INTERVIEW: Iain Valentine, Whitespace
‘Technology moves quickly; but the need for good ideas doesn’t change’
It was built by the Victorians as a hall to serve the nearby parish church of St Cuthberts and originally sat on the edge of the foul-smelling loch with which it shares its name.
When God made way for Mammon, Norloch House was briefly home to an investment bank.
Since mid-August the restored stone-built edifice beneath Edinburgh castle has become the headquarters of Whitespace, one of Scotland’s biggest creative agencies.
The dour nineteenth century interior has been gutted to make way for an ultra-modern suite of largely open plan studios, offices and meeting rooms.
Appropriately, everything is white, from the curved reception desk (below right) to the kitchen units where the 80-odd workforce of designers, digital marketers, planners and social media analysts, known internally as “whitespacers”, can meet clients and chill out.
There is a bar and pool table for Friday night relaxation, and even a quiet room, decorated in mock Victoriana where anyone who just wants to take some time out can have a few moments to themselves. It’s the modern way.
The company moved here from its cramped offices in the west end and it seems to have sparked a new beginning.
“It’s bigger than we need but it gives us the opportunity to grow,” says Iain Valentine, one of three managing partners who bought out the original owners of Whitespace five years ago.
“Clients have been very positive and the staff say it has been like moving to a new job. In terms of a working environment everyone agrees this is as good as it gets anywhere in the world.”
The company had been searching for a new home for some time and he believes it got a good deal when the building in King’s Stables Road became available.
Built in 1893 it was converted to offices in the late 1980s to form the Edinburgh office of Hill Samuel Investment Bank. Millard Estates acquired it in late 2006 when it was leased to Lloyds Bank and occupied by environmental and engineering consultants ERM and Aecom.
Whitespace took the entire 12,500 sq ft of offices on a 10-year lease at £23 per sq ft following Millards’ substantial upgrade of the Grade C Listed property. Architects 3DReid completely redesigned the interior, aided by consulting engineers Harley Haddow. Contractors Sharkey implemented the works.
Together with a six-figure investment from Whitespace to fit out the building the end result is highly impressive.
Valentine is still in the excitable mood expected of someone who has just been given the keys to a new home. He admits to devoting himself to his work and so having somewhere like this is clearly a bonus.
He proudly gives a whirlwind tour, his mind temporarily frozen in thought when he notes the views of the castle. The firm was too busy moving from Randolph Place to take advantage of the Festival Fireworks. Next year, perhaps?
There is even much-sought after car parking and an iron gated entrance from the road straight into a garden area. It really is the last word in modern workspace.
The building, however, is only a part of an adventure which Valentine traces back to his student days studying graphic design at Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee.
“I always wanted to own my own agency,” he says. It took an unhappy spell in London (“I hated London”) and a couple of stops with agencies back in Scotland, before the call came to join Whitespace as creative director.
“I told them I wanted to own a part of the business and they agreed to make that happen. It just worked for me.”
Now just turned 40 he runs the business with equal partners Emma Jardine and Phillip Lockwood-Holmes with whom he completed the MBO. The original owners – Carol Coulter, Don Galloway and Russell Stout – left and moved on to other things. In Galloway’s case it was Jumpstart.
The three new owners have grown the business by between 15% and 20% a year and turnover this year will touch £5.4 million, of which £4m is fee income.
It handles work for clients such as the Edinburgh Trams, the RAC and Sainsbury’s Bank, producing everything from campaigns to customer literature. With a solid customer base at home Valentine is turning his attention to international markets.
“We are looking overseas and considering a service for Chinese customers looking to market to western audiences,” he says.
Whitespace is now set up to handle the full service of marketing requirements, though he admits the business is ever-changing.
“Content and marketing automation are the new buzzwords,” he says, explaining the analytics that can now pinpoint and dissect what, when and why a customer buys a product or service, and how this helps his clients build their strategies around clearly defined customer targets.
“The customer benefits because companies know what he wants,” he says. “Technology moves so quickly, although what doesn’t change is that you will always need good ideas.”
Education: Duncan of Jordanstone College, Dundee (graphic design)
Career highlights: Wolff Olins, London; Lackie & Newton, Glasgow; Navy Blue, Edinburgh, Whitespace, Edinburgh.
What makes you angry?
When I hear clients do not believe Scotland has good strategic and creative people and feel a need to take their work to London.
What is the best advice you have received?
Learn your trade in your 20s, make your name in your 30s and consolidate in your 40s. “Well, something like that…”
What would you request the government changed for your sector?
Reformed the procurement marketing system.
What is your personal motto?
Work hard and be nice to people (he points to a poster with the slogan on the wall).
Main photo: Iain Valentine (by Terry Murden)