In this opinion piece, Gavin McDonough (pictured above, co-founder and managing partner of Urban, shares through his own experience some valuable advice for independent specialist agencies.
In November 2017, my brother Ryan and I celebrated 15 years in business.
We started business out of my front room in Melbourne in 2002 – not with any grand plan, but a couple of opportunities and deep determination to be the masters of our destiny.
If awards are a measure of success, by 2014 our specialist marketing agency, Urban, had risen to the top of its game, clean-sweeping all of Australia’s experiential agency awards that year.
We had successfully built and evolved our business proposition in line with everything from the advent of social media to digital, customer experience, content, and even data-driven marketing.
In fact, in our 15 years in business, we pivoted five times in order to service the rapidly-evolving demands placed on our category – surviving while many others perished.
But then the unthinkable happened. The game we had set out to lead 10 years earlier had changed. Although we were successful, our business had begun to stagnate.
We spent the next two years trying to unlock new growth, exporting Urban and our work. But it only affirmed what we already suspected. Our stagnation, it seemed, marked the beginning of the end of experiential marketing as a specialism.
The discipline that we and a couple of others pioneered in Australia in 2002 had been homogenised – broadly defined and universally adopted online, offline and everywhere in between. By 2014, experiential marketing’s once niche ideals of consumer centricity and targeting emotional, over-rational drivers had become mainstream – the norm.
We had seen our specialism born, and it seemed, we were witnessing its evaporation in a period of only 10 years.
So, in 2016, confronted with our own reality, faster agency network consolidation and now competition from management consultancies, we realised we needed to change more than just our tagline. We needed to change how we made money.
We incubated the business, keeping only essential resources for our new mission, plus a few extra to enable us to keep the doors open while we pivoted. We said no to briefs that would prevent us from pivoting. Then we did a 180, committing to a bold new course. We became a hybrid strategic consultancy and creative services firm designed to bridge the gap between uncreative consultancies and unstrategic creative networks. Our mission was to help our clients ‘Unthink’ brand and business problems in order to find new ways to succeed.
Our pivot worked, and in 2017 we had the great fortune to put our approach to work on exciting business challenges. Now in 2018, in an effort to consolidate our learning and good work in 2017, we’ve launched Unthink as an independent strategic adviser to businesses facing their own unthinkable future.
I never thought I’d be in a position to hand out advice to other business leaders, but six pivots in almost 16 years has provided insight and experience worth sharing with other specialist business owners and leaders.
Pivot, don’t perish
Most of the independent and acquired agencies with whom we competed in 2014, let alone 2002, have since disappeared, either shut out by consolidated network efforts to own all client revenue or swallowed up and suffocated by other networks.
If you are a founder or leader of an emerging, new, thriving or stagnant specialist discipline, be aware of the dangers of both. They’re all too common for independent specialist businesses.
Put your ego, awards and all the energy it took you to get where you are aside and begin planning for your disruption or natural demise. It will take vision and fortitude, but it will be the most important thing you do to secure your own unthinkable future.
Embrace failure and lots of it. Your failures are valuable and inform future pivots:
- Stay super-agile. You cannot pivot swiftly with a high headcount or overheads.
- Pivot as many times as you need to find clear air.
- Cut the cord on strategies, products or businesses that served previous pivots.
- Plot your own disruption and act on it.