Creative Talk with Lara Ihnatowicz, Managing Director of Agency
This month we talk with Lara Ihnatowicz, Managing Director of Agency, a Sydney based social business, a non-profit that takes on purposeful projects for a better world.
Tell us a bit about the conception of Agency.
Agency has a 10 year history, but in its current format we’ve been around for 5 years. Really it was a love story between two creative studios; Make Believe and Streetline Media. Both agencies were working out of a shared office space, and there was a real synergy between the clients we were working with, but also complementing skills sets of our teams. So, low and behold, when the opportunity came up for us to merge, the Agency baby was born. It was in this merge that we really solidified our work in the not for profit and campaigning sectors, and the definition of being a purpose based agency.
You work with a variety of clients from a diverse range of cultural, political, social and religious backgrounds. Do you seek the clients, or do you find they seek you?
In establishing ourselves as a not for profit servicing purpose driven organisation, we put ourselves in a niche that allowed us to specialise. We’ve come to know our clients and the sector so deeply (as well as many of us having worked in charities previously) that we became a leader in the space and many clients came to us for our expertise across a variety of services. We have definitely had periods where our approach has been more proactive with certain clients, but our focus is more on long term relationship building than it is about identifying and seeking out business development leads.
Do you work with clients outside of the social spectrum you stand for?
We’re driven by purpose, not profit, so as long as there is alignment there with the client’s goals - on human rights, sustainability, equality, and a range of other issues - then we will be excited to talk further! If that’s a corporate that is directing money towards an amazing social enterprise start up, then that also has purpose and value. We look at cause alignment, not business alignment.
You are a non-profit – what exactly does that mean within an agency context?
In our model, our profits can-not be paid out to directors, nor do we pay things like sales bonuses for example. The profit that remains needs to be reinvested in the business or in ventures that we see that could be beneficial for the sector. For example, with our profits we’ve been able to invest in two digital technology start-ups under the ‘Ventures’ arm of our business. We’ve built a free and flexible fundraising platform for nfps, as well as a powerful and cost effect CRM. We saw gaps in the sector, where our clients weren’t getting the products that they desperately needed, or were paying too much, so we’ve been able to direct our profits to trying to solve some of these challenges. Longer term, we’re hopeful that if we grow, we might be able to invest in more specific projects in the social impact space, but that’s something unknown at the moment!
Do you find being a non-profit, clients expect lower rates / over and above the usual agency expectations?
Clients will always be interested in the bottom line, and even more so in not for profits where the dollars have to go further. With that in mind, we aim to focus on how we can provide the most impact and ‘bang for their buck’ and look at tools that they can manage independently in the future and that provide them with the ‘agency’ to be strong campaigners and financially sustainable.
Our experience has also been that many of our clients have had bad experience with pro bono services in the past. We don’t do pro bono because we need to recognise the value and expertise in our work, but also because there wouldn’t be any way for us to choose between our clients as to who would be more deserving of free services! Therefore, many clients respect that there is a need to pay for the services that are provided and will be really strategic about how that money gets spent. I’d say that we probably have more pressure around the discussions on budgets than usual agencies, but there are definitely lots of similarities as well.
As an agency, you have worked across a variety of very worthy clients and causes – is there one that resonates with you more profoundly than others?
It’s really all personal! We all have our causes individually at Agency that peak our interests versus others because of personal experiences, but I’d say we’re all really excited and passionate about the marriage equality campaign most recently. We’ve been working with organisations who have been fighting for marriage equality for many years, and it’s amazing to really see the momentum pick up over the last 2 years. It’s time for change in Australia on marriage equality, and there will definitely be tears when (I say when, not if!) the YES vote becomes reality!
Does the Sydney office work closely with the New York office?
In the early days, definitely. New York was a one person start up office, so all the digital work that came through from clients in the US was completed in Sydney. As the team grows there, that’s less the case, but we do still connect frequently on projects and also with our NY Managing Director being part of our global leadership team. Yearly we come together as well through a retreat, and it’s awesome to build those relationships face to face.
You have an excellent reputation in Sydney and work with local and global clients. Is the global client list an area you are keen to grow?
We’d definitely like to find more opportunities within the EU. The time different is a killer - makes working with clients in Europe far trickier, but we’d love to focus on growth there. Similarly, within the growing South East Asian markets we’ve seen some organisations popping up in the purpose driven space, and that’s also exciting to see. As our team in NY also becomes more established in the Northern Hemisphere, there are some amazing opportunities for growth there too. The more clients we can support to win the issues that matter, the better!
What would be your dream project?
I think our dream projects are less about a specific cause and more about how we get to work with our clients. We love opportunities where we get to be involved from the inception of a campaign idea, where it’s something tiny, and then getting to support the strategy and roll out into something big and world changing. It’s a privilege when clients want to partner with us in that deep way.
Where to from here for Agency?
This last year has been about stabilisation within our team with some staff changes. Our team is so special - I’ve never worked with so many amazing individuals who are not only good at their jobs, but also so damn nice, so I hope that the next year will bring us some great challenges to really focus on some big meaty projects as a team. Additionally, we love working on our own projects and have gotten some great traction with mini campaigns like www.goingpostal.com.au so I’d love as we grow to be able to do more and more of this work. Beyond that, global growth! A bigger team in the US and an office in London would be fantastic.