Ipswich: White Space delivers visions through creativity

Will Wright and Neil Prentice of White Space

Will Wright and Neil Prentice of White Space - Credit: Archant

Creative agencies have changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years as they respond to the challenges and opprtunities of the digital age. Sheline Clarke spoke to Neil Prentice, managing director of White Space Design about using a variety of media to make messages meaningful.

Neil Prentice shares his office with huge murals of Sir Bobby Robson. The paintings, on otherwise white walls, pack quite a punch and not only reveal the boss of one of Ipswich’s leading creative agencies as a big Ipswich Town fan but also says a lot about the bold ideas that often characterise his company’s work.

Their mission statement isn’t filed away either, it is painted on the wall in the reception of the firm’s St Margaret’s Street offices for everyone to see.

White Space prides itself on its people who, says Neil, form a multi talented translation service helping bridge the gap between its clients and their customers. Understanding a client’s business and translating their messages in a way the target audience will understand to achieve the desired result, which invariably means driving business and increasing opportunities.

White Space was created ten years ago as a wholly owned subsidiary of Jacob Bailey, an already established creative agency with offices in Ipswich and London.

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As the parent company stated to win large corporate clients so its founders saw a gap in the market for an Ipswich-based agency to deal with smaller – though in no way less important - accounts. White Space was born and Neil Prentice, who had been at Jacob Bailey since the start was given the opportunity to head up the new enterprise.

“We decided we needed a focus on the local market,” said Neil, “and when they asked me if I would like to run it I said ‘too right’!

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“So I was given two designers, some machines and we rented some office space in order to keep costs to a bare minimum just to see how we would get on and quite quickly it started to go really well.”

After just a couple of months in business White Space started to attract significant local interest, including the likes of Suffolk College and the Wolsey Theatre, as well as continuing to work with Ipswich Town. There were also a good deal of start-ups and smaller businesses, many of whom still have a relationship with Neil and the team today.

The company continued to develop and in 2005 it welcomed account director Will Wright who now plays a pivotal role, alongside Neil, in driving the business forward.

“I think we have a very effective partnership,” said Neil. “Will has played a big part in our success and deserves a lot of credit – he challenges me all the time. He is very direct whereas I am a bit calmer about things but that is why it works.

“In the past I have been so involved in delivering projects and ploughing on with things, whereas the structure we have now allows me to be a bit more strategic and to implement things and articulate where we want to go, which makes the whole process good fun and something to enjoy for both the clients and our staff.

“It’s about delivering customer service that is not based on scripts and procedures but on people acting sensibly and keeping things simple. We try and treat others as we would like to be treated.

“This industry is absolutely chock-a-block with daft phrases, abbreviations for things that no one really understands. I think good communication means speaking in a language that people understand.”

Neil and Will now head a team of 16 including account managers and designers, and were recently joined by specialists in search engine optimisation and video production, representing a further expansion of the company’s creative offer.

“We have had lots of high points over the past ten years but I think now is as good as it has ever been and that is down to the people we have. We now have the team. You are always trying to get people to think along the same lines and get a shared sense of where we want to take things and where we want to go and how we will get there and I think people respect our openness. The talent within the team is brilliant and diverse and I think they push me on and inspire me to be better and looking forward it is a really exciting time.

“This is the best time I can remember and our forecasts and prediction are good. I am in no way complacent about that but I do feel good about it both in terms of the mix of work and attracting the right clients but also in recruiting the right people for our business.”

The lifetime of White Space has coincided with a prolonged period of economic uncertainly and recession, when traditionally marketing budgets disappear as companies worry for their survival.

“Marketing can be the first thing to go,” agrees Neil. “Clients spend their money differently and so we have had to adapt. I think there was a period when everyone was too scared to do anything and I always thought there would be a point where people would get fed up and just think, we’ll do it anyway, and I think that has happened.

“Advertising in its purest form is providing a sense of reassurance, to tell people that things are OK and they should feel confident.

“The industry has changed massively. When I started out it was all about print bookings and fax machines, art boards and bromides. The process of producing something was vastly different to how it is now and with email it makes the process non-stop.

“We are still involved in a lot of print work but the agency now is full service and we deliver a lot of digital work, websites and apps, social media and now video production too. But whatever route a customer wants to take, we move forward from a point of knowledge and understanding about individual organisations and what they are trying to do.”

The approach has worked for a wide range of businesses – around 90 last year – including Ipswich Central, MSC, the Royal Hospital School and a Suffolk recycling initiative, the video for which has received 50,000 hits on YouTube.

“It’s very personal. The name White Space came from the idea that when you start a project you have nothing – a white space if you like - and you build it up and in the end you have something – whether that is a leaflet or a poster or today a website, an app or a video. You see it and you recognise it and knowing you created that is very powerful.

“I am an old man now,” he laughs (he is 36) but it is still exciting. You have to evolve and push yourself and you can’t be complacent or else you will go backwards.

“The work we do now is very much digital, search engine optimisation and designing and developing apps but these things are never is isolation and should never lose sight of the goal – its about developing a strategy to communicate a message and making sure that the message is getting through.”

Neil’s own entry to the profession came via a stint, as a school leaver, working at Willis, but he says, it wasn’t for him. A colleague spotted that perhaps he was misplaced and said she new of an opportunity to work in a marketing company, “answering the phones and making the coffee”. He took the risk and his first tentative steps into an arena where he would flourish, where he learned the ropes and found his vocation and the opportunity to shine.

Fast forward 20 years and Willis is now a client of White Space.

“Willis is a great company but it wasn’t for me,” says Neil, reflecting on his early career. “I’m just glad they are finally getting some benefits from my skills,” he laughs.

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