re set up to nurture and not stifle creativity?

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: Data helps us define journeys, develop mechanics, understand our audience, and provide valuable insights. But it’s just a tool: data is black and white and has no emotion. I think it’s important for businesses to see the limitations and understand where the value lies, so it doesn’t stifle creativity, but acts as a launch pad for it. Sometimes the illogical or lateral ideas just do not compute; and really, that’s where the magic happens.

Nick Steel: It’s important to take data into account, but never let it reduce the space for intuition and ideation - a purely human process that makes creative, creative. We have to keep in mind the moments where we want to disrupt and challenge standard behavior - and this means taking risks to create bigger impact and cut through the noise.

What’s your ideal client; and your ideal client brief?

Julian Harriman-Dickinson: A good client to me is one that can become a creative partner, a business partner and a become an extension of our team. We go on a journey together with a shared objective. Ideally we like longer relationships where we can become instrumental in helping shift the dial, and understanding the intricacies of each individual business and challenge. The answers are normally easy; asking the right questions is the tricky bit. 

What can we expect from you this year at OnBrand?

Nick Steel: Along with Andrew Smith, brand manager at Booking.com, and disruptive educator Bex Radford, I’ll be exploring where future opportunities lie for big brands embracing data, by also keeping an open mind to creativity. We’ll explore both sides of the data vs creativity paradox, and the magic that happens when brands bring them together.

Julian Harriman-Dickinson (pictured, right) and Nick Steel are owners of HarrimanSteel.

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