Creative passion that is the best possible advert for design agency

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He’s the former bobbin boy who changed the way we think about Cheestrings forever. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright met Alan Rogan, MD of the SPIRIT of..

ALAN Rogan has worked with aliens who have a passion for instant mashed potato, so it takes a lot to surprise him.

But the unsolicited call from across the Atlantic did knock him off his stride.

It was made by an American with a husky voice and a passion for popcorn. During a 40-year career in advertising, Mr Rogan has got used to dealing with Bohemian types. But he knows there’s got to be a hard-headed reason for your creative decisions, and you must be prepared to accept business from unexpected sources.

“I took a phone call from somebody saying, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m Mr Popcorn in the States’,’’ he recalled.

“I checked him out and it turned out he was an incredibly wealthy guy, who was starting a popcorn business. Within six months, we got some designs and a whole rationale for his business. Now he’s got the brand in 36 countries.”

Mr Rogan’s design company, called the SPIRIT of.., recently beat rivals from across the UK in a national opinion poll to find the design company with the happiest clients. You’ve probably never heard of his company, but Mr Rogan may well be helping to influence your spending decisions.

The £1m turnover firm is responsible for packaging designs that you will see every day, such as Black Sheep Beer, Cheestrings and Del Monte. It is winning clients in France, Germany, Holland, the US and Middle East. According to Mr Rogan, in order to keep the client happy, you’ve got to grasp what makes the product special.

“It’s all about understanding the spirit of the brand and realising why a brand exists, and why it should appeal to consumers,” said Mr Rogan. “It’s something we need to understand before we put pen to paper.”

Born in Halifax, Mr Rogan’s childhood memories take us into a lost world. While still at Heath Grammar school, he found work as a bobbin boy.

“I was 14 years old and my mother decided that I ought to be earning a shilling,” Mr Rogan said.

“She managed to get me a job at the local mill in Halifax during my summer holidays. I was a bobbin boy. It was incredibly Victorian. It was a dark old mill and it was very noisy; that is one thing I will never forget.

“The women who worked there used to lip-read. I was running around and collecting their bobbins. It was an eye-opener.”

His other holiday jobs, working as a clippie on the Halifax buses, and as an assistant on a mobile grocery van, brought him into contact with a cosmopolitan array of people. He’s always had a creative flair, and, from an early age, he decided to build a career around it.

He said: “I was a bit of a fashionista as a kid. I modelled myself on Rod Stewart. He was a bit different, a jack the lad.

“That was a fashion thing, but I was also quite competent at art.

“I do remember being babysat by my uncle Barry, who was a textile designer, and he was one of the people who encouraged me to draw.”

Determined to make his mark in the world of advertising, he headed to Bournemouth College of Art, which was a world away from the deafening roar of the Halifax mills.

“I wanted to move away from Halifax, and Bournemouth had fantastic beaches, which was one of the attractions, and apart, from that, they had a very good advertising course,’’ he said. “They had a communications, advertising and marketing course and at 21, I was the youngest person in the country to pass it.

“It was something I knew would give me a career. I took a secondment into London during my second year, with the incredible John Webster, who did commercials like the Cresta Bear and Cadbury’s Smash.”

The latter featured the Smash Martians, who ridiculed humans who mashed potato the traditional way, instead of using potato granules.

It became one of the most famous TV adverts of all time.

In 1975, Mr Rogan headed back to Leeds to work at Brunnings Advertising Agency, and later moved on to become creative director at The Advertising Bureau, which brought him back into the bright lights of TV.

He said: “I remember doing a commercial with Wendy Craig (the actress who appeared in the 1970s comedy Butterflies) for Dalepak Dalesteaks. She was fantastic.

“My real passion was branding, and understanding what the brand was all about, which led me to where I am now.

“The Advertising Bureau was a big agency in Leeds. We had some fabulous accounts.

“It was highly creative, with a terrific team of people, and an awful lot of fun, with a lot of socialising and long lunches. There was a lot of money sloshing around.”

By the end of the 1980s, Mr Rogan had established his own business – known as the Rogue’s Gallery – which gave him the chance to work for a number of advertising agencies.

“It seemed very clever at the time to be called Rogue’s Gallery,” he said. ”I changed that eventually to Creative a La Carte. Almost by accident, that took me into a lot of food business. Food is a massive industry and it’s highly competitive. It’s got to keep changing and that’s good for business. When you’re doing packaging design, you know the design you’re going to do today is likely to get changed in the next 18 months.”

In 1989, Mr Rogan went into partnership to develop a business based in Yeadon, near Leeds, called Pilot Design, which eventually grew to employ 35 people. His business partner moved on, and in 1991, he was approached by the Principles Advertising Agency, and he sold the company to them on a three-year, earn out, basis.

Which brings us to the SPIRIT of.. which was launched with just seven staff in 2001.

“I was missing the creative input,’’ he said. “Being part of a bigger group, I was on a couple of different boards. There were an awful lot of meetings about meetings. I wasn’t at the sharp end, producing work for clients. I chatted with my wife and decided that it was time to do something radical.”

Sure enough, the SPIRIT of.. started to attract large projects.

Mr Rogan added: “Our first major commission was to re-look at Cheestrings on behalf of Kerry Foods.

“That wasn’t just a quick re-design, it was about extending the brand into a teenage brand.

“We hit the ground running and our first two or three years were extremely profitable.

“It gave me my spirit back, which is where the name of the company came from.”

The SPIRIT of.. is working for clients based in Frankfurt, Monaco, Kuwait, Holland and Minnesota and its portfolio of major brands includes Goodfella’s Pizza, Go Dutch Cheese and Weightwatchers. The team was also behind the packaging redesign for Barratt’s confectionery brand the Sherbet Fountain and Irn Bru, for Barr. The Drum Design 100 placed the SPIRIT of.. at number one in the client satisfaction category.

Concerns are often expressed about the numbers of talented creative Yorkshire people who head to London. But, in the long term, Mr Rogan believes a lot of the talent will decide to come home.

“A lot of these guys come back,’’ he said. “We want to remain a profitable business. I want people to enjoy working here, and I want us to be proud of the work that we do, because the clients enjoy working with us.

“Creativity comes from the heart,” he added.

“I don’t care who comes up with a creative idea.

“The cleaner could come up to me and say, ‘You should do this.’

“If she’s got a good idea, then I’m going to take it on board.”