40 years of running a brand agency

This year Michon turned 40, and in that time our business has seen a lot of change. Founding directors, Jeff and Tony Michon, speak about running a successful brand agency and how they’ve navigated four decades in the creative industry.

Why did you establish the business back in 1982?

Jeff – I wanted to build a business that was financially stable, and combine a high-quality standard of creative with quality of service. It was essential to me to have a business that delivers on its promises – being true problem-solvers and never letting people down.

Ultimately, people buy from people, so personally I wanted to operate a business of integrity, founded on mutually beneficial, sustainable relationships.

Tony – When I first started out, design and advertising agencies were full of people with massive egos who hid behind a screen of smoke and mirrors. These were maintained to hide the perceived complex creative process that enabled them to charge brands a small fortune.

We just wanted to be straightforward and transparent with the people we worked with. Not hiding behind jargon and trying to blind people with creative science, but being clear about our processes and service. Really focusing on their needs and producing sound creative solutions that delivered commercial results.

Who was your first client?

Jeff – Nottingham Educational Supplies (NES) was my first ever client. I began my business by working a couple of days a week for myself, whilst still working part-time for another agency in Nottingham. As the reputation of my work grew, I started working with other product managers in the team, and eventually grew the NES account enough to be able to work for myself full-time.

My next client, Carlsbro, was so successful it grew to be worth about 80% of my turnover – which was quite a risky position to be in having most of our eggs in one basket. My brother, Tony, joined the business in 1987 so we could further expand our client base and reduce our exposure. We were then able to take on another member of staff and bought our office on Fleeman Grove. By purchasing our own premises, it gave the business more stability and control of our overheads.

Tony – Speedo was our first big client, in terms of being a household name, and really gave us insight into how big brands operate and communicate across a varied spectrum of audiences.

What’s been a key highlight over the last 40 years?

Jeff – Winning the Ronseal account. It was extremely good for raising the profile of our business, being a strong, well-known brand. And the work we did with them over the years strengthened and grew their brand even further. We have great relationships with many of the team at Ronseal, still working with them today, even though they’ve moved on to pastures new.

It’s that kind of organic growth we love, based on loyal, long-lasting relationships with our clients. People remember our quality of design and service and continue to come back to us.

Tony – There’s so many really, and we’ve been privileged to work with some very talented people on some fantastic brands. For me, designing and creating full interactive visitor centres for E.ON Renewables and maintaining the account for over 22 years was very rewarding. Completely refreshing and launching the new Remeha brand in the UK and creating BT branded environments with full guidelines to enable roll out across their 100+ estate. All such different projects that made going to work not feel like work at all.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Jeff – There are always challenges for a business. Balancing cashflow, staff levels, keeping everyone focused and happy, ensuring client satisfaction. It’s the nature of the beast, and it’s not daunting or insurmountable, it’s all just part of running a successful business.

I think back to the first year, which was a major challenge, to ensure I was paying my suppliers on time, but having enough in the bank to keep the business solvent. One of the businesses I’d worked for before had a constant overdraft with the bank, and I never wanted that – to be beholden or give control away unnecessarily. This makes us a stronger player in our industry, makes us more flexible and responsive, and has helped us not just survive but thrive through difficult times, weathering the storms of several recessions and downturns over the past 40 years.

Tony – Change has always been the biggest challenge, but it’s also the one single thing that drives our business forward with real momentum. Helping brands evolve, adapt and communicate change is what we’re really good at, but as with all businesses, making those changes while running a business is the real art in being successful. If I could go back in time and walk into our studio 40 years ago, it wouldn’t look anything like the business it is today.

What do you think has been the reason for your continued success?

Jeff – First and foremost, it’s our culture. Making sure we’re employing the right people and attracting and keeping people that fit our culture. We work hard for our clients, and that reaps rewards. We also know when to walk away from clients and situations that don’t align with us. That approach has protected our people and our business over the years, and means we get to focus our efforts on people who truly value what we do and get the most out of our relationships.

When it comes to working with our clients, our creative branding expertise really excels and underpins our strategic thinking and commerciality. The feedback we continue to receive from our clients reinforces that.

Tony – People. Plain and simple. It’s down to the talent and skills and the diverse experience of our people which enables us to keep up with trends, constantly adapt to different ways of working and ultimately always be able to put ourselves in the target audience’s shoes. I think seeing the different perspectives of people, whether that’s the client, stakeholders or the end user, understanding their individual needs is paramount to the success of each and every project.

The last 40 years have seen a lot of change, how have you navigated the changes in that time?

Jeff – There are two big ones for me. Firstly, the technological changes we’ve seen since we started – we had no email, no mobile phones, no computers, everything was done on draftsman tables. The first computer we bought cost £10k and was about as powerful as an AA battery. But each time something new has come along to aid our business, we’ve taken measured steps to improve and invest.

Secondly, the way we do business with our clients. The most obvious recent change is the adoption of remote working. If the pandemic had happened 20 years ago the situation would have been very different. Now, the digitalisation of a lot of our processes and communication has enabled us to ride out the tumultuous pandemic. It’s better for our clients and our team to work this way.

I also think back to how long it used to take to do things manually. Posting communications to our clients and suppliers, having to get in the car or on the train, client relationships could be limited by distance. There was a time lag that had to be built into every project. Now we can achieve so much more within the same time and can keep up with the pace our clients need. We’re more efficient because of the advancements in technology. So much more is available to us and more readily – it’s all at our fingertips. Obviously, this is the case with our competitors too, but what gives us the edge is our creative problem-solving, and what we do with the information we have in front of us.

Tony – Helping clients deliver change is what we do. And finding solutions to problems is second nature to us, so we’ve always just faced things head on and quickly found a better way forward. Even the recent pandemic didn’t faze us and everybody within the business just rolled up their sleeves and implemented what was necessary to enable the business to function effectively – so much so, that we’ve not gone back to the way we worked prior to the pandemic.

What do you think the future holds for the business?

Jeff – I want us to carry on doing what we’re doing – growing without compromising on our culture or client service. It’s working so well. I’d like to see us continue to acquire new accounts, working with like-minded people, who understand the value that we have to offer. Our work should never be commoditised, it should be value-based, built on partnerships with our clients, and less of a client-supplier, transactional relationship. At the end of the day, we work too many hours to not get pleasure out of the work we’re doing, and that starts with the people and clients we work with.

Tony – The role of brands and what they stand for is more important than ever. How they engage audiences and their impact on society and the planet is critical to their success. So I think that a business like ours, that can really help brands navigate this ever-changing world and appeal to the changing needs of the people within it, will always have a bright future.

What do you think the future holds for your industry?

Jeff – There is a lot more understanding of brand engagement in the world. Consumers have a greater understanding of buying into a brand, brand experience, product benefits, what brand stands for and whether they want to engage and be loyal. Telling brand stories has a very important future in a world so aware of what ‘brand’ means.

Tony – There is so much more choice today. People have a world of options at their fingertips. Audiences aren’t limited to what’s local or on the high-street, they have instant access to global competitors – the choices are infinite. Now our clients must stand out from the clamour and noise, to attract and retain the right customers. But it’s exciting, it’s a challenge. There’s a greater need for our skills than there ever has been.