In just five years, James Allen has nurtured his advertising company from a baby into a multi-million pound beast. Andrew Mernin meets the man behind the region’s fastest-growing Guerilla to talk nakedness, Norway, and the NHS.
A NAKED man smiles into the camera shrugging his shoulders with only his shopping basket piled high with health supplements to spare him his blushes.
Holland & Barratt’s latest TV ad is certainly bold and has even caused a copycat incident in Fife where a man visited the store, whipped off his long coat and bared all.
James Allen, whose Newcastle-based advertising firm Guerilla created the ad, admits it has received several complaints – a fact that clearly doesn’t bother him.
"We seem to get a lot of naked people in our adverts," says the smiling 37-year-old whose colleagues jokingly refer to as a look-a-like of EastEnders’ Phil Mitchell.
However the Holland & Barratt advertising campaign is just a fraction of the work done by five-year-old Guerilla which has an impressive portfolio of heavyweight clients including sports giant Nike, the NHS and Metro operator Nexus.
Since its birth the Guerilla has grown from nothing into a beast worth close to £4m in annual sales, with this figure expected to rise to £7m by 2009. And the company certainly has no shortage of offers.
"We’ve just finished doing an advert with Paula Radcliffe for Nike," says Mr Allen who was born in Thornaby, Teesside, but today lives in the leafy Newcastle suburb of Gosforth.
The company, which cryptically describes its philosophy as ‘media neutral’, is increasingly focused on its new media and film and TV divisions.
The firm is also in the process of launching ‘Guerilla Propaganda’ – its own public relations department which is depicted by an ape-like version of Che Guevara.
Leading the revolution is Mr Allen – a man who is clearly passionate about advertising. The Teessider has been in the advertising game for 15 years and has watched closely as TV campaigns have come and gone.
"The old Hovis advert is always one that sticks in my mind. It was really depressing but really well shot. I actually got the director of it to direct one of my adverts.
"The Tango adverts were pretty good because they made people sit up and watch. It was TV with an edge.
"Today I think the Cadbury’s advert with the ape playing the drums to a Phil Collins record is really ballsy and it’s just so different."
Mr Allen’s career started with a degree in economics and marketing at Newcastle University in the late 1980s and early nineties. He admits it was a fantastic time to be a student as the wave of the Manchester music scene was sweeping the nation.
However he also recalls how 1991 wasn’t a great time to graduate as an embattled nation was deep in the throes of recession.
After completing a masters degree in international marketing, he landed his first job in 1992 as an account executive at the North-East Chamber of Commerce.
"It was a really structured company so there was a lot of support for graduates. You had to perform but it was a good place to learn."
Two years later he exited the chamber for pastures new and joined advertising agency Yellow M but eventually jumped ship as the firm grew beyond its means.
He recalls his involvement on IKEA’s ‘chuck out your chints’ campaign and furniture chain Barker and Stonehouse’s drive to appeal to a younger market.
"It grew really quickly and had 120 members of staff. There were lots of different views on where the company wanted to go and I had an issue with the way it was being run."
The Newcastle-based company, which masterminded the unsuccessful Tory election campaign in 2001, went into receivership in 2002.
He believes he learned vital lessons from his time at Yellow M and has applied them to his role as head of his own business.
"I’m quite cautious about taking people on because the more staff you have the more management issues you have."
In the same year that Yellow M collapsed, Mr Allen set up Guerilla with the company’s former financial controller Julia Little and ex-Saatchi and Saatchi employee Simon Jones.
"Yellow M collapsed so we won some clients from there.
"It was really hard in the early days and there was an awful lot of work to do. I remember one day coming in at six in the morning to clean the carpets and then working until 11 at night."
Mr Allen owned 33% of the business alongside the other two directors who, he tells me, are no longer involved in the business.
Now under total control of Mr Allen, the business is flourishing with a wide range of clients from numerous sectors. Speaking to the MD in his ultra-modern office on Westgate Road, we are joined in the Guerilla’s den by the boss’s sidekick, creative director Geoff Foots.
The pair crease into laughter as they recall some of their most memorable pitches and campaigns – one of which being an add for a skating and BMX park owned by Sunderland City Council.
Mr Foots says: "We turned up expecting to be pitching to the usual five or six marketing bods but when we get there, there was a big table with around 20 12-year-olds sitting round with their skateboards and helmets on the table. I think there was even a policeman there.
"Actually it was great because we had to reevaluate the way we pitched and get rid of the marketing jargon so we were pitching directly to the target audience."
One of the managing director’s personal favourite campaigns is when he employed singer Kim Wilde to advertise Holland & Barratt.
"She was a really attractive person," he says with a cheeky grin.
"Actually we did a lot of market research and discovered that Kim Wilde was the celebrity most suited to Holland & Barratt."
As well as its big retail clients, Guerilla has done a lot of work with the NHS, often dealing with serious topics in hard-hitting yet innovative ways. The North East NHS Primary Care Trust challenged Guerilla to create a campaign that would break down taboos surrounding sex so parents and children could talk openly without becoming embarrassed.
The group came up with the ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ campaign which featured pink and blue posters with slogans such as ‘can you get pregnant if you kiss with tongues?’ sourced from real questions asked by children.
Another campaign for Teesside’s Health Authority aimed at making young smokers quit, saw slogans like ‘don’t be a ***ker all your life’, and ‘foul mouthed ***ker’ appear on posters, beer mats and match boxes.
The business also made its presence known in the political arena by winning a four-way battle to fight the campaign for the North-East to operate its own regional assembly.
The team, which was fronted by Sir John Hall and Sir Brendan Foster, demanded a campaign to convince voters in the region to tick the ‘yes’ for self-governance box.
The ‘no’ camp ultimately won the vote but Guerilla saw its 48-sheet posters with slogans such as ‘funding for the arts? They’ve got us by the Albert Halls,’ displayed right across the North-East.
"It’s important to be effective in advertising because results count. People spend too much money on what I call wallpaper adds which have no effect or are too clever and no-one notices them. The trick is to engage people into something and if it’s not effective to the audience then it’s a waste of everyone’s money," says Mr Allen.
"You’re only as good as your last job and it’s a very competitive industry. People think the industry will be really flowery but it’s really hard work."
And so to the future. Mr Allen hopes to eventually extend Guerilla’s reach to the Scandinavian market – hardly surprising for a man whose is married to a Norweigian and owns a cottage near Oslo.
Meanwhile it remains to be seen on which brand Guerilla will stamp its mark next although he hints at some large campaigns in the pipeline.
In the meantime, Watch this space.