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Business & Economy

Interview: Him & her

Tea and biscuits. Ant and Dec. Gin and tonic. All things that just wouldn’t work without the other. A bit like Lucy Gardiner and Darren Richardson, really. Bringing words and design together with a dash of creativity, their eponymous strategic brand communications firm Gardiner Richardson is marking 25 years in business. Here, they sit down with Vicki Henderson to talk friendship, the march of technology and the power of optimism.


“I think, often, you just get lucky in life, and you meet the right people. 

“And I think that when we set the business up, we were pretty lucky we met at the right time for each other,” muses Darren Richardson.

Relationships are at the heart of any commercial venture. 

But when a business’ very foundations are built on the bond between just two people, it’s vital.

Just ask Darren and his business partner Lucy Gardiner. 

Working side-by-side for 25 years – having been friends and co-workers for a few years longer – at their self-titled brand communications agency, their camaraderie, trust and belief in one another has stood the test of time. 

Based in Newcastle’s Trafalgar Street, the firm works with brands across the North East to the wider world, using creative thinking to help them stand out and make their messages resonate with target markets.

Lucy, the PR expert, and Darren, a graphic designer, met in the mid-1990s at a Newcastle ad agency, one which ‘tacked on’ a bit of PR and design work.

The idea of setting up on their own was a pipedream, something occasionally discussed in the pub, until the day the ad agency went into administration.

“In the mid-1990s, Newcastle was renowned for having very strong advertising agencies, which might have a bit of PR or design on the side; there was no such thing as a standalone PR and creative agency,” says Lucy.

“I was already working at an ad agency and Darren came in as creative director. 

“We ended up working on a new business pitch together and started looking at an approach that, rather than just jumping straight in and looking at a big advertising campaign, was actually getting to the heart of an organisation, its brand and what it stood for.

“It was quite a different approach to take and we thought, ‘this is what we should be doing’.

“And then the agency went into administration, because although the PR and design parts of the business had been doing well, the main advertising section wasn’t.

“We felt there was never going to be a better opportunity to take that step and give it a go, and that we’d probably regret it if we didn’t.”

Despite offers to set up a new agency out of the ashes of the previous firm, this time focusing on the more successful PR and design elements, the pair struck out on their own path.

Darren, who had returned to his native North East after ten years working in a creative agency looking after global airline and petroleum brands, says: “I think it’s about chemistry. 

“You just hit it off. 

“Me and Luce have always shared that sense of doing things properly and doing things well, and having a real sense of craft in everything you do. 

“We felt there was a really big opportunity in the North East at the time to bring those two different disciplines together – words and pictures, if you like – they’re both equally valid in the business.”

The pair laugh as they recall the early days of their firm, which they set up with the support of four financial backers, including Mark Thompson and Peter Buchan, of Ryder Architecture, as well as Lucy’s mum and stepdad Austin, who had a corporate background working for Northumbrian Water.

“I had to go to Lucy’s mum’s house and meet them both,” smiles Darren.

“It wasn’t a great start because I got lost; I couldn’t find their house. 

“I remember sitting there saying, ‘it’s alright, I don’t want to marry her, I just want to go into business with her’.”

“It was like a work husband, taking him back to meet the parents!” adds Lucy.

Darren says: “I’m an eternal optimist, so I ended up sitting there saying, ‘honestly, don’t worry, it’s gonna be great, we’re going to smash it’.

“Having Mark and Peter involved was absolutely invaluable to us.

“I think they remembered starting out and saw something in us;  they had so much knowledge and experience to pass on.” 

Now sole owners of the business, Lucy and Darren oversee a team of 25, having started with just two employees. 

A creative agency focused solely on PR and design was considered unusual in the late nineties, but two early client acquisitions helped it be taken seriously in the region.

“We were something a little bit different,” says Lucy.

“And we were very fortunate some of our first clients included Sage and Ward Hadaway. 

“Straightaway, they gave us a bit of credibility.

“It got us off to a really good start with some great clients and gave us the chance to build some great relationships. 

“And we still have those relationships with them.”

“I think our relationship is this sort of infectious catalyst,” adds Darren. 

“We build great relationships because we’re interested in people, and we want to understand what they’re trying to achieve. 

“It’s not done because we want to try and be clever; it’s because we’re genuinely interested. 

“What gets me out of bed in the morning is really trying to understand and help organisations and build relationships with them, and use those relationships to help create greater value for them.”

The pair remain hands-on in the company, keeping a flat management structure and working alongside their team in an open plan studio.

Of course, a lot has changed in the last 25 years, not least the march of the internet and social media, and further advances in technology.

“I remember our mobile phones were like walkie-talkies when I started,” laughs Lucy.

“And I think over the years we’ve probably got sucked into, ‘ohh, websites are the new thing, so everyone’s got to have a website’.

“You can get distracted by new platforms, though you need to embrace them where a brand has a voice and the technology that changes how you do that.

“Darren and I have come to the realisation that actually the heart of Gardiner Richardson hasn’t fundamentally changed, and nor should it.”

Darren adds: “I think that’s how you learn as a business. 

“No business should ever be frightened to give things a go. 

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s learning.

“The other big thing is the pace of working life for people. 

“That comes with an excitement and enthusiasm, but it also comes with its challenges, like managing expectation.

“And attention spans,” he finishes. “They’ve just gone.”

In an effort to counteract the rising pace of life, Gardiner Richardson works with organisations to create ‘headspace’ – the time to have a face-to-face session in the studio, bouncing around ideas and reflecting on what they aim to achieve.

Darren says: “Trying to understand the heart of an organisation and its purpose and what it’s trying to achieve – those two things used to be quite simple. Now they’re quite complex.

“But the theory is still the same. It’s just there’s now more to consider. 

“What businesses say and do has become more important. 

“Building trust with consumers and businesses and brands, being able to connect in a meaningful way, is more important than ever.”

Another change in 25 years is the rise of data – a double-edged sword that allows firms to see, in real-time, their levels of interest and engagement, but which can also leave businesses paralysed with indecision.

“Our job is often to give the confidence to people to understand all the data, because it is profoundly useful,” says Lucy.

“But sometimes the sheer amount of data can be like a spiders web to clients, and they need some clarity. 

“We can help them interpret the data to something that’s authentic to the business but also relevant to an audience, a kind of magic moment where you find that little space where you think, ‘that feels right’.”

The pandemic brought change for all, not least to working patterns and the boom in online communication.

Gardiner Richardson has used this to its advantage, expanding its reach beyond its North East heartland to work with new clients in London, Europe and the wider world. 

The firm has also increased staff numbers since the pandemic, something which led to its first round of employees who were born after Gardiner Richardson’s inception 25 years ago.

“That was a very scary moment when we realised,” laughs Lucy.

“But I think what’s nice is that the younger generation come in with a slightly different dynamic now – traditionally, you came in very inexperienced and learned your craft as you spent time in an organisation. 

“But now, in a world of TikTok and other new platforms, some of the younger generation might not have the experience in communications as a whole, but actually they live and breathe social platforms.

“You need to embrace that and give them a place at the table because they have a real insight to share.

“It then gives them the confidence to have a voice and play a real part.”

With its core team made up of homegrown talent and new hires, Lucy and Darren agree things are looking good.

And as they reflect on their success, and the potential of another 25 years working together, they agree their differing personalities, strengths and weaknesses will remain at the heart of the business.

“We have similar principles, but with different characters,” says Darren.

“You just get lucky. How lucky are we that we just happened to meet each other? 

“I would never have wanted to do this on my own.

“I’ve heard horror stories over the years of people who have been in business with a partner, and it hasn’t worked out. 

“It reminds you that we are very blessed in terms of the relationship, because the relationship Lucy and I have sets the tone for the business.”

Lucy adds: “Where Darren’s very, very good, I’m not so good, and where I’m good, Darren’s not so good. 

“Darren’s very much the optimist and everything is always achievable. 

“And I’m the bad cop.

“And I think we come to a great compromise that what we do is aspirational but achievable. 

“And that’s what works very, very well for us.”