People, People, People

15 Jun 2022 by Steven Giannoulis

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He aha te mea nui o te ao

What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.


Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on the strategic direction for a client communication piece inspired by the famous Māori whakatauki above. It’s a powerful proverb that has me reflecting on the business lessons I’ve learnt from the last few years.

For me, business has always been about people and relationships. What matters most is how you treat the people you deal with every day. Creating mutually beneficial relationships is an investment that pays dividends when you need it most. Here are three examples from our own recent experiences where we’ve prioritised people and seen the longer-term value of doing so.


At the start of lockdowns, uncertainty was the order of the day in our clients’ professional and personal lives. Many clients pulled back on planned projects, which had an instant impact on our revenue. Our immediate reaction was to panic and think about our survival needs. The reality was that there’s never been a time when our business situation and our clients have been more aligned. This realisation was the start of creating a client engagement programme designed to help us and our clients both survive the pandemic.

The plan was underpinned by a programme of regular contact to build understanding and empathy of where clients were at – both at work and at home. All had similar work communication stresses: keeping their customers, staff, and stakeholders engaged. As their communication partners, we developed a series of proactive communication pieces they could use as part of their own activities. In many cases we tailored messages specifically to individual client needs and brands. All this was done for free. We undertook other work for reduced prices, helping clients continue to achieve results within the lower budgets they now operated within.

We also introduced Give 1, Get 3 - an initiative that allowed clients to tell us about one of their biggest and most immediate challenges. In return, we’d give them three free ideas to address it. Many of the ideas were implemented and not always with us. Short-term this didn’t deliver the instant revenue we needed but the long-term goodwill we achieved was worth much more. 

A couple of years on and, despite further uncertainty, cost-cutting and disruption, we’ve retained all our key clients. Many of the relationships are stronger, at both a professional and personal level, and more than a few individual clients have directly acknowledged the value of the personal support we gave them through the lockdowns. As we move forward, adding value to our clients, professionally and personally, continues to be a key driver for our business.

Supply Partners

Partners are critical to our success. We run what’s known as a hub and spoke model where our core team of thinking, design, delivery, and relationship specialists are complemented by a network of specialist partners like photographers, writers, web developers, illustrators, and more. Our partners' businesses are mostly smaller than ours so the pandemic hit them, and their families, hard.

We made a commitment to support them as much as we could. Often it was as simple as keeping in touch with them, providing them with the tools we were giving our clients to communicate to their own stakeholders, or prioritising their invoices to help them with cashflow. For long-standing relationships, we bought forward our planned work to create revenue for them, or we put payment plans in place, effectively pre-paying for work that we expected to give them in the year ahead.

Investing in the success of the good people who help us succeed is good business and good karma. Today our key supply partners are emerging stronger, repaying us for our support with greater levels of flexibility, engagement, and priority. This spurs us to keep supporting them.


The pandemic had a huge impact on revenue and most design agencies responded by cutting people. There was no doubt we had too many people for the reduced volume of work we had coming in but our business is built on selling people’s time and ideas and therefore retaining good people is critical to long-term success. We made the active decision to give equal priority to getting the business and our people through the pandemic safely. We gave staff our commitment to do all we could to avoid impact on their employment, pay, and wellbeing.

Key to this commitment was a regular, open, honest, and empathetic approach to communications so everyone understood where we were at. We signalled early what our concerns were and what actions we may need to consider if certain scenarios played out. We spelled out the activities we were taking to minimise the impacts on staff and asked for their help to implement them.

At the same time we put a focus on people’s personal wellbeing, listening to their needs and concerns and introducing greater flexibility to allow them to balance their work and home challenges. We built programmes to keep the team connected and engaged and delivered targeted wellbeing training and support in areas like counselling and financial planning.

Unfortunately, we did need to make some short-term salary cuts and let a couple of people go. However, as the health of the business improved, we repaid the wages sacrificed, restored salary levels and even shared the profits we made with the team. 

The payback for our focus on people has been that we’ve retained nearly all our staff over the last three years and even seen our staff engagement and satisfaction levels rise. Our ongoing loyalty to our people continues to be matched by their ongoing loyalty to our business.


I’ve worked for big corporates and know what not putting people first looks and feels like. It’s a form of doing business that never sat well with me and directly led to my decision to work at Insight Creative - a smaller, family-like business where people care for people. Thirty-plus years of working, an MBA programme, and numerous leadership training courses have refined my approach to business down to the simple philosophy: ‘treat others the way you want to be treated.’ It’s not rocket science and that’s what makes it so effective – just ask yourself “what would I want to happen if the tables were turned and I was the person on the other side?” Our Māori Advisory partner often talks about acknowledging and preserving the mana of others, and these words best capture how I try to approach every business situation.

This people-first approach has served me, and our business, well in navigating through times of crisis.  It’s an approach that I have no doubt will work for us – and for you – in what are hopefully better times ahead.