Jim Antonopoulos – Building meaningful brands & Creative leadership

Jim Antonopoulos is a owner of a creative agency Tank in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a Strategy Masterclass course and shares a lot of his valuable insights and experiences in his weekly journal for Designers and Strategists. 

So let’s start off by walking us through your background. What was your design path like, from being a young designer to becoming an agency owner?

I’ve been in the industry for about 25 years now. I studied design at university and in the early 90s I worked as a designer. I loved design, I was good at it, but it didn’t manage to keep my interest. In the mid 90s I felt like I needed to study more, so I chose to study marketing and advertising. 

After graduating I ended up working at a dotcom software/technology business. I worked alongside business analysts and strategists, primarily in user interface design and user experience design. We were working with emerging technology, we were making things on the go and learning as we went. It was a little bit uncomfortable and challenging but I really liked being pushed out of my comfort zone.

Then I transitioned from design to more strategic roles where I was managing the design teams. I still found myself wanting to push my career a bit more. That’s when I started to think about my own business. I learned that if you want something to happen then you need to talk about it. A lot. And with lots of people. Through conversations I was having, I bought a minority share in the design business firm TANK eleven years ago. And now I own 100% of the business. 
TANK is focused on human-centric design, design thinking and overlap these methodologies with brand strategy. Which I’m proud to say, still isn’t common. 

What brought you to strategy?

I was working in a software company in Melbourne at the time and Australia’s largest telecommunications company, asked us for one person to help their strategy team. I was sent over to work with them. That was my first real immersion into a deep strategic project. Sitting in the room with their strategy team, I remember thinking: “ F*ck they’re so clever!” 
They thought so clearly. They knew how to boil the problem down to some really simple ideas that made sense. And it made me feel like I understood it. I was thinking back then: “I want to work with these kind of people for the rest of my career. And I’ll do what they do – everything they do or just a part of what they do – I want to do that.” 
That was really the beginning of my exploration into the strategic world. Then, like I said earlier:  I talked to a lot of people, I read a lot of books and I experimented with a lot of things. Of course I made a lot mistakes through my journey, but it taught me a lot too.

What are the biggest mistakes you’ve seen people make over and over again with their strategy? 

Oh, there are so many. For example, designers think that strategy is a secret magical process. Like if strategy is a secret model or diagram which has to be discovered. 
Strategists and CEOs do make a lot of mistakes too – for example they think that vision and goal setting is a strategy. But obviously, it isn’t. I’ve met strategists that think a creative idea is a strategy. But again, it isn’t.
I’ve also seen Designers mistake design disciplines for strategy. Customer experience design can be strategic, but it’s not strategy for example. Strategy tells us where we will compete and how – we may compete on customer experience, but it’s the ‘everything’ that good strategy needs to be.

What is your definition of a strategy then?

I use this definition:

A good strategy is a coherent plan of actions to solve a problem.” 
Meaning, that after you walk away from a strategy presentation, you should know exactly what to do. You must know what your part in that strategy is.
So many times we walk away from these presentations not knowing what our part is or what to do next. 
If you present a strategy and the people you’re presenting to aren’t executing that strategy properly – they probably don’t know what their part is in that strategy. They need to know what the problem is, what they are trying to solve and which actions they should use in order to solve it. 
Without a problem to solve, or a challenge to overcome, we don’t need a strategy, do we?

Do you think that designers should be more involved in strategic decisions?

I’d say it depends on the problem you’re solving and therefore on the type of designer you’re recruiting to the effort.
Graphic designers tend to be more executional, so they might not necessarily be involved in the beginning of a strategy development. But that’s not to say that they don’t need to understand the strategy they’re designing for. 
On the other hand, designers that design organisational culture will be called on quite early in brand strategy work. But I think that anyone creating a strategy will make careful strategic decisions about which people he/she will invite and which not.  
Tank’s work for Bank Australia

You’ve written a lot of resources about Creative leadership. How can a person become a creative leader? What are the main traits of creative leadership?

I’m actually writing a book on creative leadership right now. The framework of that book traces the traits of creative leaders. However, I see creative leaders as:
Someone who is not just manager. They have empathy and high emotional intelligence, they have what IDEO’s CEO call a creative confidence which is an ability to experiment and embrace the fact that failure is part of a learning process.
They’re also highly networked and they tend to be agents of change. They think that change is healthy and they look for it. These are the main traits of creative leadership, but I think there are about 15 more. 

This made me think of your article where you wrote about how can creatives stay relevant – can you sum up what skills should creatives posses?

I wrote about skills Designers need to stay relevant last year and when I thought about that question back then, for me it boiled down to these skills:
  • An entrepreneurial sprit. A pioneer that isn’t afraid of staying close to the edge, launching new things and having many things on the go, simply because they’re a self-starter, a self-learner.
  • Design research. An ability to find simple, human insights when faced with a design problem, because at the end of the day if we aren’t solving human problems, what are we doing?
  • Positive social impact. Basically giving enough of a shit to make this world a better place through the work you do.
  • Prototyping. Making stuff. Too many Designers like to conceptualise (which is fun, don’t get me wrong) and not enough want to make stuff and put that stuff out into the hands of humans.
  • Facilitating and selling. Creative leaders know that they need to command a room and that they don’t ‘present and idea’ they ‘sell an idea.’

Not many people, let alone Designers, have this.

Most young Designers feel that all the learning they’ve had in school is all the learning they’ll ever need. This is their first mistake. Those that invest heavily in themselves; are paving a way towards being great.

I’ve seen it first handedly–creatives can present an idea but most of them can’t sell it. What do you think is stopping creatives from selling? 

Well, I think that it’s their inability to believe in what they’re selling. There’s a lack of belief in the thing that they’re selling. They might not understand it as well as the thing they do. They convince themselves that their knowledge of their craft and methods of their “professional creativity” is the only thing they should know. However, when it comes to presentation and standing in front of boardroom and board members asking for validation, measurability and effectiveness of their work, they can’t do it. 

They were never shown that they could be anything else than be ‘in service to clients.’ It becomes this inability to communicate clearly something that they should know really well, something they should know how to do. 

There are a lot of smoke and mirrors in our industry.
People often don’t acknowledge their failures and weaknesses, which comes down to pure self-awareness. I see a lack of honesty in what people know and don’t know about what they’re selling, and the thing that they’re communicating.
How would I approach this? Well, I would watch TED talks, for example. They’re probably the best sales pitches that go around. 

Most of our professional time we’re in a position of building brands – How might we create better brands?

A great question Michaela. We ask ourselves How might we create more meaningful brands?’ A relevant question in a world where organisations/businesses and in turn, brands, are more and more in a position to solve some of the world’s more complex problems.
Meaningful, good brands are purpose-driven and this purpose and brand is built by a strong leadership narrative. A collection of stories from the origin to its ambition that is compelling and memorable. Meaningful brands solve human problems, they embrace innovation and make it their business.
Meaningful brands are ethical and diversity champions, customer obsessed and have cultures that are the envy of their competitors.

“As Designers we are so lucky that we can experiment, try new things, fail and learn from those failures to make our work better and more meaningful.”

Tank for Netball Australia

Are there any books or movies that inspire your work? 

I can draw a lot of inspiration from fiction books as well as from books that are focused on brand strategy. There are just so many great books. One I’ve been reading at the moment is called Samurai from Middle Ages. It was written in the 1920s, I think. It’s translated from Japanese, but it’s really beautifully written. The way the author communicates their ideas is really inspiring to me. Books that were very influential were No Logo by Naomi Klein, and Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

What do you think the future of branding and strategy looks like? 

I think it will be more accountable. Also it will require more robustness in the way it’s created because clients will demand measurability. You’ll also have to have the customers voice and their employees voices at the table – this goes back to your question: whether or not a designer should be involved in creating a strategy. Well, you will have a customer at a table rather than the designer to ensure that you’re aligned with your customers needs. 

And last question: If you’d have a time machine and you could travel back in time – is there something that you would do different, say when you were 20-25 years old? What advice would you give to yourself?

When I was 10-12 years in, like many people who are at that stage I struggled to grasp where I was going and how I was going to continue to level up as a Designer. There were better Designers than me, and to be honest, I wanted a bigger challenge.

I think of it as a line of sight towards something more. Just something that could show me that I could move forward.

I also really battled with how Designers were perceived. It didn’t matter that I was a Creative Director, Senior Designer, Art Director or agency owner; most clients put me in the ‘creativity box’. A box that didn’t deserve a seat at the boardroom table and really wasn’t part of the decision making.

It wasn’t until I immersed myself into strategy roles and learning about strategy when things really changed for me. It allowed me to take part in decision making of large and complex projects as well as challenged my clients briefs.

So I would say don’t stop learning and teaching yourself new things so can continue to level up. And more importantly: understand who you are, what you’re capable of and why you do what you do and get out there and do it.

Thank you!

Follow Jim and his work at:

Jim’s book recommendation:
No Logo 
Reinventing Organizations

Source of images: Unsplash, Jim’s Twitter, Tank

To share the value and Jim’s knowledge I edited this article using his answers from a Mentor-Mentee discussion from Verse-co.

Would you like to contribute? Do you know about someone who does similar things? Please let me know at 
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