The brave one
Tuesday, June 3, 2008/
John Ford’s branding business The One Centre has some big-name clients, including McDonald’s, Telstra and Audi. But, as he explains to AMANDA GOME, the factors that have made him successful almost sent him under when he sacked a $5 million client.
By Amanda Gome
John Ford’s branding business The One Centre has some big-name clients, including McDonald’s, Telstra and Audi. But the factors that have made him successful almost sent him under when he sacked a $5 million client.
John Ford was 30 when he left an advertising agency to start his own business, The One Centre. He says at the time he was viewed as a madman with a vision.
Now he is 38 and revenue is $12.5 million – and his clients include McDonald’s, Audi, Telstra, Woolworths, Arnott’s and Mars.
He tells Amanda Gome about how he built his agency, how branding is changing and why he never regretted sacking one $5 million client.
John is happy to answer your questions. Email [email protected] before end of business Friday 6 June. (See end of story for readers’ questions.)
Amanda Gome: What was your point of difference?
John Ford: I started my own business because I wanted to start a branding business that had strategic capabilities, that could create a brand and bring it to life rather than just advertising.
I could see that the economy was changing because of affluence and a democratisation of luxury. People wanted more from brands. Instead of just image, they want to conceptually engage with them.
But at the same time, communications was becoming lower and lower on the agendas of CEOs and people that ran organsiations. There was a flight to frequency instead of quality of communications. So I started The One Centre to conceptually engage beyond the sell. We have a ring as our symbol, which represents completeness.
How do you bring a brand to life?
The brand comes to life not just through the products and services but through the design, packaging, merchandising, interiors, internal culture – all the touch points of an organisation.
Which companies back then did that well?
Singapore Airlines. They were cultural vessels; in the way the girls dressed, to the scent that the airline developed. It was very powerful, created a tangible brand experience, and demonstrated Asian service culture.
Did clients get it back then, or did you have to educate the market?
We looked for like-minded clients. So we targeted clients that were going through major change and transforming their brand or creating a new one. We aligned ourselves to those more progressive thinkers.
Where did you find them?
We got on a plane. We also aligned ourselves with agencies and offered our services through them.
By working internationally we got some traction with clients, like UK supermarket chain Waitrose. They were getting into organics and hired us to look around the world at retailing into fresh food.
How did the early years go?
We set a target of $300,000 for the first year. Then $750,000 for the second. But by the second year we cracked $1 million.
And your profit back then?
It was good. We hired freelancers but we didn’t get the culture we wanted, so we started to invest in culture. That meant it was harder to make the profits from those early days.
So it was easy?
No. I have stared down many months with no revenue and had to have luck, faith – call it what you will – that revenue will come through the door. You have to maintain your optimism and determination in difficult circumstances.
So how do you cope with the stress?
I don’t worry about that. Even when facing big holes in revenue, I had only a handful of sleepless nights. I find my stress levels are lower than working in big companies where the politics that occur when working at a senior level are debilitating.
If it is really tough, I look for sources of inspiration and comfort. I read philosophy, talk to my wife and we reassure each other. She is used to working in business. She’s from a farm in northern Victoria and her parents grew tobacco. They faced lots of problems so she has a pretty good view on life and I get a lot of support from her.
So you feel you have freedom?
Yes and no. I actually removed choice from my life when I started The One Centre. If I had stayed employed I would have changed jobs a lot. Now I have tied myself to the business. I have removed my freedom and have a strong sense of duty.
How do you find clients?
I nurture the quality of the human interaction with our clients. We genuinely get to know their businesses and we build such a rapport that we use them as the strongest marketing mechanism. That means we grow on their referral.
We have also developed relationships because we have always moved in international communities so we have lifelines to global markets.
Have you had trouble with clients?
We got rid of a major client one year which really hurt us. The person we deal with damaged our people. If we hadn’t sacked the client it might have wrecked the team.
How big was the contract?
$5 million. We had to go on a massive new business drive and borrow money. I refused to sack anyone.
Ouch. Did you do it impulsively?
It was a quick decision and a long painful process. The person was duplicitous and highly manipulative and operated in a divide-and-conquer way. It was psychologically weird because we were doing great work.
I got a call in Singapore one day from this person and they were complaining about a sticker. I thought ‘we are reinventing their retail offer and staff are being harassed about a sticker?’.
We did communicate the issue to management but they were at a loss as to what to do; it is very hard to sack people.
Did you regret it?
No. But I learnt from it to target the individual and take them out, not the relationship. Six months after we resigned, the individual left. Afterwards I spoke to the CFO and the CEO and they said I should have told them what was going on.
We also had our second child. The combination of no money and no sleep – Louis never slept – was quite full on, and my wife and I were really struggling. It was a very tough time and we were facing impossible challenges, and with all the darkness that sleep deprivation and a sense of powerlessness presents.
We had to maintain a very positive and optimistic face to the staff, as we did not want to cut back, but even good people cut loose if they smell desperation, even when its from people committed to saving them.
It’s when we had no resources left that we discovered our faith during this period. It came when we were going through the mechanics of having Louis our little boy christened. The local pastor came and saw us at home to ask us if we knew what we were doing, which we thought was just a box ticking visit.
I know this sounds weird and wa wa, and I would have said ‘sure’ five years ago and passed it off as a cracker. But our lives have been changed massively by our faith, in concrete ways. None the least of which is our love when it’s tough. It’s not a popular thing to declare your faith, but it’s a cool and very powerful thing to experience.
How do you practice what you preach: Extend the brand of The One Centre through everything you do?
We want The One Centre to feel like a branding resort, somewhere where people can come to recreate and rejuevenate, and literally imagine everything.
So it extends from the design of our offices, the hospitality component, the theatrical celebration of cross-discipline creativity through our ‘transparent’ studio concept under construction at street-level, the bookstore, the cafe and showcase, the World Branding News magazine and video show, the monthly inspiration evenings on an aspect of total branding, the provision of The One Centre Sydney Harbour apartment for our visiting international clients.
All these things communicate our positioning as a world branding agency that offers clients a transformative experience.
What has been your most successful project?
I have a feeling we’re working on it now. Reinventing McDonald’s and creating its ‘Restaurants of the Future’ is the biggest singular project that a client has ever commissioned with an agency, and we’re nearly at a point of delivery. We’re helping what is undoubtedly one of the world’s most powerful brands, which lost its way for a while, refind its reason for being and express this through its most important brand touchpoint and symbol, its restaurant. We have been working locally and also with Chicago on this.
Can you measure the ROI on what you do?
Yes. If we get a positioning for a business right, and express that tangibly in both their assets and activities, it has a profound and measurable effect commercially and culturally.
We use research to inform our strategic work, evaluate our positioning and conceptual work, and evaluate it into implementation. Our world clients demand this level of rigour and case building due to the size and business-critical nature of the projects.
You don’t get the gig to rethink McDonald’s and create its ‘Restaurants of the Future’ for hundreds of store roll-outs on wishful thinking.
Who are some of your past and present clients?
We work with world brands leadership taking, and world brands in the making. Current clients include: Audi, McDonald’s, American Express, Jetstar, Nakheel (Dubai), Genting (Malaysia), Mars, PwC, Telstra, Woolworths. Also Fermiscan, Ashington, Pacsafe.
The fight for talent in your industry is brutal. How do you find top staff?
A lot approach us because we have clear positioning. They go to the website where we advertise our positions and contact us from there. We also use staff recommendations and agencies. We have had clients come and work for us.
Working with global products is hard. How do you make sure the product translates to different cultures?
The better brands are understanding that it is the total branding that differentiates them. It is no longer a battle of communication, but of demonstration.
We develop a positioning that can be a universal platform they can use anywhere. Then we bring it all together by extending the brand out into everything form packaging, communications and retail channels.
What do consumers want in a brand?
They are looking for imagination. They want to be entertained and engaged.
Are consumers changing?
There is a flight to quality and value and consumers are seeing value in meaning. They want integrity and value beyond functional delivery.
There are few commodities left. Take coffee. Starbucks was successful because it offered a great experience around coffee. Those companies doing advertising that is merely functional are missing out.
Are they becoming more skeptical about brands?
No, not skeptical, but they are finding things with a story behind it. They want a brand to connect culturally and spiritually.
We are seeing big changes happening with the central tenants of society becoming shaky and people are searching for meaning. The ones capturing people’s attention are more layered, more authentic and have a point of view.
What are the most successful brands at the moment?
The luxury brands such as Prada and Louis Vuitton. They are extending the brands out into perfumes, hotels, interior designs… brands that are working hard to define a culture and a lifestyle.
Who is doing it badly?
NSW state government. And there is a super fund that has an ad that is supposed to be funny. It is a picture of a caravan park and an elderly woman standing outside meant to be her greatest nightmare. But apart from it being quite an attractive image (sitting back in a caravan on the north coast sounds alright) it is negative advertising. Old models like this don’t cut it anymore. It is also ageist and sexist.
What would help your business?
Get rid of payroll tax. It is an outrage.
Darren Lane from Zest Wraps writes to Entrepreneur Online: Hi John, congratulations! Your story feels very familiar to me. I left my advertising job at 30 to start my own healthy fast food chain – Zest Wraps – where everything is 5% fat or less Why did I do it? I saw a need and felt that I could create a brand that filled that need better than any exisiting brand.
Eight years later, I am:
– sleep deprived, thanks to two beautiful kids,
– stressed out trying to keep cash flow possitive,
– depressed by eight years of snakes and ladders, going from one store to two stores, to being bought by a public company backed by Richard Branson, then slipping back to one store again,
– and I am still driven to see my vision of a national chain created and inspired daily by our customers’ reactions.
You are right – they are looking for imagination and engagement. I recently started an office delivery system in Melbourne that is based on an honesty box and people love the creativity and the basic human trust.
The part of your story that really hit home was the spiritual side. I agree completely, that acknowledging and praising a greater power gives you energy and magic each day. I stand on a cliff top over the bay each morning at sunrise and do my morning exercise then thank god for everything that I have. I feel fantastic afterwards and know that I am blessed. I’ve never heard a fellow Aussie talk about this before. I don’t talk about it at all. It’s not our way. The American motivators seem to preach it, but we don’t. We should. Well done!
I think what you are doing with branding is brilliant and if I were still in advertising I’d be trying to get a job with you. Can you recommend any books on branding/poitioning? I read Ries & Trout, Positioning – battlefield for the mind years ago. I should revisit it.
John, when you’re next in
Wayne Butcher writes to Entrepreneur Online: Please forgive me – until I read your article I thought Richard Henderson was the only one that knew about branding (smiling). I love business. However, if you asked me why I’d struggle to put it into words. Best I can do is point towards the magic that good brands create and say “I want to do that”. I truly admire the work that guys like you do. It adds art to the numbers of business and creates life enriching experiences. Hey John, would you point me toward some material that I can use to continue my own learning about how to build a great brand. In kind, let me tell you about Zappos.com – Tony, the CEO there, is a genius.