Over-planning can stifle creativity

Adaptability can so often be lost when any business takes a one-pointed view of operations. Take off the blinkers, says Kym Martin, and look around. By TIM LEVIEN.

By Tim Levien

Forward planning is something business owners either do, or mean to do. Not Kym Martin (right).

He believes too much planning and budgeting for the future blinkers his ability to see immediate opportunities, especially in the field of “new media”, and how he can apply the latest technologies to the needs of his clients.

Martin is the founder and creative director of South Australia’s biggest advertising, marketing and design agency, which bears his name, Martins.

By keeping his mind open, and encouraging his 90 staff to do the same, Martin is able to satisfy the marketing needs of a diverse range of clients, including Peter Lehman Wines, the oil and gas producer Santos, and the property developer Stockland.

“I think it’s critical that we remain open to new ideas,” he says. “I recently saw a report on solar powered lighting and suddenly realised how that could be used by one of our clients.

“By putting an array of solar panels across the top of a display (advertising a property development) we could have a self-powered sign that would save a fortune for the client in trenching and running power lines, which is a major cost for a developer. The sign doesn’t need to be on all night. It just needs enough power for the first few hours of darkness.”

Martin says that if he had been too focused on meeting a set plan, or working within a set budget, he would never see the opportunities evolving almost daily from changing technology.

His policy of “creative flexibility” flies in the face of conventional advice dished up to small, family-owned companies that are being constantly encouraged to draw up budgets, and plan for at least a year ahead.

“The family culture we’ve created is one of our great assets,” Martin says. “Maintaining family values is an important part of our succession planning. My brother Gary, and daughter Alaire, are maintaining the cultural aspects of the business as part of their work.

“They make sure we don’t forget things like birthdays, organising social days, and sending flowers and presents when someone has a baby.”

Those little things may sound corny, but they helped Martins win the 2005 first generation category of the Australian Family Business of the Year Award, and a 2004 Telstra South Australian Business Award. In 2006 Martin himself was a finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

Martin says close family ties mean that he has no plans to buy another business, or sell what he has. “I don’t see how we can transfer our culture,” he says. It also means he is thinking ahead about succession planning.

Forgetting family, cultural and human links in a creative business was his biggest mistake, Martin says. “A few years ago I misread the situation and we lost a couple of our most creative people. I simply lost touch with the human aspect of what we do.

“Since I made that mistake I’ve got them back, and I won’t make that mistake again.”

Martin, who started his working life as a signwriter, refuses to conform, which is just as well because his business has grown from a turnover of $4.5 million five years ago to $30 million today, while staff numbers have swollen from 30 to 90.

“Staying one step ahead of the wider industry is a key to what we do,” he says over coffee in the Adelaide suburb of Norwood. “We recognised at an early stage how digital media was replacing conventional media, and how we had to design fully integrated marketing and advertising campaigns.”

More than 20 years ago, the 50-year-old Martin says he saw competitors religiously using traditional pen and ink methods to create advertising artwork. “We took the leap then and invested $30,000 in computer design equipment, and we’ve never looked back.”

He also cites an example of signwriting where some competitors still use brush and paint rather than vinyl lettering and digital printers.

As well as embracing as much new technology as fast as he can, Martin also believes in keeping everything under the one roof. “Other firms will outsource work such as exhibition fabrication,” he says. “We do everything here.”

To illustrate the point, Martins managing director Tony Wilson conducts a guided tour through the business where creative writers rub shoulders with visual design experts, who rub shoulders with carpenters working on exhibits, who rub shoulders with technicians working a big digital printing machine.

The coffee room is a common meeting point for everyone – though getting a cup from Wilson is almost on “bended knee”, so keen is he to conduct his tour, and show every last piece of equipment, and introduce everyone in the firm.

Once caffeine levels are safely returned to normal it’s over to Martin himself to explain how a marketing and design firm in Adelaide works for clients such as Sydney-based Stockland, undertaking a property development in Perth – with the Settler’s Hill estate south of Perth an example.

“What we offer is a fully integrated mix of marketing, advertising and design,” Martin says. “We believe it’s a unique mix in Australia. “By keeping everything we do under the one roof here in Adelaide we also maintain tight quality control.”

But, if there is a key to what Martin has created it is an ability to keep an open mind in a fast changing world.

Talk of meeting the needs of clients, and offering a one-stop shop, are old hat. Anyone with a management manual from Dymocks can do that. What most people can’t do is look around them, spot changing technologies and think about how they fit into their business, and how they can be adapted to meet the needs of clients.


For more stories of innovational success stories, see our Growth Resources, Innovation, section.



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