Little Black Book was, like many of the most iconic businesses in the creative industries, born in London’s Soho neighbourhood. A ramshackle square mile of narrow streets and townhouses packed with a density of some of the most unique restaurants, bars, boutiques and venues you’re likely to find anywhere in the UK capital.
But with its economy built around commuters coming into central London to work and tourists coming to experience it, the area has suffered more than many as a result of the pandemic.
Thankfully, as the UK opens back up to some semblance of normality, many of the decades-old independent businesses have scraped through and survived. There’s still hope that Soho can survive and once again be a thriving centre of culture and commerce.
That’s exactly what the GOGOSOHO campaign by local agency M&C Saatchi London hopes to ensure. Celebrating the small independent businesses of its Soho home, the pro-bono push is also supported by the Mayor of London’s office, Westminster Council and The Soho Society. It encourages those based in Soho to revisit some of their favourite places and also invites people in other parts of London to head back to the centre of town to check out these spots.
GOGOSOHO brings together more than 20 local businesses, including Ronnie Scott’s, the John Snow, Bar Italia, Soho’s Original Adult Store and The Great Frog, under one creative umbrella.
LBB’s Alex Reeves, who has worked in and been in love with Soho for almost 10 years, caught up with M&C Saatchi London marketing director Christi Tronetti to find out more about the campaign.
LBB> Little Black Book is a Soho based business as well so we have an intimate and deep love for the area. We were excited to see what you guys did. It feels right for the neighbourhood. When did it begin for you as an agency?
Christi> A few months ago we had started to come back into the office. We're proudly based in Golden Square, so as different levels of the lockdown have been released, more and more of our employees have been coming back into the office. As part of that some of the businesses have been allowed to open at certain times, others have had to wait for a specific deadline - the April unlocking, the May and then the June which got pushed back. We were just looking around the neighbourhood and thinking we miss this place. We love Soho and there are so many personalities and businesses that make it really special. I think it's got a very unique feel and culture that you can't get in other parts of the city. It's got its own vibe.
As we were coming out of being locked in our homes, faced with just our four walls, it reminded us how much we love Soho and how commuting into that neighbourhood really feeds us and gives us inspiration. There's so much to it that brings a lot of joy to the people that work there.
Then the other realisation we had was the first thing a lot of us did was start walking around the neighbourhood to see if some of our favourite places were still open. The flip side to this is this is an area that's been quite affected because it is more of a commuter base and even more of a tourist base. Obviously no tourists have been coming, so it's just on a commuter base alone. We knew they'd be affected, so it was really scary for us. And we were quite pleased to see that a lot of these places are still there. We were blown away by their resilience.
What we didn't want to do is just have a big story about Covid because we don't need to be talking about that - everybody's talking about that. It was more about looking at these amazing businesses, inviting people to come back and explore. There's so much breadth of offer in Soho that you may not remember. It was sort of a call to the employees who, for whatever reasons, may have hesitated to come back, just to remind them that they work in an amazing area. And equally a call to other Londoners to come hang out and see some of the places they didn't know existed or maybe forgot about.
LBB> That's the thing about Soho. It's so unique in the fact that it's got all of these interesting, small businesses, who've been there for decades have so much character and yet it's right in the middle of The West End. It’s nothing like Oxford Street, and that's one of its borders. It’s nothing like Regent Street, it's nothing like Shaftesbury Avenue, but everything in the middle somehow has this amazing resilience. It’s not just Pret a Mangers.
Christi> Yeah, exactly. And it's not even businesses that have been around for decades. Some of the ones that we spoke to have been around since the early 1900s, the Algerian Coffee Stores opened in 1887. They've really stood the test of time, stuck it out and they're doing an amazing job. Some of those old favourites like Ronnie Scott’s and Bar Italia, we wanted to talk about some of the staples that are almost the same as his area itself.
LBB> What was the process in terms of selecting the businesses?
Christi> We first started with (I guess rather selfishly) some of the favourite agency haunts. When we set this brief it started as a design brief and then it expanded from there. We said to the design team, we wanted them to visualise and consider the places that they personally love. And from that Gosh Comics, Jumbo Eats, Coqfighter, The Great Frog - some of the places that we as patrons go to quite regularly - naturally came out. That's where a lot of our creative and design teams spend their time and money when they're in the area.
Then we also wanted to make sure that we had good representation and a diverse group of businesses. We didn't want to just have eateries, for instance, we also wanted to make sure we have hair stylists, clothing providers and also a bit more in terms of representation and diversity. We worked with the Soho Society. We sent them the list of the businesses we initially were approaching and they shared some suggestions as well, to supplement those businesses to make sure it was really rounded and representative of the area.
LBB> Creatively how did that then move on? You said it started as a design brief - what were the initial kinds of ideas flying around for what it should look like?
Christi> Andy Harris is the head of our design team. We put the brief to a few different designers and it was his that stood out. His approach was the idea of stories within a story. I think what inspired him, and where he had the most fun, was thinking about what made something personal, or a little smile or wink that we could add for each business into the illustrations that would show their uniqueness.
So for instance the John Snow pub was named after Dr John Snow who identified the cholera outbreak, which came from a pump in Soho. The pub is located next to the pump so in the illustration, the pump is featured as pouring a pint. The Coqfighter design has the two wattles of the cockerel designed in the shape of boxing gloves. For The Great Frog, which is famous for its skull rings, the eyes of the frog were made to look like skulls.
The design brief was: What can we do to bring a cohesive look and feel and brand to all of these businesses? So we have a wrapper campaign that everything sits under but that also does a good job of highlighting each individual business. For us this design achieved both.
LBB> That’s a difficult brief actually - all of these businesses with their own personal branding and you have to tie them together. It's also broadened out from being a poster campaign only. How did that happen and how did the idea expand to encompass social and digital channels?
Christi> We started with design aspects - what are the best ways to feature these designs and where would we actually get people to sort of stop and pay attention to these messages? The fly poster buy was very specifically in different areas of London - a lot of Hackney actually - which were then encouraging Londoners to come back into Soho.
We also wanted to do something that would interact with people when they were actually in the area. To get them to pay attention while they're there to go visit some of these great businesses: "Hey you're already here. Did you know that Gosh Comics is around the corner or did you know that Bar Italia is open and ready to host you?"
We created a bot that takes over any time somebody mentions Soho in the UK. It automatically replies with a message saying one of several different messages depending on the context of what people are posting.
The digital display was run in partnership with Time Out London so that was about getting people as they're looking for things to do over the week or weekend. It's capturing them to say they should head into Soho.
The other bit that we wanted to do was engage the businesses themselves, and give them assets so that they can be sharing it on their social channels.
So it was a two-prong approach: One was getting people who are outside in different areas of London to come back to Soho. And the other was to catch people when they're there and remind them about what's around them.
LBB> That makes perfect sense. How have the businesses reacted to having their brand translated into this broader thing? Have you had much dialogue with them since it's been live?
Christi> Yeah, we have worked with them a lot. It's that sort of chicken and egg thing. We got a few key businesses on board initially. And when they were on board, once more and more businesses saw that their neighbours or people they knew and respected were a part of it, they were really happy to get on board.
We took it a step further, so we made a film. And we've also taken some stills of these business owners and managers in front of their actual locations. So it was about telling their story and focusing on them as much as possible. I think once they saw that we were genuinely interested in supporting them and we really love these businesses, that we were giving them assets and collateral that they could also use to promote their businesses, we had very few people say they didn't want to be involved. I'm actually getting emails more regularly from brands in the neighbourhood asking how else they can take part, so that's been really encouraging.
They're a community. They support each other too. When we would go in and talk to them, they would reference the other businesses that they respected in the neighbourhood. I think they look out for each other and they all have a healthy respect for what it takes to keep your business going and in a neighbourhood like Soho. And what they've all seen and experienced over the years it's changed massively in some ways, but in other ways the spirit and culture has remained the same.
LBB> That spirit and culture of Soho needs to be emphasised because as we're going back to offices, I think everyone's pretty realistic about the fact that working five days a week in an office won't necessarily be for everyone in the future. I suppose that's a challenge to these businesses. What do you visualise as a really positive, dream future for Soho, bearing that in mind?
Christi> I think a dream future for Soho is keeping that spirit. It's not just businesses; it's the people. Supporting the community and people that really make it the special place that it is.
But I think there also needs to be a healthy room for adaptation and growth, because things change and we grow. Some of the essence of what makes Soho so great is those people in those businesses, supporting them keeping them going, but equally, trying to bring more like-minded businesses into the area that are new and different and will bring the next version of what makes Soho great into the space. It is that combination of the steadfast heartbeat of the place that has been there, ongoing, but room for new thinking and new ideas to come in. I feel like there's a sort of Soho entity and I think the businesses who don't naturally fit into that mould don't end up lasting very long, whereas some businesses can come in and they fit into the spirit of the place and they can stay. So I think having room to grow is important as well.
LBB> Personally speaking, what's the Soho experience that you most look forward to in the coming months?
Christi> What I've missed is the spontaneity. Because of the variety of what Soho has to offer, there's no set day you can go in with an idea of one or two places you want to go to but it's such a meandering neighbourhood. It's so beautiful and it's so easy to even get a bit lost, and I think that's what I love about Soho. The streets were built for carriages. You wander and you run into shops that you didn't even know were there sometimes. It's a lot of discovery and spontaneity. And that is something I look forward to getting back into more regularly. My walk into and out of work is always so interesting, there are no dead roads, just great people watching, so much going on. It's exciting, and I think we could all use a bit of excitement, inspiration and spontaneity in our lives these days.