We talked to Lesley Gulliver, the managing director of strategic brand consultancy at The Engine Room on how they are making brands different and here is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these Covid-19 times?
Lesley Gulliver: Saying it’s been tough for families almost feels trite – it’s been awful, and not just for households with 2 -4 children. I know we’ve found the home-schooling juggle extremely difficult, and lockdown 3.0 instilled a huge feeling of deflation on a personal and professional level. But, thankfully, I have a great ability to stay mentally positive, and we’re telling ourselves this is the time we need to dig the deepest.
In the earliest weeks of the pandemic outbreak, I quickly realized that time spent with my son was extremely important, so we’ve protected that as a family – particularly exercising together, for the benefit of our physical and mental health.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded The Engine Room
Lesley Gulliver: I was invited to join The Engine Room as MD back in 2013. It was actually founded by my co-director Darren Evans – an extremely creative and strategic designer back in 2001. We met several years into my career. I first came into the world of design because I was particularly interested in language and copywriting. I worked for a number of creative agencies and progressed to senior positions before leaving to become self-employed. During that 10-year period, I collaborated with many clients, either as an independent brand strategist or as a design associate of the Design Council.
Part of my work involved introducing my clients to design companies, and The Engine Room grew to become a trusted team that I would put forward in pitch scenarios. But after a decade, at the age of 40, I asked myself: “What’s next? Do I want to see out my working days for another 20 years working as an independent consultant?”
The answer was no. I wanted to roll my sleeves up again. I founded an organization called What Could Be – which continues to this day – with Darren and a gentleman called David Townson. During our work together on this business, I think Darren sensed I was thinking about my next steps. His values and the general culture of The Engine Room aligned completely with mine – “work hard and be nice to people.” It was incredibly clear and simple, but it felt like a meeting of minds.
I knew I could make a real difference to a business that really resonated with me, and there was mutual respect from day one.
How does The Engine Room innovate?
Lesley Gulliver: Innovation is core to what we do, irrespective of Covid-19 – we’re acutely aware that we’re only as good as our last job.
So, if you visit our website, you’ll see a message saying, “what makes us different is how we make you different.” And that’s key to our role, really. We get under the skin of our clients, perhaps far deeper than many design agencies would go. But to position them head and shoulders above the competition, we have to walk in their shoes and their customers’ shoes, gain a strong grasp of their team, structure, culture, ambition, and marketplace, and combine all of that with design thinking and creativity.
We’re champions in the three bedrocks of a solid brand – a sense of purpose beyond commercial gain; principles, which are integral to behavior and how the organization is run; and personality, which defines who the company is and how it is known.
We talk a lot about the business of the brand too. I sit 75% in the business camp, while Darren is 75% in the design camp – in other words, our skills are aligned, but we view projects through a slightly different lens. This works very well.
Specifically, during Covid-19, we innovated tactically by moving our client workshops and employee engagement online. We found the interactive whiteboard Mural to be a fantastic, effective tool that we will retain, in the right scenarios, when the lockdown is hopefully a distant memory.
The biggest test was retaining our collective creativity, energy, agility, passion, and belief as a team. We’ve worked extremely hard together to keep our spirits high, and some of the projects we’ve won since March 2020 have exposed our colleagues to really aspirational pieces of work. We’re very fortunate in that respect.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Lesley Gulliver: Despite everything, the organization had a strong 2020. And I have a really positive gut feel about the UK economy and the need for businesses to differentiate themselves moving forward. So, while I’m not naïve to think it will be easy, my outlook for The Engine Room is optimistic.
However, I’m a very measured person, so I always plan for worst-case scenarios to protect our people.
In March 2020, adrenaline got us through. We battened down the hatches to boost our resilience in the face of uncertainties and anticipated the loss of retained business. Our own anxieties were amplified by the unparalleled requests for support from others, and it was tough, but we ‘survived’ by having things to do. Whilst, understandably, we did lose revenue from some clients, many others continued their spend, and a raft of new business came in – largely on the back of people recognising the importance of investment in brand in such times.
As you’d expect from a creative business, we shifted our approach to working with clients so that, as much as possible, we maintained ‘business as usual’ and found alternative ways to secure new work. We actually finished 2020 in a stronger financial position than we have done in previous years.
In terms of coping on an ongoing basis, we’ve made time to talk, as colleagues, every lunchtime and have encouraged these conversations to take place on walks, so we’re keeping active too. We have to remember that some people don’t have fully decked-out home offices – they’re in back bedrooms, or sometimes even their parents’ back bedrooms. So, we need to work even harder to keep people fired up and moving, but we’re fortunate that our team has remained in high spirits throughout.
We’ve also just successfully appointed two new senior members of staff who will start work in February. Recruiting remotely was interesting!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Lesley Gulliver: Oh, absolutely. We furloughed staff initially, which was tough. We looked at our cost base across the business and adjusted our expenditure in every possible area. Darren and I took pay cuts, and we made one redundancy, which is always regrettable. We planned for ‘nuclear’ and later realized it wasn’t quite as bad as we’d feared, but we didn’t know that at the time, and I stand by the decisions we made.
We un-furloughed colleagues when we could and reignited our cost base too. Personally, I forgot to take breaks, and I was really hard on myself in terms of the expectations I had surrounding running the business and homeschooling. But I learned to be kinder to myself, reminded myself to exercise, and that drives how I now encourage colleagues.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Lesley Gulliver: Tennis! I was lucky that this is my sport, and during 2020 I was able to return to the sport I loved far sooner than many people. I also take a brisk 20-30 minute walk at lunch to really clear my head and reset.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Lesley Gulliver: Our industry is certainly crowded. There are hundreds of design agencies across the country, and because client relationships aren’t bound by geography, we are going to come up against competition all the time.
There are probably four strategic agencies in Yorkshire, where we’re based, which align most closely with us. But we stay sharp by keeping a constant eye on the future. We are continually trying to understand how the world is changing, not just the design discipline. We’re looking at future trends, CX (customer experience) demands, and what best in class global firms are doing. We’re not afraid. And we encourage our colleagues to not be afraid either.
Our clients and projects are extremely different, so we’re constantly learning about businesses that are truly the backbone of the UK economy, and this keeps us alert. If I wasn’t continually learning, I’d lose my motivation. We’re closely aligned with Design Council and Design Business Association and rub shoulders with some real thought leaders in the world of design thinking, which offers us a competitive advantage by default.
Your final thoughts?
Lesley Gulliver: Summing up the impact of the pandemic risks sounding little more than a collection of clichés, but I truly believe we – as an organization, a design community, and a business landscape actually – will come out of this OK. The future may have felt flat in recent months. Everyone has their limits, and it’s OK to accept that sometimes we’re bursting those. We can have rough days, of course, but it won’t be this way forever.
I focus very much on how lucky I am when there is currently so much suffering in the world – I realize there is little for me to complain about. We have a great team, the business is doing well, our families are healthy, and we have food on the table.
And there are some incredible stories to come from the pandemic. Brands are doing the UK proud.