Finding the similarities between the co-op movement and Doctor Who, helping to give away hundreds of thousands of pounds and being part of an international project supporting refugee children is all in a day’s work for the Creative Coop.
Formed in 2003, this Essex-based creative agency was officially incorporated as a co-op in 2013. Specialising in branding, design and web development, it was born of a desire to work within a fairer, more ethical business model – and strip back the layers of hierarchy often found in traditional creative agencies.
It’s the same reason creative director Ben Philp left behind the world of big corporate clients, struck out on his own and eventually joined the Creative Coop – finding it a perfect match for his values and desire to work in a more efficient and satisfying way.
“Creative Coop works with clients who do good,” he says. “Primarily, these include social enterprises, charities, arts, the public sector, community projects and other co-ops. I’ve also found people in these organisations are more enjoyable to work with.
“And having these kinds of clients means I’m not asked to do things like produce a video putting a spin on why palm oil ‘isn’t that bad’, as I’ve been asked to do in the past.”
He adds: “It makes you feel happier in the work you’re doing. Some agencies try to hide the fact they work with tobacco companies or animal testing laboratories. We are proud about what our clients are trying to achieve and we are passionate about helping them with creative solutions.”
With four hands-on worker members, and numerous associates and freelancers, the Creative Coop is a thriving business that proves ethical can be profitable too. One thing that frustrated the team about big agencies was the top-heavy structure, with multiple layers of project managers often coming between creatives and clients.
“We feel there’s not always a need to have heavy project management and we prefer to work directly with the client,” says Ben. “Depending on the job, the project manager is often someone who is working on the project in another capacity. It’s a more efficient way of working. There are fewer emails and no middle man.”
He also believes co-ops should be able to compete on the same scale as private companies – and that’s exactly what the Creative Coop does. “We don’t rely on being a co-op, it’s about the quality of what we produce. But the model can give us an edge,” he says.
“Usually, we mention we’re a co-op at the start of a pitch to a prospective client and we give them some basics about what that means. Either they understand and get it, or have no idea and ask questions. Some people aren’t interested at all – they judge us on the fact that we do good work.”
Save the Children is one of the clients the Creative Coop has been working with for over a decade. And it’s something they’re particularly proud of. “It’s really rewarding to work on,” says Ben. “We’ve done everything from visual materials for events to branding, brochures, online and more.”
Through this work, Ben and his colleagues have become involved in an international project – creating a website for the Initiative for Child Rights in the Global Compacts. The Global Compacts are two landmark agreements written in 2018 to show how countries from around the world will aim to work together to support and protect migrants and refugees.
“It’s about helping children and young people who are displaced through conflicts and different problems. They receive five times less education because they’re refugees. So it’s important work,” says Ben.
He’s particularly proud of the Creative Coop’s project for the Shears Foundation. Creating diagnostic tools is one of the agency’s specialities and they were able to do this to help the charitable trust award grants.
“The Shears Foundation was set up in the North East when Trevor and Lyn Shears sold their transport company for £20m,” adds Ben. “Every year, they award £800,000 to local causes. The application process had previously been by paper, but we took that online, made an eligibility checker and designed a usable, accessible site, which the client really appreciated. It made it easier for them to give away their money.”
With a solid trading history and reputation – and a raft of satisfied clients including Big Lottery, Locality and Social Investment Business, the Creative Coop has its sights set on growth. Currently comprising creative director Ben, technical director Alan Peart, developer John White and producer Marc De’ath, they are planning to add a new designer member to the core team.
“We test people out working on a freelance basis and if that goes well, they become associates and we use them on a more regular basis,” Ben explains. “Then there’s the option for them to become a member.”
Expanding their co-op client base is another goal. “We don’t work with as many co-ops as we’d like and it’s an area we’re keen to expand in. We exhibited at Co-op Congress for the first time this year, and joined CoTech.”
CoTech is an association for creative technology co-ops – and Ben and his colleagues are excited about the new opportunities it presents. “We can share ideas and experiences and build connections. As an agency you might need help from other agencies with different specialities – and it’s preferable to work with co-ops with the same values you trust. We get to extend our network further and publicise co-ops as well.”
One co-op they’ve recently worked with is apex body Co-operatives UK, to create the branding for Co-ops Fortnight 2019. This involved a workshop that gathered a number of stakeholders including Co-op News, the Co-operative College and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to look at the Fortnight’s brand identity.
“We went through a number of exercises looking at brand perception and personality. Some of the personality comparisons that came up were: Madonna – edgy and adaptive; Banksy – an authentic but unknown force; and Doctor Who – moving with the times and re-inventing itself.”
And which came out as the closest to co-ops? “Doctor Who!” says Ben, who was subsequently asked by Co-operatives UK to produce their ‘Proud to be a Co-op’ poster that was sent out in this year’s membership packs. It was another project they relished.
For this, they worked with one of their associates – an illustrator whose style they knew well – to do something different. “All the co-op principles are in the poster. But they’re not in your face,” says Ben. “It’s something a bit more interesting that people have to look at closely to see what’s going on and follow the journey. We wanted to create something that people feel proud to have on their wall. And we think we’ve achieved that.”
- What lies ahead for co-ops and credit unions over the next 12 months? Here’s the online version of our review of 2018, where leading lights of the movement from around the world discuss coming challenges and opportunities