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Absolute transformation

Adam Fennelow, the DBA’s Head of Services, sat down with Helen Stephens, owner of DBA Member Absolute and DBA Expert Ralph Ardill to talk through their transformation of the Cornish agency.

After over 26 years in business Helen Stephen’s found herself running an agency that felt lost. They had many loyal clients, but they weren’t working with them as experienced, knowledgeable partners. They were getting work, but not the valuable projects they wanted. They were in a rut – the business was losing money, and on a personal level she was unhappy – it was an unsustainable situation for all involved.

Absolute Design's work for Killerton Kitchen
Absolute Design’s work for Killerton Kitchen

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.

Absolute Design's work for Fifteen
Absolute Design’s work for Fifteen

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:

  • To have a single holistic model for looking at improving total agency experience – both inside for employees, and outside for clients
  • Built around best-practice ‘levers’ proven to build value in creative consultancy firms. (If it is not driving value you should not be doing it)
  • Focused on agency purpose, proposition, values and behaviours
  • Adding value to create premium design services, tools and methodologies across the board
  • Strong focus on IP development and creating more opportunities to commercialise talent, tools and techniques

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.

Absolute Design's work for The Cornish Bakery
Absolute Design’s work for The Cornish Bakery

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:

  • Leadership team not willing to commit totally to change
  • Approach to change is doomed at outset and not designed to overcome the significant creative, cultural and commercial barriers that will inevitably be encountered
  • Unable to inspire and engage agency with personal and company creative opportunity change brings

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.”

About: Ralph Ardill

About: Helen Stephens

Helen Stephens, the founder and Creative Director of Absolute. She leads the direction and strategy for client projects. She has been working in the design industry for over 26 years and together with her team has built Absolute to be one of the UK’s leading brand experience agencies.

DBA Experts Register

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.

Image credit: Absolute Design

Image credit: daria-nepriakhina | Unsplash


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