The DBA interviews… Elmwood’s Chairman, Jonathan Sands OBE
From following Sir John Sorrell’s lead, to the addictiveness of effectiveness, Jonathan Sands discusses the past, present and future of Elmwood and design’s role in business.
It’s 30 years since you led a management buyout of Elmwood at the age of 28. What was the Elmwood of 1989 like compared to today?
Jonathan: “It is strange looking back as it is easy to forget the fundamental differences. In many ways, life was simpler. No internet, no email, no mobile phones and no Macs meant the pace of business was so much more relaxed. If a client wanted to see a design amendment in a different colour then the visuals would have to be completely redrawn which could take a couple of days. Today it is a matter of seconds with the touch of a mouse. Letters were typed on a typewriter by a secretary as typing for designers and account handlers was not a required skill, and then they would be sent in the post and so responses from the point of sending might take a week. Face to face meetings rather than Skype were a daily affair and my annual mileage was well north of 30,000 miles a year. Today my business miles are probably less than 6,000.
The advent of technology has also meant that business is now much more easily managed internationally and so when I started, we would deal with global brands on a national basis, but today global brands are managed out of global hubs. Thirty years ago, our work for P&G for example would have been handled out of Newcastle for the UK market whereas today it is Geneva and Cincinnati for a global audience. This also means that the working day is now 24-7 as you have to work to global time zones but back in the day, when clients went home in Newcastle or Manchester or London, then so could you. So today I often have conference calls at 6am with Australia and 8pm with NYC and both on the same day.
In short, the biggest change in thirty years has been that the pace of life is so much faster today than it was thirty years ago. Today there is no time for an hour’s lunch break which was a daily affair in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but a quick sandwich at my desk if I am lucky.”
Design effectiveness has become integral to the way you work; how did Elmwood’s design effectiveness story begin?
Jonathan: “It all began with Sir John Sorrell. When he Chaired the DBA in the very early years, he invited me to sit on the board as the first regional representative. He subsequently became a lifelong mentor and as the original champion of Effectiveness at the birth of the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards I simply followed his lead, being seduced by his passion to prove that design should not be judged through a subjective lens, but be measurable and held to account as a business investment and strategic discipline. And when he retired from practice to pursue more philanthropic ventures the door was left open for me and Elmwood to walk through and take up the mantle.”
Elmwood ‘bake effectiveness into every stage’ of the design process to deliver results for your clients. If you had to briefly sum up the essential ingredients for successfully delivering effective design, what would they be?
Jonathan: “The most fundamental ingredient is to really understand the brief and in simple terms to understand why a client is commissioning you in the first place. In other words, it is important to really understand what success looks like for them so that you can establish tangible benchmarks to measure yourself against. It always amazes me how often clients don’t have a tangible goal in mind when setting out a brief. They always know the reason why they need to do something e.g. we are losing market share so we need to do something! But, they don’t always have a view on what the upside should look like. What we try and do is make sure that success is grounded by a realistic goal be it a hard goal such as a percentage sales uplift or a soft goal such as an improvement in customer satisfaction. Only then can you work out what you might need to do to achieve success.
Beyond this you need to have a great relationship with the client. A relationship which represents a true partnership born through understanding, trust and indeed friendship. If you work as one then you each have empathy for one another’s challenges, challenges of budget and time lines. Nobody (client or agency) gets the time or money they would really like and so being able to work out how to get the most out of your resources, right at the start, is a key factor in delivering a great outcome. And today more than ever with the pressures of procurement departments and the sheer pace of modern life, this dynamic is a key reason why in Elmwood we have invested heavily in training to embrace genuine ’agile’ working methodologies.”
Has entering (and winning!) in the DBA Design Effectiveness Awards played a role in honing your approach?
Jonathan: “It has almost become an addiction. Everyone knows of our pedigree in these awards and of course it is something we are incredibly proud of. Last time out was the first time I had actually gone up to collect an award myself, as I have always liked to see team members go and enjoy the recognition that they have worked so hard for, but having topped the league table for the tenth year straight I thought for once that I would go up with Sarah Dear who runs Elmwood in the UK. What was so heartwarming was that the warmth that we received from my peers was tangible. We are lucky to work in such a great industry.”
What about staff; you have a large team, spread around the world – how do you ensure the whole team are consistently delivering effective design and can talk confidently about the value design can add?
Jonathan: “It is just hard wired into our culture. Simple as that.”
Why is evidencing the impact of design important?
Jonathan: “The truth is that we are all designers. We design our own homes and the way we live our lives and the way we look as we dress in the morning. In short we all have our own style, our own likes and dislikes. As a result everyone can view design through a subjective lens. And that is dangerous as all too often the client is not the end customer and so we have to have qualitative and quantitative criteria to assess design beyond personal taste.”
What’s the most memorable feedback you’ve had from a client on the results you’ve delivered for their business?
Jonathan: “There have been so many but in a couple of cases we have had a client actually say that our work has indeed saved their business from extinction!”
Looking ahead to 2020 and beyond, do you see trends or influences which will increasingly factor into the design industry?
Jonathan: “I believe that our industry is changing faster and more fundamentally than at anytime in my career. Moving from cow gum and letterset to the Mac was a big change but arguably only a change in process. Thirty years ago a marketeer would own their budget and have a pretty simple mix of agencies to take their message to market. The ad agency would most likely be the key strategic partner as they held the lions share of the budget controlling the message and media spend supplemented by research, PR, design and a handful of others.
Today life is much more complex. Multiple channels beyond TV, radio and press with social media, APP’s, bloggers and Vloggers. Artificial Intelligence to Virtual Reality and new technologies such as RFID tags pushing messages to your many devices’s means that Marketeers no longer have the bandwidth to really get a grip on the best route to market and so trusted business advisors are now where brand owners put their faith.
People are again putting their faith in people and so why having a relationship at the C Suite is key. It is perhaps why the likes of Accenture and Deloitte are entering the Marcoms space at the expense of the likes of WPP and Publicis. Whilst this is perhaps a scary time, it can also be an exciting time as this can be the opportunity for the design industry as design is at the start of the marcoms food chain. As a result, if you can win the trust of the client then you can also become the conductor of the marcoms orchestra.”
And for Elmwood’s future – what’s particularly exciting to you; is there an area that you’re specifically wanting to focus on, or a new direction of travel?
Jonathan: “As I say above this can be our time to own the C Suite and as a consequence we have the opportunity to activate the brands we create. To this end we are actively looking at potential acquisition targets that can add gravitas to our strategic capabilities to ensure we make the most of relationships at the top table and earn the trust of the budget holders, but also businesses that can then activate our brands to ensure we don’t leave money on the table.
There are many wounded beasts out there from Ad agencies losing revenues, to digital agencies and design agencies themselves being commoditised by roll out agencies and so this challenge feeds into two Elmwood mantras that have never changed in thirty years. The first being that all businesses are taking part in a race, a race that nobody can win as in business there is no finish line – so the goal has to be to continually lead from the front. It is that Darwinian thing that it isn’t the strongest that survive or the most intelligent, but those most adaptable to change. And secondly and in the words of the late great Gerry Garcia “it is no longer good enough to be the best of the best, but the only ones who do what you do”.
So as I start to think about my own succession, I know that the future success of Elmwood is totally reliant on having a world class talent pool, people capable of leading the race and driving our difference to make our offer continually compelling and of course as a result…amazingly effective.”
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