Business Essentials: Chaos rules, but they need to have a system

Can a marketing firm work more formally without stifling creativity? asks Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

The marketing consultancy Omobono was set up in 2000 by friends working over a kitchen table, and everyone pitched into projects on an ad hoc basis. But the company has grown, and now managing director Ben Dansie feels it's time to introduce systems and processes that can bring order and a more solid base. "Can this be done without changing the culture and the freedom that people are used to?" he asks.

Omobono - named after the patron saint of business, a 12th- century Italian merchant - was started by Mr Dansie and two directors who all wanted to escape the big London ad agency life. The fourth member of the team was Peter Owen-Jones, part-time vicar and presenter of BBC2's Battle for Britain's Soul.

"We saw an opportunity," says Mr Dansie. "Most marketing campaigns focus on the bit at the end of the process - the ad campaign or the brochure, for example. What makes us different is our desire to develop a strategy prior to execution.

"Communications is always more complicated than just requiring a brochure," he continues. "That's why the work we do covers just about every way of communicating with someone - advertising, graphic design, events, online, training seminars and internal communications, for instance."

This ethos, he says, has endured as the firm has expanded to 10 people. "But with the greater number of staff, as well as the higher volume of business, I want to know how to create the right processes to make the business environment seem less chaotic."

Mr Dansie has already brought in basic agency ground rules. "We have a management process guide which tells people how to do things like run an account and deal with invoicing. So we are reasonably buttoned down. But it just doesn't feel as though it's gelling yet."

At the other end of the spectrum, he values the freedom enjoyed by staff to do things like walk through the countryside surrounding their offices in Cambridge to discuss a problem. "I don't want to remove that liberty and creativity, but I want to make it all feel more organised."

Omobono's clients - which include the likes of Standard Life, BP and Norwich Union - aren't aware of any problems, insists Mr Dansie. "In fact, they are very patient because they know that creative businesses can be chaotic. So that's in our favour. But for our own sake, I'd like to know what we can do."

www.omobono.co.uk

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Eric Burrows, director of consultancy, The Work Foundation

"Many start-ups are seduced into 'being more organised' when there is no clear business case.

"Let's hypothesise a strategy for Omobono. It encompasses client value and creativity, managed chaos for staff, and providing an escape for new talent from the larger firms' straitjackets.

"Omobono should require that any new processes contribute to all its strategic imperatives; if not, throw them out. A couple of candidates to back: processes for sharing knowledge and experience, so that clients are guaranteed access to its best work and ideas; and a recruitment process that provides the firm with a steady flow of talented, creative staff.

"Second, Omobono should resurrect 'empowerment' - not another word for democracy but a clear delineation of the 'tights and looses'. If meeting its strategic goals entails certain processes, it should have no trouble signing up. But, within them, chaos rules - it's how Omobono does business."

Ruth Spellman, chief executive, Investors in People

"Mr Dansie is rightly proud of his creative culture. But creativity should never be a substitute for effective and systematic management.

"Although he is in communications, Mr Dansie, like many leaders of small businesses, could probably do a better job of communicating with his own workers. He should consult them on where they feel opportunities lie and improvements can be made.

"Staff in small firms often feel that their roles are ill-defined, particularly where the company has grown quickly and been forced to employ on an ad hoc basis. Mr Dansie should ensure that job descriptions are clear and understood, to avoid confusion or inefficiencies.

"Finally, he should make sure he has a thorough and regular appraisal system in place that also reflects his business objectives.

"This will not be complicated to set up, but the discipline required will be appreciated by both him and his employees in the long run."

Helen Bartimore, chartered occupational psychologist

"The psychological contract within this firm will change - as it grows, this is inevitable. A support culture (one, in essence, where people take care of one another) can remain as long as all employees are engaged in the changes being made. If not, a power culture will emerge in which people understand their office as one where reality is defined by the MD.

"So how 'shared' is the new vision and does everyone understand why change is needed? The lack of 'gelling' might well indicate insufficient staff engagement. If so, meetings should be arranged to create greater ownership."

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