Having patiently built its credentials over the last decade, Ragged Edge grows stronger every day thanks to its founders’ ego-free policy of only hiring people better than them...
Ragged Edge on why ego has no place in building a thriving studio
Despite being 10 years old, Ragged Edge is – according to co-founder Max Ottignon – widely regarded as an overnight success story by the industry, as the Farringdon-based agency has only really popped up on people’s radar in the past 18 months or so.
By learning new skills on the job and gradually honing their craft to perfection, the team has picked up increasingly high-profile work that, as Ottignon explains, is driven by passion, substance and integrity – a far cry from his experience of the advertising business… What prompted you to leave adland? Max Ottignon:
I used to be an account handler, a suit. There were a lot of misrepresentations of the truth, if we’re being kind. You were almost lying to your colleagues, and definitely lying to clients. But what really bothered me was that you were lying to consumers. My all-time low was working on a credit card brand, where the whole idea was to encourage people to get into debt by frivolously having fun, which doesn’t seem like a responsible message to be pushing.
I left disillusioned, but thought we could do something that adhered to the clever principles I learnt in ads, but with more integrity. Branding is about making long-term decisions for the benefit of the business, not quick wins. You get results by telling the truth, and building something with the rigour and strength to stand the test of time.
You can’t pull the wool over consumers’ eyes, particularly in the days of social media when people can find out about you so easily. You can get caught on any lie so quickly, and it can spiral. Do you think there’s still a ‘truth and lies’ dichotomy between branding and advertising? MO:
I don’t work in advertising any more, but we work with ad agencies and I’ve noticed a change – partly because of social media, but also people’s desire for authenticity generally.
Advertising is all about comms: driving awareness, recruiting customers really quickly. Sometimes if you haven’t a firm base to build on, you might have to make stuff up – but if you’re working with a strong brand, the ad agency has some robust stuff to work with and can do great things. Ad agencies are amazing at what they do, I’d never wanna talk them down, but it’s a very different discipline. You say there are ‘no egos’ at Ragged Edge. What does that actually mean in practice? MO:
Yeah, the ‘no ego’ thing is really important. Like most stuff at Ragged Edge, it kind of evolved. It was never a founding intention, but to be totally honest, our strategy was always to hire people better than us. That’s how to get better – you have to put your ego aside if you’re bringing in all these talented people who can do things better than you can.
Having a humble approach also meant the work got much better, because you have these great conversations where no one feels precious, and everyone can contribute. We’re not two guys who just want our name above the door. Clearly, some agencies do have egos… do you use it as a philosophy to sell to clients, or is it more of an internal studio culture thing? MO:
It’s more of an internal thing, but it comes down to how you behave with clients as well. As soon as you put aside that sense that you’re out for yourselves, you can create a proper partnership with a client. That’s the only real way to get great work through. You can’t force it: you have to encourage clients to believe in it, by listening and by being a bit humble. What happens if you do have an ego? MO:
I think if you’re a really talented designer or creative director, and you have a vision and you just need people to bring that to life, it’s a really valid way of doing it. The problem for me is that
I don’t see that as particularly scalable. You can do that at a certain size, but as you grow you have to let go of the reins a bit. We’ve always tried to start from that position – I don’t have to be in every meeting by any stretch of the imagination. Was Camden Market your big breakthrough? MO:
Yeah, it was an important one for us to win. We don’t often pitch, but we threw everything at that one to win it. That particular project felt really personal to us as an agency. I lived in and around that area. Nicole, our strategy director, lived there; Matt, the design director who led the project, had grown up around there as well.
We massively over-invested in it as a project, as it had the potential to be really amazing. It was a great brief, because it was about finding that truth at the heart of Camden, and using it to inform its future.
We had never really PR’d something to the level we did that, and we didn’t know what the reception would be like. Until it makes its way onto things like Brand New, you never know. Were you reluctant to over-push the agency until you had that big project under your belt? MO:
Yeah, that’s bang on. We’ve always been about learning by doing, and Ragged Edge has got better and better every single year we’ve been around. We wanted to get to the stage where we were confident the work was worldclass before shouting from the rooftops. We’d prefer to walk the walk before we talk the talk, which is a bit different to how you’re taught to build a business, but it fits our personality really. Did you find people coming to you, and did the scale and quality of briefs improve? MO:
Yeah, I think so. It lifted our profile, and the quality of the talent we got through the door really went up – and the quantity went up too. In terms of clients, it was a brilliant one to show off. But I think the biggest impact was convincing ourselves that we could execute at that level. It was one thing believing we had the skills, but proving it to everybody else was absolutely amazing. It took us up a gear. Any advice for fellow agencies? MO:
Be true to your style. For us, it was all about that sense of humbleness and integrity. Don’t assume you know everything. Probably don’t assume you know anything. Look at everything with fresh eyes every day, and bring in people who are better than you. That’s what’s made Ragged Edge: talented people who can add new ideas and come up with things that Matt and I wouldn’t have been capable of on our own. If you can do that, there’s no limit on what you can do.
Left: The Grey Goose Camionnette hid ‘the world’s most intimate martini bar,’ which offered bespoke cocktails to select influencers all across the country. Below: Ragged Edge has worked with Grey Goose since 2007, on everything from bottle designs to...