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Designing the Future

20 Aug 2019 by Steven Giannoulis

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend day one of Semi-Permanent –  The Future of the Future . I do like going to these things and often walk away inspired by an idea or two. Mostly I find design events are...

designing the future steven giannoulis

last week i was fortunate enough to attend day one of semi-permanent – the future of the future. i do like going to these things and often walk away inspired by an idea or two. mostly i find design events are about the design community showing off how clever they are while trying to convince their peers that we make the world a better place. this time though, it was actually about design saving the world. 

the day started with ivy ross, head of hardware design at google. she opened with “designers are problem-solvers” which was always going to appeal to me. my philosophy is design isn’t what we do but how we do it. what we do is help our clients address the challenges and opportunities facing their businesses, and their audiences. ivy then went on to talk about how google’s hardware was designed to address the deep human needs that only a latecomer to the device market can fully appreciate. who needs another black plastic box she said – and i agree. everything about the design was thoughtful and human, led by natural shapes, textures and colours that drive feelings. better still, it was made with innovative, environmentally friendly, natural materials.

and then there was google’s a space for being exhibition at milan design week. wow! i’ve always known design is about how it makes you feel but now we know that your body physically reacts to it as well. design can help with stress, anxiety and happiness. lesson learnt: surround yourself with stuff that makes you feel good. 

 “i’ve always known design is about how it makes you feel but now we know that your body physically reacts to it as well”


the kickstarter guy – charles adler– was interesting in showing the pace of change and illustrating the idea of technology bringing us closer together. the outtake: with so much rapid change, the rules are always temporary, just waiting for someone to break them. 

“the rules are always temporary, just waiting for someone to break them”


bruce mau from massive change network blew my mind. after all, he’s redesigning the holy city of mecca and making beautiful furniture from coke bottles. he talked about the rapid pace of change and the problems we humans have created. he felt, as designers, we have a responsibility to redesign everything to find answers to the biggest challenges we face as a race. he invited us to ‘imagineer’ in order to create solutions that last, solutions that deliver to the needs of a world double the current population and to deliver open systems solutions that could adapt and evolve in a world of rapid change. he cited nature and indigenous cultures as sources of inspiration who’ve mastered this thinking. so next time, you’re redesigning mecca think about solutions that could still be relevant in a thousand years not just the next 20!

“think about solutions that could still be relevant in a thousand years not just the next 20!”


ana arriola from microsoft leads their ai capability. i was expecting a sci-fi talk about advances in technology and what the robots will do in the years to come. instead we got a very human-led talk about the biases we as humans have and how we are in danger of introducing these into a discriminating ai world. she delivered strong message about inclusivity, ubiety and asking why and not just how. you come to these events to have your mind expanded and your perceptions challenged – ana did just that.

“we are in danger of introducing human biases into a discriminating ai world”


we finished up with carla hjort from space10, ikea’s innovation lab. i always worry when speakers kick off with nietzche and the meaning of existence but carla’s story also featured lsd, numerous dance festivals, a cult in india and a catchy-tune about ‘feeding the horse’. the outtake for me was that she thinks differently about ikea and their contribution to the world because she’s experienced the world in such a different way. ikea’s change is driven by a clarity of purpose and a big and long-term perspective. carla, too, advocated a licence to rethink everything and, like our kickstarter guy, taking a rebellious approach.


my takeaways

so what do i take back to the office from this? firstly, i was struck that the bad guys – microsoft, coke, google, etc – are potentially also the good guys in disguise. on a more personal level: know your purpose, have principles, think bigger and bolder, think longer-term, challenge convention and always use our design superpower for good. the world’s got big problems – environmental, scarcity of resources, the pressure of time and change, inclusiveness and many more. everything we do every day should be part of a bigger solution, or at the very least not add to the problem. ivy said it best “as people trained to design solutions, it would be remiss of us not to help solve the biggest problems facing our planet.”  

insight is going to need to add a ‘saving the world from itself’ work stream to our project taxonomy.

semi permanent, future of the future,

Is authenticity real?

18 Jul 2019 by Steven Giannoulis

I recently attended the Digital Day Out (DDO) and noted that pretty much every speaker spoke about the need to be authentic. Speakers included a Google exec, a panel of social influencers, an AR/VR specialist and an...

is authenticity real? steven giannoulis

i recently attended the digital day out (ddo) and noted that pretty much every speaker spoke about the need to be authentic. speakers included a google exec, a panel of social influencers, an ar/vr specialist and an online e-sports gaming marketer. i couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of a whole bunch of people making money by distorting reality espousing the virtues of authenticity. it made me question my own interpretation of what authenticity is. 

i’d forgotten all about it until a couple of days ago when i saw ecostore was awarded nz’s most authentic brand. they are a company i admire – and genuinely think are authentic. and that’s not just because we were part of the team that launched the brand from niche category to mass marketing.


for me, being authentic is about being clear about what you stand for (beyond making money) and consistently speaking and acting in a way that reinforces this position. i find brands like whitaker’s, kathmandu and air new zealand highly authentic because every experience i have with them reinforces what i know they believe in. it’s not just about supporting good causes but delivering consistent brand experiences.

when dove began its campaign for real beauty in 2004 it transformed from a commercial soap-seller to a company with a strong social vision - “beauty should be a source of confidence and not anxiety.” by consistently aligning its marketing efforts with this vision, dove has truly championed women’s empowerment. the sustained effort and resources dove have consistently put into changing the advertising industry’s view of beauty has made them genuine and credible. as a result, people listen, believe and buy from them with confidence.



one of the ddo speakers referenced patagonia, a company i’d heard of but wasn’t fully up to speed with. patagonia is committed to building the best products, causing no unnecessary harm, using business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. this informs everything they do. it comes through in their product design, manufacturing practices, culture, company fleet, energy choices, labour policies and their communications. so when we see it in their ad campaigns we know they really mean it. they’ve become my new favourite company to follow.

i’ve worked with the mercury team for about seven years now and they are another company who said the right things but didn’t always act in a consistent way. the rebrand three years ago created a new mission and a shared vision. we see it in everything they do now. from the focus on renewable generation, to the promotion of electric vehicles, to customer offers, to staff engagement programmes, right through to their new office environment and creating wonderful experiences for their customers. they’re a company who are quickly moving up my list of authentic brands and will, without a doubt, be up with ecostore in the awards in the next year or two.

on the other side, while everyone is pointing to nike’s applauded colin kaepernick ad as an example of authentic, i find it somewhat disingenuous (though i support colin’s stand). firstly, because they are using the cause so blatantly for commercial gain and secondly because it still doesn’t align with my perception of their global practices. i know the underage child sweatshops are gone but i still need to see a string of ‘good behaviour’ stories before i start believing in a genuine social purpose behind their messages.

'authentic' is fundamentally walking the talk. so if this is all about being true to what you stand for, then the ddo influencers, the kardashians and even donald trump can be as authentic as ecostore, dove and patagonia. who cares how manufactured what they stand for is, as long as they do it consistently! i get that but i also suspect that it’s more than just my interpretation of authenticity that is a little bit fake here.


so if this is all about being true to what you stand for, then the ddo influencers, the kardashians and even donald trump can be as authentic as ecostore, dove and patagonia.


is authenticity just about being true to yourself, consistently? or is it about genuinely thinking good thoughts and being true to that in your behaviour and communication? 

can you manufacture authenticity and call that authenticity?

is authenticity an admirable quality when you really think about it?

authenticity, authentic brands

Making AR real for clients

28 May 2019 by Steven Giannoulis

Like many design agencies we’ve spent many years working across both print and digital mediums. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses and therefore often play different, but complementary, roles in any...

making ar real for clients steven giannoulis

like many design agencies we’ve spent many years working across both print and digital mediums. they each have their own strengths and weaknesses and therefore often play different, but complementary, roles in any communication programme. augmented reality (ar) provides a cool way to integrate the two together in a seamless way. we see ar as the future of effective communications and that’s exactly why we’re working hard to help our clients embrace its business potential.

augmented reality uses every day technology - like your phone or ipad - to superimpose sounds, images and text to the reality you see. whereas virtual reality (vr) is about a made-up-world, ar is about enhancing the real world.

and what that means for business is that we can take a real thing like a product, an image, a postcard, a document or a graphic on a wall, and make it into a trigger for a more immersive and engaging communication experience. a good example is our recent ar work with mercury, taking a stylised map of the waikato river as the kick-off point to tell a visually rich story about the area and the power stations they have there. photos, video, real stories, sounds and a host of moving animations like water, steam, birds, clouds and cyclists bring a static display alive in a fun, informative, immersive and three-dimensional way.

but it’s not all fun and cool gimmicks, the business opportunities are endless. here’s just a few:

  • sales – customers use ar to see themselves interacting with your product. for example, walking around the house you are trying to sell them, or wearing the dress or driving that car they are interested in. if they can see themselves in it, they are well on the way to buying it.
  • design thinking – ar allows flat designs to be created in 3d spaces, providing a real sense of how things work together. visualising the finished product allows greater opportunities for teams to work together to address potential issues before the costly process of manufacture begins.
  • training – ar allows richer learning in environments that are just like the real thing. and that extends to customer training as well – imagine being able to add video or audio to your product manual and customers can access it on their phone.
  • customer experience – ar has the potential to add rich information, games and other interactions that your customers can tailor to what they want. this makes their engagement with you richer, more personalised and a whole lot more fun – all the time adding to their perception of you.

these example are already in play today, changing how companies are communicating with their customers to achieve better results. despite this, we’re still finding that many clients see ar (and to a greater extent, vr) as an emerging future technology – the stuff of blade runner, not of the shop floor in 2019. and we’re keen to address this.

last month we launched our own ar experience to help our clients understand, and visualise, the potential of ar. nellie the astronaut is a great piece of wall art (and a printed document) that highlights a multitude of ar techniques from video, to games, to user interaction and response. clients think it’s cool and enjoy playing with it, providing us with the perfect platform to discuss potential applications for them. already this has seen us develop client specific ideas to demonstrate key issues to investors, improve property selling and to enhance the effectiveness of destination marketing activities.

along with the medium being unfamiliar to most of our clients, cost remains the biggest barrier to client take up. and that’s the next big challenge for us – making ar cost accessible enough for clients to trial it. and we are not far off from making this a reality as well.


you can experience our ar demonstration for yourself right here, right now. simply download the free scopex app from app store or google play, open the app and hit the top square: 'scan an ar image', point the phone at the above image of nellie the astronaut and wait a few seconds. each of the spinning artefacts takes you down its own fun rabbit hole.
augmented reality, ar

Understanding the new

14 Mar 2019 by Steven Giannoulis

A number of recent new business wins have reminded me how much I love working on new clients. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the sort of guys who are attracted by the ‘newest and shiniest thing’ but I love...

understanding the new steven giannoulis

a number of recent new business wins have reminded me how much i love working on new clients. don’t get me wrong, i’m not the sort of guys who are attracted by the ‘newest and shiniest thing’ but i love the learning and discovery that comes from building your understanding of a business and an industry. 

new clients, especially those in industries you’ve not worked in before, deliver a level of stimulation and curiosity that you don’t get with clients you know inside and out.

as a strategist, i get to work with many of our new clients helping to deliver the ‘insights’ bit of insight creative. that means a mix of business, communication and channel strategy to ensure that the work we do delivers the results clients need.

i start most new client relationships by reading their annual report. some are better than others but all give me a sense of who the organisation is and what they see as important. the good ones give you a clear sense of the direction they are driving the business and an appreciation of their strengths and opportunities. the style of the report tells me something about the tone of the organisation and their focus on the needs of their stakeholders.

i tend to follow this up with a bit of online research, starting with a media search for the category. this helps me understand external pressures – like consumer trends, politics, supply issues, technology, etc - that drive company decision.

by now, i have learnt a who lot of stuff i didn’t know about the industry and the business. chances are that i also have a whole lot of questions so catching up with some of the client’s leadership team helps round out the picture. in these discussions i generally focus in on three areas:

  • the value chain to understand how they make money and where growth will come from. after all, our work will be part of how they drive that growth;
  • the audiences they are aiming for, what drives them and the unique value proposition they offer each audience; and
  • the culture of the organisation particularly around decision-making, change, risks and innovation. this gives me a good sense of how far we’ll be able to push our ideas and design.

this process isn’t just about what i enjoy and my learning. the output is a session with everyone who will work on this new client to talk through what we’ve learnt and what that means in terms of how we best work with them.

learning, discovery, learning, new business, business wins, business strategy

Principled brand decisions

19 Feb 2019 by Steven Giannoulis

Developing a brand strategy means making a number of significant decisions that drive multiple aspects of an organisation. Working with clients, my aim is to agree brand principles upfront that help leadership teams...

principled brand decisions steven giannoulis

developing a brand strategy means making a number of significant decisions that drive multiple aspects of an organisation. working with clients, my aim is to agree brand principles upfront that help leadership teams and boards make sound, and consistent, business decisions.

developing a brand strategy is often seen as developing the brand model – sometimes called the brand pyramid or brand onion. the model defines what you want to stand for and it includes things like brand essence, proposition, personality and the customer value proposition. being clear on what you stand for informs your visual identity, marketing and communication strategies, product and service, culture programme and customer experience design.

but the brand model isn’t all of brand strategy. it’s just one of a number of significant decisions that will define the success of your branding programme. and that’s a good starting point for decision making. what will brand success look like and how will it be measured? being clear on this will inform many of your later decisions.  

a key starting decision is whether to take a single brand or multiple brand approach. both have pros and cons and work better in different markets and circumstances. because an approach can’t be perfect for all situations, many companies start with one approach and then adapt it over time, sometimes resulting in a confused hybrid. 

and of course, if you make the decision to go single brand – which brand will it be? which of the current ones or something new? if you are going multi-brand, what are the brand lines?

and then there’s brand architecture. these are decisions about how your brands are organised under an overarching approach. getting this right impacts brand equity, brand confusion and the cost effectiveness of your marketing activities. there are a number of organising approaches to consider from pure single masterbrand, to brand extensions, sub-branding, co-branding and brand endorser requirements. at this level we are also making decisions about language and naming conventions.

as one decision often informs the next, where possible i look to develop a decision tree to help drive the process. brand decisions often involve many decision-makers with their own business needs to fulfil. to help make consistent decisions, i always look to establish and agree a series of principles that can become the foundations for decision-making. these principles say something like “our brand must…” and generally come about by examining six key areas:

  • business strategy– where will future growth come from? what’s the strategy for realising  growth? the vision and purpose of the organisation and market forces.
  • audiences– who are the audiences and what are their physical and emotional needs the brand must appeal to?
  • competitive differentiation– how differentiated is the market and what are the opportunities to create a unique proposition?
  • strategic strengths– what competitive advantage does the organisation have that can be leveraged?
  • customer experience– what’s the experience customers expect and you want to create for them?
  • culture– what does the organisation value and what behaviours does it encourage?

often we end up with 10 – 12 principles. the trick is getting decision-makers to buy into these, and then stick to them. when we achieve this, everyone is aligned in their thinking and complex brand decisions can become pretty straight forward.

branding, business strategy, brand strategy, brand architecture, clear brand thinking

Taming the HiPPO

06 Nov 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

OK, so I’ve put on a bit of weight lately but I still took exception to the recent description of me as a Hippo. Turns out they were right – I have been throwing a bit too much weight around when it comes to...

taming the hippo steven giannoulis

ok, so i’ve put on a bit of weight lately but i still took exception to the recent description of me as a hippo. turns out they were right – i have been throwing a bit too much weight around when it comes to generating ideas. so i’ve put myself on a tight leash and i’m learning to tame my natural instincts.

let’s be honest, the best ideas aren’t always the ones that get chosen. how many times during my career have i been in this scenario: a roomful of managers listen to a strong pitch from the most senior person in the room. after the spiel, one or two people agree. the rest say nothing, reluctant to disagree or suggest better ideas. it’s the idea we end up going with even though, more often than not, it’s not even the best idea we’ve got.

and that’s the downside of involving hippos (highest-paid-person's opinion) in the early stages of idea generation. 

we hippos aren’t all bad

don’t get me wrong, we hippos aren’t all bad. teams often need us to lead the charge and to keep them focused on the goal. and not all our ideas are bad ideas. but hippos can stifle the creative process. the challenge is to not let them dominate creativity and innovative thinking. if you do, you may end up with very narrow ideas, based on one or two people's experiences and gut feel. worse still, you end up going with bad ideas that everyone’s afraid to challenge. in other words, how do you tame the hippo in the ideation process?

i’m the hippo in most brainstorms at work. i often feel that everyone is waiting for me to come up with the ideas or when ideas are presented, everyone looks to me to decide whether they are good or not. for ages this has frustrated me, but thinking about it now it says more about me, and the culture i’ve created, than it does about the team. and that’s why i’ve been trying some new things to self-silence my inner hippo and to help us generate better ideas. some approaches worked better than others and i definitely found some easier to do.

silencing the inner hippo

  • co-creation – incorporating clients and wider groups into the brainstorming process. this introduces more people interested in the best outcomes rather than the politics of seniority. of course, the client becomes the most important person in the room. 
  • silent brainstorming – using sticky notes and getting everyone to put all their ideas down first before coming up to present them one by one. every sticky note has equal value. this stops the first and loudest dominating the brainstorming. i’ve found this approach to be successful.
  • using a voting system – where everyone gets to vote on ideas. every vote is equal and we focus on only the ideas with the most votes, regardless of whose they are. in these scenarios, i try and vote last to stop influencing what others may think.
  • holding back - i’ve tried in a couple of brainstorms to actively stop myself from contributing ideas. i found this hard and wasn’t as successful at it as i needed to be! this puts the emphasis on others to generate the first ideas. in both cases there was awkward silence at the start but once they got into it, the team came up with some great ideas. 
  • building on other’s ideas only – in another session, i set myself a goal to not generate any new ideas but to only build on other people's ideas. i enjoyed this and there were some good collective outcomes.
  • playing a different role – rather than contributing ideas, i sometimes look to play a facilitator role, asking questions or offering insights that allow others to generate ideas. this approach lets me influence the direction without dominating the ideas.
  • agreeing an ‘objective’ criteria – establishing the criteria for assessing ideas upfront allows all ideas to be considered on the same basis regardless of who came up with them. it also gives others a legitimate basis to challenge the hippo’s ideas. 

for most of my career i haven’t been the most senior person in the room, so i know what it feels like to not have your good ideas heard. it therefore horrifies me that i might be the one holding us back when it comes to the new ideas and approaches. so if, like me, you’re the hippo in the room, fight your natural instincts and actively seek ways to help the team come up with the best ideas collectively. after all you, that’s how you got to be the hippo in the first place.

innovation, idea generation, brainstorm

Open up your communications

25 Sep 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

If we accept that the best communications are heard and understood, then it follows that as internal communication practitioners we should create opportunities for staff to be heard and to better understand what’s...

open up your communications steven giannoulis

if we accept that the best communications are heard and understood, then it follows that as internal communication practitioners we should create opportunities for staff to be heard and to better understand what’s been said to them. why then, is there still such a resistance to opening up two-way communication channels?

as part of the internal engagement work we do, i talk to many companies about their intranet and its role in their communication programme. for most, it’s about one-way communication, letting staff know the rules, procedures, policies and other fact-based information; a repository of history and knowledge to help people do their job better, or at least in the right way. many have a ‘news’ element, allowing the latest achievements to be shared with staff. its function is to reinforce the right messages, stories and behaviours that support the desired culture. 

unfortunately, there’s still not many companies that have an open forum where staff can just say what’s on their mind, ask questions, seek clarity and share ideas. word of mouth has always been the most effective communication tool and social media has found a way to utilise its power. why then are internal communicators so scared of applying social chat approaches to their craft? is it a fear of the tough questions? being open to criticism? inappropriate behaviour? or is it just being exposed for not knowing?

questions, comments and views are already being expressed by staff around the water-cooler, in the lunch room and right round the business. because we can’t hear them doesn’t make them any less legitimate. in fact, going uncorrected and unchallenged allows them to grow from an isolated opinion to the accepted company-wide grass roots position. why not then bring them out into the light where you can hear them and make them part of your communication programme? 

i’ve heard many reasons why and my response is always the same ‘what rubbish!” if you’ve got an intranet, add blog and comments functionality and invite staff to share whatever’s on their mind. at first staff may be nervous of the consequences but they’ll quickly catch on when they see that they can say anything. go one step further and implement social-style platforms, like yammer or facebook for business, specifically designed to encourage collaboration and sharing of thoughts, ideas and answers. 

word of mouth has always been the most effective communication tool

as communication managers our primary function moves from creators of content to facilitators of discussion. our key goal is to listen and provide information on what’s important to our staff and to address any areas of confusion. this may go against our instinct where, rather than creating more communications, we encourage the discussion to take its natural course. you do have to get involved, however, when the facts are wrong or the opinions are detrimental to the company or individuals. 

encourage senior leadership to participate in the discussion on an equal basis to staff, sharing thoughts and opinions. they also have a role to play in facilitating discussion by liking, commenting and encouraging what others are saying. often it means acknowledging that they don’t know all the answers and asking staff to tell them what they think they should do.

i’ve heard many reasons why and my response is always the same "what rubbish!”

as we see from social media, most people know what’s acceptable discussion etiquette and play by the rules. forums and discussions are self-governing, with groups quickly letting individuals know when their language, opinion or behaviour isn’t acceptable. trust that this works and avoid introducing vetting, censorship or controls, as this discourages open sharing.

the beauty of this open communication environment is that staff are heard, know what’s happening around the business, have a place to get clarity and feel more engaged with the wider business. they participate in the communication process on an equal basis with leadership, leading to more open and honest dialogue. for the company, it means a much better handle on what really matters to their people and what the gaps in knowledge and understanding are. 

i’ve focused on the intranet here, but you should open up your communications across the business. add feedback loops and discussion options to all communications when you can, favouring two-way discussion over one-way telling every time.

internal engagement, staff engagement, two way internal communication, internal communication

The ideas path

18 Sep 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

I’ve always been an ideas guy. I feel comfortable looking at a problem or an opportunity and then generating lots of ideas about how to tackle it in a creative way. I’ll go one step further and say, it’s...

the ideas path steven giannoulis

i’ve always been an ideas guy. i feel comfortable looking at a problem or an opportunity and then generating lots of ideas about how to tackle it in a creative way. i’ll go one step further and say, it’s one of the things i’m good at. but if i am going to be so shamelessly boastful i should be a bit more specific: it’s the quantity of ideas - not necessarily the quality – that i’m good at.

i’m not saying all my ideas are rubbish (though many are), just that the particular skill i bring to the idea generation process is helping generate that initial long list that eventually leads to one or two nuggets coming alive. after all, all innovative ideas have to start somewhere. often one of my seemingly random thoughts gets refined, expanded and turned it into something good that barely resembles the original idea.

so, what’s the trick to coming up with lots of ideas quickly? the honest answer is, i don’t always know where my ideas come from. i’m not shy in coming forward so often it appears as simply just saying random stuff. it’s not all that loose though, i do have a couple of techniques to help find ideas, wherever they are hiding.

  1. learning. there’s not much in the marketing and comms field i haven’t seen before. yes, technology is different and some channels are different but clients’ objectives and customers’ basic needs remain largely the same. so, i examine a challenge in order to understand the real problem that needs to be solved. i then consider other scenarios where i’ve solved this same problem before. this isn’t about copying the same good idea again and again but about leveraging past learning. i think about why i used that solution and what worked and what didn’t. this gives me insights on how to start thinking about the challenge in front of me. 

  2. parallels. it’s one thing to look at what other agencies around the world have done with the same challenge. this is a useful start but can often lead to ‘me too’ thinking. i find it’s better to seek the parallels in other industries and other environments. how have they solved this same problem in their field? what’s the core insight and idea behind their solution? how can we apply this same thinking here to solve the challenge in front of us?

  3. building. my approach to idea generation is to be unfiltered. i love mind-maps so, when brainstorming, i look to rapidly connect ideas and follow the path to see where it leads. follow your head. follow your gut. often this means spitting out whatever half-baked idea is forming in my head and then building on the idea out loud. this gives others the opportunity to add their thoughts and perspectives, helping the idea grow and take shape.

  4. perspectives. the most useful tool i use for idea generation is looking at the challenge differently. i always have this matrix image in my head when i talk about this. the challenge is suspended in mid-air and we spin around it in slow-mo, looking at it from different angles. i run through a checklist of what ifs in my head. what if the client was different? what if the target audience was different? what if the goals were different? what if time and budget were no issue? what if there was no money or time? what if we doubled the problem? halved it? multiplied it? most of these perspectives go nowhere, generating ideas that have others thinking i’m a complete idiot. but sometimes one of those idiotic thoughts becomes the first spark of a really good idea.

my advice for generating ideas is to free your inhibitions and let your ideas take you to new and unexpected places. one idea sparks the next, taking you down an uncertain path until a moment of clarity reveals itself. and avoid judging your ideas too early, as you’ll quickly close off the most interesting and rewarding paths.

idea generation, innovation, creativity

Tribe Behaviour

16 Jul 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

Spark has announced it's adopting an agile way of working across its business. I applaud them for so tangibly demonstrating their commitment to breaking down silos, improving speed to market, innovation and achieving...

tribe behaviour steven giannoulis

spark has announced it's adopting an agile way of working across its business. i applaud them for so tangibly demonstrating their commitment to breaking down silos, improving speed to market, innovation and achieving more customer focused solutions.

i’ll follow their progress with great interest, knowing that what they’re proposing challenges almost everything we know about organisational behaviour.


an agile spark transforms from a traditional hierarchical structure, with large business units, to small self-managing teams (squads), each with clear accountabilities. they collaborate with one another to deliver specific products and service projects for customers and for the good of the organisation. it’s no longer about people working in a particular business unit or function. in this model, senior leaders act as catalysts, setting direction and establishing systems for people to do their jobs effectively. and they assemble the right mix of skills, talent and experience to collectively make decisions about the what, how and when of each project.

i worked in a self-managing operational team 20 plus years ago (an experimental team within a bigger traditional structure) and my experience was mostly positive, especially at the start. some of us embraced the freedom self-managing teams offered and the opportunity to contribute ideas, to learn, to step up and have a voice beyond our title. for others, the transition from what they knew was a step too far. eventually, as we settled into bau, my enthusiasm waned and i got frustrated at the inability to just get on and do stuff without needing a whole team involved. over a year, people naturally settled into a more specialist division of labour. as far as i can remember, the experiment never ended, it just naturally devolved back to the old way.

maybe this experience is driving my slight nervousness about how spark’s tribes approach will work for the people who work there.

"people at work are largely driven by fundamental motivators closely aligned with maslow’s hierarchy of needs."

history has taught us that people, and groups, at work are largely driven by fundamental motivators – closely aligned with maslow’s hierarchy of needs - like survival, recognition, reward, progression, belonging and identity. spark’s new approach delivers a number of challenges on many of these fronts. 

with more emphasis on the team’s deliverables over an individual's, how do people know they are achieving? team success is one thing but we all still want to be recognised for our own contribution. and without a clear and recognisable hierarchy how do people plan for progress and feel that their career is going somewhere? no doubt, as you deliver more and more successful outcomes you’ll get to work on more complex and wide reaching projects. maybe this represents your growth and progress but people may still want the visible symbols of progress that titles, responsibility and hierarchy offer. 

our jobs are a big part of our identity and therefore more fluidity in what i do has the potential to lead to less clarity in what i stand for. without a defined work identity there is a danger that people struggle to see themselves in their jobs and this could lead to some dissatisfaction for some.

traditional functions, teams and divisions also provide a sense of belonging that this team collective may not be able to replicate. i’ve worked with a number of clients who’ve moved to open plan, hot desk approaches only to find that people end up all sitting together in the same place and same desks every day. apart from the functional benefit, the clear lesson here is that people need to feel that they belong to something. as you move from project to project where do you actually belong? who are your people?

"as you move from project to project where do you actually belong? who are your people?"

organisational behaviour has a strong competitive undertow and this approach plays well to this. short sprint work allows quick results and satisfies our desire to achieve and win. but without that longer term focus, competitiveness may see the good of the project override the longer term good of the organisation. clear measures of success are needed to signal what really is important.

despite my concerns, i love the braveness of what spark are doing here. i really do want it to succeed. i encourage them to invest in a strong company-wide internal communications programme that builds momentum in the core idea behind this initiative. a programme that reinforces key long-term outcomes as well as immediate success stories, keeping people engaged with the entire organisation and its objectives. regular communication that promotes aligned interests and behaviours and helps people feel they belong to the bigger spark team and where the organisation is going.

agile, tribes

Innovation All-sorts

09 Jul 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

We’re on a mission to be more innovative in our work and that means pushing ourselves to think differently and go further with our ideas and our solutions. We’ve committed to building a team culture that fosters...

innovation all-sorts steven giannoulis
we’re on a mission to be more innovative in our work and that means pushing ourselves to think differently and go further with our ideas and our solutions. we’ve committed to building a team culture that fosters this. over the last few weeks i’ve seen first-hand the opportunities and challenges this brings.
we are working on a really big and really cool project for a client where they have expressly asked us to push the boundaries, incorporating out-there ideas and technologies. what better job to test our new-found innovation resolve.
we started with a team brainstorming session to generate ideas that could inform our approach. 
some team members were clearly idea generators, spitting out idea after idea with little consideration of the merits of each one. i fall into this group, finding it really easy to generate the volume of ideas but not always with an associated level of quality. 
others were idea builders, better at taking other people’s ideas and exploring and shaping them further. 
others were idea resolvers. they sat thinking to themselves, not participating in the discussion apart from every so often when they shared the fully formed idea they’d been working through in their heads. 
and then there were the few who added little or nothing to the brainstorming meeting. they seemed to have no ideas. for these more analytical-minded types, brainstorming sessions are just too fast and unstructured. ironically, a few of our best ideas came from one of these people. they went away, thought about it, and then came up with a couple of well-considered ideas that were clearly influenced by the discussions in the brainstorming session.
as the week following the brainstorming progressed, we once again saw a huge difference in attitudes and approaches.
some of us got very excited by the endless possibilities and took the leading ideas, rethinking them, stretching them, adapting them, combining them in different ways and generally just looking to find new ways to apply them. we developed a prototype solution and got the team together to talk this through.
some were happy to take the solution being proposed, adding value by suggesting refinements, ways to sell the ideas into the client or alternative approaches to help the idea become more achievable. i quickly learned that harnessing these groups can help take a solution from good to fantastic.
another small group quickly switched off, feeling little ownership of the proposed solution. they didn’t fight or discourage it, they just disengaged, agreeing to do what needed to be done with little passion or buy-in. they still have a role to play in allowing an innovative outcome but it’s mostly about doing what needs to be done.
and a final group actively found issues with the solution, focusing on the complexity, cost, timeframes and/or highlighting past scenarios where similar solutions had failed. the challenge with this group is to get their focus off the problem and onto solutions. how can we do this cheaper, quicker and simpler? i found challenging them to find alternative ways to achieve the same outcome allowed this group to utilise their skills and feel more involved. 
as we get ready to present the proposed solution to the client, i am excited with what we’ve come up with. it took a mixed bag of ideas to get us here and all-sorts of people to allow us to refine, evaluate and improve the solution. my preconception was that we needed big thinking ideas people but a better outcome was achieved by including a more diverse team of personalities and approaches. creating a culture enabling innovation to thrive means finding a way for everyone to contribute in a way that makes the most of their particular skillsets.
innovation, workplace, diversity, idea generators, idea builders, idea resolvers

The strategy of design

21 Jun 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

We describe ourselves as a strategic-creative agency. This leads to the obvious question, what is it? You just design stuff, right? Strategic-creative is about how we go about making sure that the stuff we create is...

the strategy of design steven giannoulis

we describe ourselves as a strategic-creative agency. this leads to the obvious question, what is it? you just design stuff, right? strategic-creative is about how we go about making sure that the stuff we create is fit for purpose and delivers results for our clients. 

strategy in the design world is very different to strategy in a military, corporate or even advertising world. what they have in common is that sense of thinking about where we are now, where we want to be and making a plan to get there. here’s a quick run-down on how a design agency strategist fits into the design process.

understanding of the brief

finding a great solution starts by understanding the real problem to be solved. a strategist engages the client, asks lots of why questions and listens in order to really understand what is needed. how does this brief align with the value drivers and the business, brand and marketing plans? what will success look like and how will we measure it? a well-defined problem is critical to helping the team come up with a well-conceived solution.

  1. audiences. a strategist defines the target audience, their needs and motivators and what their current behaviours and perceptions are. this clarity helps everyone on a project focus on what journey we need to take the audience on. audience insights mostly come from research – either directly by talking to them or through secondary sources. often it comes from a long-held appreciation of human psychology, group dynamics and organisational behaviour.
  2. frameworks. there are a number of proven best-practice models that define core communication processes like engagement, decision-making and purchase. a good strategist knows when and how to apply these frameworks to different briefs in order to move audiences towards the desired outcomes.
  3. positioning. working closely with the designer, the strategist helps define how something should be positioned in the eyes of audiences through its messaging, tone and visual language. this positioning allows a differentiated market offer that aligns closely with the audience needs and motivators.
  4. channel/medium selection. good thinking and design is pointless if it doesn’t reach and/or register with audiences. the strategist works with the designer to identify the best way to get to audiences, and what mediums work best. 
  5. creative development. as we move into design, the designer takes lead on the creative process. the strategist plays a supporting role, helping identify and evaluate design ideas and approaches. they review designs and provide feedback to help improve single-mindedness, effectiveness and strategic alignment with the brief and audience needs.
  6. selling ideas. rarely do clients buy into an idea just because it’s a thing of beauty. mostly they chose it because they can see its potential to solve their problem or realise an opportunity. the strategist works closely with the design team to sell-in an idea to the client by highlighting how it will deliver the results they need.


strategic-creative is both a mindset and a process, ensuring that the discipline of being creative to a brief is geared towards achieving the right outcomes. strategy-creative equals better design – but i would say that, i’m a strategist.  

creative, strategy, strategic creative, insight creative

Feeling the work

19 Jun 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

  Yesterday Brian and I had our monthly one-to-one meeting while walking around the new Te Papa Art Gallery –  Toi Art.  We wanted to talk about how to raise our creativity to the next level and...

feeling the work steven giannoulis
yesterday brian and i had our monthly one-to-one meeting while walking around the new te papa art gallery – toi art. we wanted to talk about how to raise our creativity to the next level and what better place than amongst an eclectic collection of the best nz art.
toi is brilliant and we were both inspired and talked excitedly for an hour and a half. we had different pieces that spoke to us. brian fell in love with the story-telling associated with a small house from outer space in the detour collection. i was taken by the possibilities and perspectives reflected in the crochet circles part of the colour section.
the big take out of our walk was that we can go even further in our drive to make people feel something from our work – joy, anger, passion, nostalgia, pride, etc. (yes, even an annual report can do that!)  to take our designs to another level, we must work harder to engage audiences at an emotional level, making them feel something. think about your favourite movies, art, books and music – chances are they are your favourites because of the emotions they stir in you.
we came up with a number of ways to capture the feeling the client wants in the brief; how we can ensure our territories have a strong single feeling aligned with what audiences need and will respond to; and how to engage our client in going with creating a feeling rather than literally telling audiences stuff.
it has already started informing our idea creation on new projects.
if you get a chance to go to te papa toi art, do it. it’s well worth it.
inspiration, creativity, effective design

What clients can expect

19 Jun 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

This week a client asked me for a service level agreement. We’ve produced a few of them over the years but for more technical processes such as website management. Given that managing expectations is key to good...

what clients can expect steven giannoulis

this week a client asked me for a service level agreement. we’ve produced a few of them over the years but for more technical processes such as website management.

given that managing expectations is key to good service, i approached the task with a broader client distribution in mind. as a result i’ve been drafting a ‘service promise’ that outlines what clients can expect when they work with us. and – fair’s fair - i’ve also outlined what we expect from them.

what do you think? does this fairly represent what you would expect from us if you were a client?  what else do you think we should expect from clients?


what you can expect from us:

we will

  • listen and ask questions to make sure we are clear about your challenge, your audience and what you need.
  • always deliver creative and innovative ways to engage your audiences and deliver the results you need.
  • base all our recommendations on good insights, research and/or best practice models and frameworks.
  • deliver the best solution across multiple mediums including print, on-line and experiential.
  • give you our best professional advice on what the best course of action may be including challenging you (in a good way) if we think something isn’t right.
  • utilise your expertise as a subject-matter expert.
  • collaborate with you, and other parties you work with, to deliver the best results possible.
  • ensure our work is correct and accurate at all times.
  • assign you a dedicated relationship/project manager who will be your main point of contact for all dealings with us.
  • take the time to understand your industry, your business, your objectives and the way you like to work.
  • celebrate success with you.
  • always allocate the required resource volumes and skills to your projects to ensure we can deliver what you need within the agreed timeframe and budget.
  • return your calls, emails and texts within a reasonable timeframe.
  • provide you with estimates for all work we undertake and outline the assumptions we’ve used in the estimate.
  • never charge you more than the higher range of the estimate, unless the scope of the project has changed.
  • notify you if something is out of scope before taking on the additional work. we’ll provide you with estimates for the additional work as soon as we are able to.
  • deliver detailed project plans for all projects of a significant size, as agreed.
  • use clear project methodology that facilitates the efficient and effective delivery of projects on time and on budget.
  • keep you informed of progress against timeframes and budgets and raise any risks which arise that could compromise quality, budget or timeframe, at the soonest opportunity.
  • work with a network of specialist partners who have the skills and professional practices to help us deliver the outcomes you need.
  • take responsibility for all freelancers or contractors we bring in to help us deliver your work.
  • have the appropriate insurances in place for the nature of the work we do for you.
  • ensure adequate health and safety processes are in place for all work we undertake for you.
  • make all endeavours to keep material, information and other items provided to us confidential and safe.
  • notify you as soon as we become aware of any conflict of interest that may arise and propose a course of action to mitigate and manage the conflict to your satisfaction.
  • have a clear escalation process if you are not happy with some aspect of our work or the way we are working together.
  • comply with all applicable laws and regulations.
  • keep good records of all time we spend on your projects.
  • invoice monthly within eight working days of the end of the month.


what we expect from you in return:

you will:

  • provide us with reasonable notice of work you intend to give us so we can plan the right level and type of resources for what you need.
  • be open and forthright with all aspects of your business so that we can tailor our solutions to what’s right for you.
  • be clear with your objectives and how success will be measured.
  • give us some leeway to explore ideas and solutions that have the potential to deliver better strategic-creative outcomes.
  • be reasonable in your expectations: effectively balancing the budget, time and quality trade-offs to achieve the best result possible.
  • carefully consider all material we provide you before approving it. this helps minimise changes at later stages in the project which may add additional effort.
  • provide us with the necessary information, content and approvals in a timely and orderly manner that allows us to deliver the agreed specifications, budget and timelines.
  • keep us informed of any developments that may impact our ability to deliver the agreed specifications, budget and timelines.
  • give us the opportunity to address any issues or concerns you may have.
  • give us open and constructive feedback on our work and process so that we can continue to learn and grow as an organisation.
  • pay us for all work you commission us to do – whether you progress with it or not.
  • pay our invoices by the 20th of the month following the date of each invoice.

leave a comment below with your thoughts!


sla, service level agreement, client expectations, client satisfaction, design agency performance expectations

Learning in disruption

29 May 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

As our first significant piece of work with Victoria University of Wellington – the undergraduate recruitment campaign for 2019 – hits the market, I have a chance to reflect on everything I’ve learnt about the...

learning in disruption steven giannoulis

as our first significant piece of work with victoria university of wellington – the undergraduate recruitment campaign for 2019 – hits the market, i have a chance to reflect on everything i’ve learnt about the higher-education sector in the last six months.

i knew it was a sector in change but hadn’t fully realised the extent of the disruption that universities face and how it will fundamentally change everything they say, do and stand for. building long-lasting communication programmes in this dynamic environment requires bravery, a desire to keep adapting and the on-going questioning of your reason for being. 

the rear view mirror

historically, universities have been the centre of knowledge and exploration. the place for critical thinkers to advance their wisdom and understanding for the benefit of all mankind. like the church and government, universities have held a central role in society as a voice for what is right, and what direction we should take. as a pillar of modern civilisation, it’s not a coincidence that the traditional university is characterised by large, solid, classically inspired buildings erected on stable foundations.

for centuries a university education has been seen as the pinnacle of higher learning. despite being free for many, it’s always been seen as highly valuable. parents worked hard to send their kids to university, believing they were setting them up for life. a degree enhanced your social standing, perception of your worth and desirability and was (almost) a guarantee of employment. 

contextual change

in a rapidly changing world, the role of the university has also evolved. most universities, including those in new zealand, have experienced declining numbers, particularly at undergraduate level. primarily, this is a demographic shift with lower post-baby boomer birth rates and the delay in having children. each year the pool of year 13s available is declining, meaning the competition to attract them is growing. 

there is also a plethora of other higher-learning options available to students. historically, a university degree was the primary option, with polytechnics and other skills-based institutions seen as lesser alternatives. with new accredited learning organisations, and more diverse qualifications being credited as degrees, a world of study possibilities is now available to students.

and affordability has moved to the forefront of student thinking as the cost of a degree, and the university lifestyle, have skyrocketed. without the certainty of gaining employment, coupled with the change in long-term employment patterns, students are questioning the wisdom of taking on student debt. the financial burden of repayment and the impact on lifestyle, has made the roi debatable for many, although the new government's free year of study may readdress this equation.

maybe the single biggest change though is relevance. students don’t see a university education as necessary as it once was. with technology, all the knowledge in the world is at their finger-tips and being lectured on it seems pointless. their perception of success and career also differs from previous generations and today’s students don’t see a degree as the only way to succeed. entrepreneurial mindsets and innovation are the new career currency as students think more about how to change the past than how to apply it.

maybe the single biggest change though is relevance. students don’t see a university education as necessary as it once was

even employers are placing less value on university qualifications. a degree represented a ‘quality mark’ that helped weed out the good prospects. it now signifies an ability to learn knowledge rather than an ability to think and apply. employers are looking for skills that align with the dynamic reality they face. they seek employees ready to challenge convention, adapt, collaborate and work more flexibly.


to be fair, universities haven’t sat back and done nothing. they’ve felt the water heating around them and have looked to change, albeit slowly. local universities have successfully leveraged new zealand’s ‘safe, clean and livable’ reputation and our standing as having many of the world’s top 1% of learning institutions to attract international students. this has helped boost student numbers and helped plug the funding gap.  

reaching a wider and more diverse audience through technology has also seen most universities embrace online learning. massive open online courses (moocs) are now common across the sector, offered by new and traditional players. just last year, coventry university launched 50 online degrees which are equivalent to the courses they offer on campus. harvard launched their remote learning extension school in partnerships with a number of international universities. 

massive open online courses are now common across the sector

universities are also starting to promote the experience of going to university alongside the quality of the programme or the qualifications students can gain. university learning is more than academic, it's a life-changing rite of passage. this is an advantage on-line offerings struggle to compete with and a proposition that appeals to both international and domestic students. this focus on intangible ‘life value’ continues to attract students and has seen a positive impact on student numbers for many universities, otago university being the obvious example.

being ‘employment ready’ is probably the single biggest mind-shift that universities have made. students want this, so do employers, and tertiary institutions have responded. at one extreme this means incorporating technology like google glass, virtual reality and ai into the curriculum to help student learn the tools of their future jobs. at the other end, it means making the learning more hands-on, vocational based, by working with industry to create job-skills and real problem-solving experiences.

digital disruption

the disruption we’ve experienced over the 25 years since i was at university is nothing compared to the changes that will happen in the next 25. universities need to think about how they will continue to adapt and evolve as their role changes. and that’s difficult to do given the rate of change and the uncertainty of what the future holds.

we hear a lot about the acceleration of technology and universities will feel the full impact of this. automation and the rise of artificial intelligence will lead this transformation. a study completed by pwc called how ready is university to embrace the future? highlights the urgency of the situation – raising the possibility that the organisations many see as dinosaurs will end up extinct unless they evolve.

a university of oxford report on the future of employment argued that 50% of us jobs are at risk of technological advancement that will severely impact the need for them. already machines are running production lines, solving complex engineering challenges, providing legal advice and diagnosing medical conditions. universities taught people to do this work, but the future may mean teaching them to intelligent machines or, at the very least, teaching a small number of people how to programme and populate the machines.

this once dominant role of universities will be further depleted as the digital-era further pervades all aspects of life. but technology will also be an enabler for universities by removing the physical and geographic boundaries that once constrained them. those universities that embrace technology can reach anyone, anywhere in the world, not just those who live nearby or have the means and willingness to move to the same location as the university. 

those universities that embrace technology can reach anyone, anywhere in the world

this global reach of education requires universities to think and act more globally, trading on the quality of their programme offer. already we see universities offering course from other universities, creating the possibility of an institution becoming a gateway for students to create their own learning programme and qualifications, choosing from a variety of the best courses and schools offered anywhere in the world. 

a new model

beyond technology there are a number of social, demographic and environment changes expected to further impact the university offer. the traditional university model that has remained unchanged for hundreds of years will become radically different. the obvious move is a shift away from fixed time and process to a ‘fixed outcomes’ approach favoured by our information economy. this will drive new funding models, with ‘pay for performance’ structures already becoming even more prevalent, especially in research. 

institutions will need to become much more agile to appeal to the needs of a hugely diverse target audience wanting a personalised and inclusive experience. this may see many more new courses and support services offered and a more holistic approach to student life and well-being.

the distinction between physical and digital will become blurred as the educational experience incorporates both. students who have the money and access will be able to make active decisions about what, how and when they move between online and physical interaction with a learning institution. this requires a repositioning of the physical offer, delivering a higher-value experience, that incorporates a strong sense of place. 

the distinction between physical and digital will become blurred as the educational experience incorporates both

many large global organisations are already creating their own in-house universities, populating them with courses from some of the best schools in the world. the expectation is that this trend towards skills and vocation will continue, with employers asking universities to tailor specific programmes to them. this requires a significant focus shift, away from supply-side – what we teach – to demand-side outcomes - what students need to learn and be able to do.

another trend that’s already emerging is cross- and inter-disciplinary programmes. traditionally the different faculties within a university didn’t work well together. the new model, tailored to a wider audience who want tailored choices, will see programmes that span across faculties, allowing students to combine the things they are passionate about with the career-learning they require.

up for the challenge

with all these drivers of change, i see the university of the future as being global, 24/7, focused on learning rather than teaching, offering students a completely tailored and holistic experience as and where they want it – on-line, physical and a combination of both.

i love a challenge and the dynamic universities environment definitely offers this. like many organisations, victoria is having to revisit how they position themselves and how they speak to the changing make-up and needs of their audience. they’re ready to adapt and well-placed to do things differently. it’s an exciting time and i am excited to be able to make my small contribution to their thinking, their positioning and their communications.

universities, education, disruption, tertiary education, changes in tertiary education

Dem Kiwi styles

01 May 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

I was recently asked to be part of a discussion on the Kiwi design aesthetic which got me thinking about the topic. So here are my views on what defines the Kiwi style. Given I’m not a trained designer or...

dem kiwi styles steven giannoulis

i was recently asked to be part of a discussion on the kiwi design aesthetic which got me thinking about the topic. so here are my views on what defines the kiwi style. given i’m not a trained designer or artist, there is a good chance my views are well wide of the mark. i can only tell you what i see and feel.


like many, i’m of the view that a country’s approach to the creative arts is a strong reflection of its culture. australian and american creativity is broadly bright, loud and confident, very much like the cultures of those nations. scandinavian design is minimalist, considered and efficient. french design is sensual, with flair and individualism.

it follows then that kiwi design is like us: understated, individual, complex and extremely grounded in nature and reality. we seek to tell stories by creating moods and feelings, crediting our audiences with a level of intellect, rather than always stating the obvious. it doesn’t mean that it’s all dark, brooding and intellectual, in fact, it is often the complete opposite, as we rarely take ourselves too seriously. the hunt for the wilderpeople may be one of the best expressions of the kiwi creative mindset with its complex relationships showcased through off-beat humour.

much of our graphic design style comes from our colonial heritage but, whether we like to admit it or not, our graphic palette also has a strong pacific flavor to it. we see this often in simple two-dimensional shapes made to stand out against flat colours. similar to the japanese aesthetic, we prefer design to not be overly perfect and crafted but to feel natural. we favour flowing forms over straight lines, again a reflection of our surroundings.

the tone of our work is often muted and dark with a heavy dose of realism. we use a lot of natural and rustic colours such as greys, greens and browns to express the world around us. we prefer real life over presenting places and scenarios in idealistic ways. and reality is also the driver for depicting people, staying away from over emphasising an individual’s positive assets, preferring to highlight their imperfections.

what i love most about the kiwi aesthetic is our use of language. there’s always that cheeky, sarcasm-loaded, sense of irreverence that reflects kiwi humour and our ‘she’ll be right’ approach to life. i think it’s what makes our work, particularly in advertising, stand out from work from around the world.

the nz design aesthetic will continue to evolve as the diverse tapestry that makes up our nation broadens and as we become more regional and global. to some degree i welcome this, but i do worry that our style will become less our own. i’d like to see us embrace more of the maori and pacific flavours that make our design voice unique, while also working hard to ensure our kiwi tone of voice never loses its cutting edge.

what do you think defines the kiwi design aesthetic?

image from

new zealand design style

Human trends - not design fad

17 Apr 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

This article appeared in the Autum 2018 edition of Idealog magazine It might surprise you to know that, even though I run a design agency, I loathe the notion of latest design trends. In my view, they promote a...

human trends - not design fad steven giannoulis

this article appeared in the autum 2018 edition of idealog magazine

it might surprise you to know that, even though i run a design agency, i loathe the notion of latest design trends. in my view, they promote a distorted view of what effective design is and unnecessarily emphasise the tactical components of design rather than the outcomes they deliver. i am particularly frustrated when (mostly junior) creatives suggest a design that is a blatant homage to the look our industry is currently obsessed with. this leads to lazy, unoriginal design not driven by the needs of the client or the audience we are trying to engage.

i therefore hesitated when asked to write a ‘latest design trends’ article. so often these articles just represent the writer’s opinions and preferences on what is “hot right now.” i just couldn’t bring myself to do this, so if you’re expecting recommendations on a particular shade of beetroot red or a kerning style then this isn’t the article for you.

good design is as much a study of human psychology as it is a technical skill. for me, design trends represent shifts in consumer preferences and behaviours. they are driven by cultural and social changes, technology, new channels and mediums and changing consumer demographics. so my design trends aren’t the hot new thing but fundamental consumer shifts that inform the way we should be approaching all design communications.

think human. seek engagement. be authentic and responsible. tell stories. go simple.

think human. based on a number of well known design-thinking philosophies, human centric design has grown as an idea thanks largely to the user experience (ux/ui) emphasis in web design. the core idea though extends to all design – put the needs of your audience at the forefront of the design.

start with the underlying human need that the design is looking to address, both physical and emotional. this immediately gives you a sense of the tone and feel needed. then think about the user’s journey. what leads them to your communication and why? is this the communication piece that creates that desire to buy or the rational follow-up that convinces the head that it’s okay to buy what the heart wants? and finally, think about how the end audience will interact with your communication. always work with audience expectations, creating an easy, intuitive and natural interaction. 

seek engagement. in the last decade, we’ve seen a huge drive to digital. it’s reshaped advertising, direct marketing and pr and the way we think about design and branding. digital offers reach and cost-efficiency but often it’s at the expense of audience engagement. and that’s why in some areas we’ve seen a shift back to using more physical mediums to connect with audience. this manifests in simple things like a handwritten note, a clever direct mail piece or sending a printed newsletter rather than firing another email into a crowded inbox.

at the more complex end, it’s about creating experiences that audiences can interact with, immersing themselves in your brand. this trend is influencing the design of physical spaces like office and shop fit outs. it’s also driving the growth of temporary spaces, like containers, as experience centres that utilise both physical and virtual reality (vr) to create full-sensory experiences. with vr spanning the digital and physical worlds, and its growing accessibility, we see this becoming a leading force for delivering more meaningful audience engagements.

be authentic and responsible. there are some significant social trends that are changing expectation of communications and design. first, there is a move against the over-manufactured reality that we were increasingly fed over the last few decades. consumers now want authenticity and that means representing everyday people, in real locations and situations using everyday language. not that there isn’t room for hyperbole, fantasy or escapism, but we can’t keep passing off fake as real.

and there’s a growing sense of responsibility for our actions and those of others. catalysts like #metoo, global migration and environmental change have consumers looking at communicator’s social purpose, credentials and actions. we must reflect this in design application, through the responsible depiction of gender, race and environment and with more considered application of language and humour.

tell stories. ironically, social media with its short word counts has driven growth in story-telling. as instagram shows us, a picture (and a few words) can tell a powerful, engaging story. it’s facilitated the move from saying things to showing them. audience’s want organisations to tell stories that demonstrate who they are and what they stand for, allowing audiences to seek alignment with their own beliefs and ideologies.

designers can learn from social media on how good stories engage audiences. this means capturing those real moments, and the feelings they evoke, as well as finding ways for audiences to become part of the story.

go simple. our lives are busy. email, news and social feeds bombard us constantly across multiple channels and devices. in this cluttered world, getting cut-through and resonance with communications is increasingly difficult. design can help bring calm and order to this chaotic world and that’s why we are seeing a rise of simpler design approaches. make it as easy for audiences to engage with less visual clutter, clean colour palettes and typography, good navigation and sign-posting, fewer words and meaningful icons and graphics.

applying all the above won’t necessarily make your designs more effective in driving audience perceptions or behaviours. as i said earlier, good communication design is about understanding the human psyche and this changes from audience to audience, situation to situation, and brief to brief. however, considering how to apply these (so-called) trends will go a long way to helping solve any design challenge from a consumer-led perspective.

design trends, design fads, effective design

SIT & Innovate

04 Apr 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we innovate and how we help our clients do the same. In an industry where much of what we do has been commoditised, our most valuable skill is our ability to think creatively in...

sit & innovate steven giannoulis

i’ve been thinking a lot about how we innovate and how we help our clients do the same. in an industry where much of what we do has been commoditised, our most valuable skill is our ability to think creatively in helping our clients solve the problems that matter most to them. i’d heard of strategic inventive thinking (sit) but had never taken the time to really understand it. thanks to a course on, now i’m a big fan.

sit uses a number of tricks and techniques that require you to look ‘inside the box’ to unlock ‘outside the box’ thinking. it starts with the existing solution rather than the problem itself. (now that’s innovative in its own right.) and it’s a technique many successful firms, like apple and 3m,­­ have been using for ages.

"sit uses a number of tricks and techniques that require you to look ‘inside the box’ to unlock ‘outside the box’ thinking."

for each existing solution to a particular problem, you identify its key components and attributes and then use the following techniques to think differently about them:

  1. subtraction – what if we take away certain features and functions? apparently, the idea for the ipad came by applying this technique to the laptop.
  2. task unification – what if we associated relationships in different ways. rather than having its own cooling motor, what if your fridge was kept cool by your home’s air conditioning system? no motor and suddenly the fridge has more capacity for food, is cheaper and quicker to manufacture. and you have more possibilities for shape and size!
  3. multiplication – what if there were more that one of these components? what if your laptop had more than one screen? what if your phone had a screen on the front and the back?
  4. division – what if rather than having one big feature we have lots of small ones? the development of the dish draw dishwasher is a good example of this thinking.
  5. attribute dependency – rethinking what a thing is designed to do. what if it did something else instead? what if your light-bulb also heated your room for example? the best example is the mobile phone. someone said what if it wasn’t just for calls but a mini-computer, a camera, a dictaphone, a mini-tv, an audio device, a games console, etc. and now it is.


once you’ve generated lots of ideas using these techniques, they are evaluated against both customer needs and the feasibility to produce.

the two things that i like most about the sit approach are:

(1) it’s driven by customer-led design thinking – it’s not about brainstorming wild ideas but really thinking about the customer experience and how to better meet their underlying needs and wants; and

(2) it targets ‘fixedness’ thinking which stops innovation. fixedness is the pre-set ideas we have that things need to be in a certain place, look or work in a certain way or work in tandem with something else. change your mind-set on these and you open your mind to a whole lot of possibilities.

innovation leads to new, useful and surprising outcomes that allow our customers, and their customers, to better have their needs met. i’m a firm believer that innovation comes from within – changing your perspective – and that’s why strategic inventive thinking really appeals. the next step is for us to give sit a go. what if…..?

sit, strategic inventive thinking, innovation, creative thinking

Wider opening jaws: it’s what clients really want.

26 Mar 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

  A hang-up from my client-side days is that I expect my agency to be all about delivering on my goals. After all, business results – not big ideas and clever design - are what I’m paying for. Agency...

wider opening jaws: it’s what clients really want. steven giannoulis


a hang-up from my client-side days is that i expect my agency to be all about delivering on my goals. after all, business results – not big ideas and clever design - are what i’m paying for. agency leaders have a responsibility to ensure their teams understand the basics of business so they work on solving the problems that really matter to clients.

we recently launched a series of staff training presentations to ensure all staff have the skills to live our client-first value. the first two sessions were run by actual clients. now that was cool. the first session focused on the client/agency relationship and what clients value. the importance of strategy, transparency and accountability came through very strongly. the second looked at the client decision-making process from business planning, budgeting, business case development right through to sign-offs and how the effectiveness of our work is measured. 

for the third session, i went back to my uni days to cover the fundamentals of business strategy. clients often tell us that they want a brochure, a website or something similar without explaining the why. it’s this why that tells us what they really want, how best to approach the challenge and what results we need to deliver.

"the importance of strategy, transparency and accountability came through very strongly"

we started the session with milton friedman’s free-market theories and gordon gecko’s ‘greed is good’ philosophy before easing into triple-bottom line thinking. this sparked lively debate on the real purpose of business, with few siding with a pure capitalist mindset. we have a variety of clients from small, medium and big business, government agencies and ngos, so the discussion quickly identified that long-term value (both real and perceived) means something different for each of them.

we then focused on profit using the old-fashioned ‘opening the profit-jaws’ analogy to understand the decisions our clients might make around profit. we boiled it down to three basic drivers: (1) make more profit today; (2) make more tomorrow; or (3) create more certainty of making profit. broadly, all decisions are about more revenue, less costs and/or less risk. economic theorists are no-doubt horrified by this naivety but simplicity was crucial here.

for revenue, we used the classic pie metaphor to address market share, share of wallet and new market segments. for cost drivers, we first discussed productivity and efficiency and how companies try to do more with less. we then talked quality and how it helps reduce wastage, rework and ultimately cost. we related this back to how we approached our own work.

"we spent time pondering what some of our clients cared about most by considering their value chain, their sustainable advantage and competitive strategies"

and we talked about the reward maximisation vs risk minimisation trade-off companies face, the competitive forces they operate within and the various factors that add to their uncertainty. we considered some of the client briefs we work on and how they drive profit by managing risk.

we spent some time pondering what some of our clients cared about most by considering their value chain, their sustainable advantage and competitive strategies. 

we finished by discussing some of the key work we do – brand, websites, campaigns, staff engagement programmes and annual reports – and how we might approach each one differently if the client driver is revenue, cost or risk management.

to provide effective client solutions agencies need to understand the real business problems they are trying to solve for their clients. design people don’t naturally take to numbers and business concepts but it’s knowledge that all design agency leaders need to invest in if we are going to elevate our industry from ‘making things pretty’ to true business enablers.

design, business, creative investment, creative agencies

Both sides now

20 Mar 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

The following article by Insight CEO, Steven Giannoulis, was published in the March 2018 issue of NZMarketing magazine. Client-agency partnerships are often love/hate relationships that leave both sides delighted...

both sides now steven giannoulis

the following article by insight ceo, steven giannoulis, was published in the march 2018 issue of nzmarketing magazine.

client-agency partnerships are often love/hate relationships that leave both sides delighted and frustrated all at the same time. insight creative’s ceo, steven giannoulis, shares his experience on both sides and dishes up advice on working better together.  

many agency suits, strategists and even creatives switch from agency to client side at some point in their career. maybe it’s the ability to focus on one thing and do it well or the opportunity to call the shots on what gets done. often, it’s just that greater sense of job stability and structure that corporate life appears to offer.

when i started out as a marketer, the glamour and pace of the agency world really appealed. i envied them having the freedom to come up with clever ideas, every day working on cool and exciting projects, with the latest technology and hanging out in uber-creative environments. i, on the other hand, spent my life writing memos and business cases, analysing research and data, coordinating internal meetings and sign-offs while wrangling suppliers, distributors and sales teams. from my dull grey office-cubicle, the grass definitely looked greener on the other side.

over the next 20 years, as i moved up the ranks (and age brackets), i found myself falling less and less in love with the agency world. having worked with dozens of agencies - across advertising, digital, design, brand and dm - i found myself constantly frustrated at their focus on the coolest, newest and shiniest things. i seemed to be the financier of their obsession to come up with the most out-there ideas, win as many awards as possible, be the first to try the latest technology and to out-do something someone else had done.

it’s not that the work wasn’t great. most of it was brilliant and ultimately very successful, but often it felt like i had to work really hard to make it ‘fit for purpose.’ mostly agencies showed me extremely clever execution ideas and left it up to me to determine whether the ideas would communicate the messages and deliver­ the results needed. if i felt it didn’t (but had potential to), i got actively involved in dictating design and copy changes. this was often a battle of wills, as they focused on preserving the creative idea while i fought to improve roi. no doubt they were just as frustrated with me as i was with them.

"this was often a battle of wills, as they focused on preserving the creative idea while i fought to improve roi"

ironically, though many clients covet agency life, few make the switch across. it’s more common the other way.

in 2011, i had the opportunity to swap my cmo role for life as a strategist in a branding and design agency. i’ve always been a strategic marketer and i liked the idea of being able to work across multiple clients and industries to solve diverse business and communication problems. i was determined to use my own experiences with agencies to drive a client-led approach to delivering effective work.

over seven years, i’ve learnt that there is a lot of grind behind the creative exterior that agencies let clients see. i work just as hard now as i did when i was on the corporate side and (surprise, surprise) the bulk of my work is neither exciting nor glamorous. i’m always blown away at how passionate creatives are about producing amazing work. and they are way more strategic than we give them credit for. they prefer to let the work speak for itself rather than attempt to articulate the logic they followed.

and many clients have unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved, by when, and at what budget. in hindsight, i know i did. often this comes about because account management teams fall over themselves to deliver, constantly raising the expectation that clients have. and clients often expect agencies to just know stuff about their industry, their business or their other marketing activities but they don’t take the time to tell us about it.

“there will always be a tension between clients and agencies and in many ways this is healthy, driving each of us to do more”

there will always be a tension between clients and agencies and in many ways this is healthy, driving each of us to do more. we may think differently and speak a different language but we need what each of us brings to the relationships. understanding just what each party brings – and respecting it – can build a trust that creates powerful work. like the words of a good joni mitchell song, it always comes down to good communications, a little compromise, a whole lot of empathy and a shared vision of what you can do together. 

once you’ve found it, hold onto it so both businesses can prosper.


steven’s advice to agencies on working better with clients

  • take the time to learn the client’s business and their key challenges, opportunities and their strategy. these are the ‘why’ behind every brief and if you can deliver on these clients will always love you for it.
  • invest in training your people on explaining their thinking using the client’s language. give them skills and tools to connect creative ideas with how these will lead to the desired business outcomes clients are paying for.
  • push clients to think beyond what they know. they’ve done things that have worked and often look for you to do the tried and tested. show them why doing something different can deliver something better. 

steven’s advice to clients on working better with agencies.

  • brief in the problem or opportunity, not just the solution you think is needed. this allows the agency to think about all the best possible solutions to achieve the results.
  • invest in the relationship. take time to ensure your agency knows your business, your audiences, your channels, what’s important to you and what you expect from them. let them know about the strategies and bigger picture their works fits into.
  • there’s no point having a dog and barking yourself. trust the experts to do their job but always challenge them to come up with more creative and innovative ideas than you could have come up yourselves. 

Get personal or don’t bother

19 Mar 2018 by Steven Giannoulis

I recently got a ‘Dear Valued Client’ letter from a supplier offering me a discount for the next time I used their services. It’s a supplier we work with lots and have done for a long time. I suspect they’d be...

get personal or don’t bother steven giannoulis

i recently got a ‘dear valued client’ letter from a supplier offering me a discount for the next time i used their services. it’s a supplier we work with lots and have done for a long time. i suspect they’d be horrified to know that their letter was the catalyst that finally led us to look elsewhere.


i’m sure they had good intentions – after all they were trying to reward my loyalty by giving me a discount – but little did they realise that this communication reinforced my niggling feeling that they really didn’t give a shit about me or what i wanted.

the problem started at the top of the letter when they didn’t even bother to use my name. the dear valued client introduction suggested this was a mass-mailing to all their clients, and i was ‘important’ enough to be a line in their spreadsheet. this did nothing to make me feel known, let alone valued.

the truth is they know who i am - they used my name on the address sticker – so how much effort would it have taken to address the letter dear steven?  it’s just an extra field in their mail merge that could have set the communication off in the right way.

secondly, the letter gave me no indication that they understood the nature of our relationship. they talked about how long they’d been offering their services and proceeded to list them all. we use some of these services but most of the stuff on their list had nothing to do with us. i would have liked to see something that acknowledged that we’d been working together for x years and that they partnered us with services x, y and z.

and finally, the simple percentage discount offer failed to acknowledge what was important to me in working with them. they might as well have offered a free set of steak-knives in terms of relevancy for our relationship.

here’s how i think this should have gone. first, i would have chosen a different communication medium. we have a relationship manager and i think something that is designed to make me feel personally valued should have come from them, face-to-face or at the very least by phone. this would also avoid the generic message issue, as the relationship manager can talk about specific things that demonstrates how they value our relationship.

for a while i’ve been talking to this company about a couple of things that were bugging me. they could have easily rewarded me by addressing just one of these things. now that would have told me that they’d listened and understood me (and probably cost them less than the discount).

technology has made communicating much easier but the fundamentals of thinking about your audience and what you want them to think, feel and do hasn’t. relationships are always personal so if you want to tell me i’m valued, show me and make me feel it, otherwise don’t bother.

marketing communication, personalisation, reward loyalty

The Real Client Treatment

06 Nov 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

Talking to a (hopefully soon to be) client last week about growing staff advocacy for their client service experience, got me thinking about how well we apply our own service ethos to ourselves. This prospective...

the real client treatment steven giannoulis

talking to a (hopefully soon to be) client last week about growing staff advocacy for their client service experience, got me thinking about how well we apply our own service ethos to ourselves.

this prospective client works at one of the big banks and the discussion was about how to give staff a first-hand appreciation of the customer experience. it’s a wonderful idea and it aligns nicely with my desire for us to all see ourselves as our customers do.

client-first is one of our values. we track client satisfaction, monitor net promoter scores and actively look to engage clients in discussions about what we can we do better. these are all good actions and collectively they’ve contributed to making us exponentially more client-centric than we have ever been.

but it seems we still struggle to recognise the internal client as a real client. this manifests itself in numerous ways: from not meeting internal deadlines, not making time to address key internal matters, being late to internal meetings with no ‘heads-up’, or postponing internal meetings last minute because “i’m just too busy.” it shows in the priority given to new business proposals, marketing activities or other similar jobs, which are essential to our survival, but are the first to be put aside when external client work comes in.

mostly i see it in our business plan activities whose importance is somehow always trumped by the ‘urgent.’ it’s this work that will make the biggest difference to us and our clients but doing this work is never as high priority as even the smallest client job.

we wouldn’t dream of saying to a client “sorry, we didn’t do your job because work came in from a more important client.” effectively, that’s what we do every time we don’t deliver on our internal timeframes and promises. if we were our own client, we’d probably sack ourselves!

am i suggesting that we need to give our work priority over paying client work? yeah, maybe. mostly i’m saying that we can’t use clients as the excuse for not doing what we said we would. we must treat ourselves like a real client and manage expectations, agree realistic timeframes, communicate proactively and do everything we can to deliver what we said we would. and it starts by giving external clients realistic timeframes for delivering their work based on our full workload. never assume that we will just drop the internal work.

reality is, things happen and we need to reprioritise. and sometimes we just can’t find a way to do what we promised to do. talk to the client (internal or external) before the due date and agree a new timeframe and deliverables. most clients will be reasonable about it, if they can. and if the scope can’t change then at least they have the option to find alternative ways to achieve what they need. chances are they’ve also made promises and this allows them to manage any expectations they’ve created.

and as we all know, good service experiences are all about expectations being exceeded.

client satisfaction, internal clients

Bitchin' about Pitching

03 Oct 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

New business pitches are a fact of life and I’d be concerned if we weren’t involved in them on a regular basis. All I ask is that clients play fair. Here’s some things that annoy me most about pitching. ...

bitchin' about pitching steven giannoulis

new business pitches are a fact of life and i’d be concerned if we weren’t involved in them on a regular basis. all i ask is that clients play fair. here’s some things that annoy me most about pitching.

invite the world / ask for the world.
clients have a responsibility to do a little bit of work themselves to determine what they need and who could potentially do their work, rather than just putting open tenders out there or inviting lots of agencies. if they genuinely don’t know who’s available, and can’t get recommendations from others, then they should put a simple and quick eoi (expression of interest) out there. use the responses to shortlist a handful and invite only those to pitch.

worse than a big invite list is a huge list of requirements. often it means answering fifty plus questions to get to round two, only to have further requirements to complete, followed by a presentation. many pitches take thirty plus hours to prepare, some more than double that. ask us for what you really need, not everything you can possibly think of.

asking for free stuff.
our general rule is that we’ll never pitch for anything that requires us to present work. it’s just rude to ask a specialist to do work and not expect to pay for it. we’re happy to demonstrate our capability with some general thinking or direction but we draw the line at being asked to present a specific strategy or creative concept.

if you want to test us, give us a small brief and pay us to deliver the work. if you like it then it’s win/win. and if don’t want to keep working with us, then don't, but the work is yours to keep.

be transparent.
just recently we did a pitch where we went through a number of stages only to be told they had a small fixed budget. it would have been good to have been told the budget upfront as we may have not gone for it. more likely we would have presented two quotes. the first based on their requirements. the second, showing what they’d get for the money they have.

worse still is where there is an agency the client wants to work with but they’re required to do a competitive pitch. i’ve been on both sides and having to pitch for work you’ve already won is just as frustrating as pitching for work you’re never going to win.

always tell us honestly what the evaluation criteria are and if you have specific requirements about where we are located, the type of agency we need to be or the level of sexual or ethnic diversity we must display to win the pitch.

let’s talk about the price.
earlier this year we pitched for an account and apparently outscored in all areas other than price. the prospective client rang us and was upfront about their dilemma. they wanted to work with us but were struggling to get it over the line with their board. after some discussion, we agreed on a new approach to pricing that was palatable to all.

so, if price is the only issue that’s stopping you from picking us, let’s have a conversation. but don’t do it just to screw our price down. in the long-term we’ll find a way to get the value we need. generally, it’s by having no flexibility with scope and charging you for absolutely everything.

give us feedback.
providing open, honest and constructive feedback to all parties at the end of a pitch process is mandatory. i often ask up front if feedback will be available and this helps me decide whether to go for a pitch or not. no feedback tells me something about the one-way relationship we'd be in for.

we have a criteria for what we pitch for and how much we’ll invest to get it. we only go for stuff we genuinely want to do and know we can do well. in return, we ask for a similar level of respect from anyone who invites us to pitch for their work.

pitching, new business

The Masters of success

19 Sep 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

I’ve been CEO of Insight Creative for nearly three years now. It’s more than a job I love. It’s an all-consuming passion that drives me to want to do more and to do it better. I give it everything and it gives...

the masters of success steven giannoulis

i’ve been ceo of insight creative for nearly three years now. it’s more than a job i love. it’s an all-consuming passion that drives me to want to do more and to do it better. i give it everything and it gives me a whole lot back. there’s nothing i’d change about it. well almost nothing. i’d really like to redefine success so that i don’t always feel like i’m failing.  

running a creative agency is an interesting business challenge. if we were a corporate then life might be easier when it comes to expected outcomes. i’ve been there and i know how it works. the shareholders (often the parent company) have an expected return number in mind. decision-making then becomes very single-minded, focused on delivering that number each year. you do and there are rewards. you don’t and there are consequences. if roi was the only outcome i needed to achieve with insight then i know exactly how i’d go about it. but this is just one expected outcome. and anyway, i don’t want to work for a company focused only on money – been there, done that, not again.

what really drives people to own and work in a design agency is creativity. we want to deliver clever ideas and creative concepts flawlessly executed. stuff that makes us proud and makes people notice and admire us. project plans, timesheets and processes, all aimed at managing the dollars, don’t exactly endear themselves to creative outcomes. so immediately you’ve got the challenge of balancing the needs of two masters.

at our place, we’ve got a third master. the fulfillment of our people. insight is a family business, owned by the people who work here. we’re not workers, resources, human capital or any other such crude term, designed to remind us that we can easily be swapped out for another fte. we are individuals, all with our own strengths, challenges and aspirations. we see work as an outlet for expression, growth and belonging. our staff engagement score, of close to 90%, says we are doing this well but this comes at the cost of other outcomes.

he with many masters serves none at all. it’s either a chinese proverb or some shit, disguised as wisdom, i just made up. regardless, it’s exactly how i feel. constantly trying to deliver the money, the creativity and the people outcomes seems to be an exercise in endless compromise. at best, we make a couple of masters happy. at worst, we disappoint all three. i’m quickly learning that the trick is to lower everyone’s expectations (including my own) but that’s not how i’m naturally wired. i prefer big challenges, delivering great results even when you fall short of the stated goal.

absurdly, i cope with the schizophrenia of three masters by focusing on a fourth, our clients. my thinking is that if we do what’s right by the client then everything else will look after itself. happy clients will give us more and better work and that will take care of the money, creativity and the opportunities to grow as individuals.

business goals, business plan

Awards. Who cares?

29 Aug 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

Having recently announced a whole string of national and international awards for our work, it’s strange to be sitting here wondering, who really cares? Obviously, we do. The question is, who else cares and why? ...

awards. who cares? steven giannoulis

having recently announced a whole string of national and international awards for our work, it’s strange to be sitting here wondering, who really cares? obviously, we do. the question is, who else cares and why?

our design team cares about awards. for them, they represent recognition from their peers: people they admire, aspire to be like and whose work they covet. it’s recognition of a designer’s creativity and therefore, it’s a source of both self-satisfaction and motivation.

for the wider team, awards are about meaning. they’ve worked hard to manage a project to time and on budget, to lay out all the various elements and to produce the different components. award recognition says it was worth it and that their hard work contributed to something that mattered.

as a business leader and a strategist, awards are a measure of quality and effectiveness. they say we are doing something right in the way that we run the business, the people we hire and the way we structure our processes to deliver great ideas, executed beautifully. effectiveness awards, in particular, acknowledge that we are doing the right thing by our clients, delivering results that justify their investment.

we often think about awards in terms of reputation. last year we undertook research with prospective clients and it was clear that a ‘pool room’ of awards didn’t drive them to pick an agency. i think about my own experiences on the client side, selecting new agencies. awards were never a consideration. they came more into play after deciding, providing a post-decision reinforcement that i had made the right choice.

but clients sure love it when you win awards with their work. it reinforces their individual self-worth as marketers and communicators, telling them they are doing a good job. and it gives them a tool to go back to the accountants and other peers who struggle to see the full value they deliver to their business. and of course, it reminds them they are working with the right agency partner.

our industry really cares. awards represent best practice and a celebration of what we collectively contribute to our economy. i am often frustrated (and vocal) about how creative awards are handed out. we celebrate the latest, the weirdest and the boldest, often ignoring a work’s obvious failure to communicate effectively or to deliver the results the client commissioned it for.

despite all this gusto, i still get an immense sense of pride for me, our team and our clients, when we win an award. and it’s this pride that makes us all care about winning awards.


awards, insight creative, best awards, arc awards

Digital Strategy – old magic, new tricks

19 Jun 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

I'm currently documenting my 'methodology' for creating sound digital strategy, and what strikes me is that there’s no ‘special digital strategy sauce’ that makes me more special, more current and more in the...

digital strategy – old magic, new tricks steven giannoulis

i'm currently documenting my 'methodology' for creating sound digital strategy, and what strikes me is that there’s no ‘special digital strategy sauce’ that makes me more special, more current and more in the know than non-digital strategists. i’d like to position what i do in digital projects as a superpower, a dark art or a magical calling bestowed on us chosen few. reality is, i’m doing the same sh*% that has underpinned good marketing strategy since eve promoted her ‘apple’ to adam.

as more things change –  technology advances, consumer expectations sky-rocket and sources of information explode – the fundamentals that make a good marketing and communication strategy remain even more relevant. it’s not to say there aren’t some things that apply specifically to digital, but we can say the same about every communication medium.

when developing a strategy for a digital project like a website, we must carefully balance the needs of the client and the user. it’s easy when they perfectly align but, frankly, that just never happens.

let’s start with the client. a digital project always starts with understanding what we are doing and why. what’s the business objective? a good strategist gets to the heart of a brief – the why – rather than just focusing on just capturing the what and how. in my experience, the why will always come down to delivering revenue or cost-savings, enhancing reputation, driving efficiency or quality and/or managing risk. the quicker you can determine which of these is the primary driver, the quicker you can work out what success looks like and how to deliver it.

then we move to the communication strategy. where does the project sit in the client’s wider communication programme? how does it integrate with other activities, offline and online? these days a website can be both the fulfilment piece at the end of a promotional chain and/or the gateway to starting two-way dialogue with customers via social media. understanding where it sits in the wider sales or engagement process influences how we design and structure a site and its content. and of course, there’s the wider industry and competitive context your online presence co-exists in.

and then there’s our target audiences. who are they? why do they come to the site? what do they want to know, do and feel?  what content is important and why? what engages them and what turns them off?  when do they come? not just time of day but where in the decision-cycle? where do they come from and how do they get here – desktop, tablet, phone or cross-device? lots of questions, many which clients can answer, some we understand with research and others we observe through analytics and testing.

digital strategy is an exercise in balancing the needs of clients and audiences.

there’s lots of talk about good ux, and you can’t deny its importance, but a good user experience won’t necessarily drive the outcomes the client needs.

i may be the odd-one out here but i always start with the client need first. after all, they’ll judge our success (and they’re the ones paying!) i develop a small number of high-level approaches that i think will deliver the result the client needs. these usually come from a combination of experience, research and on-going reading and learning. i run these through a top-down checklist in my head. how would this strategy manifest itself in site architecture, navigation, content, story-telling, interaction, experience, integration, seo, tracking, sign-up/fulfilment, etc? talking myself through these answers eliminates some options and ensures the remaining ones are better considered.

the final step is to apply a bottom-up client-led review of the remaining strategies. audience by audience. will this strategy drive this audience to the site? will it give them what they need in a way that will engage them? what’s the primary user journey? what would make them dive deeper into the site, stay longer or explore more pages? will it drive them to buy, call, email, subscribe, like, comment, watch, or whatever other action we need them to take?

most strategies fail in execution which is why i see clarity as the single most important aspect of a good strategy, digital or otherwise. the more-single-minded the strategy is the easier it is for clients to understand it and for designers, developers, content creators and others to work out how to best apply their expertise to implement it effectively.

so, there it is, a glimpse behind the digital strategy curtain. disappointed that it’s not exactly magic and more science than a dark art? and as mysterious as i try to make it, i’m just an old dog doing the same old tricks, in a new medium, that strategic marketers have done forever.

digital, strategy. user experience, effectiveness

Designing client agencies

23 May 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

As a senior corporate marketer I worked with numerous design and advertising agencies before moving to the agency dark-side. I remember sitting through a number of creative pitches wondering “how will this...

designing client agencies steven giannoulis

as a senior corporate marketer i worked with numerous design and advertising agencies before moving to the agency dark-side. i remember sitting through a number of creative pitches wondering “how will this actually drive the sales i need?” often it was a case that it would, but the agency just needed to get better at presenting it to me in terms that met our business objectives. the sooner agencies learn to speak the language of business, the sooner they’ll be seen as professional partners and not just suppliers.

in many cases, the agency hadn’t thought beyond the self-perceived brilliance of their big creative idea to what me, or my audiences, actually needed. when i took on the ceo role at insight, i was keen to use this experience to make us a client-led, rather than design-led, agency.

at first it seems a radical step for a design agency to not drive the business from their core expertise. reality is that most big industries have already moved from production-led to customer-led. changing customer expectations and technology have necessitated this. the design industry, as a professional services provider, has been slow to realise the need to change.

we are into the third year of our client-first programme and while we have come a long way we still have further to go to be fully transformed. a philosophical shake-up of this proportion takes time.

the first year was about the basics. for example, making sure we’re asking the right questions at the briefing stage and really hearing, and understanding, what clients want and why. we redesigned our processes to drive our design thinking from tangible audience insights and to put steps in place to check the effectiveness of the work along the way.

we also gave all our client facing teams training on how to listen and read clients, how to get answers to the key questions and also how to sell in ideas (and not just designs) in ways that engage the client need.

in year two we ran ‘what clients want’ sessions where we invited clients to talk to our teams directly about the expectations and frustrations they have with agencies, how they measure value and the challenges they face getting things accomplished within their business. staff really engaged with this and enjoyed hearing it first-hand.

we also ran basic marketing strategy sessions for staff explaining the business drivers behind client briefs - such as growth, efficiency and risk management – and how each of these influence the channels, messages and design approaches we select.

you can’t be client focused if you don’t know what clients need, want or think. over the last two years we’ve run an annual client satisfaction monitor to track how well we are meeting client needs but also how the initiatives we are implementing are changing their perceptions. we supplement this with in-depth qualitative interviews to understand the why behind the monitor results and to get ourselves across the business challenges our clients face.

the year ahead has a strong client intimacy theme to it, designed to build a deep understanding of each client and the ways we can better deliver value to them. we’ll use this understanding to proactively address the problems and opportunities they face with tailored thinking and solutions. 

we’ve started and, not surprisingly, we’re finding clients are very receptive to their agency proactively designing solutions that help them achieve their goals.  

design agency, client-led

The engagement game

19 Apr 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

We regularly work with clients on internal communications projects, helping them engage their staff, drive behaviour and performance, embed change and continuous improvement programmes and align their internal...

the engagement game steven giannoulis

we regularly work with clients on internal communications projects, helping them engage their staff, drive behaviour and performance, embed change and continuous improvement programmes and align their internal and external brands. as a business, we face the same challenges our clients ask for our help with. we too work hard to engage a diverse group of talented individuals to create an aligned team approach that spans multiple locations and disciplines.

i was delighted to see the results of our latest annual staff perception survey. it was the first project i instigated as ceo in order to identify the key issues staff perceive and to track our progress in addressing them. each year we’ve moved forward in leaps and bounds and this year we achieved a staff engagement score of 88.8%. there’s no doubt our team is now (mostly) happy and this comes through clearly in the many positive and constructive comments made.

so how did we do it?  many clients tell us they need a campaign to drive culture change, embed value and to improve performance. my answer is always the same. staff engagement isn’t a campaign but an on-going embedding process achieved over time across multiple channels and touchpoints. it requires consistent messages and actions that move the team seamlessly through awareness, understanding, acceptance and adoption. and that’s simply what we did. here are some of the key initiatives from our own staff engagement programme:

  • improved regular communications including a monthly staff newsletter (now a video blog) covering results, work-in-progress updates, people and client stories and fun competitions. this is supported by a blog-based intranet for regular cross-office discussion and managers running regular team meetings. communication, transparency and trust were areas we scored particularly well in the survey.
  • line of sight – our annual strategy day allows us to walk the entire team through our vision, purpose, strategy and key plans for the year ahead. this enables them to make a direct connection between what they do and the results we need to achieve. we also use this session to review the year just passed, directly linking our performance against goals with any staff profit share.
  • last year we established an internal team to develop our values from the ground up. this ensured that the values reflected what is important to both staff and the business. we made a big deal around the launch, facilitating better recall and understanding. and now we are working on embedding them further into our every day vernacular and actions. see our values launch case study.
  • our staff benefits/wellbeing programme is an on-going labour of love. we regularly add new benefits such as medical check-ups, access to financial advisers, flexible working arrangements, community days and healthy living advice.
  • establishing a structured performance and development framework has meant all staff are clear on what they need to do and how their performance is measured. everyone has a development plan which is executed through regular individual and group development activities.
  • our new recruitment framework ensures that that we hire people that are aligned with, and add to, the culture we have created.
  • the physical environment also plays a role in culture and engagement. we moved offices in auckland, creating an environment more conducive to collaboration, creativity and good communication. we’ve made progress with the wellington office too and will go further with a new fit-out.
  • we do lots of fun activities together as a team (but we still need to do more). some are little things like shared lunches or morning teas to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, project success and individual ‘gold star’ performance. others are much bigger, like getting the whole team together for a day of eating, drinking and fun at my place or our masterchef-styled christmas function. getting together regularly in a relaxed, non-work environment helps with unity and creating a sense of belonging.

for me the key to achieving our outcomes is embedding our goals, values and culture into our everyday actions. the leadership team have led this charge, modelling the sort of culture we want as well as reinforcing it with their teams. and if you’ve been in a meeting with any of us, you’ll see we all carry our designer notebooks. these house our vision, one purpose, our brand story, our strategy and business plans, values and kpis. effectively, the team engages with them every time they take notes at meetings (which for most, is every day). see our strategy book case study.

yes, but has it worked? being personally fulfilled at work is one of our goals. but our engagement programme isn’t only about soft benefits. it’s also helping us deliver the hard results shareholders need. in the last three years, our revenue has remained relatively consistent but our bottom line has moved steadily upwards. a more engaged team manifests itself in greater productivity and a willingness to find and adopt new and better ways to do what we do. what do they say? “happy staff equals happy clients and happy clients means a happy bank manager.”

could we do more? without a doubt. we’ll take a few moments to reflect on how far we’ve come and then get back to going further. we’ve got some exciting plans for the year ahead. suddenly 90% engagement doesn’t seem that impossible.

internal engagement, internal communication, staff engagement

Can you resist?

03 Apr 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

Over the weekend, I read a great book called  Hidden Persuasion  (Andrews, van Leeuwen & van Baaren). It’s a book about the persuasive techniques used by clever marketers to get us to buy or do...

can you resist? steven giannoulis

over the weekend, i read a great book called hidden persuasion (andrews, van leeuwen & van baaren). it’s a book about the persuasive techniques used by clever marketers to get us to buy or do stuff.

every day we are bombarded by hundreds of messages designed to persuade us how to feel, act, do and be. most of the time we lack the conscious awareness to process them. but some of these really get through, changing our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. often we don’t even know it’s happened.

so what is that hidden persuasion technique that creates this cut-through?

the book outlines 33 persuasion techniques (many i know and use already) including metaphor, humour, scarcity, attraction, authority, fear, disruption, self-persuasion, social proof, promised land and of course, sex appeal. these techniques have been proven again and again and the authors give us lots of examples of results delivered in advertising.

i particularly like ideas like decoy: where consumers are choosing between two options, and a third option is introduced to create a bias. you often see this in cafés with a small, medium and large coffee offered. the large option costs just 50 cents more that medium, making the medium the decoy designed to make the large look like the best value. end result, we end up upsizing (just as the café wanted us to).

what strikes me about these techniques is that they’re not just gimmicks but rooted in psychology and social influence. as you read through them you can practically hear maslow saying “see, i was right about people’s basic needs and the priority they come in!”  these techniques work because they operate at three levels:

  1. they appeal to our hardwired responses, such as the fight or flight response, which are core to what makes us human;
  2. our deep social needs like love, respect, popularity and belonging; and
  3. our self-needs like self-worth, identity, pain avoidance, wealth, safety and survival.

when marketers use imagery and language that taps into these fundamental needs, resistance is futile. and our unconscious bias for attractive faces, symmetrical design or humourous copy means we don’t resist because we don’t even know we’re being persuaded.

the other thing that i like about these techniques is how they still apply today, even though the way we reach and engage audiences has changed. they work on websites, in video, on social media pages, in smm and sem campaigns, e-marketing and they still work just as well across traditional marketing and communications mediums.

persuasion, marketing

That Like feeling

23 Mar 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

  Lately I’ve been recruiting for a New Business person and I had an experience with one candidate that made me think about the importance of brand feelings. Yes, feelings. Brace yourself, I am going to talk...

that like feeling steven giannoulis


lately i’ve been recruiting for a new business person and i had an experience with one candidate that made me think about the importance of brand feelings. yes, feelings. brace yourself, i am going to talk about them.

for the first time i didn’t use a recruiting agency but posted my role on social media. i had 33 applicants, and once i got through the obligatory bunch of those kidding themselves about their suitability, i had a dozen or so really good applicants.

one particular applicant had a strong cv and i checked him out on linkedin, found he had some good endorsements and a number of connections i knew. all looked promising so i arranged an initial chat to get a feel for him and whether he’d be good for the role and our company.

after 20 minutes or so we hung up and i reflected on the discussion. he gave the absolute perfect textbook answers to every question – i couldn’t have scripted them better myself. but i walked away feeling something was off about this guy. he shared nothing personal, no stories, experiences or views that would have allowed me to like him. he was siri responding to my questions with programmatic accuracy and robotic warmth.

as you do in this ‘everything’s public’ age, i looked him up on facebook and instagram. he was into sports, did lots of community stuff, looked like a great dad and had a wide circle of friends. and we appeared to share some common musical interests. was i wrong about him? i invited him to meet to find out.

within 10 minutes of more of the same, i stopped listening. i have no doubt his remaining answers were great but i just didn’t care. he may have promised to do the job 24/7 and for free but i still wouldn’t hire him. i ended the meeting and promised to let him know as soon as i’d made up my mind. i lied, i had already made up my mind.

like people, brands have to appeal at an emotive level as well as a logical one. we have to trust a brand, and like (or at least not hugely dislike) it, before we’ll even consider getting into bed with it. this liking-heuristic is well proven in brand psychology. connect emotionally and it’s glass half full. don’t and it can never be anything more than near empty.

the guy i hired maybe on paper wasn’t the natural choice, but within 10 minutes we were talking like old-mates. within 30, i felt i knew him and within an hour i was ready to pick him. and that’s exactly what i think potential clients will feel when he’s talking to them.

feelings, brand, likeability

Identity in White

20 Feb 2017 by Steven Giannoulis

Immigration and the so-called identity dilution that diversity apparently brings is a hot topic on local and global political agendas. As a brand strategist and a descendent of immigrants I naturally have a strong...

identity in white steven giannoulis

immigration and the so-called identity dilution that diversity apparently brings is a hot topic on local and global political agendas. as a brand strategist and a descendent of immigrants i naturally have a strong view on the subject of identity. 

being from immigrant stock is actually what makes us kiwis. the nz story doesn’t just take in english and maori heritage but also incorporates pacific, indian, italian, dalmation, chinese and many more cultures. this eclectic tapestry of ethnic backgrounds has today fused together forming the unique kiwi identity we have today.

people came here in search of a better life for themselves and their families. this spirit of improving our lot is still alive and well in our culture today. most endured long journeys and tough beginnings to establish a life here and this sense of working hard for self-made success is something we still celebrate. and because of, and not despite of, our distance, we’ve learnt to improvise, think differently and find new ways to create the lifestyle we all enjoy.

immigrant culture is also the lifeblood of what our identity is evolving into. most of us live a life which embraces the best of our parents' heritage and our kiwi upbringing, creating the new cultural norm. let’s encourage and welcome all those who add to our kiwi culture, finding ways to celebrate the richness diversity brings. without it, we’d be a very dull place indeed.

all this diversity talk extends into the workforce and i’m all for it. diversity offers broader experiences and perspectives and therefore leads to better thinking and decision-making, greater creativity and innovation. at insight we have a great mix of nationalities, ages, interests, beliefs and personalities but we still need to do more. so we promote an active policy to encourage diversity in recruitment while not tolerating reverse discrimination.

i grew up in a cultural minority so i get frustrated at being lumped into a generic european majority or being told i don’t understand bi-culturalism or what it’s like to be different. we ‘white folks’ are not homogenous and interchangeable, all expressing one view and a single perspective. my background, growing up greek in new zealand, is very different from my colleagues who are dutch, german, scottish, south african or russian. we may all be white but we all have unique identities and cultures and each one of us brings a distinctive perspective.

so let's encourage, foster and celebrate the diversity we also bring to society and the workplace, remembering that everyone contributes to greater diversity.

diversity, kiwiness

User journeys - more than a web thing

27 Oct 2015 by Steven Giannoulis

A great article by Steven Giannoulis in the November/December issue of Idealog. This one explores UX (User Experience), and tracks the notion beyond the website to its application to any customer experience in any,...

user journeys - more than a web thing steven giannoulis

a great article by steven giannoulis in the november/december issue of idealog. this one explores ux (user experience), and tracks the notion beyond the website to its application to any customer experience in any, and across many, channels.


design, user journeys, user experience

Getting Customers - by design

12 Oct 2015 by Steven Giannoulis

The September/October issue of Idealog magazine features an article by our CEO, Steven Giannoulis. It canvasses the user journey from Awareness and onto the pathway towards a sale - and the important role that design...

getting customers - by design steven giannoulis

the september/october issue of idealog magazine features an article by our ceo, steven giannoulis. it canvasses the user journey from awareness and onto the pathway towards a sale - and the important role that design plays. the primary out take is the need to design the whole journey, not just one component of it. definitely worth a click and a read.

deisgn, idealog, insight creative

Investment in design

26 Jun 2015 by Steven Giannoulis

Or more accurately, 'Design in investment'. Steven Giannoulis' latest article in Idealog magazine that hit subscribers today, canvasses the role that design plays in making complex information clear and understandable...

investment in design steven giannoulis

or more accurately, 'design in investment'. steven giannoulis' latest article in idealog magazine that hit subscribers today, canvasses the role that design plays in making complex information clear and understandable for investors - from the start up, through the private business and right on to the ipo or listed company capital raising. no matter what stage in the business lifecycle, the principles of clear communication are much the same. click to enlarge and read:

deisgn, idealog, insight creative

Design as a business enabler

20 Feb 2015 by Steven Giannoulis

The first of our six double page spreads in Idealog Magazine for the year has just hit the bookshelves. The theme of our articles is the role of design as a valuable business enabler and accelerator. Have a read of...

design as a business enabler steven giannoulis

the first of our six double page spreads in idealog magazine for the year has just hit the bookshelves. the theme of our articles is the role of design as a valuable business enabler and accelerator. have a read of the first one:

Pause all of life's chaos

19 Dec 2014 by Steven Giannoulis

It’s the end of a very full on year for us and our clients, so we wanted to create something which championed the idea of temporarily pausing our hectic lives in order to truly appreciate life’s beauty. We...

pause all of life's chaos steven giannoulis

it’s the end of a very full on year for us and our clients, so we wanted to create something which championed the idea of temporarily pausing our hectic lives in order to truly appreciate life’s beauty. we started working with the nz symphony orchestra for the first time this year and were thrilled that they were open to incorporating the wonderful music they make into our video. the result is a solution that moves from chaotic to a delightful piece of story-telling. a reminder to take a break, re-energise and re-connect with the people and things that are important to all of us. that means you too. have a great xmas and summer break. see you when you are ready to press play again in the new year.

insight, pause, marcomms, nzso, video
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