Believe, support, sustain: the secrets of Dow Design’s longevityby Donald Holder on 12/07/2012
Photo by Jane Ussher
Annie Dow of Dow Design describes what she does as ‘selling a dream before it has been created’. Managing to do that for two decades takes a whole lot of savvy, writes Donald Holder from The Pond.
Dow Design: what began as a small husband-and-wife business has now been a dominant force in New Zealand FMCG packaging design for almost 20 years. So you can bet excellent design work is a given – they’ve created superb work for some of New Zealand’s most iconic brands, including Fonterra, DB Breweries, Tegel, Hellers, and Robert Harris.
But how has this modest-sized business stayed at the top of its game for so long, added more clients to its roster, and retained big, restless clients year after year after year?
Annie Dow says it has something to do with only hiring senior designers who don’t get out of bed for anything less than creating great work at a strategic level – and leaving the day-to-day grunt work for other companies.
And it has something to do with specialising in just FMCG packaging and strategic brand work – and not trying to do ‘everything’. And it’s about cultivating client relationships to the point where everyone feels ‘part of the family’.
But there’s a lot more that seems to be built into the Dow Design business model, something that has developed as the company has grown.
Lean by design
Right from the get-go back in 1993, Annie Dow and her husband Greg took a lean, savvy approach to the business, setting up shop in small premises in Margaret Street and employing a freelance designer and a part-time accountant to set them free to concentrate on sales and client management.
As the work grew they contracted more freelance designers, digital production resources, and an external business advisor until, after four years, they felt confident enough to move to a larger base in France Street and start hiring fulltime staff.
“The philosophy was to always leverage the skills you have, to spend 80% of your time doing just the stuff you’re good at,” says Dow.
“The key to us was focusing on selling in the very beginning. It was about making our reputation in packaging and branding and leveraging off our previous connections. That’s how momentum built for us. It was really important for us to get the skills around us so we could focus on that pure business liaison and relationships, so we could get on and do the doing.”
New century, new office, new business model
In 2001 Dow Design moved to its current Abbey Street home, nestled amongst panel beaters and mechanics in a necklace of sunlit rooms designed by architect Nicholas Stevens around an elegant central courtyard.
The business was now growing strongly enough for Annie and Greg to relinquish some of the client service duties to account managers and begin formalising their business processes. That meant taking a lot of functions online – online proofing systems, online digital libraries, online mood board systems, online archiving – a gutsy investment in technology that has saved time and money.
It was about this time that Dow Design became a Group with the formation of Brother design. Primarily set up to handle all design work for Foodstuffs’ own label, Brother enabled Dow Design to take on conflict business and operate a low-impact option for smaller clients.
Keeping it controllable
Dow says staying hands-on at the helm has helped prevent the wheels from falling off as the company grew.
“I haven’t gone ahead and employed people like strategists and all sorts of levels and layers because you start to lose your real skill of great creative. You start to become much more about staff management. I’m trying to retain a similar model to the one we had when we moved here whilst improving it all the time.
“So you have to lead the business but you also have to give people the space to be creative. Ultimately I have to make the bigger decisions but if you have skilled staff you can give them autonomy and you know they can make the right decisions. Then I’m not spending my time over-managing.”
Supporting the core
Dow Design today comprises five senior designers, a creative director, a financial and operations director, three account directors, strategy, new business, three production people, one studio support, IT support, admin staff, and the small team at Brother.
The idea is to build support structures around the five core designers so there’s guidance and processes where there needs to be and space for ideas everywhere else.
“For instance, a creative director can over-direct and we don’t have that here. My creative director allows the designers to come up with the core brand idea and then just guides them. It’s about giving the designers the freedom to express themselves and breathe life into their projects.”
Dow says her people are her most critical asset, which is a common enough sentiment in business. The difference is she puts some serious resource into safeguarding their welfare and keeping them happy, including employing an external HR consultancy.
Making work a happy place to be
The approach appears to be working: Dow’s designers typically stay with the company for a decade or more. Dow says it’s more than just getting great work that they love doing, it’s about the whole package.
“We buy them the latest equipment, we back them with good processes, we try and make their day easier. We’ve never been afraid to invest in people or processes or systems or equipment. We’re not frightened to support and believe and sustain.
“If you invest in people, give them the best, you get the best work back. Genuine commitment, passionate commitment, and people that love what they do – that makes it more worthwhile. It’s not in my character to be Scrooge.”
Small company, big picture
Unusually for a company of its size, Dow has recently added a ‘mini’ board of governance consisting of six directors – three external and three internal ¬– that meets quarterly to “helicopter up” and review the business.
“The advantage of that is to get away from the day-to-day and think big picture. Also to have external advice and lean on their skills to make decisions that you might otherwise falter in making.
“I think it keeps me focused as a leader. It’s also good for me to get some external inspiration too. That’s important for me. As a leader you need to be inspired too and I think you need to be tapped into other leadership conversations.”
Planning for leadership change
One of those leadership conversations is about succession, particularly since the tragic death of Annie Dow’s husband Greg four years ago. Dow says the business kept her centred during that terrible time and has focused her on preparing the business to carry on without her when she eventually steps back from hands-on involvement.
“That’s my big challenge over the next decade, to find the right succession model that will enable the business to survive me without losing the things that make the brand great. It’s early days yet but I’m confident we can do it.”
Standing up for your truth
At the end of the day, design is a “people’ business. Clients have to be kept happy – but that doesn’t mean being a doormat.
“You’ve got to learn to not let clients walk all over you. When you know they’re terribly wrong, you’ve got to bring them on board. You’ve got to coerce them around. You’ve got to be convinced of your own truth.”
About the author:
Donald Holder is a Senior Writer represented by The Pond specialising in website content, e-newsletters, journalism, and writing for design. See his profile here.