Marketing man sold on the ‘egalitarian’ Big Apple

Wild Geese: Gavin Manley, managing director, CoolGraySeven, New York

Gavin Manley moved to the Big Apple in 2003 in search of new adventures. His "nine-to-five" job before he left was with the National Museum of Ireland as a marketing assistant. But after hours he had quite a different persona as Dave K, a DJ with Phantom FM radio.

“I was at the station in the early days when it was broadcasting from a shed in Sandyford, so it wasn’t very glamorous,” Manley says. “But I loved it and got to play lots of new music from emerging Irish bands that weren’t getting airtime anywhere else, such as Turn and Brando and Blotooth.”

Dublin-born Manley studied history of art and philosophy at University College Dublin. He then joined the National Museum as an education assistant and spent five enjoyable years there before moving on.

"I wanted to do something different, somewhere different," he says. "Dublin had started to feel quite small and, at just 28, I felt I could go anywhere. In the end, it was a toss-up between New Zealand and New York. "

Manley went to New York fully expecting to continue his career in the arts. His dream was to land a job with one of New York’s venerable cultural institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art.

Fashion designer

But fate intervened and he ended up working for British fashion designer Sonja Nuttall, who hired him to set up the New York office of her design consultancy.

“I had worked with Sonja at the National Museum when she was the creative director of a retail project with Irish designers, including silversmiths and jewellers,” Manley says. “We stayed in touch, and when she heard I was in New York she offered me a job.”

Having tested the waters of world fashion with Nuttall, Manley joined fashion advertising agency AR New York in 2004 as an executive assistant. He stayed there until 2012, working in various roles, including PR and marketing manager and director of new business development.

“AR was remarkable in that it managed to work with almost all of the iconic European fashion houses at the same time, including Versace, Valentino, YSL and many others,” Manley says. “It was an eye-opening experience and a fantastic apprenticeship in the power of branding.

"I learned to appreciate the nuances of building a 'lifestyle brand' through fashion advertising and also the intrinsic, but often intangible, importance of a brand identity. It was very much a Devil Wears Prada sort of experience."

From AR, Manley moved to rival agency Laird and Partners, as vice-president of business development, before taking on a similar role at the brand strategy and design agency Red Peak. In 2014, he joined CoolGraySeven as managing director.

"I had known Andrew Egan [founder of CoolGraySeven] since my time at the National Museum, when his then London-based agency had worked for us," Manley says. "We stayed friends, both moved to New York and often talked about going into business together. Then one day we went for it.

“We recently doubled our office space and are hiring new employees to build out our team. Although Andrew hails from the north of England, he’s second-generation Irish, so we have a similar set of values. That was paramount for me.”

One aspect of working in the US that really appeals to Manley is the egalitarianism.

“Nobody really cares about who you are and where you’re from,” he says. “As long as you’re willing and capable of doing what’s expected of you, nothing else really matters. As a young person arriving here, it was incredibly refreshing and empowering to realise that the opportunities that lay ahead were very much going to be of your own making.”

Boutique agency

CoolGraySeven is a boutique agency employing 12 people. It specialises in the fashion and luxury goods sectors. Clients include Natori, Karen Millen, Sex and the City, Donna Karan's Urban Zen, Coty and shoe retailer Russell and Bromley.

“Because we’re a small agency, the work is varied,” Manley says. “I could be doing anything from meeting clients and writing strategy documents to working on an ad campaign or examining how a client’s ecommerce process could be producing a better return. We’re not like the big agencies on Madison Avenue people would be familiar with from TV or cinema. Both Andrew and I have worked in big outfits where people are there around the clock.

“We believe in being as organised as possible and having a good work-life balance.”

Manley is on the board of Irish Network NYC, an organisation aimed at young Irish professionals.

“We run at least one networking event every month and also overlap with other groups, such as the Irish consulate and the Irish Arts Centre,” he says. “You often hear mention of the ‘digital Irish’ – those with a start-up mentality who seem to be thriving here – but there are boundless opportunities across many sectors.

“Young Irish people have a lot going for them. They’re very well-educated, have a world view and are great communicators.”

Manley particularly enjoys the predictability of the climate in New York.

“The seasons are always what they’re supposed to be,” he says. “Summer in the city is going to be hot and sticky, while winter will be pretty Baltic with lots of snow. This allows you to make plans based upon reliable knowledge of what weather to expect.

“I also love New York because I’m a big foodie and there seem to be new restaurants opening up all the time. My commute to work is a little less than a 10-minute walk and New York is a most convenient city in terms of getting access to almost anything you want, any time of day or night.

“Probably for the first time in my career, I don’t have one eye on my next move. I’m happy exactly where I am. My wife is expecting our first baby in June, so there’s a lot to look forward to. New York is our home and we’re staying put.”

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