A brand of creation

The power of brand is well recognised, but less so seems to be the role that the creative process has in developing the force of brand. CRE8IVE founder James Willson is changing all that.

James Willson, principal of brand management company CRE8IVE, founded his business in 1999 after five years working with Sensis developing key marketing and communication initiatives.

James understands the marketing needs of clients and has extensive experience developing campaingns for corporates and all levels of government. He sits on the Canberra Business Council and has led his firm to numerous business awards.

He shares his expertise with Amanda Gome, and is willing and keen to share his experience with you. Got some questions for James? Email them to [email protected].

What is the niche you saw when you started the company in 1999?

The internet was still in its early days and I recognised that there were few web companies servicing small to medium-sized business. I knew we had the capability to offer an exceptional product in both graphic design and web development. After developing a method, our brand and a website we went to market offering those two primary services.

Has that niche changed?

The web is now recognised as a standard component of almost every marketing or communication strategy. As a result our clients are now demanding innovation and exceptional design to differentiate their presence online.

More recently, CRE8IVE has been able to offer digital business solutions using online software, developed in house at CRE8IVE. I believe we are pioneering this service locally and it is giving us real edge in the market place.

Your revenue has grown significantly. As you have expanded the business, what point in your trajectory was the most difficult? What did you do about it?

I would say the 10-person point was the hardest. We were not a small business and not a medium one. Changing the marketplace perception of us from a small “home-based” business to a company that was going to go places was the real challenge.

We have always been geared up in such a way whereby if we had to downscale we could do so without too much damage. However, I try not to look backwards, so the business is designed so that it is always ready to grow.

What was the perfect business size and why?

I think back to not so long ago when we had around 15–18 people. It was a very manageable business and, importantly, we had a strong, cohesive team in place. Above all it was easier to get things done and things happened quickly.

Your business is based in Canberra but you win big Sydney contracts. Has that been a disadvantage? Have you been tempted to move?

Canberra has the advantage of being close to Sydney, within reach of Melbourne, and with Commonwealth Government departments on our doorstep. We have developed client services so that once a project has commenced, geography doesn’t interfere with the agency/client relationship. However. CRE8IVE has never sat still and we are about to open in Sydney.


How do you recruit new staff? What do you find works best?

We apply an “hour-glass” model to our business. We have strong and talented individuals in management roles, mentoring promising individuals who are in an agency for the first time. I believe talent does not come from experience, and we like to do it our way.

How have you adjusted your management style to become a better leader?

There was a time where I would want to know everything that was going on within the business. Today I make sure that I only meet with my managers on a weekly basis to discuss the various business divisions that we have in place. Meeting regularly with someone who can learn the way you work and vice versa is what works for me.

What is the worst thing you have ever done as a boss?

Ask my staff… In a company of our size, 28 people, everyone likes to know what is going on. I will sometimes make a major decision, affecting the business, and will not tell all the staff the reasons. When people do not know why you are doing something or implementing change, they will question it. I’ve found that if you explain your rationale in general terms, they get it, move forward and keep their respect for you.

How do you reward staff and what do you find works best?

I think when you reward your people for hard work and going the extra mile you need to be unique in the way you reward them. If someone has worked back four nights to meet a deadline giving them some extra money to go say pay the bills does not get noticed. However, we give our staff experiences so they can go share it with their partners. This works well as quite often our employees’ partners have been put out by their spouses working back.

The business name – in retrospect has it driven you mad? Or is it good to have a business name that differentiates you?

CRE8IVE is a very visual brand. Try telling someone in Dubai or China your email address when it has an eight in the word. However, in our local marketplace, where someone engages with the brand or sees the name they get it straight away and generally they do not forget it. People will respond with “creative with an eight, ah that is clever”. We have contemplated re branding, but at this point we have come too far and there is too much goodwill sitting in the name. In hindsight I may have looked at a different name.

What is the worst part of running a business?

Everything that you do is a risk and you are always on the line. When times are good you take the glory and when times get tough it is a case that you and your personal name and everything else are on the line.

Best tips to get people to pay on time?

Email the invoice directly to the accounts payable department and CC the project officer. Sounds simple, but sending invoices by post in 2007 is a certainly a thing of the past.

Sales and marketing

What is your best tip on gaining new customers?

Listen to the marketplace and keep your name out there. Do not go too hard as you will look desperate and people really do get turned off. On the other hand, do not be arrogant.

How do you find leads?

We pitch our brand as the brand of choice; this is achieved by doing the best work in the marketplace and providing an awesome end product and experience for our clients. We try not to do the dirty “cold call” as it cheapens the brand. We do, however, have a very good CRM that allows us to be professional and adaptive in the way we follow up new business.

How big is your sales force?

Currently we have an account service team of six people working under one account director, who reports directly to me. The role of the account management team is to service and grow our client base and look for new opportunities as well as new markets. For most businesses advertising is an investment and theoretically the more a client does with an agency like CRE8IVE the more their business revenue should grow.

What is it about web 2.0 that businesses don’t get?

I think we have seen a lot of businesses (big and small) develop full-on e-business sites and portals that the consumer simply does not get or want to take up. An example of this would be sites design for WAP mobiles. In my mind it is simply a case of waiting for the consumer to fully embrace the internet.

What is the most frustrating element to dealing with clients – that is, what don’t they get?

Our best projects and the best result are achieved when we do what we do. When we have a client that tells us how to do our job the project concaves and no one wins. You do not go to your lawyer and tell him/her how to do their job, just as you do not tell your accountant about some loophole in tax law. The same rules for engagement apply to our industry, most of the time.

You have to be constantly creative in your business. What happens when you burn out? What do you do?

Just get away from the business. My best ideas come from driving or by being on the water. I think a lot and by changing the environment in which I am in I tend to come up with different ideas from a different perspective. I have a saying and it is: “The more you are in the business, the more you are in the business”. It is essential that you constantly work “on” and not “in” the business.


What is happening in your industry? There is a lot of consolidation… what does the future look like?

Being able to offer everything from communication strategies, branding and design, as well as television production makes us unique in the local market. The web is by far and away the most exciting part of our industry and we need to be ready to deliver.

There are a lot of mergers happening and I would like to keep working for myself for the medium term.

Where are the opportunities and who is going out of business?

The real opportunities relate to the web and digital media as a whole. I do not know who is going out of business and I would not like to speculate. I think that newspapers are here for a while longer, as is paper in general.

What is your exit strategy?

I believe that one day we will get a knock on the door from someone wanting to buy us out. We have a great business, an awesome brand, market share and people. The ideal agency for someone on the acquisition trail.


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