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The Masters of success

19 Sep 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

I’ve been CEO of Insight Creative for nearly three years now. It’s more than a job I love. It’s an all-consuming passion that drives me to want to do more and to do it better. I give it everything and it gives...

Inside Insight
the masters of success steven giannoulis

i’ve been ceo of insight creative for nearly three years now. it’s more than a job i love. it’s an all-consuming passion that drives me to want to do more and to do it better. i give it everything and it gives me a whole lot back. there’s nothing i’d change about it. well almost nothing. i’d really like to redefine success so that i don’t always feel like i’m failing.  

running a creative agency is an interesting business challenge. if we were a corporate then life might be easier when it comes to expected outcomes. i’ve been there and i know how it works. the shareholders (often the parent company) have an expected return number in mind. decision-making then becomes very single-minded, focused on delivering that number each year. you do and there are rewards. you don’t and there are consequences. if roi was the only outcome i needed to achieve with insight then i know exactly how i’d go about it. but this is just one expected outcome. and anyway, i don’t want to work for a company focused only on money – been there, done that, not again.

what really drives people to own and work in a design agency is creativity. we want to deliver clever ideas and creative concepts flawlessly executed. stuff that makes us proud and makes people notice and admire us. project plans, timesheets and processes, all aimed at managing the dollars, don’t exactly endear themselves to creative outcomes. so immediately you’ve got the challenge of balancing the needs of two masters.

at our place, we’ve got a third master. the fulfillment of our people. insight is a family business, owned by the people who work here. we’re not workers, resources, human capital or any other such crude term, designed to remind us that we can easily be swapped out for another fte. we are individuals, all with our own strengths, challenges and aspirations. we see work as an outlet for expression, growth and belonging. our staff engagement score, of close to 90%, says we are doing this well but this comes at the cost of other outcomes.

he with many masters serves none at all. it’s either a chinese proverb or some shit, disguised as wisdom, i just made up. regardless, it’s exactly how i feel. constantly trying to deliver the money, the creativity and the people outcomes seems to be an exercise in endless compromise. at best, we make a couple of masters happy. at worst, we disappoint all three. i’m quickly learning that the trick is to lower everyone’s expectations (including my own) but that’s not how i’m naturally wired. i prefer big challenges, delivering great results even when you fall short of the stated goal.

absurdly, i cope with the schizophrenia of three masters by focusing on a fourth, our clients. my thinking is that if we do what’s right by the client then everything else will look after itself. happy clients will give us more and better work and that will take care of the money, creativity and the opportunities to grow as individuals.

business goals, business plan

Designing client agencies

23 May 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

As a senior corporate marketer I worked with numerous design and advertising agencies before moving to the agency dark-side. I remember sitting through a number of creative pitches wondering “how will this...

Inside Insight
designing client agencies steven giannoulis

as a senior corporate marketer i worked with numerous design and advertising agencies before moving to the agency dark-side. i remember sitting through a number of creative pitches wondering “how will this actually drive the sales i need?” often it was a case that it would, but the agency just needed to get better at presenting it to me in terms that met our business objectives. the sooner agencies learn to speak the language of business, the sooner they’ll be seen as professional partners and not just suppliers.

in many cases, the agency hadn’t thought beyond the self-perceived brilliance of their big creative idea to what me, or my audiences, actually needed. when i took on the ceo role at insight, i was keen to use this experience to make us a client-led, rather than design-led, agency.

at first it seems a radical step for a design agency to not drive the business from their core expertise. reality is that most big industries have already moved from production-led to customer-led. changing customer expectations and technology have necessitated this. the design industry, as a professional services provider, has been slow to realise the need to change.

we are into the third year of our client-first programme and while we have come a long way we still have further to go to be fully transformed. a philosophical shake-up of this proportion takes time.

the first year was about the basics. for example, making sure we’re asking the right questions at the briefing stage and really hearing, and understanding, what clients want and why. we redesigned our processes to drive our design thinking from tangible audience insights and to put steps in place to check the effectiveness of the work along the way.

we also gave all our client facing teams training on how to listen and read clients, how to get answers to the key questions and also how to sell in ideas (and not just designs) in ways that engage the client need.

in year two we ran ‘what clients want’ sessions where we invited clients to talk to our teams directly about the expectations and frustrations they have with agencies, how they measure value and the challenges they face getting things accomplished within their business. staff really engaged with this and enjoyed hearing it first-hand.

we also ran basic marketing strategy sessions for staff explaining the business drivers behind client briefs - such as growth, efficiency and risk management – and how each of these influence the channels, messages and design approaches we select.

you can’t be client focused if you don’t know what clients need, want or think. over the last two years we’ve run an annual client satisfaction monitor to track how well we are meeting client needs but also how the initiatives we are implementing are changing their perceptions. we supplement this with in-depth qualitative interviews to understand the why behind the monitor results and to get ourselves across the business challenges our clients face.

the year ahead has a strong client intimacy theme to it, designed to build a deep understanding of each client and the ways we can better deliver value to them. we’ll use this understanding to proactively address the problems and opportunities they face with tailored thinking and solutions. 

we’ve started and, not surprisingly, we’re finding clients are very receptive to their agency proactively designing solutions that help them achieve their goals.  

design agency, client-led

The engagement game

19 Apr 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

We regularly work with clients on internal communications projects, helping them engage their staff, drive behaviour and performance, embed change and continuous improvement programmes and align their internal...

Inside Insight
the engagement game steven giannoulis

we regularly work with clients on internal communications projects, helping them engage their staff, drive behaviour and performance, embed change and continuous improvement programmes and align their internal and external brands. as a business, we face the same challenges our clients ask for our help with. we too work hard to engage a diverse group of talented individuals to create an aligned team approach that spans multiple locations and disciplines.

i was delighted to see the results of our latest annual staff perception survey. it was the first project i instigated as ceo in order to identify the key issues staff perceive and to track our progress in addressing them. each year we’ve moved forward in leaps and bounds and this year we achieved a staff engagement score of 88.8%. there’s no doubt our team is now (mostly) happy and this comes through clearly in the many positive and constructive comments made.

so how did we do it?  many clients tell us they need a campaign to drive culture change, embed value and to improve performance. my answer is always the same. staff engagement isn’t a campaign but an on-going embedding process achieved over time across multiple channels and touchpoints. it requires consistent messages and actions that move the team seamlessly through awareness, understanding, acceptance and adoption. and that’s simply what we did. here are some of the key initiatives from our own staff engagement programme:

  • improved regular communications including a monthly staff newsletter (now a video blog) covering results, work-in-progress updates, people and client stories and fun competitions. this is supported by a blog-based intranet for regular cross-office discussion and managers running regular team meetings. communication, transparency and trust were areas we scored particularly well in the survey.
  • line of sight – our annual strategy day allows us to walk the entire team through our vision, purpose, strategy and key plans for the year ahead. this enables them to make a direct connection between what they do and the results we need to achieve. we also use this session to review the year just passed, directly linking our performance against goals with any staff profit share.
  • last year we established an internal team to develop our values from the ground up. this ensured that the values reflected what is important to both staff and the business. we made a big deal around the launch, facilitating better recall and understanding. and now we are working on embedding them further into our every day vernacular and actions. see our values launch case study.
  • our staff benefits/wellbeing programme is an on-going labour of love. we regularly add new benefits such as medical check-ups, access to financial advisers, flexible working arrangements, community days and healthy living advice.
  • establishing a structured performance and development framework has meant all staff are clear on what they need to do and how their performance is measured. everyone has a development plan which is executed through regular individual and group development activities.
  • our new recruitment framework ensures that that we hire people that are aligned with, and add to, the culture we have created.
  • the physical environment also plays a role in culture and engagement. we moved offices in auckland, creating an environment more conducive to collaboration, creativity and good communication. we’ve made progress with the wellington office too and will go further with a new fit-out.
  • we do lots of fun activities together as a team (but we still need to do more). some are little things like shared lunches or morning teas to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, project success and individual ‘gold star’ performance. others are much bigger, like getting the whole team together for a day of eating, drinking and fun at my place or our masterchef-styled christmas function. getting together regularly in a relaxed, non-work environment helps with unity and creating a sense of belonging.

for me the key to achieving our outcomes is embedding our goals, values and culture into our everyday actions. the leadership team have led this charge, modelling the sort of culture we want as well as reinforcing it with their teams. and if you’ve been in a meeting with any of us, you’ll see we all carry our designer notebooks. these house our vision, one purpose, our brand story, our strategy and business plans, values and kpis. effectively, the team engages with them every time they take notes at meetings (which for most, is every day). see our strategy book case study.

yes, but has it worked? being personally fulfilled at work is one of our goals. but our engagement programme isn’t only about soft benefits. it’s also helping us deliver the hard results shareholders need. in the last three years, our revenue has remained relatively consistent but our bottom line has moved steadily upwards. a more engaged team manifests itself in greater productivity and a willingness to find and adopt new and better ways to do what we do. what do they say? “happy staff equals happy clients and happy clients means a happy bank manager.”

could we do more? without a doubt. we’ll take a few moments to reflect on how far we’ve come and then get back to going further. we’ve got some exciting plans for the year ahead. suddenly 90% engagement doesn’t seem that impossible.

internal engagement, internal communication, staff engagement

That Like feeling

23 Mar 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

  Lately I’ve been recruiting for a New Business person and I had an experience with one candidate that made me think about the importance of brand feelings. Yes, feelings. Brace yourself, I am going to talk...

Inside Insight
that like feeling steven giannoulis


lately i’ve been recruiting for a new business person and i had an experience with one candidate that made me think about the importance of brand feelings. yes, feelings. brace yourself, i am going to talk about them.

for the first time i didn’t use a recruiting agency but posted my role on social media. i had 33 applicants, and once i got through the obligatory bunch of those kidding themselves about their suitability, i had a dozen or so really good applicants.

one particular applicant had a strong cv and i checked him out on linkedin, found he had some good endorsements and a number of connections i knew. all looked promising so i arranged an initial chat to get a feel for him and whether he’d be good for the role and our company.

after 20 minutes or so we hung up and i reflected on the discussion. he gave the absolute perfect textbook answers to every question – i couldn’t have scripted them better myself. but i walked away feeling something was off about this guy. he shared nothing personal, no stories, experiences or views that would have allowed me to like him. he was siri responding to my questions with programmatic accuracy and robotic warmth.

as you do in this ‘everything’s public’ age, i looked him up on facebook and instagram. he was into sports, did lots of community stuff, looked like a great dad and had a wide circle of friends. and we appeared to share some common musical interests. was i wrong about him? i invited him to meet to find out.

within 10 minutes of more of the same, i stopped listening. i have no doubt his remaining answers were great but i just didn’t care. he may have promised to do the job 24/7 and for free but i still wouldn’t hire him. i ended the meeting and promised to let him know as soon as i’d made up my mind. i lied, i had already made up my mind.

like people, brands have to appeal at an emotive level as well as a logical one. we have to trust a brand, and like (or at least not hugely dislike) it, before we’ll even consider getting into bed with it. this liking-heuristic is well proven in brand psychology. connect emotionally and it’s glass half full. don’t and it can never be anything more than near empty.

the guy i hired maybe on paper wasn’t the natural choice, but within 10 minutes we were talking like old-mates. within 30, i felt i knew him and within an hour i was ready to pick him. and that’s exactly what i think potential clients will feel when he’s talking to them.

feelings, brand, likeability

Pause all of life's chaos

19 Dec 2014 by Steven Giannoulis

It’s the end of a very full on year for us and our clients, so we wanted to create something which championed the idea of temporarily pausing our hectic lives in order to truly appreciate life’s beauty. We...

Inside Insight
pause all of life's chaos steven giannoulis

it’s the end of a very full on year for us and our clients, so we wanted to create something which championed the idea of temporarily pausing our hectic lives in order to truly appreciate life’s beauty. we started working with the nz symphony orchestra for the first time this year and were thrilled that they were open to incorporating the wonderful music they make into our video. the result is a solution that moves from chaotic to a delightful piece of story-telling. a reminder to take a break, re-energise and re-connect with the people and things that are important to all of us. that means you too. have a great xmas and summer break. see you when you are ready to press play again in the new year.

insight, pause, marcomms, nzso, video
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