In six years, Interbrand has grown from a few people to 55, transformed Australia's drabbest telco, and won its weight in awards. The agency tells Madeleine Ross why good branding is not just about decoration
From the moment you step inside Interbrand's Ultimo office it's clear this agency works hard to show its clients and people they count. This impression could have something to do with the agency's welcome wall – a scarlet fa√ßade littered with oversized white alphabet letters which are re-arranged, on a bespoke basis, to welcome each guest who passes through its doors.
"Welcome Maddie!" is what I got. Nice touch.
It may sound trivial but it's indicative of the emphasis this agency puts on fostering a respectful, collaborative environment where employees, regardless of department or specialty, are involved and encouraged to contribute their ideas from the get-go of any job.
"We don't work in a linear fashion. We're all in from the start and everyone brings their own perspective, whether it's the writers, the designers or the strategists," says managing director Richard Curtis. "Yes, there are people whose role is emphasised at any given point but we think about an issue from those multiple perspectives."
Its four senior staffers are male but the machismo synonymous with creative agencies is absent. If egos exist, they are acutely kept in check by good manners.
What prevails when talking to Curtis, CEO Damian Borchok and creative directors Mike Rigby and Chris Maclean is politeness, passion and an intellectual zeal for the craft of branding.
Interbrand was established in 1974, purchased by Omnicom in 1993, and founded in Australia in the '90s with its flagship office in Melbourne.
At the time Borchok came on board from Landor in 2007, things were flailing. "The business fell in the toilet, it was losing money. Sydney had one person in it. We had terrible creative, middle of the road strategic work going on, clients walking out the door at a rapid rate," he says.
Then came the turnaround. Taking on a start-up mentality, Borchok wiped the slate clean, resigned clients and brought in new staff, including Curtis.
"We basically said, we've got the world's biggest global brand – the name's on the door but there's nothing much going on underneath it.
"So we thought, what sort of business do we want to create? We've got this whole bunch of global stuff we can leverage. Let's think about what's going to be right."
The Griffin Theatre was a key foundation client. "We didn't make money out of it but it allowed us to prove a lot of our theories about how we wanted to work," says Borchok. The theatre has gone from a backstreet performance group to "Sydney's third main stage theatre company", he says.
Over six years the agency has grown to 55 people (40 of those in Sydney) and won some major clients. (Interesting fact: The Ultimo office is its fourth in five years).
Interbrand is best known for its 2011 technicolour makeover of Telstra which fundamentally de-corporatised the brand and sparked youth engagement. "Telstra was trying to talk to everyone in the same tone," says Maclean. "We gave them the tool kit to change their tonality depending on who they were talking to and what they were talking about."
Borchok says this rebrand exemplified what the agency is trying to achieve in corporate Australia. "More organisations should free themselves of the belief that what it means to be a corporate brand is to be remote and distant," he says.
Another high profile makeover was Interbrand's activation of the Alzheimer's Australia brand, charging it with power and emotion and lobbying the government for increased funding.
Having fit in a logo revamp for Tourism Australia at the beginning of this year, the agency's attentions are now on Pearson Group's Bookworld, the thriving online iteration of the now defunct Borders and Angus & Robertson.
Beyond a new identity, the agency has created a whole world for this brand where books and characters come to life. The user can go to 'Crime City' for crime novels, or 'HorrorVille' where prices are slashed, or 'Lovers' Lane' for romance. The novelty takes the online retailer beyond just being a transactional vehicle.
The agency's motto is 'Stand apart'. Its aim is to create work that innovates.
"We believe that the work we do has to operationally change what a business does. It's the only way you get real perfomance out of a brand. It's great running campaigns and doing the comms, but unless you're moving the dial of that business and its success, it's kind of theoretical," says Borchok.
To that end, re-branding shouldn't just be about changing the logos, colour palettes and type faces. "The stuff that makes us want to work is when we can impart absolute fundamental change," says Rigby, who points to the agency's work for Alzheimer's Australia. "We basically shouted at the government with 500 old folk with placards outside parliament house. This is the stuff that is loaded with emotion and isn't just graphic design. We go much deeper into solving those problems."
The agency has gone from barely existing in Sydney six years ago, to last year winning (in conjunction with the Melbourne office), the title of Best Office in the global network of 36 offices. The accolade is announced each April, so the boys will soon know whether they've defended their title.
It also recently walked away with the 'Best of Award' in the Rebrand 100 Global Awards for its work with Alzheimer's Australia and QAGOMA.