Fanning the flames – Creative Spark, the next Chapter

Fanning the flames – Creative Spark, the next Chapter

Neil Marra

This is the second instalment of Neil Marra’s journey with Creative Spark.  Neil grew up in awe of his father Ralph Marra who was a Creative Director at a big Manchester based agency.

This series of 3 blogs documents Neil’s early decision to follow in his fathers footsteps and his journey to building his own successful creative agency. In this edition we will touch on some of the highs and lows of owning your own agency and the sacrifices Neil has made to keep Creative Sparks flame alight.

If you missed the first blog ‘Igniting the Spark- Neil Marra’s journey to Spark’ catch up here.

Creative Spark-the early years

After Creative Spark was founded, things moved quite quickly from there. We moved into an office in Whitefield circa 2006, I was working with a sales manager Kelly at the time and we stared to grow our client base, Magic FM & Key 103 to name but a few. This helped us to establish the Creative Spark name and we got involved in awards ceremonies and things started to get really busy.

After 4 years or so Kelly and I parted ways and as had always been my desire I moved the office into city centre Manchester. The stars aligned and I got a job with Manchester United soccer schools, something completely different to what I’d been doing previously, and a brand which was to massively elevate us, and aid us in winning future business. It gave us the credibility we needed and helped give future clients confidence because of that globally recognised logo being included on our creds.

There were 6 of us at the time but we soon grew to 15, moved into bigger premises and won new business from other accounts such as Peter Kay, Asics and Universal Music, all credible brands we could use at pitches to showcase our work. This gave us the opportunity to work on CGI, TV commercials and the business really started to take shape, it was growing fast.

Making it big

From 2013-16 was our period of greatest success, this is when we won the Manchester Airport Group account. When we pitched for the account, we were seen as the ‘Wild Card’! We were up against all the big agencies at the time, BJL, WRG and TBWA but we beat them and became the rostered creative agency for the group. This was huge for us, previously we’d have got to work on some big brands but worked on smaller projects or sub brands but now we were the lead agency for a big corporate.

The milestone happened to coincide with our 10th birthday. We had a massive party, there were 100 of us in the office and I remember having to just take some time out from the party to reflect on what it was I was celebrating. Was it surviving 10 years? Was it the size of the business, the big account win? I wasn’t sure, it had grown so quickly and so organically that I needed to reflect on what I was doing it all for and where I wanted to take the business next. That’s when I made some changes to how we were working…

A period of Flux

It was at this point that my Commercial Director at the time decided to move to Florida and we decided we’d give the American market a shot servicing New York from Florida. It wasn’t necessarily the best idea I’ve ever had, more about ego than a sensible business decision and therefore wasn’t the big success I’d have perhaps liked it to be! It was a bit left of field to say the least, but at this point I felt we could do anything we set out to achieve.

I spent a year working with Orlando Airport, had conversations with the Miami Dolphins, worked on Downtown NY and Lower Manhattan socials; and for a year or so we had a lot of fun with it but it wasn’t really sustainable. To have your core business in the UK and with the time difference, logistically it just wasn’t going to work and I started to realise it wasn’t what I wanted and so I pulled out.

It was at this time things started to take a downward turn, Manchester Airports Group budgets were significantly cut, we lost some key accounts and for the first time in my career, things were not heading in the right direction. Suddenly it wasn’t about winning accounts and building the business up, it was ‘how am I going to pay 17 staff their wages’. Things got serious very quickly and we had to get a liquidation agency in to talk about unpicking the business I’d spent all these years building up, it was no longer fun, it was scary and I could easily have just walked away.

For no other reason than not wanting him to worry, it was at this time that I stopped telling my Dad everything that was going on. I’ve always chatted everything through with my Dad but this was the one and only time I kept everything to myself, and keeping all that worry to myself, well it was a lonely and a really worrying time.

Although selling would have been an easy way out, I knew I didn’t want that, so I set out to reduce the team. I had to work out how to pay all my suppliers, I was suddenly seeing all sides of being a business owner. It took 6 months but, in the end, I paid everyone what I owed and for the first time I was understanding and owning every aspect of the business, it was a huge learning curve for me. Next, I looked at merging with another agency that wasn’t project based as we were, but had clients on retainers that would complement what we did. I moved my agency over to theirs, I lost staff because it was no longer for them and after 10 months of really trying to make it work, I realised it definitely wasn’t going to work out, so at the eleventh hour I walked away. After that the 5 of us that were left started a new journey, rebuilding Creative Spark ground up. Unlike others Covid was actually a positive time for us as a business; we were working with Parfetts, a food & beverage wholesaler and as their business grew in Covid so did ours, Spark were back.

Itching to find out what happened next? Look out for our 3rd and final instalment from Neil, which focuses on his hopes for the future of Spark, the next chapter. He reflects on what it was like growing up with a Dad working in the industry, the legacy he has left and how he wants his own son to view him in the future.