‘Mad Men’ of Manchester: How Don Draper inspired rising star branding agency

The co-founder of an advertising and branding agency, whose clients include Carlsberg, Onken and Boots, has revealed the role hit TV show Mad Men had on his career choice as the firm gears up to turnover £1m and double its headcount.

Antonio Giansante was studying at Liverpool John Moores University when the US series debuted in 2007, sparking an interest in the industry which has fuelled his working life ever since.

After taking a shine to the advertising work, but maybe not the lifestyle choices, of characters such as Don Draper, Peggy Olsen and Pete Campbell, the new graduate took on a series of jobs with Chester’s Underdog Creative and The Union in Edinburgh before moving to Manchester.

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Following more than a year at Creative Lynx, Mr Giansante joined AHOY where he teamed up with his future business partners Paul Bailey and David Newton.

The trio worked at the Manchester agency for five years before striking out on their own and establishing BGN.

The firm, whose clients also include Rustlers, Lancashire Farm and Komi, made a series of bold moves during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and is now set for record-breaking financial results as well as doubling its headcount to 20.

In an exclusive interview with BusinessLive, Mr Giansante reveals the secrets of BGN’s success.

Antonio Giansante of BGN

“When I left university Mad Men had not long started, which shows my age a little bit, and that’s what got me into the industry”, he said.

“I thought it all looked pretty cool and I went and did an internship at an ad agency which is where I started.

“I wouldn’t say it’s as sexy as Mad Men anymore but it’s a very interesting industry to work in.

“You just get to come to work everyday and be as creative as you want to be and you get to work on loads of different types of businesses.

“I’m incredibly lucky doing what I do as I get to work with all sorts of different businesses and find out how they operate.

“You can never get bored and it’s really interesting every day.”

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“How it’s depicted on shows such as Mad Men, where you go in and present the idea, doesn’t happen as much any more as you are giving your ideas away for free”, he adds.

“There has been a shift over the last 20 years or so away from that and instead agencies show potential clients the value and services that they can provide.

“Agencies now outline the process that they will take a client on in order to get to a certain idea.

Mad Men starring Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson

“There’s a bit more strategy now instead of just focusing on a pretty picture, but obviously that doesn’t work so well on a TV show.”

On what it’s like running a small advertising agency in Manchester, Mr Giansante said: “Our industry is ridiculously competitive in Manchester. There are a few thousand agencies just in Greater Manchester.

“Just in the North, there are tens of thousands of creative businesses which can be anything from a freelancer who has got 20 years’ experience and they are just working out of a room in their house to a firm with 200 employees.

“It’s quite difficult for businesses to pick the right partner because there’s so much crossover.

“When we started BGN, it was about not trying to be a one stop shop which lots of other agencies try to be.”

BGN’s managing director Antonio Giansante, client services director Paul Bailey and creative director David Newton

Mr Giansante has also revealed the story behind how BGN was first established and what he and his business partners set out to achieve.

“Myself and my two business partners worked together previously at another agency for about seven years and before that we had all worked in the industry for a number of years”, he said.

“We were quite experienced before establishing BGN and we knew what roles worked and how agencies work.

“We were running that agency day to day but we were in charge of financials and the business performance.

“I had a very clear view on how I felt agencies can be profitable businesses.

“In our industry, there is a lot of focus on creativity and ideas and the visual but there are not that many business people in agencies.

“That means you end up with lots of businesses that turnover a decent amount of money but don’t make much profit.

“We set out from the start to be a profitable business in our own right. It was not just about getting pretty pictures on a website, it is about us being a really good business that makes good profit and treats its staff well.

“What stood us in good stead during the pandemic was that we are run incredibly efficiently and we were able to continue with what we were doing.”

BGN’s work for Onken

Like all businesses, BGN was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic when it first struck in spring 2020.

However, Mr Giansante argues that because of the way the business is structured, it was shielded from its worst.

“For the first three months it impacted everyone but what helped us is that we have always been incredibly diverse in our portfolio; we don’t just specialise in one industry.

“Our biggest client is Carlsberg and obviously all hospitality was hit hard and they stopped spending a penny but there were other opportunities in our portfolio with companies such as technology brands so it levelled itself out.

“We managed to make a tiny profit from those first three months, maybe a couple of hundred quid, but after that we had the confidence to crack on and we didn’t really look back.

“There were a lot of agencies which went into hibernation, putting their staff in furlough and trying to ride it out for six months and then come back.

“I felt at the time that that was just wrong and it was important to keep spending and keep working.

“We started winning a lot of work because a lot of our competitors stopped working and their agencies had skeleton staff so they could not respond to clients and do the work quickly enough.”

BGN has also worked with Boots

The company is now on track to achieve a turnover of £1m in the 12 months to the end of March 2023, as well as double its headcount to 20.

That growth comes after the firm has doubled headcount since the start of 2021.

Mr Giansante said: “We got out of our office lease during the pandemic and we used that cost to hire three more staff straight away.

“Two were on furlough and one was unemployed and it made me feel better that we were giving people work again.

“That just dramatically changed the amount of people who were on tools and we were able to turn around jobs much quicker.

“After a year and a bit of working from home, we took new office space in the summer.

“The team were desperate to get back in and some of the team had not been able to meet each other before in person.

“It is a much bigger space than we have had before, about five times as big, and it’s large enough for us to double again and get to about 20 members of staff.

“We never had ambitions of growing the agency to be massive as that makes it even harder to turn a profit.

“It’s about getting to a point where we are able to keep profit levels at where they need to be, increase the revenue and grow the team out a little bit.

“We have some really interesting opportunities with clients on joint ventures creating brands where we will be able to get involved at a much higher level and actually become a stakeholder ourselves.

“That’s the next big exciting thing for BGN.”

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