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Spectacles, Bicycles and Orange: An Afternoon With Sir Wally Olins, Godfather of Branding

One rainy August day in 2013, I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with the late Sir Wally Olins CBE. My then colleague Emma and I were working on the re-branding of an area in North West London, and like all regeneration projects, it was important to get it right. Breathing new life into the area without alienating the local community - many of whom were (rightly) concerned about gentrification - was a sensitive and complex task, so we needed expert help.

The search didn’t take long. Wally Olins was, and still is, known as the Godfather of Branding, with an impressive resume that covered a huge range of big name companies from Orange to British Telecom. He pioneered the concept of the Nation as a Brand and was responsible for creating new, exciting identities for London, Mauritius, Northern Ireland, Poland, Lithuania and Portugal, among others.

After studying history at Oxford, he moved to London to embark on a career in advertising, later taking the helm at Ogilvy and Mather. He worked in Mumbai for five years before returning to London in 1965 and forming Wolff Olins with Michael Wolff in 1965. His books, including the seminal ‘On Brand’ have sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world, in eighteen languages.

There was nobody better qualified or more knowledgeable about territory branding, and although we didn’t have a big budget to play with, Sir Wally graciously responded to our plea for advice and pearls of wisdom.

That day was unseasonably grey and wet. So very, very wet. As soon as we exited Old Street station for the walk to the Saffron Consultants London office in Shoreditch, the skies opened. Emma had an umbrella, because she is a consummate professional who’s always prepared for every eventuality. I am not quite so organised, so found myself battling the wind and rain in a highly inappropriate summer dress and flimsy shoes. By the time the ten minute walk was complete and we arrived at the super cool warehouse, full of super cool people, I looked like the proverbial drowned rat. My soaking hair was stuck to my head, droplets of water fell off my nose, and my shoes felt like they were made of fresh paper mache… and then I failed to grab the huge metal door before it slammed behind me, causing the entire room full of trendy Shoreditch creatives to turn to see who had created such a noise. If branding is all about first impressions, then my personal brand was really suffering that day.

Sir Wally’s, on the other hand, was impeccable as ever. The first thing we noticed about the waiting room was the little touches that made visitors know without a doubt that they were in the right place. Old bicycles were suspended from the ceilings, bare brick covered every wall and dotted around the room was a collection of round, heavy black framed spectacles - Sir Wally’s calling card and an essential part of his signature look.

During the next few hours, Sir Wally regaled us with stories about his travels around the world and how he created some of the biggest, most instantly recognisable brands on the planet. But this was no ego trip. He was genuinely passionate about branding, psychology and identity, giving us lots of advice about how to get people involved in sharing their stories of, and affection for, the places they called home, whilst embracing new possibilities.

That afternoon will remain one of the most memorable of my career, because it was truly spent in the presence of an icon. Sir Wally Olins may not have been a household name, but those who know, know. We can all learn a lot from his enthusiasm, attention to detail and impeccable sense of self...and nobody wore a pair of round black specs better than he did.

Sir Wally Olins died on 14th April 2014. Read more here.

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