The Big Interview: Ian Greenhill of Studio Something

'We're trying to cultivate an environment where you can do anything', says Greenhill. Picture: Contributed
'We're trying to cultivate an environment where you can do anything', says Greenhill. Picture: Contributed
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For Studio Something’s Ian Greenhill being a creative means breaking down ad agency boundaries 
– and reaching for the stratosphere.

As memorable images go, seeing a Tunnock’s Teacake nestled snugly in a metal clutch, floating at the edge of the atmosphere against the immense backdrop of planet Earth is one that will stick for a while. Which is exactly the point. As part of a campaign on behalf of the Glasgow Science Centre, creative agency Studio Something launched a helium balloon carrying the iconic treat – with a built-in cake-cam to monitor its progress – into space from Houston, Renfrewshire.

“Attention to detail is key,” laughs agency founder and MD Ian Greenhill. “The brief was to just do something people would like, and to get more children interested in scientific experiments. Our strategy was: kids are watching experiments on YouTube, like Mentos fizzing in glasses of Coke, but they don’t see it as science. We thought we can teach them about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] if we take cues from these YouTube series.”

The Edinburgh-headquartered company, which has bases in Glasgow and London, has also sent the lead singer of Glasgwegian rock band Twin Atlantic, Sam McTrusty, “to the bottom of the sea” as part of a music video at Pinewood Studios. Founded in 2014, the agency now counts multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Island Records, as well as the likes of Tennent’s, Innis & Gunn and Skyscanner, among its advertising clients.

Greenhill describes the studio as an ad agency “for want of a better word”, but the firm also incorporates rapidly expanding production and venture arms, all functioning out of its office in Leith in a building dating back to the 16th century. Its production division is midway through a football series for the recently launched BBC Scotland channel, while the venture side is supporting and incubating several start-ups, the first of which – Welbot – now has a presence in 35 countries.

Studio Something’s unorthodox set-up was borne out of frustration with the traditional ad agency model. Greenhill and co-founder Jordan Laird, who worked as a team during their time as “creatives” with The Leith Agency, founded their own operation (originally called Something Something) after discovering a more agile approach while working on music videos during their spare time.

“We enjoyed the process of writing and directing music videos a lot more than working on a 30-second TV ad that took six months to make,” he says. “So we thought we needed to be more agile, quicker, offering a more end-to-end product. We combined advertising with production and that created the company. ”

Greenhill describes the “bizarre moment” the start-up secured seed funding through Off The Ball presenter Stuart Cosgrove during the broadcaster’s time at Channel 4’s Nations and Regions. He encouraged the pair to apply for a share of The Alpha Fund, created to support companies based outside of London, which led to them landing a £10,000 investment.

Although the studio rarely handles music videos now, its production arm has revved up to top gear. Earlier this month its BBC commission, A View From The Terrace, which spun out of long-standing football podcast, The Terrace, was extended to include extra shows following its successful launch on 1 March. Greenhill admits the series, which also features The Scotsman’s Craig Fowler and Joel Sked, was “borne out of an opportunity” rather than as part of a pre-planned strategy.

He says: “We’d never done anything like that before but we assembled a team to take on the pilot project and tendered along with five production companies to secure the contract. Six people now work full-time on the show.”

Grabbing new challenges by the horns appears to be ingrained in the company’s DNA. A key win early on in the business journey was to produce a series of comedy animations for brewing giant Tennent’s. Set in the fictional town of Wellpark (also the name of the beermaker’s Glasgow brewery), it featured 50 reactive animations that the pair wrote and produced – and proved a tremendous opportunity to fine-tune the agency’s flexible model. “An old model couldn’t have done that project, so it was a good test-and-learn thing for how the company would work,” says Greenhill. “Our line is to make something people genuinely like, whether that’s a TV show, a venture, an advert. It’s making a meaningful, emotional connection.

“That’s how we started the company: if we do good stuff, more will come – and I think it’s all starting to come at the same time! We won work with Coca-Cola last year – no other agency in Scotland is doing that.”

Annual turnover is forecast to break the £1 million mark this year. As the business has scaled, Greenhill says that he and Laird have never been shy about asking for advice, building up a board of “people who know more stuff than us”.

He says: “My dad has this phrase which I apply to business. He used to get lost all the time – before Google Maps – and he’d wind down the window wherever he was and go ‘where’s this football pitch?’ or ‘where’s this?’ Then he’d turn to me and say: ‘You never get lost with a tongue in your head.’ I think it’s the same for business. There’s so many people that have done it before. No matter what model you use, the problems are still the same.”

Studio Something has grown to include eight workers on the advertising agency side, four on the Welbot app and three backroom staff in Glasgow, alongside freelancers. Greenhill is in no rush to boost headcount, preferring to stay small and nimble, while building profits, but he is keen to attract and keep creative talent in Scotland. This was partly the inspiration behind an initiative launched last year to run “the best paid internship in Scotland”, where the studio paid an intern the same wage as its co-founders for one week. The successful applicant was then offered a three-month contract (“not on the same wage!”) and continues to work for the agency.

“We found a lot of other creative agencies were doing unpaid internships but when we worked at The Leith Agency they had an amazing programme,” he recalls. “I was working in a shop when I applied and I wouldn’t have been able to quit my job on a whim for an unpaid role. So if they hadn’t had that programme I would never have got into this. I couldn’t have afforded to.”

Greenhill also feels that the firm’s multifaceted approach is influential in retaining talent. “We’re trying to cultivate an environment where you can do anything. If you’ve got an idea, the company is here to support you. It’s just a smart business move but hopefully it’s exciting for staff.”

Greenhill is also conscious of the emotional burden that can fall on those working in creative roles, especially as Studio Something is currently behind advertising campaigns for See Me Scotland, a programme focused on ending the stigma relating to mental health. Projects have included the Power of Okay campaign to promote the idea of looking after our mental health as we do our physical fitness.

“Especially in the creative industry that’s a big thing. Essentially you’re coming up with ideas every day, and sometimes those ideas aren’t accepted by clients, and that can take its toll. I am quite aware, as leader of a company, of how staff feel and making sure they’re OK. That’s in-built in the company. Look after each other and the work will be better,” he says.

This is underlined by the agency’s Welbot venture, a wellness in the workplace app founded by developer Sam Deere, which uses so-called nudge theory. “It’s an application that sends you messages on your desktop,” Greenhill explains. “It tells you to hydrate, do some mindfulness exercises, stretch. It’s to help companies see how their employees are feeling and ensure that they’re happier because that leads to lower absenteeism and a better workplace.”

Greenhill cites the app as a prime example of how the agency’s creativity can support start-ups. “Rather than them thinking about how best to market something, they have an in-built marketing team here with us.”

So, after the top of the world and the depths of the sea, what’s next? The business has recently won a government tender for Cycling Scotland and will launch an initiative about Road Safety later this year. Greenhill is currently in talks with major clients – nothing he is able to divulge just yet – and remains resolute in trying to attract global clients to Scotland.

“A goal for us is to be an agency based in Scotland, but not a Scottish company. What I mean by that is by winning clients like Coca-Cola or having our own TV show. A lot of people set up an advertising agency and they grow it to hopefully sell it one day. I don’t think that’s a viable model anymore. We quickly realised that value is coming from IP [intellectual property], it’s in ideas. And ideas – if you do it properly – they could be worth a lot.”