Reflecting on fifteen years of Fluid

By Phil Harvey
February 2019
Fifteen Years of Fluid

It was summer 2003. And I’d become experienced enough and opinionated enough to know that the agency world I’d known wasn’t quite what I wanted.

Not because I didn’t love design or believe in creativity. Because I do to this day. Passionately. But because ‘creative’ agencies seemed structured in a way that would kill creativity and dampen imagination. Creative Directors taking credit for the best ideas. Account Managers misunderstanding briefs and brands. And talented designers that weren’t really ever heard or seen.

And those frustrations were born as the foundations of Fluid. An agency without boundaries. Where every idea counts and everyone collaborates directly with clients. Where old learns from young and where evolution is constant. It has to be nowadays.

I’m writing this blog on our 15th anniversary. So I guess I had something right back in those early days. So here’s our story, and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

The Iron Gate Age

Fluid’s first incarnation was in a damp, windowless basement beneath a beauty salon. It had its perks - including work socials and a Christmas party with the lovely beauticians. Sorry I’ve digressed.

I still remember my first day. Striding up Iron Gate brimming with pride. But instead of opening the door to the sweet smell of success, I was greeted by the not-so-sweet stench of sewerage. So my first few hours as founder and managing director was spent on my knees with my arm down a drain.

Not as glamorous as I’d imagined, but I guess that’s lesson number one. Be prepared to get your hands dirty. And we do to this day - all thirty of us.

This blog would become a book if I mentioned every client and team member who walked through our door over the past fifteen years, but I will mention a few.

The first being Jenny Baldwin of Nenplas. Not only was she our first client, we can’t get rid of her. Fifteen years later she’s still a valued and like-minded client, and we’ve even had her lad, Freddy, join us for work experience in the past too.

Another name that’s synonymous with our success is Keith Cockell. The godfather of retirement living. When I say godfather I mean more the innovator and inspiration - not the mafiosa kind. Anyway, Keith is still a client, and has also become a mentor and a personal friend too. I’ve learned a lot from him and Fluid owes him a great deal of gratitude for his loyalty and belief.

We turned over £85k that first year from nothing. But I was stretched and hungry and needed new ideas. So Ben Thompson joined as our first employee. We still sit next to each other today and he’s still at the heart of everything Fluid does.

So I guess that must be lesson number two. Surround yourself with genuine, talented people who you can trust. That’s Ben through and through.

In case Flo is reading this, I should probably mention that we got married in 2004 after falling in love many years earlier. That’s enough of the soppy stuff.

The following year I found myself presenting in front of a man called Mike Parsons. And the following week I found myself frantically finding out how to create a national television ad for his company Barchester Healthcare. It all turned-out rather well. Barchester have grown to be one of the UK’s largest and most respected care home organisations. And I’m proud to say they’re a valued client to this day.

The Friar Gate Years

We were outgrowing our basement office, and to be honest we felt like we deserved a window too. So, we said a heart-wrenching goodbye to the beauticians and made the move to our three-storey townhouse on Friar Gate. It just happened to be opposite one of my favourite pubs, although I can assure you the move was a strategic decision.

As if a growing business and young marriage weren’t enough, I somehow found myself accepting a role as lecturer with Derby College. Sometimes I just follow my instinct with this sort of stuff and it tends to serve me well.

Over the years I gave career opportunities to two talented design students from those lecturing days. Laura and Dan. They’ve been by my side ever since, and I’m proud that they are now Directors and Equity Partners at Fluid. The business just wouldn’t be the same without them - and we certainly wouldn’t have had the success that we’ve seen.

That must be lesson number three. Give talent and ambition the space it needs to flourish. The patience will pay you back one day.

In 2006 our son Hugo was born. And I realised that although running a business is incredibly hard, running a business with a newborn baby at home makes you lose your hair.

By this time Barchester had grown to become a huge client for Fluid. And they gave us the portfolio and big-brand credibility that attracted other clients too. We built a local portfolio and attracted work from as far away as France. But my abiding memory is Ben wearing his pants on top of his trousers in his role as ‘Will Power’ - our anti-smoking superhero created in partnership with the NHS.

The recession hit whilst we were at Friar Gate. And our hands-dirty-hard-work philosophy paid us back. We stayed steady, retained our clients and worked tirelessly to protect our clients too. I’ve always believed that creativity can be an invaluable business asset, and our efforts during this tough time proved it. To our team and our clients.

In 2008 Hugo had a sister to play with. Our beautiful Siena was born.

We’d become experts in the retirement sector. And in 2009 that instinct thing kicked-in when I was given an opportunity to form a partnership with Keith Cockell and a trusted team of industry experts. Together we formed English Care Villages, an organisation that would connect land owners, care operators, construction companies and investors to create a new model of retirement village.

It was a defining decision, and one that has allowed me to spend time with eccentric entrepreneurs (a bright red mohican springs to mind) and inspiring business leaders. It’s also born a number of amazing opportunities for Fluid - many of the loyal and long-standing partnerships that we enjoy today are thanks to the talent and imagination of Keith, Jamie, David, Neal and James.

For me that’s lesson four. Leave a legacy in everything you do. People will see what you’ve done and they’ll hear how you behave. So make sure you give everything your absolute best. Because positive legacies lead to future opportunities.

Around this time Andy joined the team. A sarcastic cider-loving developer with an amazing technical talent. He’s now a Digital Director and Equity Partner too.

The Cotton Mill-enium

Our Friar Gate office had been a brilliant base. But it was a squeeze with seven people and it felt like we weren’t finished growing. So we said goodbye to our home of five years (and the pub over the road) and moved to Darley Abbey’s North Mill - a World Heritage site overlooking the River Derwent on the edge of Darley Park.

Ed had been a trusted central defender in my five-a-side teams for years. But when he joined the Fluid team in 2011, he brought new energy, passion and strategic thinking that changed the dynamics of the company. He’s now an Equity Partner and helps me lead the business as joint Managing Director.

Our portfolio continued to grow and evolve and the brands we attracted got bigger and better. We created an industry-leading website for Saga Healthcare, created a number of national brand campaigns for the Royal College of Nursing, and more recently we’ve worked with amazing brands like Tyrrells Crisps, Sainsbury’s, YHA and Legal & General. There have been a few award wins too.

The profile of clients has changed, but those foundations at the heart of Fluid are still the same. And I guess that’s lesson number five. Stay honest. Stay hungry. Stay humble.

The business was growing and we had a knack of attracting lovely, loyal and talented people. We wanted to make the Mill something special. So we spent six months stripping the building back to its beautiful bare bones, and we invested heavily to create a stylish and collaborative place where the team and their clients would feel proud to work.

In 2012 Paul joined us and formed the perfect partnership with Andy in driving the growth of our digital team. He’s now a Digital Director and Equity Partner.

We’ve always wanted to have a positive impact on the people around us. Which has resulted in hundreds of thousands raised for charity, and we’re one of very few agencies that offers opportunities to aspiring school pupils too. We provide eight placements or internships every year, and I still get a thrill seeing the ideas and confidence of future generations grow.

There have been some proud personal achievements in the Cotton Mill-enium too.

The birth of my beautiful third child Anais. Working with my beloved Derby County. And managing to run the London Marathon in aid of the Arrhythmia Alliance. I’m proud to say that I faced my personal demons too, and after years of denial in the face of stress-related balding, I shaved my head and bought a few hats.

We’ll call that lesson number six. The world is changing. Markets, trends, technologies and hairlines. Businesses need a culture that anticipates, accepts and adapts to that change. It’s a good thing. And if you don’t then you’ll quickly become irrelevant.

The Final Few Words

I couldn’t write my story of Fluid without a few words for Stine, who we lost suddenly after eight years at the heart of our team. She wasn’t just an award-winning designer. She was an amazing mum and an incredibly energising and funny person to be around. Her positivity, humour and integrity is still an inspiration and a standard that I hold myself to. We’re all proud to have known her.

It’s now 2019 and my role has changed over the years. I have the unusual and exciting task of blending creative inspiration with managing clients and running the business with Ed.

We tend to act as guides for ideas, bringing the right people together to create something great and fostering an environment in which creative work can thrive. We’re currently working closely with a client and mentor called Simon, who is helping to shape our processes, strategy and overall mindset. We now have clear goals for the next three years and beyond.

We’re stepping into our 16th year with a real focus and fresh perspective. We have a team of 30 amazing people, and a new steering team of five. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far, but I’m much prouder to have built a team of so many interesting, fun, intelligent and creative people, who I have the privilege of spending time with every day.

So that’s my first blog out of the way. I hope it wasn’t too long, and I hope you’re looking forward to the sequel. Roll-on 2033.