Forget business as usual. Great brands need to look at the world through fresh eyes.
In the creative-rich landscape of agencies, it’s often easy to forget that agencies are businesses too. More importantly, their sole function is to ensure that the business objectives of their clients are achieved. This is done through the way client brands are perceived in the market and in how customers interact and engage with those brands.
David Cohen, joint CEO and partner at GRID Worldwide, unpacks what it means to be a creative agency in a world that is moving at the pace of light, how important it is to stay relevant while managing to maintain costs, and how his own journey has been fueled by GRID’s unique DNA.
These are his five core lessons in delivering greatness:
1. Strategy and creative go hand in hand. This isn’t always understood. Management consultancies are moving into our space because more and more brands are recognizing that flashy creatives don’t deliver real return on investment. Everything begins with your strategy. We’ve always understood this, but we also know that a strategy needs to inform the execution – it’s not the be all and end all. For us, strategy is something you use to help and enable the business and the creatives to come up with fantastic break-through ideas that resonate with the brand and its consumers.
But there’s a flip side. Consumers don’t care about the strategy – they don’t even know what it is. They only know the end result – their touchpoints with the brand and how seamless that experience is.
To create a seamless experience the whole process needs to work together. Strategists shouldn’t sit by themselves in a room, present the strategy, brief the creatives and then leave so that they can do their thing and hand it all over to the execution team. That type of siloed thinking doesn’t work anymore. The most impactful ideas are born when everyone works together; when you pull different skill sets into the same room and work with people who can straddle the lines between strategy and creative. It’s not easy – but we’ve spent years building up a base of partners and consultants who can do just that.
2. Culture is everything. I’ve been immersed in GRID’s business culture since I started my career as an account coordinator. I was driving proofs between agency and client and I could already feel the energy of these businesses.
As the founder of GRID, Nathan Reddy (who was also the co-founder of Gavin Reddy) is the driving force behind this business – but he’s not the CEO. He’s the chief creative officer, because he plays to his strengths. He’s an astute businessman who can do financials and admin – but he also knows how to let go so that he can focus on the things he’s exceptional at. And in doing that he gives everyone who joins GRID the energy and excitement to do the same.
Today GRID has seven partners, two of which are joint COEs. It’s a lot of leaders in one business, but it really works for us. We all have different skills, interest areas and talents. We also have our networks and reputations in the industry. Most importantly though, the respect we have for each other and the way we work together sets the foundation for the business as a whole. This doesn’t mean we always agree with each other – of course we don’t. But we know that we all have the client’s best interests at heart, and we find solutions.
Nathan’s philosophy has always been that you want people working with you and for you that actually scare you. You want people that are better than you. That’s what drives a business forward. GRID is not an easy environment. We have 150 WhatsApp groups that are always active and addressing the various projects we’re working on. But if you thrive off of this type of environment, you can achieve and accomplish incredible things.
It’s also got a very flat structure, where everyone is encouraged to share their ideas. When you see so many partners working so well together, that spreads through the entire business. We know who we are, what we stand for, and everyone has the freedom to spread their wings and put their best foot forward.
3. You need to stay ahead of the curve. There are two key components to this. The first is once again your people. Nathan has always been five steps ahead. He naturally future-fits the business because he’s so comfortable with change and adapting to the way the world is and will be, instead of the way it was.
This can be difficult to get your head around at first. A business that is always changing and in beta is not for everyone, and we understand that, but if you believe in the ability to stay ahead of the curve, it starts coming naturally to you.
The reality is that clients want what they got last year at half the price. Ignoring this truth or trying to change it is pointless. Instead, we need to accept the new reality and make it work. A lot of that involves understanding how the world works, what consumers want and need and delivering real brand value to them. It’s about pulling strategy, creative and execution together to deliver meaningful results.
Which brings me to the second component of staying ahead, and that’s having access to the right tools. We’re part of the TBWA group, which has 300 agencies globally, and an incredible set of tools that we can access.
Leverage your people as well. Never underestimate the simple power of keeping your eyes and ears open. Because we’ve got a strong big base of partners in the business and we’re not reliant on one or two individuals, this already works for us, but get the whole business involved if you can. Every individual sees the world differently. Bring those ideas and flavours together and let the best ideas bubble to the surface.
4. Learn to cross-pollinate. The old way of doing business was sticking to your lane. I’m in favour of specialising and even niches, but there’s huge value in drawing different industries, verticals and skills together as well.
If you keep your eyes open, you can really ask the right questions as well: what’s happening around the world? What challenges and opportunities are different verticals and sectors facing? How do different businesses operate? What makes them tick? The secret is to always take a little bit away from every interaction you have that you can then infuse in the next thing you move on to.
Industries and business are shifting. If you consider that telcos are becoming banks and banks are becoming telcos as just one example, it’s clear that everyone is looking for new opportunities, but it’s much more than that as well. We tend to get stuck in the way we’ve always done things – every industry suffers from this. Learning from different sectors and businesses opens our eyes. Always be willing to learn something new. More importantly, be willing to action that knowledge and make changes.
5. Hire T-shaped individuals. This is part of our secret sauce at GRID. We want our people to bring their passion to work, because without passion, you’ll never get true engagement. Everything else I’ve spoken about, from culture to staying ahead of the curve and learning to shift and adapt based on new ideas – these all come down to the individuals within the business.
For us, that’s T-Shaped people, which basically means giving your employees the space to be multi-faceted at work. For example, a copywriter who is a muso who writes lyrics. We don’t want that passion and skill left at home – we want it brought into the workplace.
We’re always trying to find these interesting people so that we can tap into their hobbies and what they love doing.
As leaders of the business, we have to step back and look at whether we are creating an environment that creates the best possible space for our people to do their best and be their best.
Our currency is the ideas that sit in people’s heads. That’s it. That’s our business. It’s a very difficult game and to win it you need to keep people motivated. For us, this is a win-win because we get to do just that, while also accessing these incredible ideas through hobbies and passions.
At the end of the day, we’re one team, one business and one brand.
Nadine Todd is a business content writer and content strategist and former editor of Entrepreneur magazine. Follow her on Twitter @nadine_todd
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