Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and political unrest, Rodney Fitch created Fitch in the UK in 1972. In doing so, he formed a business that would come to be at the vanguard of what is the design industry.
Today, Fitch is ambitiously designing the future, bucking a trend that’s seen the demise of many branding consultancies around the world. In Asia, the firm, led by Andrew Crombie as CEO of Southeast and North Asia, recently acquired a majority stake in StartJG in Hong Kong, an impressive, mid-sized brand and customer experience design consultancy managed by Jonathan Cummings, who is now Fitch chairman Hong Kong and group business director for Southeast Asia and North Asia.
The acquisition comes at a turbulent time for many design consultancies but is testament to Fitch’s commitment to Asia, explain Simon Bolton, group CEO of Fitch and The Brand Union, and Tim Greenhalgh, chairman and chief creative officer of Fitch.
Bolton and Greenhalgh believe there is a shift underway in the way brands approach design. On a recent visit to Hong Kong, the pair discuss the changes that are unsettling traditional set ups, and why, at Fitch, it’s not just about aesthetics, but more about applying the principles of design to create ‘experiences’. In this interview, they say the internal challenge is to build a culture around authentic creativity in the increasingly complex space of technology and business, and as an industry to work harder to prove to clients return on investment. So, what’s next for the business of design?
Atifa Silk: Is the business of design in good shape?
Simon Bolton: My background and training was at Ogilvy. I was a graduate trainee in London, and I spent the first five years specialising in international clients. It was a very unfashionable part of the business 35 year ago; at the time, everyone wanted to work on domestic brands because that was often where you did the most interesting and creative work. I worked on Air Canada with a client who said, “Our product isn’t great. We’re way behind competitors and we’re genuinely giving you a blank sheet of paper because we’re not going to be upgrading our product in seats, aircraft or service for some time.” So we came up with a theme to show that when you’re on Air Canada, you’re going to have hospitality that’s genuine and so good that you won’t want to get off the plane at the end of the flight. There was a British irony in that no matter how long the flight, no one wants to get off the plane because they’re having such bloody great fun. Communication has moved on since then and in many ways it’s very transactional. There are fewer suppliers that are really taking a long-term view about how to build their brand. There is so much turbulence and discontinuity around this and it’s very difficult to know if what you set out now will be still in place even in six months or a couple of years.
Atifa Silk: What brought you to Fitch?
Simon Bolton: There was a seminal moment when I got to JWT London. After 30 days into the job I read a report, which stated that JWT is going out of business in London. That’s ridiculous, I thought, this is the most famous brand in advertising. But here’s the currency that we’re dealing with: we look at our top clients, all with great spends and big, famous companies—Nestlé, Unilever, Kraft and Kimberly-Clark—and they all had something in common. They were all FMCG brands using ad agencies to create 30-second copy. We didn’t have a single service brand in our portfolio. No telco, bank or retail. So we set about changing the company and it was a pretty good story. But I fell out with the JWT management about four years later, so at that time Martin [Sorrell] suggested I run a branding design business called Enterprise IG. That was 10 years ago.
This idea that we’re living in uncertain times is now more than ever true.
The creative mind is at its fore.
When Martin Sorrell approached me about the job, the first thing I said was: “What a terrible name for a design agency; it sounds like a car-buying company or a division of HP or IBM.” Martin said he came up with the name and actually thought it was quite good. The company had been going for six years and was a confederation of different, acquired businesses and had never made its budget. Martin said, “Make budget and come tell me whether you still feel strongly about the name.” One year on, we made budget for the first time. We knocked on Martin’s door and asked about changing the name. We’re going to call ourselves Brand Union. We launched Brand Union, which is an interesting business because it’s in a joint venture with Ogilvy in Asia-Pacific, and we’ve got seven offices here. About three years ago, Martin asked me to team up with Tim [Greenhalgh] to get involved with Fitch; and we’ve had a strong run.
Atifa Silk: Why are agencies struggling?
Simon Bolton: Many branding agencies are having a challenge right now because they have tended to be slow to react to marketplace needs. They have not been as agile and nimble as they want to be. Because, internally, brand positioning, that’s a kind of piece of intellectual, a sort of capital if you like; and in the old days, and I remember CEOs saying to me 10 years ago, “Right, I need to position my brand in this certain way”; or “I’m doing a merger and how do I now get the proposition right?” But everything’s fluid at the moment and it requires sort of constant running change. You can’t create that thing and fortress it and say, “Oh, you know, it’s going to be fine for the next five years”; we know it just doesn’t hold true in our kind of world.
Tim Greenhalgh: What I’ve sensed is that in the old days, branding and branding agencies were very much about look and feel, and you would then broadcast your brand out across every different interface. And you would do it in a very disciplined manner, and it was all about consistency, consistency, consistency. That was the case in the ’90s up to 2010. But then you look at a brand like Aesop, which is a very powerful brand in its own space, and yet every story is different. It doesn’t follow any of those roles. I believe there is this realisation and shift that it’s moved from being just decoration and a 2D interface to an experience and the brand is what you feel it is. This was always known, but it’s never been expressed in that central way that we deal with—the whole sense around experience. That’s why I believe this is the right time for our whole category; the experience agencies and retail agencies, because we’ve come from a heritage of creating really fantastic experiences, and that’s the new branding.
Atifa Silk: What makes Fitch different?
Tim Greenhalgh: When Fitch started in 1972, Rodney [Fitch]’s mission was to give people better places to shop. That’s not changed. We’re a consumer-focused business. We do our own research into consumers and how they’re changing around the world. But we are now asking, ‘What is the core emotion of a business or a brand or a service provider? How do we then realise that in a physical way or a digital way?’ And then get to something we’re quite passionate about, which is: ‘What is their experience signature?’ You can use different marketing terminology, but the idea that a brand can have a signature that you recognise is incredibly compelling and it should be evident in everything that the brand does. We have to understand what consumers want, what is it that’s going to make them passionate, what’s the reward they’re going to get, and what’s the ease they’re going to get from the experience? You take Virgin—that’s a company that understands what its brand is, but also what its proposition to consumers is. That’s from the clubhouse, the lamps’ design to the cabin itself and the experience onboard to every single thing on the journey. That’s how Virgin built Virgin Atlantic in particular and then across the other Virgin businesses built its brand. It couldn’t afford to compete in advertising terms with BA and in terms of media spend and make that much noise, so it was always very smart about making noise elsewhere. It’s moved from being places to buy to places to be. You take out the transaction aspect, which was that sort of brutal bit right at the counter, and you’re on your way—everything else about the experience is about a place to be.
Atifa Silk: At a time when everything is fluid, how do you create ‘sustainable’ brand strategies?
Simon Bolton: We talk about the idea of creating designs that are in a constant state of beta. One of the things we used to do was discuss with our clients how long things would last—would it be five or seven years before it was all redone again? Because it had to last at least that time. Whereas the world we’re living in now—this app technology world—is also influencing the physical world. The brand model is to create things that are solid in their positioning and in their signature, but also importantly now more fluid and agile in the way that they can be represented and changed over time. This idea that we’re living in uncertain times is now more than ever true. The creative mind is at its fore, because it has to listen to the signs on the street, listen to what is happening, understand what consumers are saying and thinking, but also react quickly with ideas that may be different tomorrow.
Atifa Silk: What answers do clients want?
Tim Greenhalgh: The majority of questions that we’re being asked at the moment from clients is what we mean by service. There is a reevaluation of what service is, whether that is remote service or actual person-to-person service. That’s because over time brands have factored out the human being, and are now having to factor them back in; the face of the brand needs to be a smile, and the right choice of language, and it’s becoming increasingly important. Of course it’s about appropriate service at the appropriate time. People want things quicker and faster than ever before, and technology can enable some of that. We worked with a major hotel group on an idea called, the ‘Art of reception’, where reception stops being a furniture and actually becomes a state of mind.
Atifa Silk: What is the quality of talent coming into the business?
Simon Bolton: This interesting change for our industry is also reflected in the types of students that are coming through. Fitch has always worked closely with colleges on curriculum, and the types of students coming through and their skillsets are quite different from 10 years ago. It’s their outlook that’s different. They don’t just do logos or design shelves. They do everything and are capable of it.
Atifa Silk: What can the industry do better?
Tim Greenhalgh: One of the things that we aren’t good enough at is talking about results and working out the monetisation of some of the work that we’re doing. Without a doubt, this is a huge trend that clients in every area of marketing are asking for. The days of clients coming along and saying, “We’ve got all these retail sites across North America, we now want to do the new flagship, and that will then set the kind of rhythm for our business for the next five to 10 years” are gone for all the reasons we just discussed. Clients are open to experimenting more, but they need to have the data support points to underpin what we’re proposing doing. And we need more experimentation. You always ought to have three or four different strategies underway rather than the one you’re banking on and then after a year or 18 months you work out it’s either not going to be affordable, it can’t be done, or whatever.