Stephen Monaghan and Graeme Gaughan
The co-founders of Sane Communications discuss the attributes that make their work about so much more than PR
Stephen Monaghan and Graeme Gaughan, founders of Sane Communications, bound into their office in Old Street looking slightly flustered. They’re half an hour late for our interview, which is just fine as it affords me some time to nosey around their place of work. Sane HQ doubles up as an office and two-level showroom for the clients they represent. The small studio-like space upstairs which houses the reception and some womenswear collections icebergs into a far more expansive basement - an open-brick cavern with a gaggle of humans beavering away in front of computer screens on one side and elegantly arranged displays of clothing on the other, with a large desk taking up a corner.
Gaughan, who sports a neat cropped hairstyle and is the shorter of the two men, is wearing a contemporary navy blazer, T-shirt and pale pink cropped trousers. He is also profusely cursing his choice of footwear - a pair of new slip-ons that have caused him blisters. His default facial expression is an arrangement of seriousness, which is occasionally betrayed by a deadpan quip and the hint of a smile. Monaghan on the other hand is a picture of expressiveness in paint-splattered green cotton field shirt and jeans. With an artful complement of facial hair, there is something of the theatrical villain about him and yet his outward manner is immediately jovial and thoroughly accommodating. He speaks at a canter, occasionally wheeling away down tangential lanes, the destination of which is sometimes unclear, but his energy gives you the confidence to stay the course. If Gaughan is a study of what it means to be composed and collected, Monaghan is his animated foil. What they share is a pronounced passion about their work and a fashion industry which clearly captivates them. They are self-confessed geeks, product nerds of the highest order, a defining characteristic that is played out in their roster of clients - brands such as Asics, Norse Projects, Timothy Everest and Our Legacy, brands for whom the perfection of product design trumps hype every time. Sane’s client list is in many ways a clue as to how Monaghan and Gaughan operate within an industry where most fashion PR firms like to have three or four big bankers - that is, well-established global clients who require very little selling. Sane, however, is run more like a labour of love. Their clients make products that Monaghan and Gaughan wear and genuinely believe in. They are often niche brands or young brands or brands that have slowly and quietly flown beneath the mainstream frequency but who have developed something of a cult following. Maybe they’re just being very good at their jobs, but when you listen to them talk about their clients with such vim and conviction, it’s easy to see why these two young fathers have turned a lifelong love into a hugely successful business.
CS: So let me start by asking you both how you first met. Can you remember?
SM: It was probably in a pub.
GG: That’s a good question, where was it?
SM: An event? A bar? Must have been a pub, right?
GG: I think it was a pub, you know. I’ve got a feeling it was in The Royal Oak. You were having a bit of a piss-up in The Royal Oak…
SM: Was it my birthday? I can’t remember many of them.
GG: All I know is that we got chatting. You had just started Sane Communications.
SM: Yes, I remember now. I was about a year into the business and still based on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, when the rents were cheap. We actually called it Rentcheap Street in those days because it was really affordable, then everyone came in with a retail licence and that was the end of that.
GG: I was setting up another agency at the time, called IPR. We had known of each other for a little while, then whenever we bumped into each other at events we would chat and have a laugh. Then it progressed to these sort of weird little man-dinners! I think our common bond more than anything else was that we didn’t think of ourselves as normal run-of-the-mill fashion PRs. We’d both consider ourselves more product-obsessives than anything else. We’re not too dissimilar in age and we’ve been through the same trends and subcultures and fashions through the years, so we could relate to each other’s past.
SM: We’re pretty geeky product-obsessives. With both of us there has always been this gravitational pull towards subcultures, but it’s fair to say that we were more interested in the products that were the manifestations of these subcultures than any particular ideology or artistic school of thought. The design we liked and continue to like just happens to come from that edgy periphery. We weren’t restricted to London either. Globally, we were drawn to subcultural design and music too. Anything from punk, post-punk through to hip-hop - it could go anywhere really. We didn’t meet because we liked one thing; it was much more about an appreciation of and passion for a shared eclecticism. It all filters into making your persona, doesn’t it? That’s basically why culture exists: to help you form your persona in the world.
CS: Yes, I suppose it does. This eclecticism you talk about is very much evident in your client roster, which makes it quite difficult to pigeonhole Sane. You’ve got Savile Row clients, cult contemporary Scandinavian brands, Parisian boutique labels… What ties them all together?
GG: Our roster is product-driven by brands with integrity. All our clients place their products at the core of what they do. That sounds rather obvious doesn’t it, but so many brands completely miss the point by concentrating too much on marketing or whatever. Our brands also have an overall philosophy and approach to how they create the product. Above all, though, it’s stuff that we’re really into. We have to like it and understand it and want to wear it, or completely get why our team wants to wear it. It’s got to have something that resonates with us for us to be enthusiastic about it. If you can’t be enthusiastic about a product, then forget about it. It’s a severe view but that’s really the only way to run a successful agency, because when you’re selling something that you don’t believe in it’s so painfully obvious. We’re adamant about this.
SM: These brands were always there, but no one was talking about them or presenting them in a way that was interesting and engaging. It happened that we were really interested in them on a personal level first, and then the PR element naturally followed. Actually, I hate calling it ‘PR’ - it’s much more than that now. What we do is communications.
GG: We want to be involved in marketing; we want to enable the retailer; we want to open up different sales channels; we want to help the distributors. We are aware that the business model is part of a sphere where each part connects and it goes round. As a communications company you’ve got to be right in the middle of all that. Having a comprehension of all the attributes and elements of that sphere to quite a high level allows us to offer up opinions and solutions for each constituent part.
CS: So what was Sane like at the beginning? It would be interesting to know how an agency comes into being.
SM: I started Sane six years ago with my wife Su. I stopped working for money, bought myself a MacBook and a scooter and then began to consult more than I did PR - or communicate, should I say. The contacts I’d built up in media at Dazed and Vice meant I was already able to communicate with a lot of the industry. But when I started working with the first few brands I was just a man with a moped. I wasn’t really expecting to become a PR guy per se but people would say to me, ‘Hey, you talk well, you have a passion for brands, you’re affable, you could forge quite a nice career in an industry that is at the moment quite confused.’ The media were quite perturbed by PR at the time; they weren’t feeding them what they really needed. There was a need for more cerebral thinking about how to approach this game of communications. I think a lot of people were still looking at PR as this kind of one-dimensional product-placement industry when, in actual fact, the retailer had evolved way beyond that. They were more interested in the stories behind the products and the brands, so that’s what we do now - we help tell stories that we believe in.
GG: That comes back to our backgrounds as well. Prior to my previous role and Steve starting Sane, neither of us had worked for agencies and that comes out in how we do things. Our mandate is simply doing things as we think they should be done; not how other agencies have always done it. It’s very much driven by passion, wanting to be creative and being a conduit for other people’s stories. I guess more than anything else it’s about stuff we love - working with brands that we’re genuinely into and love and admire. It’s a pleasure to come to work but it’s not all easy.
SM: You have highs and you have lows but at the end of the day we do this because of the people. You meet some amazing people in our industry; really wonderfully creative people who you have great experiences with. Yes, there are people who wind you up and make you want to quit, but for every one of those there are five others who blow your mind with their vision and ideas. People are great in the main.
GG: And also we like to travel. We’re not just London-focused - our network is global. We love going to all the trade shows and market weeks because it enables us to curate a broader set of contacts and to be way more informed than the average communications agency. That’s what led us to set up in Berlin.
CS: A London-based agency with a satellite operation out of Berlin could well be a first. Why Berlin and not Milan or Paris, for instance?
GG: Mindset. They just get it. There’s also a similar kind of market segmentation. Plus we had some very good friends out in Germany who did things in a similar way to us, so it just made sense to pool our connections and make Sane Berlin.
CS: There’s parts of Berlin that are quite like Shoreditch, aren’t there? Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg…
GG: Exactly. In fact we’ve just moved to a new showroom in Kreuzberg; it’s a very happening neighbourhood right now. We used to be in Mitte, which was very much the place to be about 10 years ago, but now the really exciting stuff is happening in Kreuzberg and has been for a little while.
CS: Is it true that the doner kebab was invented in Kreuzberg?
SM: Yes! I’ve been told that loads of times by really proud German people! It’s amazing to think that something you equate with Turkey was actually invented by the diaspora in Berlin.
GG: It’s a great place if you like kebabs!
SM: It’s a great place in general. We’ve been going there for years to the trade shows like Bread & Butter.
‘If you can’t be enthusiastic about a product, then forget about it. It’s a severe view but that’s the only way to run a successful agency’
CS: It’s strange that it flies under the radar compared to events like Pitti, which has grown massively in recently years. What’s your take on Pitti, while we’re on the subject?
SM: We were at Pitti earlier this year and, do you know, I found a lot of it quite offensive. I mean, people are turning up to be photographed. What is Pitti? It’s Milanese, Viennese, Florentine menswear people bringing their wares and trying to sell them to a broader audience, but it isn’t really providing the reason why people used to go to Pitti - which was ostensibly to discover new brands, buy them and take them back to your store to sell them. That was the bare bones of it. People now just seem to be spending a hell of a lot of time poncing around that fucking square! And, worst of all, their ties are badly knotted, the lengths are wrong, some of their shirts are viscose and not cotton… it’s just wrong! They look like early-90s Italian footballers.
GG: Far too wanky for my liking. We have to go and we like to go because there are people there who we want to see and hang out with, but I hate that whole peacocking thing; I think it’s a load of nonsense. Some people feel like they have to do it, but if I see another green chino with a matching neckerchief then I’ll just go mental. Not my cup of tea at all.
SM: When you think about it, though, they’re not dissimilar to the young Italians of the early 60s; the pretty boys with slick-backed hair, riding scooters with no helmets on. They exude the same kind of louche attitude, only now if feels like it’s about a display of wealth more than anything else. You look back at those young Italians from the 60s and they’re believable; their look had context. The guys you see at Pitti just look like prats with terrible facial hair or lack thereof. I’m all for being creative and looking amazing. There shouldn’t be any rules to how you dress, but it has got to the level of parody there now. There are still some fantastic brands there, but I fear they’re being overlooked by the media.
GG: I’m perplexed as to how much business actually goes on at Pitti. How many orders are written there?
SM: I think most of the orders are written by the brands who are true tailoring, very sartorial. Owner in his 40s to 60s, he’ll be there with his selection of silks and whatnot; the buyer will come in, spend three hours there, make the order and then leave.
CS: How does the German market operate in comparison?
GG: When I say Germany is a similar mindset, in others ways it’s not. There is a lot of red tape in Germany which we have had to train ourselves on. You can’t be as quick there as you can in London. There are more processes to follow, more tape to cut through, legally, business-wise, everything. There are so many HR rules; it’s all very different, much more regulated in a way - much more. It is more difficult to set up a business there; the legal hoops you have to jump through to get something started.
SM: The thing I’ve learned about German efficiency is that it’s not fluid. Every next step has something that has to be signed, countersigned, stamped, sent somewhere, re-signed then given the OK by Wilfried Steinhorn, our notary. He is actually called Wilfried Steinhorn and he has eyebrows that curl beneath his eyes like monocles.
GG: Hey, don’t diss Wilfried!
SM: I love Wilfried. I’ve spent many an hour with him going through translations of contracts.
CS: The machinery is different but the vehicle for communications always remains the same… Or does it?
SM: It’s about tone of voice, applying tone of voice to brands that they were hitherto not having. Before, it was the task of a marketing person to deliver a series of assets and that was that, but now because of the change in media and the demands of people globally, you need to be able to work with things you haven’t been given; you have to be able to create as you go along. There has to be an element of creative direction in a comms business now, otherwise you will fall off after two or three months having used all the assets and collateral you have on a brand. It’s also about making suggestions to brands. We have such a huge network of creatives that we work with, with budgets that a lot of people would think are outrageous, but it’s money well spent because you create new and much more interesting ways to cut through the market.
GG: It’s like giving them a journey to go on, but you have to give them the car and the petrol too.
SM: If you burn through all of the petrol two months into the new season then you end up flogging it, flogging it, flogging it and that’s no help to anyone. It’s about constant reappraisal, not regurgitation.
GG: You also need to know the doors you’re knocking down. You don’t take certain things to certain people because you know it’s not their cup of tea. It’s about knowing your outlets. There are certain PRs who will keep banging on the door until they get a sharp ‘fuck off’. We’re very much anti that. We’d rather take things in a calm and confident manner to the right people. That way you build trust and friendships and get results.
SM: Take the right product with the right tone of voice and present it to the right people and you’ll get an audience. That’s the difference between listening and hearing - you hear a lot but what do you listen to? You listen to the cut-through, the intelligent rhetoric. You can’t beat talking with quiet confidence; it trumps screaming every time. Otherwise it’s a shit-storm. Look at it from the outside and try to deliver something so that the recipient is like, ‘Yeah, cheers, that makes a really good idea for my page or my feature concept.’ You wouldn’t take a skateboarding story to How To Spend It!
GG: Or even bringing a story to them; not in a patronising way, but like, ‘Here’s a story I find really interesting and I know our interests are quite aligned.’ Nine times out of ten it gets pick-up because you’re not just handing them a product, you’re giving them context too. As a journalist, you might be writing about a broader subject while focusing on things that make up that subject - it’s very rarely one story, one product.
SM: Yeah, it might be British manufacturing or tailoring. You know we have brands like Richard Anderson, Timothy Everest OBE, MBE…
GG: MBE! He keeps saying OBE…
SM: OBE, MBE, I don’t even know what they mean!
CS: Oftentimes I think those sorts of PR emails - the flogging ones - stem from the fact that the agency has taken on a brand that it’s not really into. Then all of a sudden they find themselves with a product, perhaps even a really nice one, but with a backstory that’s flimsy.
GG: That’s them not pushing back on their client and saying, ‘Do you know what, this is going to be of zero interest to everyone you want to put it in front of, so why don’t we hold fire and think about other ways in which we can develop this idea and bring it to that audience?’ I don’t want to burn the brand’s reputation by pushing an incomplete story on someone.
CS: So, of your current brands, who are you really excited about right now?
SM: The newest thing to come into the fray has been Norse Projects and we’re launching their inaugural women’s collection, too, which has a sort of APC, Margaret Howell, Carven aesthetic - it’s beautiful. Porter from Japan, Wood Wood, Maison Kitsuné from Paris - beautiful brands. Our Legacy continues to go from strength to strength too. We’ve also got more commercial brands, which offer a new challenge.
GG: Timothy Everest ready-to-wear is coming this winter and there’s also a new store on Redchurch Street that’s opening up. But going back to Norse, it’s one of those brands that a lot of people have liked for a long time but they’ve never had a PR or communication representation, so I think the fact we’ve teamed up shows a solidarity in the way we both do things. Brands like Maison Kitsune and Our Legacy could have gone to any of the biggest agencies but they came to us because they wanted somebody who really understood what they do - that’s the key factor with us.
CS: Our Legacy is a really interesting study in how to build a cult following by absolutely focusing on a certain style and exploring it in great detail.
SM: Norse and Our Legacy sit side by side in that anomaly section in the library of brands. They didn’t really tell anyone what they were doing; they just quietly focused on grass roots. They’ve always had this level of confidence that never strays into arrogance. People wear their stuff so well that it has enabled them to plunder all these different markets without anyone really noticing that they’re there. We keep getting emails like, ‘When are you going to open up in New York, distribute to Japan…’
GG: Remember, Our Legacy have been around for 10 years.
CS: So few brands today are able - or rather, willing - to build slowly, which is probably why the fail rate is so high.
GG: And you can see why. It’s very difficult to have a label and have it turnover lots of cash and expand and make a living.
CS: That’s probably why you’re seeing lots of extremely talented young designers taking salaried jobs at other brands on the side.
GG: And let’s not forget these are good salaried jobs too; they get good money working at the top tier, but it is very difficult to create hype about something in a short space of time and make a living from it. Norse and Our Legacy are slow burners - they’ve taken 10 years to get where they are and only now are they really picking up heat. But they’ve been doing it in cheaper environments than London, where they don’t have to pay ridiculous amounts for rent, childcare; all those things you never think of that could derail a good business. It all makes a difference. But it’s also what makes them interesting as designers. We have a fascination here with Scandi design. We love that very quiet, considered, minimalistic approach to design.
SM: Some people think its austere, but actually they have fundamentally discovered how minimalism can look good all the way through design and architecture and fashion. I think a lot of the Scandinavian architectural philosophy comes into their clothing - those concepts of light and space are being incorporated into their aesthetic. If you grew up in Britain in the 70s and 80s like me you were going to be living through a lot of frustration, anger, overcrowding, people who are disappointed, people whose businesses have failed. In Scandinavia there is a darkness, quite literally, but you can see their mentality resonating through their product design. We’re all trying to make life more simple.
me, I’ve been working behind the scenes on a person who I call the ‘GNI’, which
stands for Global Nomadic Itinerant. He or she is a person who lives or even
thinks global and is nomadic by proxy of their mentality and is itinerant by
proxy of their work. So I’m trying to apply this kind of philosophy to quite a
few of the brands for whom I think it fits. GNIs are people who have grown out
of one position. It’s an acronym that hasn’t been picked up because it’s mine
and nobody knows about it! But you’re one. I’m one. We’re not really location-dependent.
Our work obligations we make for ourselves and I feel like this mentality is
really spreading. The itinerant part is just the nature of the game. To be
global is wonderful. Why would you not want to be part of all the different
aspects of the world? It’s a really good time to be that person, particularly
if you’re young because you can tap into these concepts with new media and
really accelerate your business.