Less than a year after its long-awaited management buyout, Wolff Olins’ management team is pumped up with enthusiasm and is determined that its consultancy is going to change. Not because it’s doing badly – on the contrary, it is listed fifth in the Design Week Top 100 chart with a turnover of more than 16m. The group is getting on plenty of high-profile pitch lists, and winning a lot of them – think of Channel 5, Credit Suisse, Diageo, Go. And the London headquarters at Regent’s Wharf is buzzing with creativity and energy.
But its growth – at 25 per cent for the last three years – is only a reflection of the market in general. Fine while the market is doing well, but what happens when things slacken off? Senior management at Wolff Olins is preparing for the inevitable downturn, so that when the economy is no longer booming the consultancy will continue its growth.
Like its peers Interbrand Newell and Sorrell and Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise, Wolff Olins is aware of the shifting roles of advertising agencies, management consultancies and identity groups over this decade. So any change should accommodate this convergence.
Co-founder Wally Olins is credited with putting corporate identity on the map and his consultancy reaped the benefits in the form of BT, Prudential, Midland Bank, Vauxhall and others in the Eighties. However, at the end of the Nineties the terminology has changed and everybody is talking strategy. This is a field familiar to management consultants such as McKinsey & Company, and one that the big identity groups feel confident in – but it is yet to be proved whether they can really take on the experts. “We should be focusing on the competition not today but in the future,” says managing director Charles Wright.
Wolff Olins’ new management team comprises chairman Brian Boylan, principal John Williamson, head of client services Kate Manasian, executive creative director Doug Hamilton and Wright. Between June and December last year, about 20 other senior people were made directors. It is this collective group © which has instigated a mammoth exercise in navel-gazing to help change the consultancy. “The time to do this is when you are at your most successful,” says Wright.
Wolff Olins is no stranger to change management. Three years ago John Banks was brought in to review the workings of the consultancy. Nothing came of the exercise, however; this time round the approach will be free-form rather than structured. Fourteen task forces have been set up to assess key elements of the workings of Wolff Olins. Every member of staff will be involved and the project will only work if cynicism is blocked out, says Wright.
The task forces are being coordinated by project manager Geannie King and, while staff are expected to devote only spare time to the exercise, the consultancy has hired some experts for certain aspects, such as a “corporate shrink” to examine ways to make the executive board a more effective team.
The 14 task forces are looking at:
1 Strategy for value;
2 Product development;
3 Brand management;
4 People development – learning and teaching (a consultant specialising in learning has been hired);
5 People development – measuring and rewarding (a share options scheme and other rewards which are non-financial have already been set up);
6 Client servicing – organisation (such as whether the consultancy should set up an account direction arm);
7 Client servicing – systems;
8 Client servicing – profitability;
9 Environment – rethinking the way the company uses the building (architect Buschow Henley has been retained to look at traffic planning, following the discovery that most decisions get made on staircases);
11 Vision and values;
12 The Americas (how business should be conducted out there);
13 Europe (pretend Wolff Olins is American and set up a strategy for Europe as a whole and not just for separate countries); and
14 India (should there be a more formal set up to service local clients?).
Wright admits that he cannot foresee how Wolff Olins will look after the task forces. But that’s not his main concern. He is more worried about putting any good ideas that are generated into practice – “if Wolff Olins is the same in 18 months’ time then the thing will have failed” – and he is clear about the eventual outcome: “If this works we will get more work.”
Wolff Olins company history
1965 Co-founded by Wally Olins and Michael Wolff with staff of 11968 German operation set up
1975 Staff up to 31. French office opened
1985 Staff up to 51980 Scandinavian operation set up
1987 Office established in Barcelona
1988 John Williamson leaves as head of consulting and board member to join Addison
July 1988 Staff 130, turnover 7.5m, offices in London, Copenhagen, Barcelona, San Francisco
Sep 1989 Staff 160, turnover 12.4m
April 1992 Paris office closed and Lisbon office opened
May 1992 Madrid office announced
Dec 1992 Director Raymond Turner leaves to become design director at BAA
Feb 1993 John Williamson leaves Addison as strategic director to return to Wolff Olins
April 1993 Kate Manasian joins Wolff Olins from Addison where she was managing director
Aug 1995 Staff 90, turnover 9.5m, offices in London, Lisbon and Madrid
June 1997 Management buyout completed, pricing the group at 6-8m. Backing from Lloyds Development Capital and NatWest Markets. Plans to increase turnover threefold to about 30m