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Building ‘the Next Big Thing’ with Orange Panther Collective’s Founding Partners

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Strategy partner Lorna Burt and managing director Simon Hewitt explain the honesty, shared values and careful decisions that have taken OPC from one client to over 20 in two years, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves

Building ‘the Next Big Thing’ with Orange Panther Collective’s Founding Partners

Lorna Burt and Simon Hewitt first met over a Big Mac (for him) and a quarter pounder (for her), at McDonald’s UK headquarters in East Finchley, London. Both were working on advertising for the golden-arched restaurant with Leo Burnett at the time – Lorna as a planner and Simon as an account director.

As Lorna ponders, “does an account person and a strategist ever choose to work together?!” They were soon stuck with each other, working on the same client at their agency. “But fate did bring us together,” she suggests, from launching McCafe in the UK to McDonald’s second ever ‘big’ Christmas campaign. Going between agency and client they spent a lot of time on the Tube from West Kensington to East Finchley, before there was wifi down there. “We had no choice other than to chat about all sorts,” she says, “discovering a shared love of shitty sci-fi novels, a shared set of values, and a shared belief in what good advertising (the work and the business) looks like. We had no idea then that one day we’d run a business together.” 

Four years at Leo’s working together on and off meant the two built a foundation together. Simon usually asked the CSO for her to be on his bits of the business. “I knew early on she was pretty useful at this advertising malarkey,” he says.  Years later, after working apart at other agencies including Creature and Engine, in 2020 they teamed up again to build on that foundation and found Orange Panther Collective together.

Lorna describes Simon as “a genuinely good egg (and not just because he’s bald)”.  She lists the qualities she admires in him: “He’s incredibly honest (too honest), self aware (too self aware), genuine, energetic, committed, honest, ambitious.” 

Lorna was pretty fresh to the industry when the pair met, but Simon quickly clocked that she “was clearly very smart, confident and cool (she has always been the fashionable one in OPC… just ask her about her array of glasses). From the off she has always brought an air of calm and deep consideration to what she does. Her ability to turn the biggest and most complex strategic (and business) conundrums into brutally clear and insightful thinking, and mapping the proposals that follow, is second to none.”

He takes issue with the egg comment though: “I’m not bald, this is a lifestyle choice.”

As strategy partner and managing director of their growing startup agency, the pair have a neat dynamic. “We balance out the worst of each other, and amplify the best,” says Lorna. “I give Simon’s energy focus, and he translates my cynicism into curiosity. And in the business we play complementary roles – he finds the opportunities, I work out whether they’re the right ones.” 

Like any healthy partnership, they disagree all the time. Although Lorna notes that it’s often over fairly minor details. “They’re mainly things like whether he really needs to put a drop shadow on all the images in the deck, or whether he absolutely has to make a coffee 38 seconds before the meeting starts. Sometimes it’s bigger things but when it is, it’s never about what we’re trying to achieve or why, just how we get there. The ambition and intention is shared, just not always the plan.” 

As Simon says, it’s mostly “the everyday bits and bobs that make us human” that they clash over. “But we have a grown up and mutually respectful relationship that means we don’t get stuck on the stuff that doesn’t matter.”
 
Business disagreements aren’t something to gloss over. “You can’t run a business together and not feel emotional sometimes,” says Lorna. “The distinction between work and life is blurred way more than in a more traditional job. We try to stay honest but respectful. We’re both smart people with valid opinions. Even if Simon is sometimes wrong.”

Simon knows to pick his battles. “What she said,” he adds.

Building Orange Panther Collective as a business over the past two years is what the pair are proudest of. Working with both young and established businesses looking to launch something new, the agency’s focus is to help clients define and understand new audiences, build brands that connect with them, and create advertising to grab their attention. The agency website says they create “fame-building advertising that turns your new thing into the next big thing”.

In those two years Simon, Lorna and their other colleagues have built an agency from one client to over 20, launched brands from scratch, redesigned them, launched them in new markets or with new products. They’ve made everything from TV ads to press and poster campaigns, to social video, to radio ads, to logos, to marketing plans, to tote bags, to websites. “We’ve worked with hundreds of passionate, talented people,” says Lorna. “We’ve gone from our back rooms to our own office. All whilst coping with a global pandemic, having a baby (me), being good partners/friends/sons/daughters/parents and members of society, taking time for holidays and drinking wine and looking after ourselves. 

“And having a good time,” she underlines, “like, genuinely, actually, truly enjoying ourselves pretty much every single day.” 

The pair talk a lot about how hard it is to lift their heads up above the parapet and see what they have done in the last two years, says Simon. “Also we are naturally completely disinclined towards narcissism, so we find it hard to pat ourselves on the back about what we are doing. But when we do very occasionally pause to reflect, like now, I just couldn't be more proud of what we have done and where we are heading. It feels immensely and deeply satisfying, something I don’t believe you feel very often in life.”

Although she’s concerned it makes them sound like ‘total teachers’ pets’, Lorna says it’s their clients that inspire them the most. “It is one of the great joys of working with scale ups and ambitious businesses, especially as we are often working directly with the founders and C-suite. We get to spend our days working with people who believe, with absolute conviction, in their brand, product or service. People who know that their business solves a real problem, or makes the world a better place than it was. And people who have skin in the game, who are deeply committed to growing and building and impacting the world. You can’t help but want to make great work for these people, and to work hard for them.” 

Running an agency throws a lot of challenges at the founding partners, of all shapes and sizes. But some of OPC’s biggest creative challenges are about finding the perfect people for the brief, explains the strategy partner. “The C in OPC stands for collective and we work really hard to cast the right creative for the challenge,” she says. “It takes time, effort and a very good little orange book, but when we get it right it can be transformational.” 

Recently OPC found what they felt was the perfect combination of creative and client for a big above-the-line campaign. The creative had never worked in the specific industry the client operates in, but what they could bring was a different perspective based on years of experience in beauty, luxury and fashion, as well as a ridiculously wide skill set. “That meant they could bring that new perspective to the idea generation, the execution and even the design and production,” says Lorna. “All of which resulted in a fresh, unexpected idea brought to life seamlessly through the line.” 

What are the benefits of having a creative partner or regular collaborator in the industry?
Although their account and strategy backgrounds make their respective focuses unique, Simon finds a lot of value in running the business collaboratively with Lorna. “I’m a big believer in the need to bounce things off people, to get counsel on decisions and take smart steps forward,” he says. “Having a partner that can offer good and intensely considered advice is invaluable. It also means you are both invested in the decision made.

“The most satisfying thing I’ve found is that we agree on a hell of a lot of things and that has to be a good sign.”

On a human level, Lorna and Simon are close enough that nothing is off limits. “Working with someone you know has your back, through good and bad, means you’re able to be vulnerable with them,” says Lorna. “You’re happy to try stuff, to say stupid things, ask stupid questions, to be wrong, to get it wrong. And they’re happy to tell you it’s wrong, to challenge you, to tell you when you’re making it up or not making sense. 

“Trying stuff, and getting stuff wrong (and then changing it) is the secret to great work – to thinking that’s different, to ideas that change minds. A good working relationship gives you that – the safety, and the honesty, to try things and make them better together.” 
 
Both partners value sharing food, drink and each other’s company. “Sometimes we even make our families and partners get involved too,” jokes Lorna. “But life and work is busy so we find the opportunities where we can. Sometimes just having lunch together, or both having a beer in our own homes whilst chatting about the week we’ve had over Zoom makes all the difference.” 

Simon knows this isn’t always the way with business partners. “We actually get on pretty well even though we live in each other’s pockets a lot of the time,” he says. “I get the impression that sometimes isn’t the case in these intense working relationships. It helps that we both like our food and drink so I let Lorna school me on food and I get to school her on the drink (OK that’s total bullshit, she’s done loads of wine exams so always corrects me on my grape provenance…). We both have kids and although they are different ages (she has one year old and I have a five and 11 year old) it means we are really appreciative of family life and boundaries, so it’s usually a quick pint versus putting the world to rights over a few, but that suits us both well.”

Lorna gives Simon a lot of credit for the trajectory of her business life. “I would never have set up my own business if Simon hadn’t asked me if I was interested. He’s shown me how true the saying ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ is – you have to make opportunities, not wait for them to turn up. And that you shouldn’t let fear or judgement get in the way of making things happen or putting yourself out there – sometimes you just have to do it.”  

She’s been the perfect partner to make OPC a success, together with Simon. “I massively value Lorna’s deep consideration balancing my effervescent enthusiasm for the next prospective partner and project,” he says. “If I had gone alone on this journey I would like to think it still would have been successful, but I’d likely have gone down a multitude of rabbit holes, chased too many wild geese and ended up at way more dead ends. But having Lorna with me on the journey means we are laser focussed on what we do well, for whom and how to best get it done.”

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Orange Panther Collective, Mon, 18 Jul 2022 14:18:24 GMT