Retiring the NixonMcInnes brand, and the inside story of what really happened

Tom Nixon
Tom Nixon
Nov 6, 2015 · 7 min read

This week marks exactly a year since the big process of transforming NixonMcInnes began.

Back then I couldn’t tell the full story. In fact a friend recently told me ‘you did a great PR job with that’. All of my announcements at the time were true, but I had to frame the story (OK, spin it) in the best way possible. You’ll understand why in a moment. The truth, as the friends closest to us know, is a bigger story.

A year later, I can tell you that story.

2014 was a remarkable year at NixonMcInnes. In March we completed a major financial turnaround of the business, going from losses to the largest quarterly profit in our history (you can hear the story leading up to that moment in this talk I gave at the time.)

We were making progress at moving away from our heritage of digital consultancy. More of our work was on people and culture strategy for clients. I could see a path towards my new passion of developing purposeful organisations. We were investing in the company again, planning new hires to grow the team and we were transforming the studio into a rejuvenated workspace. As we went into the summer, things were going well but there were problems brewing.

It was becoming clear that the plan to re-focus the company was not going to happen in an evolutionary way. We were really building a new company. Inside the studio it was like we already had two companies. The old social business consultancy which was earning the revenue, and alongside it a startup using resources while trying to get traction. Understandably this wasn’t popular with everyone.

We found it impossible to come up with a clear proposition for the company which would allow us to keep selling work in the short-term to pay the bills whilst at the same time opening the door to the new work. We considered splitting into two brands but decided against it.

Instead the decision was made to commit and focus on re-positioning the company in one go. We were all set to relaunch it and take a risk that the cash buffer we’d built up would be enough to see us through as the new services built up. We’d done this successfully once before in our history back in 2007 when we transitioned from being a web design agency to a social media consultancy just as ‘social media’ was first becoming a term in popular use. We just about pulled it off that time.

But this was a much bigger change. The plan was to leave the digital sector altogether. It was a new target market with new services which were only just emerging. We wanted to be bold and give it a shot.

As autumn 2014 rolled around we were getting ready to announce our repositioning to 300 friends and peers at our annual conference, Meaning. We had even ordered the new sign for the front door. I was excited. But increasingly I wasn’t believing that the money would carry us through in our current form, nor did I want to raise debt or investment at short notice to fund losses.

It was the beginning of November. The cashflow was all good for that month and December looked like it would be OK too. But further ahead in January and beyond my confidence in our current configuration had run out. I knew we had to take major action.

So instead, it was time to go nuclear and blow the company apart.

Everyone including me was made redundant to eliminate the payroll, and we put the office on the market. The purpose all along was to allow new things to emerge, so we made space for the team to start new initiatives using the company’s client relationships and intellectual property.

The team continued to win and deliver work over the next three months to fund the process. It gave everyone time while still being paid to get new things going or work out what else they wanted to do next. I’m incredibly proud that the team didn’t drop a ball with client work and we met every single one of our obligations without exception.

When the process completed at the end of February 2015 we finished up with a surplus of cash which the team shared to help them on their way to starting their new initiatives.

We have been left with a clean end to the previous incarnation of the company and a whole bunch of new initiatives continuing to do great work.

Describing this now it’s easy to give the impression of a courageous grand plan, well executed. I’m guilty of positioning it in public that way at the time because it was essential our clients kept their faith in us. Fortunately they did, to everyone’s benefit.

The reality was far messier. I felt physically sick during the first meetings with the team when I dropped the bombshell that the company in its current form would be no more. Yet what I was going through was nothing compared to people with families who depended on their income.

The eventual solution emerged in waves, not as a coherent strategy. It was an incredible learning experience, and the end result was perfect, but this isn’t a candidate for Business Transformation of the Year. At first I was pretty certain the company would become insolvent and it would be a horrible end, with nobody getting paid just before Christmas. For a while we even investigated the possibility of a fire sale of the company and the Meaning Conference. I’m relieved none of those things ever happened.

As a path through our situation became clear, the creativity opened up. I could see the opportunity for a lightweight NixonMcInnes to transform into an associate-based business model. It was an idea I’d had a year earlier codenamed Operation Supernova. Without the old overheads it could be positioned clearly and simply and take the time it needed to build up again. That’s what I announced in December 2014 and it was what I planned to do next.

Today, the old, centralised NixonMcInnes is no more. I and many others of the former team are now fully up and running with our new independent initiatives. The team members who didn’t want to set up a new thing, or wanted to do their work within an established working community have joined other companies I admire.

Once we got through the difficult process of winding the company right back and avoiding disaster, it’s been wonderful to watch this creative explosion happen. The vibrancy of what the former team are working on now is far beyond anything we could ever do in one big company with the continual monthly pressure of meeting a big payroll and office lease. For me personally it was a real liberation and I have a renewed sense of possibility which still hasn’t worn off.

The next step is retiring the NixonMcInnes brand itself. This is a change to what I’d announced and had intended to do. I had a new website written and ready to go, but decided to hold off until I’d had some space between the old and the new. I needed to get perspective, tune in to what the real need was, and get clear on the next step.

In the meantime, I immersed myself in the new work. I’ve been spending lots of time working with founders of initiatives of all kinds. This has included the disruptive startups I’ve always wanted to work with, but who would never have been able to afford NixonMcInnes with its old cost base and consulting rates. The work has centred on connecting founders and their initiatives to real human needs. In other words, to purpose. That’s where my passion is today.

As I’ve got stuck into the new work it’s become clear that I don’t need a consultancy company shopfront to operate behind. There are some benefits to having a company brand, and it’s been hard to let go of NixonMcInnes because there’s still so much goodwill in the name and potential to take it forward. I’ve been sitting on it, flip-flopping around a decision. But now I’m clear. These benefits don’t stack up against the effort and headspace of re-positioning, re-launching and maintaining it. If in the future I work under a consulting brand it’ll either be something new, or I’ll join another initiative I feel drawn to. For now at least it’s so much simpler and authentic to just be me.

It’s also opened up new opportunities for partnerships. There’s no sense of competition with other consultancies now. Everyone else working in the emerging area of ‘purpose’ is a potential collaborator. I’m introducing the research and work I’ve been involved with to as many people as possible. It will take a huge number of us to transform the business world into something more human and impactful. I’ll work with anyone who’s up for it.

Alongside all this, it also just feels like the time is right to close the NixonMcInnes story. It feels done, and that feels just great. Nothing fundamental has been lost, just energy freed up for new things.

Thank you to everyone who has been part of the NixonMcInnes story over the last 15 years, especially to all of the great people who worked there.

What a ride.

To quote my old friend and original co-founder, Will McInnes: “Onwards!”

You can check out the former NixonMcInnes team’s new initiatives here.

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