An Agency’s Road from Denial to Self-Discovery
The incidental journey of a tiny Dubai startup that won — eleven years in, by refusing to grow up.
Disruption Led by Pixels
Let’s face it: regardless of industry, globalisation punched each of us in the gut–and hard. The very nature of competition mutated — and not just in the cliched China-beats-everybody kind of way. In the design world (note: advertising is not part of the design world, at best it trades in the commodity of design) global networks leveraged reach, knowledge and a client roster to sail ahead, albeit fuelled by winds of mediocrity. The more systematised a service offering, the easier it became to scale–a phenomena amongst all major industries in the last 20 years.
In the 90′s, creative shops were of 3 kinds: branding firms, advertising agencies and marketing shops. The first disruption in the design world was digital — a fringe phenomenon largely disregarded by the industry as a fad rather than the glue that has come to define genuinely meaningful brand experiences today.
I was fortunate enough to have been amongst the “crazies” blowing the trumpet of an impending digital relevance when I founded my first agency (a little digital shop called 13thStudios in 2001). A subsequent acquisition and a board-influenced change of direction towards the formulaic ‘ad agency’ model marked the end of my interest both personally and professionally (I was marginalized and kicked-out of the very company I had founded four years earlier).
Out of the Box? What Box?
Even when I started again from scratch (an agency called Xische & Co.) with a self-professed vision to remain painfully agnostic to industry-trends (the business of media buying and 15% commission, for starters), the unspoken goal was always to scale. Size was on top of the list of what would denote success for me and my partner. We positioned ourselves as a ’boutique’ yet somehow unwittingly always went to bed with a plan to grow into a boutique, just one that was massive!
With an incidental reputation as the guys that take on just a couple of projects a month, to ones that go as far as send a pre-prepared letter declining a new client for not fitting the bill, we started on a path to discovering our key strength, without ever for a second realising it.
We realised clients would approach us when their challenge didn’t fit the typical compartment that was labeled web, or brand, or interactive. Or in many cases, they would come to us for a specific but tiny requirement. They’d come and talk to us while we listened intently. Then while the many challenges they impassioned upon us started crystallising in my head, so did a crazy gamut of ways to bridge them. Most of the time, to the dismay of our project managers, these solutions hazily floating in my head would need us to create new ways of working on the project, and almost with 100% certainly, fall into unchartered territories, across many disconnected disciplines to boot.
After listening carefully, when one of the team members would present our credentials and talk about the 50 different ways we’ve worked with clients in the past, there was always this look of both shock and relief on the faces of our new potential client. It would be like a torrid affair thereafter. But trouble surfaced with practiced certainty, each time.
Choosing Between Big and Different
Every time we would take on a hugely profitable, but creatively-redundant project, we spotted a recurring theme of 3 major issues almost every time. We couldn’t compete with the giant factory agencies on a) delivery times, b) costs, and perhaps most notably c) a ‘sir-yes-sir’ agreeability.
For many years, without much deep introspection, it always remained about winning a competitive bid where we would invariably by the tiny agency thrown into the shortlist for good measure. Being small was supposed to be our strength, and here we were, starting to believe it was our greatest weakness. We were trying to change the rules of the game, while foolishly playing right into the very rules that made the field anything but level.
What we really needed to do was to bow out gracefully, and play in a different game altogether. But we didn’t.
Finding Your Hook Shot, Then Using It
How do we compete with the factories offering off-the-shelf solutions that are cheaper, or built-from-scratch alternatives with 50-man teams quicker than anything we could put together?
The answer came to us not so long ago, after years of failing and never understanding why. We needed to stop pretending to do what they did, and walk away from the usual brief. Our strength as the little guy was agility. Our ethos had been to treat each client as a fresh sheet of paper, with infinite possibilities of how we solved their problems. At Xische, we call this hybrid consulting — the foundation of our business model. We created solutions that are so unique, that by their very DNA, useless to any other client but them. This made it harder for us, but at least we knew it’s what we could compete on.
The only way to beat the big boys is by being in the business of connecting dots that they won’t bother to acknowledge, because they need to rake in more projects just to pay bills. Scale for our business comes from walking away from the typical project, focussing on relationships that evolve with clients, the profitability of charging higher for what we bring to the table, and that fuzzy-but-comforting feeling the client walks away with.
Eleven years in, we intend to remain in this business — we just like it better.
Originally published at danishfarhan.com on February 19, 2013.