With 100% control of their numbers, and an accessible, optimised, simple view of the critical figures – in real-time – Peter and Tony can now make strategic business decisions with 100% certainty.
We Are Acuity Limited is a full-service design agency, with a niche offering to its national and global clients. The company started in 1998, born out of its founder, Tony Searle’s, vision and ambition to stamp his own mark on the creative world. He was joined, during that first year, by Peter Cronin, and together they set about building a business to help global brands engage personally with their end-user audiences.
Over the last twenty-plus years the company has grown slowly and steadily, and today it employs twenty-six people in its vibrant and happy team. As you can imagine, there have been many challenges and stories along the way, and they have learnt enough life and business lessons to fill an entire book – but this overview will share just a few of those key ideas and the company’s ongoing vision for the next twenty years.
Building a business by design
Peter Cronin had been influenced by an entrepreneurial father, who he saw running a design agency, from an early age. This inspired him to pursue a similar direction and, after finishing his degree in graphic design from the London College of Printing, he set off to find his place in the world. This adventure started with a few years travelling in Australia, where he worked in various ad agencies, then continued closer to home with agencies in Rickmansworth and Harrow-on-the-Hill. Nothing he found in those places quite ticked the box, and he eventually answered an ad which brought him into Tony’s fledgling business.
Today, Peter is the company’s managing director, and his job is to shape and steer its direction towards the vision of becoming the UK’s foremost retailer marketing agency. And they’re doing that by using their clients’ Global Creative and Activating it Locally.
In those days, however, they had just one customer (albeit a global automotive brand), and all their attention went into making sure its requirements were being maintained. But, while working with Citroën was rewarding and exciting, Tony and Peter were very aware that a one-client business model is not a sustainable one. So, they set about implementing a project of expansion and diversification to shore up their market position and create a platform for growth. They also laid down one of the underlying principles of the business in those early years – and it is one that has served them well ever since.
‘A narrow specialism broadens the geography.’
In real terms, this means that a business with a niche service, which cannot be easily replicated or found elsewhere, will attract the right clients from far and wide. A more generalised ‘me too’ business, however, tends to be a choice based on price, convenience or impulse buy.
From big to small and small to big
Paradoxically, as a relatively small business that markets its services to national or global giants, We Are Acuity’s expertise is translating giant, internationally recognised brands into tangible services that engage with individual end-user customers in their homes or on the high street. Soon, after proving that their service and specialism was generating results for Citroën and beginning to spread their message, other big brands began to take notice.
As the business grew and Tony and Peter set their sights on attracting more of their ideal clients, it quickly became clear to them that moving from a small business to a larger business was fraught with challenges. They realised that growing a business was not as straightforward as winning customers and increasing the capacity to deliver. With growth came the need for extra staff, and that meant internal policies, which led to new processes and training; then scaling up the facilities and equipment followed, and so on and so on … Growth, it seemed, meant more than just working with more clients and bigger numbers.
‘Looking back,’ Peter observed, ‘it is almost as if there are sticking points – three staff, nine staff, fifteen staff and then a team of twenty – where a step change is needed before you can grow beyond each stage.’
Scaling up by laying processes down
The other difficulty in expanding from a twoperson, then a five-person business, and into double figures, is that client interactions become spread across more people. Where a phone call from Peter to chase up an invoice or verbally agree a purchase order was once deemed acceptable, a deeper level of professional process now beckoned. Tony and Peter soon learned that there are only a limited number of hours in the day and that other people needed to take on some of the tasks that they had previously entrusted only to themselves.
Even the colouring in (or, in other words, the creative design work which they both loved so much) would increasingly (if occasionally begrudgingly) be left in the hands of the design talent they had employed to deliver the frontline results. Growing a business can be incredibly cruel sometimes, too …
Fortunately for Peter and Tony, they recognised early on that only the best design talent in the marketplace would meet the expectations that their clients had come to expect. So they chose their replacements carefully and backed them up with an equally talented support team, and eventually arrived at a place where the client services department outnumbered the designers.
Today, almost everything adheres to a process, and everyone knows exactly what needs to be done at every stage of a project. You might be forgiven for thinking that this formalisation might hinder the output of a creative business, but the reality is quite the opposite.
We Are Acuity is delivering some of its most advanced, exciting, creative, eye-turning and best-performing results to-date – and Peter and Tony are even getting to do a little bit of the colouring in themselves from time to time.
Meades are making sense of the mist
When the business started, as with all startup businesses, the accounts were completed in-house, then signed off by an accountant. A bookkeeper was introduced as the business grew, initially freelance, and eventually on the payroll. And, as time went on, the company evolved its own internal way of doing things that was both unconventional and inflexible. The headline numbers looked OK, and cash flow seemed to be running in the black, but Peter couldn’t escape that niggling feeling that some inefficiencies lurked ominously under the bonnet.
A bit of research, a recommendation from a book called The World’s Most Inspiring Accountants, and a few meetings led the company to hire Meades Group to take up the mantle of managing their accounts. In describing how he knew that something needed to change, but it was still a frightening prospect, Peter said: ‘Changing from Sage to Xero felt like the biggest thing we had done in twenty years.’ With a smile, he then added, ‘But the sky didn’t fall in and the end result was like walking out of thick fog and into clarity.’
With 100% control of their numbers, and an accessible, optimised, simple view of the critical figures – in real-time – Peter and Tony can now make strategic business decisions with 100% certainty. This means that they can find even more of the ‘right’ customers, with the right profiles, that will reward the business with the right return.
From a start-up with one customer, a handful of talent and big ambitions, twenty years ago, We Are Acuity has become a process-driven, marketleading specialist in creating multi-channel marketing strategies and creative campaigns. Its clients include global car manufacturers, e-commerce giants, hotel chains, international coffee shop brands, national supermarkets and a whole range of big-name retailers who are looking to engage with their end-user clients in their homes and on the high street.
The chances are that, even if you didn’t know you were doing so, you have come into contact with some of We are Acuity’s handiwork. And if you have, now you are aware that it is all down to the process-driven scaling up of two men’s twenty year-old vision and creative ambition.