The Art of Pessimism and why it can work for you.

To view part one click here

In our last post, our associate writer Miranda Birch explained how the Art Department came into being in a matter of a few ‘mad’ weeks in 1993. Two decades later, Gerry Kelly and his team have won numerous awards, built up a following of loyal and famous clients (including The Macallan Whisky) and have associates in Edinburgh, Bergen and Chungdu. Not bad for a consultancy that began life in a converted church, with its 29 year-old creator thinking, ‘What have I done?’

Pessimism and accountability.

That rhetorical question sets the scene for Gerry’s brand of creative pessimism. His wary eye shapes the Art Department’s distinctively robust approach to brand building. The company is always mindful of the business case for design and ever watchful on behalf of clients.

It’s constantly scanning the horizon for threats. Then it turns them into exciting ideas to give your company the edge.

This post gives you a flavour of what happens when you work with the Art Department and why the Art Department’s brand of pessimism works for you.

Let’s make a start: audit and expression.

When you approach the Art Department, they start their creative process with an ‘Audit’. It’s not the sort of terminology that usually comes to mind in relation to an award-winning design team. ‘Brainstorming’ and ‘bright ideas’ maybe, but ‘audit’? Isn’t that more akin to accountancy?

But for Gerry, a fact-finding audit lays the foundation for the boundless creativity that follows – and makes their bright ideas accountable:

“So we start off identifying the strategy and we have a very easy process. It begins with an ‘audit’ – a series of questionnaires to the people involved, directors, staff and so on. Then we feed back the results to highlight the key issues which will help shape our recommendations. These actions are conducted in a relaxed manner involving individual and group discussions - in person, via Skype or both.”

After that, the Art Department looks at what they call ‘Expression’:

“It’s a plan of action. We don’t take it too far, just: ‘This is the approach you might consider. So here are some of the top level messages we think you should be putting out there. Here is a type of imagery we think would support that message. Here are the communication channels that we think you should explore. Here is a structure for how we would handle some of these communications. An outline web structure; a structure for a brochure; a structure for a video or presentation.”

Now, let’s blow your socks off.

The third phase is the really inspirational bit: the ‘Vision’. It’s breath-taking and it will do wonders for your bottom line. Gerry Kelly:

“In Vision, the presentation is a glimpse into the future. It’s the drum roll, blow-your-socks-off presentation. This is what your company could look like in the future. It gives us an opportunity to give you a vision of your business that your have never seen before.

“Because the way we do it is that we take you across every area that involves design, taking you to areas that you might not have even thought of. For instance, the environment you and your teams work in. What does it mean to anyone who walks into reception, to a meeting, the board room? What does that feel like? What does it look like? What does it mean for your staff when they get inducted to your business? When they go on your Facebook page or get your newsletter in their inbox?”

The Art Department distil this information into an easy-to-read grid, their ‘Communications Matrix’. It’s a beautifully simple and comprehensive checklist, which allows you to monitor your communications progress – whether it’s in print, online or in the bricks and mortar of your offices.

The company’s clients buy into that vision because every step of the process – Audit, Expression, Vision, Implementation – can be justified economically.

So the watchfulness that accompanies Gerry’s pessimism, the careful eye on the radar, also shapes the Art Department’s meticulous approach to building a vision for you and your company.

It spots things you’ve overlooked – problems or opportunities – and shows you how your company can rise to the challenge in a way that will inspire clients and colleagues.

Reach out. Don’t retrench.

That’s the first perk of pessimism – the process driven approach. But there’s another collateral benefit to Gerry’s wariness.

It’s not just about protecting the vital organs of your business. It’s also about keeping a weather eye on the future:

“I’m always looking out for what will bring us down! I’ve had years of thinking, well, we’ve done well this month but next month might be a disaster. Which technology is likely to come and have an adverse effect on us? Which clients might leave tomorrow? Which change in the economy or change in the sector might have a devastating effect on our company?”

For some, this fearful pessimism might mean retrenching; withdrawing into your comfort zone. For Gerry it’s the reverse. He’s constantly reaching out, looking for new ideas which will give the Art Department and their clients the edge.

What begins as an anxious scanning of the skies ends up as energising collaborations - with leading creatives in London, Bergen and other expert animators, writers and content producers in the design world.

Collaborate with the best.

When Gerry talks about his colleagues, his more ‘fearful’ vocabulary is replaced by words like ‘amazing’ and ‘fantastic’. He tells a story about how he’s not really expert at anything, except ‘surrounding himself with experts’. Over the last 23 years that is what he has done with his team of thirteen.

There’s warm admiration in his voice when he talks about his fellow directors and frontline artworkers and in-house programmers. Of the latter he says, ‘It’s brilliant watching them work. It’s all code. It’s literally a different language!’

And in a sector which changes so quickly, where talented businesses come and go, it’s instructive to see that two of his earliest appointments (Erika Forsyth and Prem Reynolds) did substantial stints with Art Department, then left (progeny/poaching) and then returned.

I’m reading in between the lines here, but I get the sense that Gerry has good memories of working with talented people before he set up the Art Department. He also knows what it’s like when good people suddenly find themselves out of a job. So another perk to his fearful pessimism is that he will never want that to happen to his team or his clients. They’re his most precious asset. He’s loathe to let them go. (And when he does, he’s also been known to tempt them back!)

Be prepared to change.

About eight years ago Gerry decided to ‘do himself out of a job’ and step out of the day-to-day running of the Art Department. He did to the Art Department what the Art Department excels at with its clients: creating a space where they can see their organisation from a fresh angle and create a new vision for their work.

During this period the Art Department has shifted from being a design company to a brand-building consultancy. It’s also consolidated its position in the market place, as a big league player:

“The industry at large has moved on. Companies are now looking for a bit more strategic insight. So there is a blurring of creative industry/business consultancy because people really, really want to validate the investment they are making. They want to hear it first hand, what it is you are bringing to the table.”

What pessimism brings to your table.

An at-a-glance guide to the benefits of Gerry’s watchful eye:

  • A systematic approach to strategy building that puts the profitability of your company first;
  • Long-range vision, which keeps tabs on underlying trends. The Art Department have got the future covered on your behalf;
  • An appreciation for the best ideas and talent, in the UK and well beyond. You can expect consistently brilliant things from the Art Department’s team.

In short…

Pessimism might not be the first emotion you’d select when building a successful business. But if you look at the evidence – the rigorous process, the boundless creativity, the respect for people – it’s actually not a bad place to start.

Gerry Kelly has a point.

The Art Department’s brand of pessimism helps you to build a compelling presence in the market place. Get in touch today, to find out how we can work on this together.

This post was written by Art Department associate Miranda Birch, Miranda Birch Media. Miranda draws on her journalistic background at the BBC (Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and Desert Island Discs) to find the stories hidden within companies – stories that reinforce their brand and demonstrate the value they bring to their clients.

To view part one click here

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