London’s identity (crisis)

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(Left: Co-Founder and Chairman of Moving Brands, Ben Wolstenholme)


This is a guest post from Camilla Grey, a strategist and ex-MBer.

Yesterday, London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, announced an open brief to creatives to submit a “visual interpretation of #LondonIsOpen [and] spread the message that London is open for business, music, food, drink, sport, art and more”. Coming in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and a week in politics for which the history books might need to reserve a whole chapter, #LondonIsOpen is a relevant concept to rally people around. How better to channel the frustration felt amongst London’s young, connected, hard-working, multinational cohort, than to set them a creative challenge? What could be more apt than to create an open-sourced identity for openness just as our national identity becomes synonymous with closure?

Seven years ago, I was working at Moving Brands when Boris Johnson released a brief for the creative development and design of a brand for London. Seven years ago, London was one year into the credit crunch, a year off the Cycle Hire scheme, three years off the Olympics, four years off CityMapper and Dishoom was but a glimmer in a restaurateur’s eye. Social media was all a bit new too, with brands still figuring out whether it was important and, if so, how to do it. And so our idea to not only pitch for the Brand for London but to run it in public was both radical and experimental.

We set up a Twitter account and a WordPress blog and invited everyone to get involved. The public could contribute by answering fun questions (If London was an animal, which one would it be?), and the design community could contribute by commenting on our designs or submit their own. What quickly began to emerge was a picture of a city in the midst of an identity crisis. Were we a multi-layered onion or a pigeon with one foot? Were we bold and fresh or historic and wise? Then and now, we had no idea if we were a European powerhouse or the backbone of Britain.

Within two weeks the blog had over 40,000 hits, our Twitter account had 500 followers and we’d been written about by The Evening Standard, The London Paper and Design Week. We’d also had thousands of messages of support, hundreds of submissions and several fights with designers who hated us for ‘free pitching’. With minutes to spare before the deadline, we printed the entire blog out on a single roll of paper and delivered it by hand to the Mayor’s office tied with a red ribbon.

We were unsuccessful.

Or were we? Everyone on that team learned how to communicate the meaning and value of an identity to the world. We learned how to build and mobilise a community around an idea. We learned how to work in public with the public. We learned how to do all the things that so many brands (and let’s face it, agencies) still struggle with. We proved it can be done and, by the looks of it, proved it should be done. It may have taken seven years, but it seems that London may now get the open-sourced identity it needs, an identity that matters more now than ever before.

Camilla Grey is a full-stack strategist. Check out her work here.