Management: Imagination makes things happen: Disorganisation and a haphazard approach to projects are paying dividends for a design-led company

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The Independent Online
TO VISIT Imagination is to enter a fantasy world. For a start, the airy, film set-like interior of the building in the West End of London is at odds with the unprepossessing exterior.

But more important, at a time when everybody is talking about breaking down organisational structure, this seems to be a genuine example of a company that operates effectively without relying on the usual divisions into departments and managerial layers.

The company extends this disorganisation to its area of operation. Although it is involved in such areas as advertising and corporate communications, its founder, Gary Withers, cannot really describe what it does. Rather, operating under the motto 'Nothing is impossible', the company expands its repertoire in response to what it is asked to do.

As a result, its activities range from lighting the Lloyd's building in the City of London, through redesigning the dinosaur room at the Natural History Museum to organising financial roadshows for the privatisation of BT, British Gas and other utilities.

Although all creative work is still done from London, Imagination has opened an office in Atlanta, Georgia, because of its work for the Holiday Inn group, which is based there, and for the Olympic Games, which are to be held in the city in 1996.

But grand events are a speciality. When BA's executives wanted to make their employees feel better about the merger with British Caledonian, Imagination came up with the idea of a mammoth party - held in a disused hangar every night for two weeks - to say thank you to the 40,000 staff. And when Arthur Andersen, the leading accountancy firm, held its annual meeting of 1,200 partners and their spouses at London's Alexandra Palace late last year, Imagination was there to orchestrate it.

For Ford - with which it has a strategic partnership and which accounts for 20 per cent of its billings - it organises launches of its cars around Europe. The relationship has also led to Imagination setting up a communications link between the company's executives and its dealerships. As a result of gaining this expertise, it claims to have become Britain's largest business television producer.

'It's follow your nose. You see an opportunity and you think, how can we get in on that?' Mr Withers said, attempting to explain his company's success.

It is the sort of seemingly crazy approach to business that was bound to attract management guru Tom Peters. Accordingly, Imagination featured in his latest bestseller, Liberation Management, published in paperback (Pan, pounds 9.99) this week.

He paints a rather disturbing picture of teams of young people working all hours in a rush of energy. But Mr Withers insists that it is not always like that. 'There's a lot of working through the night. But it's their choice. Some people are hopeless in the mornings.'

Founded in 1978 and now 200-strong, with a turnover last year of pounds 32m, the organisation is set up to encourage this. The offices never close, and a restaurant in the basement is open early till late. There are recording studios, television editing suites and extensive model- making facilities, so that clients can be given a clear idea of what a project might look like, development director, Dilys Maltby says. A roof-top conservatory area is frequently hired out for fashion shoots and - at weekends - for parties.

All this, combined with a list of specialists stretching from copywriters to set designers, means that clients - advertising and public relations agencies as well as the companies themselves - can drop in for particular requirements. As Mr Withers acknowledges, this is altering the organisation's relationship with the regular advertising world.

'Clients are looking for people to do things differently. Advertising agencies have been very good clients, but the clients are coming straight to us, because a lot of them are stuck in a rut.'

He believes the company's originality comes from hiring people with a wide range of disciplines and then keeping interference to a minimum. In Tom Peters' book, he describes his approach as akin to how he understands the Walt Disney organisation - acting like a bumblebee, 'floating around pollinating ideas, providing the creative spark, but with no line responsibility as such'.

(Photograph omitted)

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