The unhelpful client

The unhelpful client

In celebration of a recent 21st birthday I wrote this (hopefully not treasonous) little story…


It’s a classic agency or consultancy complaint; a client who doesn’t really know what they want but isn’t short of opinions about any ideas or prototypes you develop. A client who keeps saying (un)helpfully “Just give me something unique”.

Jim Walker had just such a client when he was working on a project known simply as ‘Biscuit for Shipton Mill’

Walker was the joint managing director of Walkers Shortbread and had been approached by Shipton Mill who were based near Highgrove in Gloucestershire. They wanted him to develop something using organic flour and locally grown oats.

 “We weren’t very sure what they wanted. They weren’t very sure what they were looking for. We started with a digestive type of biscuit, and an oatcake type of biscuit. We tried an oatflake sort of oatmeal cookie. We went round in circles, making every combination … they wanted something unique” he recalls.

For ‘they’, read none other than HRH Prince Charles, heir to the British throne and a high profile advocate of organic foods, and of course owner of Highgrove. Not a client it is easy to say no to.

In the end it took nearly 18 months and 100 different recipes before Jim Walker and his team found something everyone at Shipton Mill was happy with. He may not have been the easiest or most helpful of clients but, like many brands owners, Prince Charles knew what he wanted when he finally saw it (and ate it).

Development began on producing it for market but even then Jim wasn’t sure how well the product would sell. 

“At the time, organics was still really quite way-out and unusual, and maybe a little bit cranky. I thought it was going to be very, very niche. I wondered how well it would sell.  I remember [Prince Charles] saying that when he started organics it was very novel, and many of his friends wondered if he knew what he was doing.”

Twenty one years later, the Prince of Wales hosted a reception at Clarence House to mark the ‘coming of age’ of his little oaten biscuit, now with sales of over 700 million across more than 30 countries. 

His vision had come true: “I wanted to show that it was possible to produce food of the highest quality by working in harmony with Nature in a way that would benefit environmental and human health, and that I wanted to do so by following agro-ecological principles, adding value to them through the skills of expert and artisan producers, and then to reinvest all of the profits in good causes. And who would have thought that 21 years later our oaten biscuit would have turned into a brand worth £72 million … and … would have donated over £11 million to charitable causes?”

So in the end this was an idea that literally ‘took the biscuit’.

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