Tucked away in a quiet corner of a London mews, just steps from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly Circus, is where you'll find Williams Murray Hamm. While the office is a bit difficult to find, their work is not. Just visit any British supermarket to encounter the provocative, smart design they create.
Design in the United Kingdom food and drink sector is light years ahead of the United States, and Williams Murray Hamm is partially responsible. Its brands pop off shelves, beckoning customers, speaking their language. While WMH doesn't restrict itself to working solely in this specific market, the majority of its clients' products do sell directly to consumers.
A design firm by nature, the three partners prefer to think of themselves as brand consultants. Richard Williams, Richard Murray and Garrick Hamm work together seamlessly and decisively, heading an office of sixteen. All three have clearly defined roles: Williams is responsible for the new business side and extending relationships with existing clients, Murray for account management and the brand building of WMH, and Hamm is the creative director.
"We don't have aspirations to be huge," says Williams. Instead as a relatively small firm, these three are directly involved with every project.
"We've all been a part of big businesses, and see what we believe are shortcomings," explains Murray. "We prefer to keep WMH more lean and focused." All agree quality standards are affected when firms are spread everywhere. The best work is often characterized by a single creative director, which translates to one office, rather than a network. "It is quite a big issue in the design industry, this trend toward being a big network...Typically what happens is you're good at something, then you eventually get promoted or taken away from being creative director or consultant," Murray continues, "and find yourself dealing with pensions and HR policies. We stick close to the work because that's what we enjoy."
"Our work is quite specific," offers Hamm. "We're not right to do all of a client's job...if we wanted to, we couldn't grow like those design networks."
This is not a firm that is short on confidence, or passion. WMH knows what it does well. It builds and reinvents brands—and has done so for Hovis, United Biscuits, Hill Station Ice Cream, Barclays Bank, Wild Brew, GlaxoSmithKline, Superdrug and Cobra Beer. WMH is not afraid of taking risks. In fact, risks are just about all it does—to create a difference.
"In a lot of traditional design companies, there is a spectrum of work-there is the more radical stuff and the more tweaky stuff. We didn't want to be like that," Hamm explains. "This is what we do and if you want it, then please knock on our door. And if you don't, there's plenty of other companies that do the tweaky stuff."
"Clients are very conservative. There is a fear of change that holds back a lot of them," says Murray. "The original concept for the company was designed as an antidote to the formulaic 'all brands look alike.' If they want something that's conforming, then we're not for them."
Williams continues, "It's very rare that designers turn away work or get rid of clients—we do both. We see ourselves as wise consultants. We're not an acquiescence service with smiling and nodding account managers lining their pockets."
This self-filtering process is working. Clients do come to WMH for a difference. Not a minor change to an existing logo or design, but a radical change, one that stops consumers literally in their tracks. These are the only type of solutions shown to clients. "We've got standards. It's very easy for exceptions to become the rule. If we can compromise on that one occasion...we'll be compromising the next one," Murray says.
But it has got to be mutually agreeable. "I don't think it's possible to have a lasting relationship with someone you're really forcing into a position," Williams notes. Clients have seen their credentials. WMH's work speaks for itself, in a very clear voice.
Robert Hobart, of United Biscuits, says, "You don't go to WMH if you want a category centric, traditional approach to design, as WMH fundamentally challenges the category rules and the idea that packaging design is only there to tell you the brand name. There can be no doubt that consumers interact (physically or just visually) with packaging far more than any other communication channel. As a result, WMH treat packaging like any other piece of marketing communication, ensuring an idea always lies at its heart.
"I believe in this philosophy for the right brand with the right challenge. We wanted to shake up the biscuit fixture, break some rules and force consumers to reevaluate McVitie's Jaffa Cakes, while still remaining true to the essence of the brand."
McVitie's Jaffa Cakes is a relatively new transformation for WMH, which took two years to complete. "Because McVitie's didn't actually own the name 'jaffa cakes,' supermarkets can use it, and do," says Hamm. "We couldn't build an idea on that name as it could be copied, so we thought about what is dear to the consumer." After much research on why people love McVitie's Jaffa Cakes, WMH was left with an abundance of anecdotes, which it draped all over the packaging. Words in bold, orange-peel type jump off the traditional dark blue biscuit box, and into the carts and minds of consumers.
"We're up front and fairly strategic in terms of the way we think. I don't think a lot of design firms are set up that way. We like to have something written before we get into the design, so they [client] really do know what direction we're going. That's why our work is focused to start with. It's there in black-and-white without any pictures. That's one of the main reasons I was attracted to these guys [Williams and Murray]," admits Hamm. "There aren't that many people who think creatively."
The firm was established in 1997 by Richard Williams and Richard Murray, with Garrick Hamm joining the ranks a year later. After graduating from The London College of Printing, Williams's career began as an in-house designer with Sainsbury's grocery stores, then moved on to Allied International, where he became brand identity director for this multidisciplinary design business. In 1986 he cofounded Design Bridge, a packaging specialist firm which employed over 90 people, and for the next 9 years was managing director.
Murray's joint degree in design and marketing from the University of Lancaster came in handy as he entered in brand management at Nestlé. In the late 1980s, he transitioned into design management as associate director of Lewis Moberly. After joining Coley Porter Bell in '92, Murray advanced to head of client services.
Before joining Michael Peters and Partners as a designer specializing in brand packaging, Garrick Hamm studied graphic design at Somerset College of Arts and Technology. His design career would then take him to Tutssels in 1990, which later merged with Lambie-Nairn to become The Brand Group.
Williams, Murray and Hamm are totally in sync with each other and have formed a partnership based on simple, straightforward communication. "Design in its early years, at the turn of the last century, was very, very straightforward in the way it communicated, putting across one simple message," says Williams. "In the late '80s, design became a science-endless consumer groups, and discussions that went way beyond what people absorb.
"We've just rediscovered what design used to be. Design companies got ashamed thinking about it because it's naïve, but actually that's its great charm, that it is naïve and simple."
Case in point, the rebranding of Hovis, a nearly 120-year-old bread company. Before WMH came along, Hovis looked like any other very obvious bread packaging. Hovis is now different. Gone are words like "fresh" and "improved," commonplace images of wheat and the use of transparent plastic. Easily, and instantly, recognizable on store shelves, entire loaves are covered in close-up photos of beans, tomatoes or cucumbers. "The food packaging isn't anything original itself, but by covering bread with baked beans or bread with tomato, creates that sort of salacious context that gets people to notice it," says Murray. Hovis became the U.K.'s fastest growing brand in 2002.
"We love to work on a central idea, and then we like to do a lot of the other stuff that goes along with it," continues Hamm. "And you can't do that without a big idea."
When it came time for GlaxoSmithKline to redesign the packaging for Horlicks, a nutritional night drink for sleep, Ian Ainsworth immediately thought of WMH. "What we liked about their approach was that it was simple, consumer-focused and based on a 'truth' about the brand, i.e., Horlicks sleep brand benefit. They also spoke honestly about the challenges involved in working with a consultancy such as themselves and the need for total company buy-in, as they were about brand reinvention-not small steps of evolution. It was, and still is, refreshing to work with an agency who saw no need for obfuscation, euphemisms and soft language when straight talking was required." ca