Stepping off a train in a sunny Liverpool at the beginning of spring, it’s easy to feel optimistic. The breeze from the River Mersey hits you on leaving the station, blowing away any remaining cobwebs. It’s clear for many of the creative organisations around the city that the last decade has seen similarly few storm clouds gathering. Many are sharing in the city’s growing confidence, save for the odd funding hit in recent times, and Mercy is one company that has embraced Merseyside’s modern culture of creating artistic opportunity.
Hidden on the top floor of a grand town house near the city’s Catholic Cathedral, Mercy appears to be an anomaly in the world of creative agencies. A quick run through their website takes users on a journey that includes creating iconic record sleeves, branding boutique retailers, giving identity to new bars and inventing trail blazing poetry nights. It appears, from the outside, that they do what they want and get paid for it. Perfect. But, is that the whole story?
Best to start at the beginning so Gemma Germains, who introduces herself as the agencies ‘motor mouth’, kicks off: “Mercy originally started as a something to give Joe (Bramall) and Doug (Kerr) and their circle of friends a focus after university, which is where the ‘zines and the events spanned from. They didn’t want to go down to London, so they did Mercy alongside other things like working at printers.”
Photocopied fanzines and night time gatherings were square one for Mercy, which also now operates successfully as a design and brand identity agency. The DIY ethic and the desire to create happenings that bring like-minded people out of the woodwork still run through their veins, regardless of their demonstrable commercial success. A difficult organisation to pigeon hole, perhaps, but it appears to be a confident straddling of creative disciplines rather than an accidental drift.
Joe, who carries Mercy’s creative burden alongside Doug, whilst Gemma provides equal parts business brains and boundless enthusiasm, continues: “With the art we’re trying to give something back to other people, like the workshops with young people or the poetry events, it feels like it has a bit more meaning to it. I’m not downplaying the graphic design, it does have value, but it’s nice to work with young kids making fanzines at FACT (Liverpool cinema and art gallery).”
Gemma says: “There are two strands, one the art and one the design, which do intertwine, but the arts really took off before the agency side did. We were doing club flyers and the odd record sleeve, but we were doing poetry events that were the biggest outside London and people were on TV wearing our badges. We sold out the Notting Hill Arts Club in 2004. From the early says of the ‘zine we worked with people like Joe Dunthorne (writer of the hit film Submarine), who is a mega star and the poet Ross Sutherland who’s now one of the Time’s Top Ten Literary stars.
“Tom Harold used to do our exhibitions and he now Exhibitions Manager at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Everyone has gone on to do such amazing things. One thing we’ve always said from the start is that we’d always pay people, so we’ve never said to people ‘Oh, we’ve got this thing on can you do us a favour?’ It may not be a lot, but it’s important to make that offer.’
So, there’s one way to keep your friends close, pay them their dues. But, with a deeply defined ethos of generosity and friendship it’s clearly not just the chance of a pay cheque that makes Mercy magnetic. Their simple ability to pick up the phone, enquire, be bold and make things happen has got them into some interesting situations.
Gemma continues the story before last year’s Liverpool Biennial, a festival of the contemporary arts with a growing international reputation: “We went to the organisers of the Biennial last year to see if we could run an opening party and they said ‘you don’t just want a party, have a strand instead’.
What happened next was for Mercy to assume a residency in a disused paint shop close to the Biennial’s hub, transforming an unloved stretch of redundant commercial property into the focal point for the city’s own arts organisations. The Cooperative was born and it united the Mercy team and many of their counterparts in one place for a series of events that inevitably married the sublime and the ridiculous.
Gemma explains: “In the shop we had the gallery upstairs and did special events downstairs. You know when you think you’ve had a great idea? Well, we decided we’d do an event every Saturday night at midnight and call it Midnight Special, which was genius until we realised we had to work from midnight until four every Saturday night! We did this thing with Michael Mayhew where Mercy bought a pint of his blood which he then performed with. We were there at the end of the night mopping up someone’s blood. Not every single night we had was amazing, but it was a great opportunity to do something different. A lot of arts organisations won’t work like that and won’t take risks.”
The risk taking and merry making are clearly close to both Gemma and Joe’s hearts, but there is an impressive portfolio of design work to their name too. There has to come a time to talk business. So, do they see Mercy as a commercial design agency too? Joe says: “It’s quite tricky because that’s how we started and the design company came after that, so it’s the only reason the design company exists.”
Arguably, Mercy’s big moment came when Juno, a former Liverpool agency of high standing in the music world, asked them to assist in the production of the sleeve for Arctic Monkeys’ second album ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. It was a good piece of work, a dark house with daringly illustrated interiors, which appeared to do the job brilliantly. A natural high for a young company you might think? Not for the people of Mercy.
Gemma relives the experience, saying: “We still get a lot of hits on the website from the Arctic Monkeys stuff, but that project is still a massive disappointment to us. The end product was nothing like what we saw in it. To see a finished product like that and be that disappointed was incredible. It was the most amazing project to work on, Juno actually cut a house in half and there were illustrations all over the house, inside the bath and down the toilet. They even graffiti’d our illustrations on the bed spread. Everyone just assumes its Photoshopped. The flip side is having e-mails from people in Brazil showing pictures of Joe’s artwork, seeing the merchandise and all that kind of thing, so for a year it was amazing.”
So, if working with Arctic Monkeys was an unexpected let down, what commercial outlet provides the most fulfilment?
Joe offers: “We like working with the theatres in London, the Young Vic. They’re really nice people to work with.” Whilst Gemma opts for Pedlars, a retail client that offers a collection of meticulously sourced bric-a-brac and are becoming increasingly popular as a concession store in branches of Selfridges.
It gives a chance for her to reiterate Mercy’s reason for being. She says: “For them we do pure graphic design, mail order catalogues and digital design. It’s a massive contract for us, but the reason we work with them is that we have so much other stuff to offer. They said they like the fact that we come to them with so many ideas. We’re going to go to them shortly with a pitch that has nothing to do with graphic design. It’s about having the confidence and the experience to offer other things. We’ll have a client come to us for branding and we’ll say ‘yes, but can we also make three videos for you?’ Because we work in so many different areas we can offer a range of ideas.”
Before leaving Gemma and Joe to the rest of their day, which includes hosting a magazine for a photo shoot in their front room, there’s just enough time to consider how a small agency with high standards and even greater principles, gets to grips with making money.
Gemma begins: “We are still quite reticent to charge for our ideas. It’s a funny one, with other people charging for jobs by saying: “the branding is £10k and the rest is ‘X’”. I can see how much thought goes into an idea, but there’s no way I’d feel comfortable charging excessively for it. Maybe that’s the next step. I don’t think we value our ideas and our concepts as much as we should do. If we do an identity job, you get your brand identity, but then we’ll give you your brand guidelines and then we’ll teach you how to use your identity. We do spend a lot of time thinking about our clients but, I don’t know how we’d feel comfortable charging for every aspect of the relationship.”
Joe concludes: “We’re a small company aren’t we? We’re art directors and designers commercially and budgets just go to match that as a small agency. I don’t see the transition from the art to the design, it just kind of morphs. We want to grow, but we’re keen to maintain relationships with certain clients and just go from one job to the next.”
So, in Mercy you get an agency that’s creative through sheer necessity, wanting to make friends before they make clients and likely to cut you a great deal too. Now’s the time to consider commissioning them to design your Christmas cards, but bear in mind you could get more than you bargained for.
Info: Mercy is a unique creative agency, developing and designing branding and marketing campaigns for arts, youth, music, retail and lifestyle brands. Mercy deliver print to the highest standards and work with some of the best web whizz kids in the business. At night, Mercy produce cutting-edge literature, arts and music spectacles, curate exhibitions, produce films and publish words and pictures in print and online. Mercy also run creative workshops in everything from contemporary poetry to fanzine-publishing, write spanky commercial copy for web and print and act as an agency for some of the best emerging artists in Liverpool and London.
Images, from top:
1) Exclusive location photograph from the shoot of the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ album cover
2) Examples of the ‘zines produced by Mercy
3) Images from the Liverpool Biennial performance by artist Michael Mayhew
4) Print materials produced for clients, Pedlars and the Young Vic
5) Gemma Germains and Joe Bramall
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