Liverpool’s SB Studio: Stay small, do big things and keep moving
Born out of a frustration with traditional agency models, founder and creative director of SB Studio Benji Holroyd set up shop in his bedroom in 2008. Fast-forward nine years, and the studio has found a home in the heart of Liverpool, but has remained committed to staying small, as Benji vows never to expand beyond ten team members. Working from within the city’s now thriving digital community, the studio’s philosophy is a desire to craft authentic brand experiences. Cultivating collaborative relationships with their clients – including Unilever, Playstation and RIBA architecture centre – the studio’s output is impressively varied; from digital products to events and a particularly playful identity for Assemble’s much-loved Brutalist Playground. As they celebrate a decade in business, Benji reflects on the studio’s early trials, the ongoing challenges of maintaining the business and how he plans to keep it moving forward.
SB is a brand and experience agency working in arts and culture, hospitality, retail, food and drink, property, place and luxury and lifestyle. Our clients range from challenger start-ups to global super brands, but we also work very closely with young, energetic business leaders to define their purpose and positioning. Our output is largely digital, but print and craft feature somewhere in every project.
I founded the studio in 2008 after spending a decade working at agencies small and large. SB focused on building sustainable tools for clients; real brand identities built for business, fit for purpose and resilient enough to stand the test of time. We created a range of toolkits to help businesses at the start of their journey; a cost-effective means to be able to deliver their brand. Nine years later we're still working in the same way, making flexible design tools for businesses of all sizes. This week we're helping to build a new digital offering for a small social enterprise; last month we were facilitating an ideation workshop for Unilever. The size of a brand is less important than what you do with it.
“Like most start-ups, SB began life in a bedroom. I soon realised that it wasn't great for business, or my sanity.”
Like most start-ups, SB began life in a bedroom. I soon realised that it wasn't great for business, or my sanity, so I shared a space with friend Mike Merron (now running Analog). We were both at the beginning and in the same boat, but in very different fields of work. Working together was great – we collaborated and bounced ideas off each other. The following year, we won some pretty big projects: rebranding Lagos City and winning the account for the British Ceramics Biennial. The studio went from one to four people in as many weeks.
Within three months of opening, we won a significant three-year project, rebranding a large hotel group and luxury yacht company in Finland. It was a massive project that helped secure the business for the first two years. Having that financial backbone gave us the freedom to work on more creative and ambitious projects that didn't have the budgets that others had.
Our work is diverse, ranging from brand identity, exhibition and signage to digital and events. Crafting authentic brand experiences is at our core, so we invest a considerable amount of time in understanding our clients and absorbing ourselves in their world.
Every project begins by interrogating the brief together – something we insist on. We’ll then share ideas, examine the market and research the brand or product. Then it's ideas and exploration – and lots of it. Quite often, the agency looks like a shrine to particular projects!
Last year we worked on OH, formerly Innovators Hub, which strives to plug the creative skills gap (our very own designer Vicky Hardman and developer Steve Clesham joined us through OH's Catalyst programme). Over three months, the team worked closely with OH on mapping and planning. The creative process was speedy, but in a fast-moving world we felt that we needed to adopt an agile approach, so we removed any chances to ponder or reflect. It’s a project that will never be finished, because it’s a modern brand that never stands still. The identity is collaborative, energetic, expressive and incredibly resilient.
We work on quite a few self-initiated projects as a studio, too. Our 100/100 Beer Project was massive. We have something exciting planned for this year too – a series of events that will be held all over the UK. Mum’s the word on that one though. About 99% of the work we take on isn’t publicised, simply because we haven’t yet had the time do so! It’s something we’re putting right this year.
We also have our own cafe, Cow&Co, which is now five years old. After spending a decade working for hospitality brands all over Europe, we decided to give it a go ourselves and opened it up under our studio back in 2013. It’s a small and intimate hide-out in central Liverpool but slightly off the beaten track. Alongside a bustling coffee shop, we also host mini-exhibitions and events there. We have five staff that all have a creative background in some way. In November 2017 we opened our second venue, Morning Noon Night – an all-day dining, coffee shop and modern bistro. Operating over three floors, it hosts tasting events, film shoots and kids’ creative workshops.
There are seven of us on the team. We're small, and purposely so. I've always said that we'll never get bigger than ten, and we've stayed true to that – ten is the magic number. Any more than that, and I feel the quality starts to slip. Having said this, our biggest challenge has actually been staff retention. Although it's getting better, there has always been a skills gap in Liverpool, so finding the talent has been tough and being able to retain it even tougher.
“I've always said that we'll never get bigger than ten, and we've stayed true to that – ten is the magic number.”
Although we have job titles, our roles and responsibilities often overlap, and we like it this way. We believe we’re building a team of leaders who just happen to be damned good designers and developers. When we’re adding to the team, we look for character, personality, belief, passion and commitment.
We offer paid internships and usually take on approximately three interns a year; and our last three recruits started as interns. However, we hardly ever take on freelance designers – unless we're pitching for a project or to help with some idea – but we do regularly collaborate with artists, illustrators and photographers.
Environment and Culture
When we started, Liverpool was still very quiet, but since being named as a European Capital of Culture in 2008, the city has transformed. We have a thriving digital community, and culturally it's world class. To have that on your doorstep and be in the city centre is pretty special. Based in L1, we’re a stone's throw from the Tate, our café, Liverpool's retail district, the Knowledge Quarter, and the creative quarter, the Baltic Triangle.
I've never understood why creative agencies are tucked away on the fourth floor of a warehouse. When I set up SB, I wanted it to be accessible as possible. I wanted to connect with passers-by, so we've always had a high-street studio. Sometimes it can feel a bit like goldfish bowl but it's great for business.
“Liverpool has a thriving digital community, and culturally it's world class.”
We invest in training for everybody, so if you want to learn we'll make it happen; it's as simple as that. Holidays are standard but we reward with service, so for every two years at the company you'll be given a hamper of nice 'add-ons' including extra holiday. Every Christmas we also take the team away for a night or two. Beers on Fridays are the norm, and we have a team lunch on Thursdays, where we encourage each of the team to bring something to the table (sounds nice, but it often ends up being a Deliveroo!)
In terms of what we have coming up next, right now we’re looking forward to moving studio and launching our new website in March. Overall, we’re hoping to stay small, do big things and keep moving – that’s the mantra. But you can expect a few new businesses of our own, and a transformation of SB.
Photography by Richard Kelly
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Benji Holroyd
Mention SB Studio