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Following the 2008/9 recession, Absolute, based in Truro, Cornwall had slipped from being an agency with £1m+ turnover and a 10% profit margin into becoming an agency that did anything that came along just to get money into the business. It was a gradual slide into a hand-to-mouth existence. Everyone worked incredibly hard, but at the end of the month there was no money. The work being done was just not profitable.
It was at this point (mid 2017) that Helen called the DBA and asked for advice on who could help her turn the business around. She was given a number of names from the DBA Expert’s Register, including Ralph Ardill, former head of strategy at Imagination, now a consultant for both agencies and ‘client’ businesses interested in business transformation.
Helen had spoken to Ralph after a DBA event in 2010 and would have worked with him then if it hadn’t been for the recession and a natural response to ‘batten down the hatches’. Ralph understood exactly what needed to be done. After much soul searching Helen and her husband decided to make an additional financial investment in the business and brought Ralph on board.
Ralph was drawn to Absolute immediately. “The work was great – an integration of architecture, interior design and graphics. But the business was siloed, it had lost its identity and the culture had stagnated.”
“I knew straight away that we could turn things around,” Ralph continued, “because of Helen’s commitment (in terms of time and energy) and her willingness to change everything if necessary. There were no sacred cows.”
A plan of action was thrashed out in the first meeting between Helen and Ralph, with a timeline of a little over 6 months. The plan, in essence, was simple – make Absolute the most important client of Absolute. To do on themselves what they do for their clients on a day-to-day basis. Simple in essence, but as any agency with an out-of-date website will attest to, harder in reality.
Key to the process was the involvement of the whole team at Absolute, and they were brought into the picture from meeting two. They were challenged to think way beyond their job specifications. Helen became the client, with no creative input, and the team presented to her and Ralph on a regular basis throughout the project.
The first stage involved the team presenting on what was wrong with Absolute. Ralph acknowledges that this is always difficult. “Ultimately you are telling someone their baby is ugly.”
The team threw themselves into it. It showed Helen who really cared, who had the character she needed long term. They looked at the agency culture, values and behaviours, at their identity, at the customer experience in the studio, the actual studio space itself to bring staff together – everything. They redesigned the business from the ground up.
It all came down to identifying what they were good at, what work was most profitable for them, what the levers were that created value and how they could articulate it all. It was about doing less, but at a higher value. It is an approach advocated by Ralph for many years under the title ‘Project You’, where an agency becomes the inspirational client for its own most creative transformation project.
The key aspects of the approach are:
The methodology for the transformation project enacted by Ralph and Helen demands frequent and rapid testing in live situations. Ralph explained it as developing propositions that “Help you win the day.” If it doesn’t then you know it needs more work. If it does you know you are going in the right direction.
The team developed the new positioning statement for Absolute – “Grow with Experience – how we can help your business grow through the power of experiential design.” Along with the positioning came a new ‘sales deck’ – a presentation for new business meetings focused on Absolute’s understanding of design and their experience. This was a prototype that got tested early with a prospective client. “He was hooked. The body language was fantastic – classic leaning in,” explained Helen, who was initially very nervous about the new approach. Having tested it in a live situation she realised it fulfilled Ralph’s criteria in that “it won the day.”
Absolute had always prided itself on its client servicing, but over the years had slipped into a very tactical and undefined relationships with their clients who found it easy to dip in and out with only small investments being made.
Absolute’s new approach has led to a more strategic, retained relationship with their clients. Within 3 months they increased their monthly, retained income five-fold.
Since re-launching at the start of 2018 Absolute have hit their monthly targets in both January and February – achieving twice something they had failed to do during the previous four years.
Ralph acknowledges that up to three quarters of agency owners that try to transform their business so dramatically will fail. This is due to three main reasons:
Helen concedes that after many years of trying on her own, there was no way she could have achieved the transformation without external support, like the DBA Experts Register provided. “Ralph challenged everything,” she said “but it has given us the ability to know where we have the greatest right to win, and the ability to say ‘no’ at the right times. We have been absolutely transformed.”
As a DBA member, if you have a particular business challenge or are looking to move your agency to the next level, we’ll work closely with you to connect you to an expert, whatever the issue. We’ve identified expert consultants with sustained and relevant experience in supporting the design industry, so you can rest assured that we can introduce you to the right one to meet your needs.
Our Experts have extensive experience supporting the creative industry. View the Experts Register here.
It doesn’t make any difference how big you are. I’ve worked with businesses with 40 employees whose sole principal is making $120,000. I’ve worked with even more businesses of less than 4 employees where the principal is making $600,000 consistently. It just doesn’t matter.
There are some advantages of being a large agency and different advantages of being a small agency, but the primary distinction between the two sizes is how you shape your role. And if you don’t frame the growth question this way, you’re just going to end up letting growth happen to you.
When you let growth happen to you, rather than making that choice for yourself, you’ll end up being dragged into a role that your business needs but which doesn’t feel comfortable for you. Do you enjoy being on the front lines and interacting directly with clients? Don’t get too large. Do you enjoy running your agency, landing new business, and shaping the careers of others? Think about growing your agency to take some things off your plate.
It’s really that simple and you’ve got to make the business your bitch rather than getting dragged around by this monster that you’ve created.
This part is pretty easy, but there’s a second element to this decision that forces you to live within the realities of the marketplace. That’s next.
It’s not quite as simple as deciding what size business you’d like to run, based on what role you want to play. The marketplace has some say in the matter, too, and so once you decide what size is comfortable, your primary mission becomes finding more work (from qualified clients) than you can handle.
Yes, that’s not a mistake. You always need more opportunity than capacity. Otherwise you’re feeding a machine and any misalignment between your capacity and your opportunity will leave you scrambling to fill that gap. And that, my friends, is exactly when you’re most tempted to compromise on your standards for a qualified client. Your thinking goes something like this: “Yeah, I know that we aren’t going to make much money on this engagement. But we’ll make a lot more money than if my people were just sitting around.”
That sort of thinking means you are no longer in charge. You’re feeding a machine, and financial pressure is the primary cause of all business decision compromises.
If you lose your ability to say no because you have to say yes all the time in order to stay busy, you’re just along for the ride.
Life’s too short to be running someone else’s business. Apparently some of you feel that way, too. I asked 414 of you how you felt about growth as a principal, and here’s what you said:
I’d be happier if we had fewer people like before: 43%
I’d be happier if we stayed this size forever: 30%
I’d be happier if we got significantly bigger: 27%
Here at the DBA, we champion greatness in small businesses like yours that think big. Our focus is to shine a light on the unique characteristics that drive you, with a carefully curated programme of training, events and resources that will help you shape your business. Read more here.
Image credit: John Salzarulo | Unsplash
As a founder or leader, you see beyond the standard definition of success and look to explore bigger choices in the development of your business, and the way you work.
Building a business faces plenty of challenges but you resist the prescribed path and external pressures to maintain what’s important to you: control – and the freedom to realise your own vision.
Your people are valuable so you treat them with respect, dignity and integrity, whilst making your business a great place to work emotionally, spiritually, economically and socially.
Usual corporate structures don’t work for your business so you take advantage of being small and privately owned to develop and tailor effective unique management practices.
Working effectively means respecting everyone in and around your business, so you create exceptional relationships with your clients and suppliers for long-term benefits.
It’s important to respect the neighbourhood, town or city where you do business, so you engage with local communities and issues for a meaningful emotional impact.
Design businesses start with passion and yours is no different, which is why you’re proud to work differently for a better result for your company, your people and your community.
“Our industry has unique characteristics that set us apart. And it’s these characteristics – the way we think differently; the way we work differently; the way we aspire differently – that enable us to deliver this level of customer impact and financial return for the businesses we work in and for.”
“When I look at the DBA’s membership, I see businesses defined by their determination to be, not just good, but to be great at what they do. Driven by a genuine desire to the best they can be at what they do, to create a stimulating place for their staff to work, to provide great client servicing, to make a wider positive impact beyond simply their own financial gains. It’s what gives this sector its unique mojo. And it’s what makes the UK design industry so special.”