A series of interviews with the founders of independent + successful ad agencies and creative studios.

Damon + Adam

Studio Thick

June 1, 2017

Interviewed by: Glenn Rogers

Photography by: Justin Pearson

Can you explain what Studio Thick does?

We apply strategic design (i.e. bringing together the logic of traditional strategy and the creativity of design) to work through complex social and environmental problems for “good.” It usually results in some form of policy change, strategy, digital product, or website that affects people, communities, or the planet in a positive way.

How long have you been in business and how large is your team? How would you describe the culture at Studio Thick?

We turn five in a couple of months time, and are 37 people as of today—mostly in Melbourne—but we’re also in the process of opening our Sydney offering.

Our team comes from a diverse range of backgrounds (by design), but we are very much united in wanting to make a positive impact through our work. Our people are lovely and clever, and the standards are pretty high internally.

What does a typical project look like at Studio Thick?

Our projects are really diverse. At the moment, we are conducting research and developing a future vision with youth refuges; updating the brand and website for a domestic violence organization; and developing new services for a crisis help service.

You both honed your craft at one of Australia’s most successful digital agencies, DT, before starting Thick. What made you decide it was time to venture out on your own?

Since the early days, DT was always full of top-shelf talent who were unafraid to stretch themselves. It meant that everyone grew really quickly, and a typical day at work was exciting, challenging, and rewarding. Of the many lessons we learned at DT, this was probably the biggest one.

I think we both left thinking we’d like to start our own little thing, “scratching that itch” to build a business and steer the ship. We loved the craft of what we did, and DT was (and still is) one of the best at it—so it was hard to leave.

The missing piece for us was just wanting to apply that same craft to purpose-based work. Adam and I had our own “army of one” agencies for that first year, but during that time, we figured out that we shared the same vision and really loved working together.

Starting out, what were some of the early challenges that you didn’t expect? Was it tough to win new business without an agency reputation?

There is definitely a slight weirdness when you’re used to having a 100+ person agency behind you, and then suddenly it’s just you. We tried to communicate to the market that, despite our size, we were experienced leaders and a safe pair of hands. People love to share in the story of stepping out, taking some risks, and starting something new. We were genuinely surprised how many people wanted to support it and be a part of it.

The support we got and the passion that we heard in those early meetings was really energizing. I think we tapped a vein when we connected the dots between being a hungry, early-stage, “challenger” business, and having a genuine purpose. People seemed to really want to give us a crack. 

Did you ever try to appear bigger or more established than you were to win clients?

We never tried to appear like something we weren’t, but we definitely had to appear capable of anything. In the early days, the answer to any brief and any deadline was “yes”—followed by a mad scramble to figure out how we could deliver.

I think we tapped a vein when we connected the dots between being a hungry, early-stage, “challenger” business, and having a genuine purpose. People seemed to really want to give us a crack.

How do you typically negotiate payment with clients? Has this evolved at all over the years, and do you see a noticeable trend away from hourly fees?

More often than not, we’re doing projects based on estimates and based on day rates. We work with our clients to manage the scope together and try to make the right decisions as the project unfolds. Sometimes we work on clean “burn down” projects, where it’s essentially a capped amount of time and materials.

Things are changing a little, but ultimately clients still want some certainty that we are going to get them to the finish for an agreed investment.

How do you handle the scheduling of work and the inevitable downtime between projects? Do you have internal projects you work on?

Evening out the lumps is always a challenge. We have an amazing support team who wrestle with capacity and scheduling week-to-week. Most of our team can play a variety of roles on a project, which helps a lot in terms of workload.

In quieter times, there are always plenty of internal projects, and many of them relate to product development.

How does the location of your team members affect the dynamic of your work culture? Have you grouped team members by project or by discipline? Do you allow remote work?

We are in the process of opening our second office in Sydney, which means we are learning how to collaborate better remotely. One of the principles I love, which I think I’m stealing from the government’s DTA, is that “If one person is working remotely, we are all working remotely.”

About a third of the team are Service Designers, and they do a lot of contextual/field research, so the number of people “on the floor” is pretty fluid. People can work from home or in cafes nearby if they need to focus, and we encourage that.

In terms of studio set-up, we all sit pretty closely together (loosely based on the projects we’re working on), but we also have extra space for project teams to set up and work together. We tend to have a desk reshuffle every month or so, which is really about making sure we all connect well and get to know each other.

I’ve always liked your Purpose which you share on your site. Have you experienced any difficult situations in the past few years where you’ve been offered profitable work (i.e. work that keeps the lights on) that doesn’t necessarily align with your purpose? How do you handle that?

A key principle that we’ve followed along the way is that Thick will be shaped as much by the work we don’t do, as the work that we do.

Early on, we said no to a lot of work because it just wasn’t us or it was in direct conflict with our purpose. That was really scary in quiet times, but we scraped through pretty well. Now that our brand is more established, I think people understand what we are about, and they tend to filter before they talk to us.

We measure our success by the amount of social and environmental impact we have, but it doesn’t mean we refuse to do any commercial work. At the moment, we maintain a healthy mix of business, government, and not-for-profit clients. We’d rather be “inside the tent” so to speak, making some noise and demonstrating the benefits of purpose-led initiatives, than outside it.

When I was finishing university, I thought working in an ad agency was the best job in the world. I practically begged for a job at Clemenger BBDO. When I speak to a lot of grads, it seems the current trend is to want to work for a startup or build their own thing. Have you seen this trend yourself, and has it affected your ability to attract young talent to agency life?

Like many industries, digital has disrupted the traditional agency model. The tools, freelance networks, and collaborative platforms out there means teams can be scaled quickly and flexibly without taking on a lot of permanent costs.

We are an old fashioned agency, and we believe great work comes from having a diverse bunch of really talented people who understand and trust each other deeply.

Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that we tend to attract people who are energized by working with other great people. We also attract people with real purpose. It’s really compelling for people to put their skills to use to tackle complex and important problems.

Melbourne has had a thriving new breed of creative studios come into the fold over the past five to eight years when you look at guys like you, Bravo!, The Royals, Tundra, etc. What’s your perspective on the health of Melbourne agencies?

There seems to be an army of great small and mid-sized agencies which I think is really healthy—we seem to come across a new name every week or so.

I think Melbourne is a very creative city. The majority of our team is not from Melbourne, they’ve come from all over the world and chosen Melbourne because of its creative culture, which bodes well for the future.

A key principle that we’ve followed along the way is that Thick will be shaped as much by the work we don’t do, as the work that we do.

We recently saw the sale of Australia’s largest independent agency, The Monkeys, to Accenture. Do you think it’s inevitable that you will be acquired if you’re an independent agency with sustained growth and success? Do you ever think about the exit path for Studio Thick?

It seems to be a pretty set food chain situation, doesn’t it? I think there is something a little sad about acquisition—it limits the diversity in the market, and the acquired businesses are never really the same again. I’d rather watch the little fish grow a bit.

That being said, we’ve started talking about exit paths, looking at examples like Arup, where the business remains independent for generations to come.

Is there anything that keeps you up at night?

I sleep pretty solidly, but Adam is living in the heart of Collingwood, so intoxicated folks seem to wake him most nights. (Editor’s note: I also live in Collingwood and can vouch for this!)

Any advice for those who might be considering starting their own agency?

It’s been an amazing ride for us so far.

There is definitely a rollercoaster quality about it—the exciting highs and the white-knuckle dips—but the ride is always rewarding. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you’ll have a smile on your face for a long time.

Thanks to Damon and Adam for inviting me around for coffee and a tour of their offices. For more on Studio Thick check out their website at: www.studiothick.com. Studio Thick donate to the very worthy cause of Oxfam, you can too at: www.oxfam.org.au/donate.

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