IN this week's SME Focus a successful branding specialist who got started in advertising by chance reflects on the importance of people to a service businesses.

Name: Gary O'Donnell

Age: 40

What is your business called?


Where is it based?


What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We come up with ideas designed to change people's attitudes and affect their behaviour in relation to our client's businesses and brands.

Ultimately, we try to give people reasons to try or continue to buy our clients' products, usually by getting them to feel a certain way about the brand.

To whom does it sell?

Our client list is very diverse, from private and public companies to the Government and charity sectors. We count three of Scotland's FTSE 250 companies among our clients (Royal Bank of Scotland, SSE and First Group) and a host of organisations that are national treasures, including the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish rugby team.

One of the things I've always liked about my job is the variety. One day I can be in a bus depot, the next a spotless hi-fi equipment manufacturer, the next a dairy creamery.

What is its turnover?

£3.5 million.

How many employees?

Thirty at the last count, plus we nearly always have an interesting clutch of freelance people milling around at any one time.

When was it formed? 1989.

Why did you take the plunge?

Our current management team didn't start the company. We acquired it in a management buyout (MBO) in 2008.

The founder of the business, Alan Frame, died the year before and the buyout was from his estate. Those who knew him say he was inspirational and unique, so we have a lot to live up to. We were happy to agree the new company would bear his name.

One of the things I learned in the deal was the importance of good advisers.

Prior to that, I might have resented the cost and questioned the value. We also learned a successful past doesn't guarantee a company's future. We don't behave like we deserve to exist. We work really hard to justify our existence by getting better, and delivering more for our clients.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

I'd been in London for more than 10 years after leaving university. I'd studied law at Glasgow but, truth be told. I wasn't very good at it.

I started in a very big American ad agency called Young & Rubicam, but found myself gravitating towards smaller and smaller businesses until finally I wound up in a five-man start-up above a Tube station on Tottenham Court Road.

In 2002, I was offered the chance to join another huge agency, TBWA, which was arguably the most creative agency in London at the time and home to global clients, including Absolut Vodka and Sony PlayStation.

They wanted to open a branch office in Edinburgh and I was flattered to be asked to run it.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

The MBO team put up a sizeable share. The rest came from Clydesdale Bank, which has been tremendously supportive of our business for a number of years.

What was your biggest break?

After university, I had no idea what I wanted to do. My sister suggested I try advertising for reasons that now escape us both. I was fortunate to get on to one of the big graduate schemes in London with the then biggest private ad agency in the world. Advertising agencies are very interesting places.

They're real meritocracies. I once worked at an agency whose motto was "if you're good enough you're old enough" because their CEO was unfeasibly young.

What was your worst moment?

It's a long story, but I once ate the prototype for a new chocolate bar in the top-secret meeting that had been convened to discuss its launch.

Apparently, it had been hand-made in Zurich and flown to the meeting specially. The European CEO of Kraft, Jacobs Suchard, laughed and asked me how it tasted. He was Scottish and I think he felt sorry for me.

My own boss was slightly less kind and I thought that was the end of my life in advertising.

About two years later someone told me that story at a party. He didn't believe me when I told him that was me.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

I enjoy lots of aspects of my job. Fundamentally I find brands interesting – and advertising, obviously. But on a more basic level, I love the people I work with. They are bright, passionate and incredibly funny.

What do you least enjoy?

We had to restructure our business a few years back and that was painful. Letting people go is very tough, and letting good people go is heartbreaking.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

I think 2009/10 caused a lot of people to reconsider what success looked like. For many companies just still being around is a result. We had a good 2011 because we stuck to what we're good at and took the right kinds of risks. I'd rather get better than bigger, but one tends to follow the other, so I think, touch wood, success for us in the next few years is probably a bit of both. I'd like to be in the position to hire another 10 people in the next year, growing income by about 30%, but that's not going to be easy.

What are your top priorities?

Having a workplace full of energised creative people who are thriving is our principal aim. Then comes happy clients which tend to follow that. Financial success is a function of the first two I think.

We try to encourage people to think about work-life balance, but it's hard when the competition for every project is so fierce – there's always a team working late on something or other.

Good pizza is a priority on those nights.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?

I'm not that big on Government intervention, nor on blaming governments for problems that are bigger than they are. Both governments (Westminster and Edinburgh) seem to me to be very focused on the creative industries, which is a good thing. Having a stronger economy overall would obviously be good for us, but I think that's wishful thinking for the time being. It's probably going to get worse before it gets better, despite the best efforts of both governments.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

If you can find partners and colleagues you trust absolutely, that can take you a very long way. I never have to worry that my business partners have a hidden agenda or motives that are at odds with what we've agreed we're all doing here. I find that tremendously liberating and it means we can focus on getting better, and growing.

How do you relax?

I've just finished building a house so I don't feel as though I've relaxed very much recently... but I can just about remember cooking and reading. In fact, mainly reading about cooking.