Blue Kangaroo's Ian Smith talks the evolution of the design firm over the last ten years

By Ian Smith

November 25th 2016 at 10:21AM
Blue Kangaroo's Ian Smith talks the evolution of the design firm over the last ten years

As the company celebrates its tenth anniversary, Ian Smith, co-founder of Blue Kangaroo tell Licensing.biz what the future may hold.

Ten years ago, something very special was happening in the north east of England. 

Two colleagues, working from the spare room and dining table of their respective homes, were setting up a design agency with aspirations of working with some of the biggest household names in the world.

Those colleagues were me and my business partner, Jason Knights, and the agency was called Blue Kangaroo.

Fast-forward ten years and how things have changed.  No longer working from our homes and imagining our ideal client, Blue Kangaroo is now a market leading creative brand agency, working with some of the biggest names in the brand licensing business. 

Still based in the North East, we employ 15 members of staff from our state-of-the-art office in the Northern Design Centre, working with clients in the UK while also exporting our talents to the US and beyond.

We’re a team of designers, creatives and illustrators, working with the likes of Entertainment One, Warner Bros and BBC Worldwide here in the UK, as well as Hit Entertainment, Mattel and The Walt Disney Company over in the States.  My role is to oversee all creative in the studio, and today we produce high end illustrations and brand identities primarily from feature films and television shows, but it wasn’t always like that.

When Jason and I first set out, we had very defined roles – he was the salesman, the face of Blue Kangaroo, and I was the creative.  Initially working with smaller North East-based clients, our remit was very much print, packaging and point of sale. Of course we still provide this service for our clients today, but the spectrum of services we offer has very much changed and evolved over the past decade.

In 2006, Jason would win the work, I would take a brief, then turn the work around and pass it back over to the client for sign off.  Today, while our distinct roles and skill sets remain, we very much sit at the table with our clients and are part of the strategic process – we’re creative thinkers and doers. That’s just one of the secrets to our success – being a trusted partner to our clients.

We pride ourselves on having a ‘no problem attitude’ and endeavor to make working with us straight forward and simple – it’s a ‘no barriers’ way of working, allowing the client to speak directly to the designers and project managers, right from the initial briefing all the way through when delivery is due to be made.  It’s a system we’ve developed over many years and a way or working that our clients truly value.

Aside from the creative process, the brands that we work with know we have a real interest in their field away from the office; we’re huge fans of Star Wars, watch Disney films in our spare time and attend Comic Con at any given chance – we live and breathe their world away from the office too.  It’s this love of their work and being able to see things from the point of the consumer, which makes us invaluable to our clients.  We’re always learning, pushing our abilities and keeping an eye on trends in the design sector, so that when we’re brought in to not just take a brief – but to strategically help shape the brief – our clients trust and value our professional opinion as both creatives and consumers. Add in to the mix not just our design abilities, but our discretion and confidentiality at all times too, it’s why we’re often our clients first port-of-call when they need external support.

Another big change that we’ve seen over the past ten years and one which I’m sure will continue long into the future is thanks to increasing connectivity.  The fact is we work in an always-on culture with very little down time; we don’t just do the standard 9am to 5pm shift.  Rather than this being a point of burn-out for us, we’ve used it to our advantage and again is another of the many reasons our clients choose to work with us when they need external support – it’s one of our USPs. 

We tell our clients that we work while they sleep – that literally is the case.  With so many of our clients being based in the US, we arrange calls with them at the end of our day when they’re heading into the office to start their day, rather than relying solely on email, so we can line everything up and get the job done. 

We work on the brief when we get into the office the following morning and then email visuals over as we’re leaving the office, so the proofs are waiting for them in their inbox as they return the next day. They send us their feedback while we’re sleeping, then we’re straight back on it in the morning.  It’s a very efficient way of working and one that our clients really value – it minimises downtime, increases productivity and means we can get the job done quickly when time is tight. We’re a safe pair of hands that our clients can call on any time, day or night.

Of course, we wouldn’t be in a position to provide this level of support if it wasn’t for our people. From a small start-up of two, to an employer of a 15-strong team of strategic creatives, designers and project support, we attract talent to Blue Kangaroo from all over the world.  Only this year, Paul Richards, former Creative Director for Global Brands at Mattel, made the move from LA to join Blue Kangaroo as the team’s Director of Creative Strategy, right here in the UK. 

Jason and I have worked to spot gaps in our offering, responded to our clients’ needs and put the right people in place to ensure that Blue Kangaroo is still going strong another decade down the line.  Without our amazing team none of this would be possible; it’s a real team effort. As we’re such a tight-knit group, we’ve been able to adapt to any challenge thrown our way; a lot of our staff have grown and developed with us and are now so diverse we cover most, if not all design genres, from hard-core gaming to the delicateness of Peppa Pig.  You need to be agile to survive in today’s competitive market.

So what about the future? The truth is Blue Kangaroo wouldn’t be where it is without the support of our mentors over the years; people who’ve help to mold and shape us into the business that we are today, and that’s what we want to be able to do going forwards.  We have the knowledge, skills and experience of working at the very highest strategic level with some amazing brands.  Over the coming months and years, we want to be able to support young designers and pass on our expertise to them – they are the future – so we’re looking at teaming up with some universities to offer work-based experience, helping those who share our vision and values to get their first lucky break in the industry, while building the talents of our team even further.

While things have changed over the past ten years, we can be sure that how the industry looks today will be very different again another decade down the line.  It’s fresh blood mixed with years of experience that helps to keep a company relevant, ready to face whatever the future holds. 

That said, some things at Blue Kangaroo that Jason and I agreed from day one remain unchanged today.  At the very core of it all, we’re good people, doing good work and we care passionately about our clients – that’s why Blue Kangaroo is what it is today and will continue to be long into the future.

For more information about Blue Kangaroo, visit: http://www.bluekangaroodesign.co.uk/