There’s a certain brand of creativity that belongs outside London. Gone are the days a Big Smoke location was a stamp of validity, authenticity, innovation. Today, those words are losing meaning amidst a sea of buzzwords – as quickly as clients and creatives are seeking inspiration in the north.
Just a passing glance at the fast-moving, passionate creative work bursting the seams of Leeds is enough to tell you the future has no set location. I miss the bus to my evening appointment to meet Simon Forster and Martin Widdowfield of branding agency, Robot Food, and find myself performing what’s only just acceptable as a walk (so little do my feet meet the floor) along the canal and towards their work station in Holbeck. It’s an uncomfortably warm August evening, and I’m grateful for the cool office, where this evening’s storytellers look up from (presumably) creativity-laden papers on a sideboard, and say hello. We sit down, and as my body temperature begins to respond to the new state of stillness and hydration, I ask Robot Food for their story, and they kindly oblige.
‘Our original aim was to try and do some cool stuff,’ says Simon. He’s got a distinctively London accent and a direct way of finding the point and getting to it, fast. ‘We picked up some big clients early on, saw what our peers were doing, and thought we could do better. The ambition’s always grown, and the goals just keep moving.’
The Robot Food tale is one that begins and ends with ambition, boldness and a sense of humour dried out yet kept fresh by years of experience. Back in 2009, a dining room in Harrogate became RF HQ, and after coming to the difficult realisation that Harrogate might not be the centre of the world (their words not mine), the growing team moved to Tower Works in Leeds City Centre, and then onto Marshalls Mill two years ago. The team has since grown to 20.
The temptation to fall into some form of tabloid beauty section bomb crater and ask, with appropriate rhetorical undertones: “So, what’s your secret?” is strong, but with Robot Food, there’s been no shortcut or magic key. ‘We’ve proved ourselves on big brands, and we’ve proved ourselves while working on smaller brands that have gone on to have massive success. We’ve never done free-pitching: people want to work with us and they come to us,’ says Simon. Yes, there’s talent, but what it seems to boil down to is relentless hard work, and knowing how to value that output in the wider creative world.
‘We’ve always put a high value on what we do, and a lot of what we do is in the thinking.’ Simon tells me, and it’s this strong-minded, level-headed way of playing the creative game that’s built Robot Food such a resilient team. ‘We’re working with a lot of smaller, younger companies that are really progressive, and our team is young and determined. We take people on who have the right energy.’
It doesn’t matter what they’ve studied or where they’ve worked
‘It’s given us a fresher angle, and it keeps us relevant,’ adds Martin, with a nod to how younger, less formally experienced creatives keep the more senior guys on their toes.
With the style clear from the word go – and indeed oozing from the minimal décor and the surfboards and skateboards mounting the office walls – I ask about the substance. What’s happening day-to-day in this creative powerhouse? ‘We’re working with Carlsberg on an exciting project to launch a new brand to market in lots of different regions,’ says Simon, telling me how the agency’s organic way of finding work means clients often come straight to them, having seen their work, or heard about their way of doing things.
‘We’re also working for a global spirits brand on a huge project, and it was their in-house design team who saw what we’d done and liked it. So, we’ve become more robust, but it’s not business that drives us – it’s creative’.
A chat with Robot Food wouldn’t be complete without bringing up their iconic work for Vocation Brewery, a project that saw them work closely with the owner and head brewer to devise branding that’s centred around the business’s story. ‘It’s completely different from other beers,’ says Simon, ‘but why shouldn’t it be? It should always be brave. Vocation fits with us; it’s always been one that we’re proud of. If you’ve got free rein what would you do? Well, we’d do Vocation.’
Other clients on the roster include salt and pepper manufacturer, Saxa, which the team rebranded this year, showing the versatility of their skill by bringing to life a historical brand in a contemporary light. Seabrook Crisps also comes into the conversation, and yet again we’re talking about finding the story, engaging with the true voice of a brand and understanding who they are – rather than just giving nice designs with little meaning. ‘Seabrook is a plucky northern upstart,’ Simon tells me, ‘It’s got such a strong story and rich history – they needed to be reminded what strength they had, and we just dialled all that up.’
And there’s that word. Northern. ‘We are fiercely northern,’ Simon says firmly, after a moment of laughter about his London roots momentarily disrupts the response. Throughout the history of Robot Food, the ‘are you as good as the London agencies?’ question has lurked behind the curtain, but the answer has always been certain: ‘We’re better.’
They’re the old guard, and they’ve been napping.
The shift in the north/south divide forms just part of the change Robot Food has witnessed during its eight years as a fully-fledged strategic branding agency. ‘There’s been a shift in the consumer’, says Simon, ‘people don’t want boring and safe, they want to be challenged. The big old agency model that’s traditionally based in London? They’re the old guard, and they’ve been napping.’
This idea that the landscape is changing faster than brands are changing seems to have played into Robot Food’s hands, as their work ethic of challenging dynamism seeks to engage, revolutionise and invigorate brands. ‘If you’re too big and heavy, you fall by the wayside,’ says Martin, ‘We’ve always felt like we’ve been at the front of the wave.’
And despite what you may have thought, my earlier reference to the surfing and skating paraphernalia adorning the walls of the Robot Food residence was not without good reason. ‘In design and creativity especially, stuff stems from the counterculture and is adopted eventually by the mainstream,’ says Simon. ‘My background is skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, and that’s where inspiration’s always been drawn from – everybody’s got similar interests, we’re fairly alternative, and that seems to resonate more and more.’
Robot Food’s goal for the years ahead is as simple as carrying on doing what they’re doing. ‘We want to remain small enough that everybody plays a part in every project,’ says Simon. ‘It’s keeping the passion and the impact,’ adds Martin, ‘They’re the challenges as we get bigger and bigger.’ And with 15 to 20 clients currently working with Robot Food, bigger seems to be a well-chosen word.
Asking Simon where the agency will be in a decade’s time induces a wry laugh. ‘I always said we’d never grow past 15, so basically I’m a liar,’ he smiles, and the pair are quick to talk about never becoming complacent and bringing a fresh pair of eyes to every job when I ask them to sum up what makes them them. ‘You should never be scared of giving ideas away,’ says Simon, ‘because if you are, you’ll never develop new ones. We’re challenging in the way we approach work, pushing people beyond their expectations and comfort zones – the process we go through is a journey.’ When words like ‘journey’, ‘ambition’ and ‘challenge’ run so easily through a conversation, it’s hard to deny their resonance. As we stand up from our interview-like positions either side of the long table, Simon and Martin ponder what’s left of the late summer evening, considering the choice between drinking hole and gym with some thought.
I leave them feeling genuinely inspired by the creativity and raw passion they exude, and a little in awe of how they’ve achieved so much, so quickly. As long as there are mouths to be fed and creative appetites to appease, it’s clear that Robot Food will be hungry for success. And I for one can see nothing in their way.