I’m a firm believer in the adage that ‘where you look is where you go’. Whether you’re paddling a board, riding a bike, or running a business, where you set your sights is where you’re headed, and that’s been 100% true for our evolution as an agency in 2018.
And just like that, summer is (technically) over. 😢
It’s been a record-breaking hot one in Australia this year, and Mark and I were lucky enough to spend the Christmas break with our families down at Waratah Bay—about 10 degrees cooler than our parent’s home up in hot, dry northern Victoria.
It was a relaxing break, the only challenge being getting up on Mark’s new paddle board—a gift from his wife and kids. It was good fun—everyone was having a turn, learning, falling off, trying again.
It didn’t take long to master the basics, and once you got the hang of where to plant your legs so you didn’t fall off while negotiating the waves moving below, you were able to look up and get moving with some momentum.
Although Mark and I run Alto together, we rarely talk business outside of business hours. However the break did give me some time to reflect on the year passed, and appreciate how far we had come.
This time last year we launched the new Alto. We weren’t shy about announcing our intention to narrow our focus on the education and knowledge sector at the start of the year, doubling down on our history and experience in the area. (Why? You can catch up on the full story here and here.)
In a nutshell, we had come to the realisation that it’s not enough to just be a specialist brand, marketing and communications design agency.
We had to evolve, and we did.
Why were we so vocal about our evolution? Mostly because when you say something out loud, then you have to follow through with it. So in the spirit of sharing, twelve months later, how are we travelling? Has it paid off? Are we on the right track?
Here’s how we’ve changed, and the effect it has had.
From T-shaped to π-shaped.
A few years back there was a lot of buzz around the notion of a T-shaped individual:
‘The vertical bar (or leg) of the T represents the depth of skill and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.’
Have you ever tried to paddle-board on one leg? Not so easy. All your effort and focus is spent just trying to stay upright, rather than focusing on moving forward or heading in any particular direction.
For us, prior to our transition, our deep expertise was in brand, marketing and communications design and strategy. We were a studio standing on one-leg—buffeted by the winds and waves of supply-and-demand, and when it came to deciding which projects to take on we could be a bit of a push-over.
Two legs better than one
The next evolution is to that of a π shape:
‘Rather than one area of deep expertise, a π shaped individual possesses two.’
Over the last 12 months we have built significantly on our expertise in the education and knowledge sector to claim not only one specialisation but two—a second leg (if you’re still following my analogy 😉).
How did we do it?
We’ve made the business of our clients our business, by meeting with and talking to as many stakeholders and influencers in the sector as possible, and reading and listening to anything we can get our hands and ears on. Then we’ve shared that knowledge through:
- Surveying over 100 tertiary education providers in Australia and New Zealand and writing a report into brand and marketing trends in tertiary education
- Creating a monthly report into brand, marketing and comms news in the sector
- Writing a monthly essay on our perspectives in the game
What has been the effect?
Growing another leg has created a much more stable operation, stronger and more certain of ourselves and our value to our clients. We’ve been able to focus less on staying upright, more on where we’re heading and what’s coming over the horizon.
This became clear when almost ten months after making the call, I found myself in the position in a meeting with a prospective client at the point where they say “…and tell me about what you do”.
For what felt like the first time in my career I was able to talk at length and depth not only about what we do, but what we know about our clients’ problems.
Sounds crazy doesn’t it? An agency that knows where you’re coming from without having to do a deep-dive and bone up on what you do before they get into the task at hand?
I could confidently say to her that “right now we have a better knowledge of what education providers are saying from a brand and marketing perspective than any other agency in the country”.
That felt good.
If we had one reservation, it was that we might narrow the scope of our work. In fact, the opposite has been true. Since going through the door of specialisation, more have opened.
We’re now working on projects inside the education and knowledge sector that we would never have been considered for if we hadn’t put in the effort to evolve our agency.
- Research, design and testing of career education services for year nine students
- Repositioning online education for mature age students
- Redesigning grant proposal processes for university research and innovation projects
- Communications strategy and design for university internal change management programs
Remind me what is it that we do again?
Other non-expected results have been:
- We’ve been featured on industry marketing blogs
- We’ve spoken at education sector conferences
- We’ve been recommended by our peers (notice that they’re not really competitors anymore?) to clients that fall into our area our specialisation. And vice-versa: sticking to our path has meant that instead of saying yes to mostly anything that comes along, we will now recommend our peers who are better suited or more experienced for a particular client’s needs. How cool is that? The design industry looking after each other and the best interests of clients.
Sounds pretty rosy right? Not exactly.
If you had met with me in the last twelve months and asked how things are going, my response would have been “it’s a long game…”.
A bumpy ride
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, the learning curve has been steep and the business pipeline unpredictable as we invested ourselves in our research, networking, marketing and business development. So much so that the time spent working on the business instead of in the business meant that things weren’t looking too hot as we approached the end of the year and it looked like we might run out of gas.
We were able to ride this period out, and the efforts that we had put in and the conversations we had had earlier started to bear fruit.
Are we there yet?
Although we’ve taken a lot of momentum into 2019, we’re still not there yet.
The change of direction has been a breath of fresh air in the studio, and has helped shift the mindset of what a contemporary creative agency should be and do. What we do and the way we do it has evolved significantly over the last 12 months, meaning that we’re constantly refining our goals and trajectory. It’s still—and will always be—a long game.
We don’t know what is over the horizon for us, but we know we’re no longer lost at sea.