1 Year In And We’re Still Working It Out

“We’re still working it out,” is a phrase often heard between the walls of For The People.

It’s been a year since we had the idea. A new agency, conceived (ironically) just a few doors down from where we now call home. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a long way.

Slackbot tells me we’re now 14 people. Which is surprising, because I’ve been telling everyone recently that we’re an agency of 12. Xero tells me we’ve worked with 38 different clients. We’ve used Trello, Evernote, Slack, Float and heaps of Post-it Notes and still feel a lot less organised than we probably should be. We ‘live’ in a house that can probably fit 20 people, but that’s already starting to feel crowded — and we have to stay in it for another 18 months. We managed to buy thousands of dollars of European furniture for literally hundreds. We have a dog, who just recently had a rather bad belly… but on the whole is great to have around.

We’ve been to Melbourne, Hobart and soon the Blue Mountains on trips away. We’ve played team Dungeons & Dragons. We’ve debated the merits of Halo, and the deficiencies of Xbox’s UX. We’ve fell in and out of love with cafes, sugar and cider.

We have an awesome team. At times it can feel a bit too male (which is something to address), but the diversity of interests, skillsets and opinions means that coming to work is never dull. We have Experience and Digital Designers, Graphic and Motion Designers, Engineers (although one of them recently called himself a ‘Creative Technologist’), a Storyteller, a Podcast Editor and a Marketer.

It means that at any one point in time we may be described as Product Designers, Brand Consultants, Digital Consultants, PR Consultants, Storytellers, Go-To-Market Strategists.

The story about the blind man and the elephant seems to fit with our situation perfectly.

This means we’re still working it out. And I think we’re completely okay with that. We’ve worked out far more in the last 12 months than we had this time last year.

What have we worked out?

We wanted For The People to be a different agency. A team unshackled from the rules, systems and restraints of holding companies and the accepted way of doing things. We wanted to be able to work with startups and big businesses. We wanted to be able to hire people just because they were smart. We wanted to abolish hierarchy, job titles and client management type rules. We didn’t want to pitch. We wanted to build design, strategy and technology teams in tandem. We wanted to give back to people coming into the industry — and those already here.

“So how did that work out for you?”
  1. We are unshackled
    That was the easy bit. We took no investment, and the three co-founders (myself, Jason Little and Damian Borchok) are also the co-owners. We don’t have timesheets. I see that as a pretty small thing, but it turns out it’s actually a really big thing to people we want to hire. We don’t have quarterly numbers, utilisation rates or net profit targets to hit set by a large desk pencil-pusher in New York (or London, or Paris).
  2. We worked out that we don’t need Client Managers
    Turns out that people, who are more than capable of managing their personal relationships, are fairly good at managing their client relationships too. Clients get to work with the people doing the work and — in a positive twist — don’t spend unnecessary time calling or emailing us because they know it’s getting in the way of doing work. There’s no middle man, and no over-commitments. Our team manage their own deadlines, not one’s agreed to in a meeting they weren’t in.
  3. We’ve created a model that lets us work with awesome startups
    In previous businesses, we had to turn down opportunities to work with exciting startups and entrepreneurs. Now we don’t have to. Next week, one of our clients is pitching as one of only 200 start-ups at the world’s largest start-up pitch contest in Dublin. Wish them luck. We’ve had a brief encounter with Y Combinator, spent a decent amount of time at Fishburners and iCentral, have worked on developing new digital products, and have met great teams like the guys behind Kayla and 100Squared. We’ve formed an equity arrangement with another partner, and refined our process to be able to work at high speed, on low(er) budgets, without compromising the quality of thinking and execution. At times, it’s like Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank. Which makes it all the more real and exciting.
  4. We’ve worked out how to talk
    We spend roughly 10% of the week talking about (and working for) ourselves. For example, we started a book club. Our first book was ‘How Google Works’ — one that Jason, Damian and I had read before we really got going. It sets up a lot of the attitude, mentality and behaviours that we believe in. Reading it as a group was the perfect way to discuss those ideas and work out what they mean for our business. Which means that, for us, every Tuesday is a 90 minute therapy session. We talk about whether or not we’re living up to what we want to be — where we’re headed, what might be getting in the way, and what we should do more of. It’s become a major part of our week. We’ve also put a few hours away for training and ideas. Just recently, we participated in the IDEOU Insights For Innovation course. It taught us to work more effectively as a team, and has influenced other projects we have on. Oh, and we communicate better thanks to Slack (and Giphy).
  5. We say no
    Most (but by no means all) agencies say ‘yes’. And we say yes a lot too. But, importantly, we’ve also been confident enough to say ‘no’. ‘No’ to lucrative projects that would ease some financial pressure and a few sleepless nights. ‘No’ to creative pitches, and working for free. And what we’ve noticed is that, when we do say ‘no’, a wonderful thing happens. People listen. They engage, look for solutions, seek understanding. It leads to more honest conversations and more positive outcomes. We got into this, because we believed in something. And by saying no, we can stay true to that belief and help others understand at the same time.
  6. We’ve made strategy more human
    When we left our previous roles, strategy was either seen as necessary fluff before Creative got involved, or it was so theoretical and intellectual that it could only be performed by the wizards in the ivory strategy tower. It resulted in convoluted storytelling, Venn diagrams and pyramids that (to be fair) often made clients feel much better about their brands and the work we were about to present. But, in truth, it was often so far removed from execution that it could very rarely be executed. Instead, we’ve decided to make strategy more human — by coupling to execution from day one. We don’t deliver any component of strategy without coupling it with its execution. This makes strategy more easily understandable and also helps our clients realise what we’re trying to achieve with it. In fact, this often results in them coming up with their own ideas from the strategy, and easily executing them.
  7. We’ve worked out how to give back
    For The People’ was a name that rung true with us for a whole heap of reasons. One of them was wanting to give back, and improve what’s happening in our industry — and that’s what we’ve been trying to do over this last year. We’ve curated and presented our own event at Vivid, with the goal of inspiring people to take a different path if they’re unsatisfied with the one they’re on. We know of at least three people who handed in their resignation after that event. We’ve run two incubators with students from UTS. To be clear, this isn’t an internship. It’s a 7-to-12 week incubator, where students work on one dedicated project as a team (with guidance from us). They don’t make tea, or board up other people’s work (in fact, it’s cost us a fortune in tea, coffee, bread and jam). The incubator has spawned our podcast; a new digital ideas platform; a new brand for Sydney Dogs And Cats Home; and the beginning of a strategy and brand for an excellent new platform that connects people with disabilities to support workers. We’ve lectured at schools, universities, colleges and business forums. This has kicked off some great conversations and relationships that we hope will continue for the next year and beyond.
  8. We’ve worked out how to fuse design, strategy, tech and storytelling
    We’ve combining the parts better lately. The key? You’re either in a project at the beginning, or you’re not. Sometimes practicality can get in the way of this, but it’s starting to work. The truth is that a project that’s passed from one team to the next is inefficient, and compromises both understanding and ideas. The best results come from having every skill-set involved at the beginning. Everyone doing research. Everyone generating insights. And then — only then — allowing the different skill-sets to do their thing. Because, of course, we can’t all code, animate, design, and write brilliantly. It also keeps the energy levels up, allows ideas to come from truly anywhere, and helps us to learn more about ourselves as a team.
  9. We’ve worked out how to sprint
    I’ve always been interested in the overlap between Agile and Design Thinking, or Human Centred Design. Both create outcomes for the user (people) and both are heavily insight driven. When you read the Agile Manifesto principles, you can see how relevant it is for more than just software development. We’ve developed a hybrid for most projects we undertake. It’s actually a necessity. You see, for most projects, we don’t really get given briefs. We get given problems to overcome. This means that there isn’t a pre-determined solution. This is good because it means we’re not plodding through something that no-one believes in — like when you get briefed to design a website or an advertising campaign, but you know that the real problem is with the on-boarding experience for new customers (for example). But at the same time, it requires an enormous amount of trust — because we just don’t know what the answer will be, so we can’t respond to requests for work with a guaranteed set of deliverables. Instead we set a deadline, and sprint. It requires a great deal of trust and respect between both parties.

What’s left to work out?

Plenty.

We’d like to have more impact in the industry. We need to find more ways to share and discuss what we’re thinking and doing.

We need to work out the most effective way to publicise what we’re doing, and what we’ve done.

We need to find more people (strategy and tech are probably the priorities at the moment)… and then we’ll probably need to find a bigger house.

We need to make more money. We could buy a 3D printer, we could put up our rates, we could pay people less. But really, we just need to stick to our guns and manage ourselves better.

We’d like to publish the new agency model. It’s in our heads (and a couple of spreadsheets), but it needs to be committed to code or paper and exposed.

We’d like to conceive and launch our own products. We have a very real opportunity to do that in the coming months. We just need to maintain the discipline and the motivation to make it happen.

We’d like to give employees a share in the business.

We’d like to work out how to deliver the rest of our work for the 20th Biennale of Sydney (a project we are privileged to work on) without it bankrupting our business.

And, finally, we’d like to hear from others trying to do the same. It’s nonsense to think we can change everything.

If we share, communicate, discuss and remain open and honest about the challenges we face (and the solutions we can develop)… maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be better off in another year’s time.