Don’t let the tail wag the dog

The board meeting that had just finished had been the best for nearly a year – it was as if spring had arrived early.

Management consultant IanCochrane hassome down-toearthadvice fordesigners whowant to stay inbusiness – take control before you’re forced to

The board meeting that had just finished had been the best for nearly a year – it was as if spring had arrived early.

‘I’d like to congratulate you all for building such a great pipeline of work and securing work with such prestigious clients,’ said the boss. Everyone cheered.

The board meeting back in June last year had been very different. When I walked in the room I noticed right away everyone was looking glum.

‘You won’t believe it, but every single one of our branding projects has gone on hold. What do you think we should do?’ they asked.

At that time, this was a company of four shareholder directors and a staff of 35 people comprising designers, account people, insight people and administrative staff.

‘You’ll need to reduce your workforce by half, and the directors and staff will need to reduce their salaries,’ I said in a rather matter-of-fact way.

I’d been here before and I knew that although the decisions they were going to take would be difficult, this business was about to grow up fast or fail.

This morning’s board meeting was very different to that meeting nine months ago. I asked the managing director whether he’d like to turn the clock back and return to being a much larger business, making the sort of money it was making a year ago.

He was quick to respond. ‘Never,’ he said. ‘Although it’s been painful, we now have a much better business and feel much more in control of our destiny. We own the business now, rather the other way around.’

I reflected on what had been achieved in just nine months.

Rapid growth had meant that the company had hired some people it possibly shouldn’t have. When things were good, these people had a useful role within the team, but when the going got tough these people had been the first to go. What remained was an elite squad of people who would fight till the end for each other.

With only 15 staff rather than 35, the directors had got much closer to the business once again – they became involved in every single aspect, from proposal writing and pitching through to actually designing some of the work. The four directors went back to focusing on what they were good at and where they enjoyed themselves most.

The directors had also grown up and had taken tough decisions to reduce staff levels and cut their own salaries. They had also had the balls to increase investment in areas, such as marketing, where no money had previously been spent. They had overcome their fear of picking up the phone and making cold sales calls where required.

Importantly, they had started to network in a way that they had never done before.

The recession had enabled them to talk frankly to clients about the downturn and the likelihood of getting further work from them. Clients had found this honesty refreshing and had reciprocated by sharing their own plans for the future with them. They discovered that revealing weakness can make a relationship closer.

As well as being professionally close to clients, they went to great lengths to remain friends with people who were no longer spending money with them. Over and above the normal socialising scenarios, this often meant supporting people in difficult jobs and staying in touch with people when they changed jobs. They learnt that, ultimately, clients are people and not companies.

They used the downturn as an opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ to some clients that they didn’t enjoy working with and where the client didn’t really respect them as people or designers. They had found the courage to use the word ‘no’.

They took a lot of care thinking about who they were, what they did best and why they were different – in other words, they defined their client proposition and then targeted those clients they wanted to work for. This clarity then fed through on to their website and new marketing literature.

They learnt the difference between selling and marketing, and did their first-ever marketing plan. This identified all the ways that new clients had found their way into their business and drew up a plan to capitalise on this. They hired a marketing consultant to look afresh at their business and help them write and implement the plan.

I realised that what they had done was to take control of their business and their lives – something we should all be doing, but never quite get around to until forced into it.

Ian Cochrane is chairman of Ticegroup

Protect and survive

• Identify and protect your best people
• Get closer to the business and your clients
• Get out of your comfort zone
• Treat your clients as friends
• Be more discerning with clients
• Get to grips with who you are, or who you want to be
• Draw up a marketing plan

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