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A giant bottle on the Thames, Scare City and rapid growth: Meet the team behind £18m One Agency

“We’d like to sail a 12-metre replica of our new product down the Thames,” said the client. 

“Oh, and for the big finale, can you get someone to open the iconic bascules of Tower Bridge?”

For most agencies, this kind of brief would be swiftly laughed off or at least archived in an inbox folder marked ‘moon on a stick’.

But then One Agency isn’t like other agencies.

So that’s why, on a cold February day earlier this year, skincare brand The Ordinary was able to float a giant bottle of its new hyaluronic acid reformulation past The Shard, the Tower of London, Canary Wharf – and thousands of unsuspecting but astonished Londoners.

The Trafford Park-based agency delivered on its brief in spectacular fashion. As Sales Director, Lauren Graham said: “It has been a career highlight and just proves how big we can truly go when there is a crazy idea involved.”

One Agency was behind The Ordinary’s recent stunt, which involved sailing a 12-metre replica of its new product down the Thames

There have been a few crazy ideas over the course of One Agency’s nine-year history, but the bottom line is one of deeply impressive growth.

The most recent accounts for 2022/23 show revenue of £18.5million for the agency side of the business.

These numbers are made even more eye-catching when you consider that, as recently as 2016, One Agency’s headquarters amounted to Dean McCormick’s kitchen table.

He and co-founder Vickie Butterworth had previously worked together at CBS Outdoor but they reconnected with a shared vision to simply do Out-of-Home advertising better.

“It was very hand-to-mouth, but we believed in what we could do,” says Dean. “We pulled in favours and muddled through and learnt on the job. Our policy was that if we’ve got enough money in the bank to last us three months, we can afford another staff member. We’ve kind of kept to that principle!”

For those first six months around the kitchen table, the pair did everything they could to stay in business. Vickie’s mother-in-law did the books, and they benefited from a time when you could still secure credit deals with media owners.

Their break came with their first serious competitive pitch win: Blow.LTD, the so-called ‘Uber for beauty’ that sent beauticians to users’ homes. 

Its marketing director took One Agency with him when he moved to Charlotte Tilbury just as the beauty brand was beginning its own stratospheric growth story. As it tripled its revenue to over £300m in the five years from 2018, so One Agency grew alongside it.

The relationship ended last year in the wake of Charlotte Tilbury’s sale to Spanish firm Puig, but it ended on a high with 10 Airstream pop-up shops across 10 European cities to launch the brand’s Airbrush Flawless Lip Blur.

Inside One Agency’s offices in Trafford Park

The legacy is that One Agency is now a beauty specialist, with clients including Elemis, Collection Cosmetics, and of course, Estee Lauder-owned The Ordinary.

From its OOH beginnings, the agency also branched out into other services and is now a full-service media agency. 

Walking around its sprawling office in the heart of Trafford Park, I encounter bustling studios brimming with 55 staff who now cover all parts of the process, from strategy, planning and media buying to research, insight and post-campaign analysis.

That also includes an in-house, 15-strong creative department, handling everything from ad creation to CGI video, while a similar sized digital team looks after web design and development, social, paid and SEO.

But according to Vickie and Dean, perhaps the most important date in the One Agency story arrived in 2019.

After a senior member of staff left the business, the pair discovered that things weren’t quite as rosy as they thought.

“Dean and I weren’t as close to the business as we should have been, and stuff went a bit rogue,” admits Vickie. “The legacy was a negative environment that we just weren’t aware of.”

So they promoted a sales account manager who had been with the agency from almost the beginning – Steve Coffey, now Director of People and Talent – and the culture quickly transformed.

“He’s a huge reason this agency is successful,” she says. “If the culture isn’t right, nothing else is. All you do is breed animosity and complacency.”

One Agency is “not for everyone, it really isn’t”, adds Vickie. 

The One Agency team on a pre-Christmas trip to Prague in December

“You’ve got to come here and be very self-sufficient, almost entrepreneurial. You create your own path, and you’ve got to respect our mantra which is to be kind, respectful and honest.”

She adds: “Young talent is incredibly important – they bring a great energy and vibe. I would never bring someone else in above someone else in the business… I want to promote from within. Some people move up quicker than others, but our Creative, Digital, and Sales directors have all worked their way up from coming in at a fairly low entry point.”

As well as making sure they don’t drift away from the business again, Dean and Vickie have brought in practical measures to keep staff happy and motivated.

Every payday Friday is a half-day, for instance, while a quarterly ‘Happiness Index’ anonymously surveys the team to surface any issues that need addressing.

I spoke separately to three female staff members, who all detailed how they felt supported emotionally in a way they hadn’t been so at previous employers.

“It’s about communication and being really open with our staff,” says Vickie.

It’s probably why virtually the whole agency took up the offer of a pre-Christmas trip to Prague, eschewing the offer of an equivalent monetary gift.  

36,000 attended One Events’ Scare City immersive event at Camelot last autumn

But back to the crazy ideas, and one in particular that has fuelled the explosive growth of the agency’s sister business, One Events.

Having seen the success of a drive-in cinema event conceived during lockdown in 2020, One Events came up with the idea of putting on a ‘scare’ event at the disused Camelot theme park in Chorley.

The show – an immersive experience featuring live actors across 10 zones designed specifically to scare the living bejesus out of participants – has proved wildly popular. Reviewing it for the Manchester Evening News last September, reporter Ben Ashurst described it as a “truly frightening experience”.

Every Scare City experience since 2020 has sold out, with 36,000 people through the gates between late September and early November last year. 

One Agency does everything connected to the event, from the ticket website and social media to the merchandise shop.

It’s another example of the can-do spirit and innovative thinking that has ensured such impressive growth for the agency in recent years.

But while they are considering an office in London, Vickie cites the fox and hedgehog analogy in suggesting the agency will be “hunkering down” for a while.

“For the next 18 months to two years, I want us to work on that bottom line and profit and make sure we are consolidating what we have got and focusing on client service.

“I want us to become even better than we are now. I want us to be absolutely exceptional at what we do.”

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