Interview: Iain Valentine, managing partner at Whitespace

Iain Valentine says of the team at Whitespace: 'We do work really, really hard but we want to enjoy what we do'. Picture: Jakub Iwanicki
Iain Valentine says of the team at Whitespace: 'We do work really, really hard but we want to enjoy what we do'. Picture: Jakub Iwanicki
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Whitespace has steadily grown, with a wall full of awards to prove its strength

There may be a fully fitted-out bar in the highly enviable offices of the creative agency that says “there ain’t no party like a Whitespace party”.

But within just a few minutes of talking to co-owner and managing partner Iain Valentine, it’s clear that he and the workforce of more than 80 are also serving up a spirited work ethic to justify the rewards.

Noting that agency life “is pretty full on”, he highlights a poster in the bar saying “work hard and be nice to people” and adds that another hangs in his house.

“It really signifies for me what Whitespace is all about,” he says. “We do work really, really hard but we want to enjoy what we do. We want to work with great people in a great environment.”

The firm, which started out in 1997 and says it is Scotland’s largest independent creative agency, covers strategy, creative, technical, content and account management, and about a year ago moved into the bespoke premises at ­Norloch House on King’s Stables Road.

Facilities in the 12,500-square-foot site include custom meeting rooms based on typefaces, a 120-capacity event space and even a basketball hoop, as well as uninterrupted views of Edinburgh Castle.

The investment certainly provides a strong statement of intent regarding the firm’s ambitions, although Valentine stresses that the fit-out cost was “a great deal less than most would think”.

And while he acknowledges the great environment for staff, “we still need to be better at what we do. I don’t think that will ever leave us.”

But with one wall covered in awards, it’s clear much progress has been made, and in May the firm scooped Design Agency of the Year 2016 at the Scottish Design Awards, realising Valentine’s ambition, since graduating from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at the University of Dundee, to win such an accolade.

He had been accepted on the course’s reserve list, two weeks into doing a portfolio course in Arbroath “with about 300 mechanics and ten designers” which he says “wasn’t the best experience”.

His portfolio-course tutor told him that if he left then he’d get a third, but if he stayed with him for a year doing his portfolio he’d get a first-class degree. But he says he left anyway “and came out with the only first in the year,” adding that he always knew he wanted to be graphic designer, was always “relatively entrepreneurial” and wanted to own his own agency.

Growing up in Forfar, Valentine’s projects included a carwashing business, and he adds that aged 18 he won a competition to design the Angus Council logo, which is the same one they use to this day. On graduating he spent spells with Lackie Newton and Navyblue, leaving the latter to start his own business.

But fate had other plans, with Whitespace getting in contact to offer him the role of creative director.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not working for another agency’. But I went to meet them and they were such lovely people that I thought, ‘Actually, maybe this could work.”

Telling them that he wanted all or part of this business, “they, to my surprise, turned round and went, ‘OK’. We then just worked on a plan of how would we make that happen.”

Joining in 2004, he and fellow managing partners Phillip Lockwood-Holmes and Emma Jardine carried out a management buyout of the business in 2010, with Valentine now responsible for its overall creative output and the main point of contact for new business opportunities.

He says: “The bits that I really love are meeting the clients, talking to them about what challenges they have and how creativity, design and digital can actually solve some of those challenges.”

Today its client base encompasses a wealth of key Scottish industries, including financial service names such as Aegon and Sainsbury’s Bank, as well as the likes of tourism agency VisitScotland, the Scottish Government and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

He agrees that many of the projects are representing Scotland on a global level, with the agency looking to present “a picture of modern Scotland to the world” on behalf of such clients.

The firm, which says it remains self-funded, last year added RAC and accountancy body ACCA to its roster, and this year further wins including GoCompare and Lego.

It was also recently extended it relationship with Highland Spring by being appointed to handle its strategic creative account.

The agency has also outlined plans to open up in London in the next 12 months and develop its international client base, and expects to grow fee income to £4.8 million this year from £4m in 2015.

As for acquiring other agencies, Valentine says that while Whitespace is “quite collaborative by nature” such deals are not on the agenda, with the firm instead bringing in “best-in-class partners” to help achieve its targets.

He adds that while he expects that marketing budgets may be affected post-­Brexit, “I think the opportunities will still be there for the right ­agency.”

Whitespace has “never been about money, it’s never been about profit – obviously those are important things to consider as you’re growing a business – it’s been about really trying to create an amazing agency in Scotland.”


Born: Dundee

Education: First-class honours degree in graphic design from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art

First job: picking berries in Angus

Ambition while at school: genuinely to be a graphic designer

What car do you drive: BMW 335 M Sport

Favourite mode of transport: As above

Music: Rachel Sermanni

Kindle or book: book

Reading material: non-fiction, right now The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters

Can’t live without: clear goals

What makes you angry: wasted opportunities

What inspires you: working with the Whitespacers

Favourite place: Berlin

Best thing about your job: meeting new people