Same wavelength is what matters
“Owner-managed companies can run out of steam because they aren’t actually cautious enough,” suggests Lisa Rossiter, founder and managing director of Arnold Jones Associates Design.
As a statement of the counter-intuitive, seemingly that would be hard to cap, but she can provide a completely intuitive rationale. “There is always that temptation to run before knowing how to walk properly,” she says. “The point I’m making is that if the foundations aren’t there, businesses can still grow, but if a problem arises, it means they are more likely to tumble because they will find it difficult to either work through it or retract.”
And she provides a classic for instance. “What can happen with a corporate client is that they provide more and more work, but then if they are acquired, they can be gone from your roster – regardless of the relationship you have built up with them – and that can happen very quickly.”
After studying at Bournemouth Art College, Rossiter went to a London agency and worked with “some quite tough people who expected you to stay until midnight to finish a job on a set salary.”
There was an overriding reason why she set up her own business. “Do you know, deep in my heart, I just knew I could do it better,” she explains. “I have always had a passion for work, I’m good at figures, and I’m always focused, so plate spinning doesn’t worry me.” When she decided to go it alone, major client Lafarge decided to follow her.
There’s no need to ask if Rossiter believes in hiring for personality and life skills. Jobspecific skills can be learned, she says. The appointment of Thomas Hensman, who became a director in 2003 is living empirical evidence. Previously he had been a human rights investigator with the UN, and then an officer with the City of London police. This was his first foray into marketing and communications.
“The thing is that clients buy from people they like,” says Rossiter. “It doesn’t matter how creative you are or how good a service you can provide if you are not on the same wavelength. I realised Tom was a very good people person, and offered a different personality to the business, which would allows us to open different doors.”
Which at the time was important, because despite the agency’s track-record and experience in construction, aerospace, and defence, Rossiter had identified herself as impediment to growth – even though it was no reflection of her talents. “To be absolutely honest,” she says, “it was apparent AJA Associates needed another approach – gender – to really break into these markets.
In 2003 these were still very masculine-dominated sectors, and people buy from people.” The agency’s modus operandi has created a point of differentiation which has escaped most, if not all of its more urbanbased counterparts. “One of the characteristics of Lafarge was that they put key suppliers on a course to learn how to use the product, in my case plasterboard, so they would gain a better appreciation of it,” Rossiter explains. That experience has stayed with her, so when an engineering client involved in stretching limos appointed AJA Associates, they were surprised when she asked to spend two days in the factory following their entire process from order intake through to delivery.
“To be the guardian of their brand, we have to understand it as if we actually own the business,” says Rossiter. “Anyone can design a nice corporate identity or website. Developing a brand is a different task. That investment in time doesn’t always pay off but usually it means we gain a closer relationship with the client, and it’s the way we do things.”
When Rossiter started the agency, she wanted to create the next Saatchi and Saatchi. “If I had been building the company in London, I still think I could have done it, but being in the Dorset countryside means it is more challenging to grow a business,” she says enigmatically.
“The reality is that for us, growth is about being constant and cautious: there’s been something of the hare and the tortoise about our approach. But taking the time to form a considered view is important because, for example, I can see print making a comeback in this digital age, in the same way as more people are going back to the cinema instead of just downloading films. With digital communication there is no texture, so there could be something of a retro movement if you’d like to call it that.”
The agency owns its own building and lets out spare space to other businesses on short term arrangements, so there’s physical capacity for more growth. And five years hence? “I can’t think that far ahead,” replies Rossiter. “I have a busy life outside of work. I foster children, I have horses and ride every morning before work, and I have a family in Africa. My approach is that every day is exciting. What I do know is that work is an intrinsic part of my life; I can’t be without it.”