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Studying the quiet evolution of The Frameworks | #CompanySpotlight

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For this week’s company spotlight, we focus on The Frameworks, an independent design consultancy and frequent Creativepool contributors. We caught up with James Trowman, Partner and General Manager, to discuss the origins, challenges and future aspirations of this most ambitious of international outfits.

How was your company born and where are you based?

Our founder, Terry Brissenden, established The Frameworks in 1989, fulfilling his ambition to apply design thinking methodology across cultural, economic and environmental change to address the challenges and opportunities businesses face.

Over time we’ve evolved from a predominantly graphic design organisation to a multi-service cross-channel consultancy able to apply creative and strategic thinking to a range of business and communication challenges.

We are based in London with a presence in Chicago and partners all over the world.

What was the biggest challenge to the growth of your company?

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The story of The Frameworks has been one of quiet evolution rather than dramatic growth. We’ve always sought out interesting creative challenges, often in quite niche business-to-business situations. This has been hugely rewarding from a professional perspective but it probably does count as a challenge to growth!

In common with many companies like ours it can also be challenging to find the time to devote resources to business development and growth while delivering great client work. This, though, is something we’ve been actively addressing in the past few years, and we’ve recently expanded the number and variety of challenges we’ve been taking on.

Which was the first huge success that you can remember?

Almost as soon as we were founded, we won IBM as our client. They have remained our client for more than 30 years. Over that time, we’ve gone from promoting business PCs to helping to drive enterprise-level business transformation – and our relationship with them is as strong as ever. 

What’s the biggest opportunity for you and your company in the next year?

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We’ve got a lot of growth on the cards for the next year, both in terms of how we work and where we work. One key opportunity we’re exploring is expanding and supplementing our existing services to provide a much more data-rich and data-focused service for our clients, extending our strategic and creative thinking further into the performance side of B2B marketing. And we’re going to be continuing our international growth in Europe and North America. 

Can you explain your team’s creative process? What makes it unique?

We have a four-stage creative methodology – we call it Think/Frame/Make/Work – that leans heavily into upfront research and strategy. That’s what makes us uniquely confident diving into niche and complex subject matters. One week we might be focused on reinsurance, the next on radiotherapy equipment.

Supply chain automation. Test and measurement equipment. Student housing investment. Carbon financing. If there’s nuance to be grasped, our process means we can be confident in building creative concepts that embrace it.

Our process is entirely transparent and highly collaborative. We explain our methodology to our clients in detail and include them in our team from the start. We foster such strong client relationships that we become almost part of their company.

How does your team remain inspired and motivated?

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A good idea is a good idea no matter where it comes from. Everyone in our team has a voice. We have a flat structure where everyone is massively invested in the success of our projects. We don’t work in siloed teams.

Instead, we work collaboratively across all disciplines. This means that everyone is exposed to the client and feels both the highs and the lows of the projects. It also helps that everyone at The Frameworks is passionate about great creative thinking.

How has COVID-19 affected your company?

We were lucky in that we were already well equipped for working from home so, as shocking as it was, we were able to adapt to the situation quickly. Indeed, we soon found that the shift to working from home was a positive and rejuvenating force for the way we work.

Being separated from each other in such a crazy situation actually brought us closer together as a team. Being introduced to each other’s children, pets, kitchens and DIY projects will do that.

We’re now fully hybrid, with people taking responsibility for what’s expected of them and making their working arrangements accordingly.

Changing our working structure has allowed us to be more open about where the next Frameworkers come from. We can now hire amazing talent across the world, not just where we have offices. We’ve also found that clients are far less interested in where we’re based or in having regular face-to-face meetings. We’re determined not to let that get in the way of long-term relationship building, but the immediate upshot is that more client opportunities are open to us that might have been before.

Ultimately, the pandemic encouraged us to be critical of the way we work and be open to change. And, of course, as working life changes, the way businesses communicate with their audiences has had to adapt too. Our work has always been audience-focused but this new reality means we need to take that much more care – and be that much more creative – in the way we build content and campaigns.

Which agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

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The industry as a whole has matured since Covid. There’s an understanding of the value we bring as a whole and more of a sense of community among brand and marketing agencies. It’s been amazing to see the emergence of greater mutual trust and support within the agency world recently, especially on LinkedIn. There seems to be a  sense of “we’re in this together” as a force of good for clients.

In this environment it feels a bit odd to be singling anyone specifically, but there are a few companies and individuals who’ve had a specific influence on the way we work:

  • Doug Kessler – not just for his influence on Velocity Partners but for dreaming up the “galvanising story” as an invaluable template for brand narratives
  • Dave Gerhardt – a reliable source of insight and humour on LinkedIn (“Because no one goes to school for B2B marketing”)
  • Stefan Sagmeister – for his sheer depth of creativity
  • We All Need Words – ruthlessly anti-bullshit, they set a gold standard for effective, delightful copywriting and brand design
  • The Writer – no nonsense, big on inclusive language, good snappy content
  • Sonder & Tell –  for their focus on storytelling and explaining that (and their own story) well
  • Emmi Salonen – for both her work and her philosophy of "Positive Creativity"
  • Gut – a recently founded consumer ad agency that’s doing some really interesting work and has a very strong positioning

What is one tip that you would give to other agencies looking to grow?

Don’t forget to market yourself and don’t undervalue yourself. This is especially important for small companies looking to grow. Small companies are so vulnerable to clients leaving, it’s vital to know where the next client – and the one after that – will come from.

Don’t be too short term: any plans for growth must be long term. Finally, growth has to come off the back of doing inspiring work you love; growth for the sake of growth won’t work.

How do you go about finding new clients/business? (Pitching, work with retainers, etc.)

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It’s a mixture of things: outbound, inbound, networking, social media, recommendations and associations. We never play down our enthusiasm and excitement about a client’s business and opportunities.

As mentioned earlier, we really delve into our clients’ worlds: if they can see our passion for their world there’s every chance they’ll want to work with us. Ultimately, though, it all comes back to, “do great work”. People stick with companies they trust and that’s how we get referrals, references and recommendations.

What’s your one big hope for the future of the industry?

The reality of the world we live in is that we need to make positive changes to reduce global emissions, and we need to do our part as an industry. Generally, when we talk about global emissions, one thing that doesn't come up enough is the impact of the internet.

The internet, its supporting systems and the gadgets we use contribute to 3.7% of global emissions. This is similar to the aviation industry and is predicted to double by 2025. It's on us as designers and developers to create innovative solutions to reduce the impact.

For example, as web developers we optimise our code to ship as little code as possible. Things like optimised and lazy loading images and videos, and using minimal animations all greatly impact how much a website “burns” in terms of energy when users land on it.

Creatively, we can play a part too. The industry has long embraced diversity and inclusivity in the images we use to illustrate real-world situations. We have a similar responsibility to normalise environmentally conscious behaviours in our content too.

Do you have any websites, books or resources that you would recommend?

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  • Marty Neumeier's books on brand thinking - Zag and The Brand Gap - “Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is”
  • Cannes Lions for best practise learnings
  • The FT Weekend specifically anything written by Tim Harford
  • Monocle magazine
  • The Design Museum

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