Career Special with Tim Lewis, Owner of Unreal

Tim Lewis, founder of London branding agency “Unreal”, shares his journey from the advertising boom of the ’80s to today. Here he reflects on over 4o years of industry evolution and Unreal’s unplanned and unlikely story.

Never ever bloody anything ever

Tim Lewis

“I just jumped in and it was the best apprenticeship anyone could ever have”


What made you get into the creative industry

Pure accident. I was trying to earn some money before applying to join the police force. I’d been working at a high-end clothes shop in central London, selling suits to wealthy clients, but my real passion was motorbikes. Someone suggested that I became a motorcycle messenger, a popular job in those days. My girlfriend at the time who found her job through Capital Radio encouraged me to try the same. There, I found a listing for a motorcycle messenger at a typesetting company that would suit someone ‘artistically minded’ which was pretty ironic considering I was rubbish at art in school and more of a History boy.

With motorbike and successful interview sorted, finding out the company Rabbit Repro was owned by Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP), one of London’s top ad agencies at the time, proved to be a godsend. I was relatively bright, willing to put the hours in and picked things up quickly, so moving into new disciplines within creativity and advertising in what I would consider was a golden age of UK advertising came naturally.

I met some incredibly talented people who appreciated my youth and enthusiasm, and I gravitated towards typography, which was a little bit niche and mathematical and it needed a bit of rigour, but you could express yourself and the brand through fonts and typefaces and that’s what I really enjoyed.  I picked it up as I went along, no formal training, I just jumped in and it was the best apprenticeship anyone could ever have, especially with the hugely talented Len Cheeseman, CDP’s typographer as a mentor.



“They asked, “what would make you join us” and I said “a Ducati motorbike”, so they bought me one”


When did you decide to start your own company and why?

I wish I’d taken the leap much earlier but I just didn’t have the balls! I spent a solid ten years in my first job and they looked after me; I didn’t get a huge wage but enough to get by and to afford a mortgage.

The push came when a more creatively inclined company, Covent Garden Art Company, approached me to set up a typographically-led arm to their studio, and Bloomsbury Set was born. This was my first Directorship and the company quickly became very successful over the next four years.

However, as the 90’s rolled in, my lifestyle took a toll on me and I wasn’t in a great place. I was basically being held together with type, alcohol, sex, and cocaine. I needed to do something to break the cycle, so I resigned and started work at Real Time, which was a more formalised and structured company. They asked, “what would make you join us” and I said “a Ducati motorbike”, so they bought me one and gave me a wage to lure me in but just three months later, disillusioned by the back to back meetings, I walked out.

This led me to freelancing, where a reconnection with Matt Harding at Mustoe Merriman Herring Levy and working successfully together for a few months led to a suggestion of starting my own firm. My wife lent me the money to buy my first Mac and that’s how Unreal came to be – it wasn’t planned, it just happened.


Can you tell me about the early days at Unreal, what was the industry like; set the scene?

I had to self-teach QuarkXPress to make myself in to more of a typesetting designer, whilst doing the thing that I’d been accustomed to – drumming up new business. Even though pretty proficient in typography, I was essentially a jack of all trades, focussing on the attention to detail that could make great creativity stand out and had a knack for significantly improving the appearance of any work. That and my historic lunching and entertaining skills saw Unreal quickly grew and within six months, I was pulling 17-hour days, juggling tasks between Mustoe’s and other agencies who were attracted by the Unreal offering.


“It was all very informal and messy, but it worked”


What were the main goals or visions you had for the company at the beginning?

Initially, I envisioned Unreal as a typographic company serving numerous ad agencies. When I hired my first designers I was specifically looking for advertising experience but with a design bent. But in general, everything was self-taught and for the first five years, I didn’t take the idea of running a company that seriously. I just thought I was being Tim Lewis, working bloody hard and playing hard when I could and taking everybody along with me for the ride. It was all very informal and messy, but it worked and employees and staff related to it.


What was your first big project?

My first major project was with Barclays Bank, a chance that came up unexpectedly whilst having a drink with a friend. He mentioned that the CEO of Barclays wanted fresh ideas from outside their usual agency roster and was looking to sneak a project through the back door. Working with them opened my eyes, as I was able to turn great design around quickly, creatively and give them what they wanted. It showed me the potential of working with direct clients, as previously I was reliant on getting work from ad agencies and almost white-labelling them.

So, the Barclays job was a milestone, earning us around £60-70k for a one-off project. But it got messy when the brand guardians caught wind of it, leading to a rather embarrassing situation where I had to explain myself in front of many people. Despite the awkwardness, this experience was invaluable, making me more determined to pursue direct business, which certainly paid off in the long run.


Could you share some pivotal career moments?

The Barclays one and the game-changer of hiring a Creative Director, the brilliant Brian Eagle. I was convinced that I needed a heavyweight and better designer to work alongside and his arrival shifted my perspective on design, marking a pivotal moment for us. His arrival heralded a D&AD identity award within four years, really put us on the map and leading to a significant increase in business. There was a perfect Unreal timeframe from 2004-09 which I would say were the golden years of Unreal. We’d had this amazing lead up and constant flow of work from other agencies and had built the best design team that anyone could wish for with some truly interesting creatives, so full of randomly relevant ideas.


“I was probably two weeks away from shutting the doors”


Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in the early days?

I mean, it’s not quite early days but in 2010, I was probably two weeks away from shutting the doors, but I just thought, ‘f*ck it, I’ve got to keep ploughing on’ and weirdly within that two weeks, I got a brief for our first and only national TV campaign for Irish Lotto Bet. It was a million pound contract in one hit, including media buying, and it was a huge and rewarding exercise masterminding that.

How would you describe the philosophy and culture at Unreal?

I’ve always tried to be the same at work as I am at home. I just wanted everyone to enjoy being there and come along on the journey; I think that’s where the DNA of Unreal came from really. I employed people mainly because of a gut feeling and encouraged them to be themselves and let them add to and enhance the culture.

To showcase our work, and show off what we were all about we created ‘The Big Book of Ego’. It was our current Creative Director, Liana’s brainchild. We were looking for something to make us stand out, a unique piece, and this book was exactly that. It featured fantastic copywriting by Mark Prime, who’s sadly no longer with us, with Liana handling the creative and me doing all the typography and artwork, all infused it with humour and personality – two things Unreal has always been known for. To this day, that book encapsulates what Unreal does best.



“…there’s too much fear and not enough fun.”


What elements make a brand’s identity stand out and stick in people’s memories?

It needs to be memorable and spark a reaction – make you smile or think ‘what the f*ck!’ I’m not saying that designwise they are perfect, but the likes of the old Happy Eater or Wendy’s logos always stick in my mind because of their bold and personality led visual identities. The old Burberry logo was like that, that man on the horse with the serif font; I didn’t think it was that great at the time but then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Now they’ve rebranded into a sort of Helvetica font and all the branding takes itself very seriously, which is a shame.

There’s got to be something immediately identifiable about the brand. There are too many brands now who have homogenised their look, everything is clean, rigid, structured and ‘nice.’ The industry’s become risk-averse, focused on playing it safe rather than having fun and standing out; there’s too much fear and not enough fun.


How has the creative landscape changed throughout your time in the industry?

I think the main thing is it’s fractured heavily. Years ago, the process was straightforward: from the company owner to the marketing team, then through to the agency with its account people and creative departments, all the way to execution. It was a clear, linear path. Now, there are so many players—strategy firms, media companies, social media experts, videographers, photographers—all adding layers of complexity.

Creativity seems to have shifted into the realm of strategy, with planners and researchers at the forefront, moving away from the spontaneous, pub-inspired, all written on the back of a fag packet ideas of the past.

Technology, while supposed to simplify, hasn’t necessarily enhanced creativity. It feels like it’s even stifled it, despite everyone claiming the title of ‘creative’. Brands struggle to find their footing in this new, chaotic environment, often guided by agencies like us who, to be honest, sometimes just tell them what they want to hear. It’s a challenging time, but there’s still a charm in seeing the new generation navigate this complex world.


How do you measure success within your business and your life?

I always believed that if I had a happy company, all my staff were content and everyone was looked after, myself included, kept the business on an even keel whilst doing some good work, I would say that I’d been successful.

I’ve never been much for awards; I think it’s far more important to believe that you’re giving something back to people. Transparency with clients is something I value highly. Making a profit is essential but honesty about pricing, like adjusting a quote when it’s higher than necessary, is crucial. This approach not only makes me feel good but also fosters loyalty and trust. Being straightforward and honest with everyone, whether they’re team members, clients or family, is how I’ve lived my life.


“I set up Unreal because I was told it might be a good idea and I thought I’d give it a go; no business plan, just a choice.”


Based on your experience, what advice would you give to someone looking to start their own creative agency?

They have to not forget themselves and what led them to start their agency. I set up Unreal because I was told it might be a good idea and I thought I’d give it a go; no business plan, just a choice. I didn’t go in thinking I’d make millions or get loads of awards, I just believed that I would support my family, my lifestyle and could make lots of people happy – whether clients, staff, the end consumer. I would also say, don’t be scared to be brave! I’m a fine one to talk as I always say ‘yes’ to anything; so when most would say ‘don’t be afraid to say no’, I would say ‘don’t be afraid to say yes’ and then if you can’t do it, don’t be afraid to retract. We’re in a service business, creativity is providing a service to people, you can’t just run a business like that for your own good.


What do you wish you had known before you started your business?

Perhaps I should have thought more about what running a business actually entailed! Although I’m not a big advocate for taking myself seriously, I probably should have at times. I’m sure it would have helped if I’d applied myself to the more strategic side of the business. I led with creativity and believed that creativity would get us there and to be honest, it did but I could have been more successful if I’d put more thought in to structuring the business.


In an alternative universe, where would you, where you weren’t in the creative industry, what profession would you work in and why?

A lorry driver. I always used to go out with my uncle on his lorry years ago and he was always a jolly, smiling soul, content with his lot. The idea of being your own man, on the open road really appealed to me for some reason. Or now, knowing how much I love it now, something to do with the Wine industry but then I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed drinking it so much, that’s the only problem.


What is the most off the wall idea you’ve ever had that never saw the light of day?

I’ve had my fair share of wild pitch ideas. One that sticks out involved a building in Soho we were helping to lease. In a brainstorm, we thought, why not place some sex workers in the windows with “to let” signs? Hilarious to us and the client, but clearly not feasible. There was one I presented but probably never should have done was to the head of Argos, suggesting a campaign highlighting their less stellar products alongside the great ones, playing on the idea that ‘yes, we have some rubbish, but look at all this brilliant stuff too.’ It was a bold move that didn’t land well.


If you were a brand, what would your slogan be?

Never ever bloody anything ever (with thanks to Rik Mayall!)