Plato Creative began with a simple game plan - be good to people, be easy to work with, and always play the long game.
Those fundamentals haven’t changed. But now they apply across a much bigger team. Since 2007 we’ve grown from two founders to a team of over 40, developing a fully integrated model with the capabilities and capacity to create great ideas, build and manage brands, and drive effective marketing campaigns that add more value.
The early years
John and Lisa Plato started the business from scratch and like many New Zealand SME owner/operators, they went all in - self-funded and self-driven. But it grew fast. Within four months they’d outgrown and moved from their first space (a modest townhouse in Linwood), and begun to hire due to increased client demand.
From there came the years of real grit and grind all Kiwi business owners will be familiar with. Not just long hours, all hours. Constant focus; living it, breathing it. The office was home (literally for two years); we never said no, and always found a way to make it happen.
And it worked. Word got around about this really customer-centric design and marketing agency. Plato’s proven reputation for delivery built the kind of trust that earns referrals and starts partnerships. It seemed we were on to something and we continued to push for growth.
"If you’re taking advice on growth, brand strategy, or marketing, you want to take it from people who have been through it themselves and can prove it. Being involved as a directors and shareholders in multiple businesses gives our clients confidence in our ability to think commercially. The ability to get on the same page is critical to building trust and partnerships." JP
Plato’s origins have meant our perspective has always been a bit different. We’ve never looked at how other agencies do it. Instead, we’ve modelled ourselves as a customer-centric professional services business. Again, it worked. Plato began winning business awards for growth, service, craft, and culture including being the only agency to ever rank on the Deloitte Fast 50 three years running.
It’s all down to simple economics - supply what is demanded. A lot of Plato Creative’s growth in service delivery and capability has been a direct response to what clients have required. Who knows where it will end. (Hint - it won’t.) John and Lisa’s vision for Plato was always to be the best. But they never told anyone about it, just kept it a quiet, personal motivator. Now there’s a whole team with them in that same pursuit of growth - knowing there’s always more, always better, always opportunity, always potential.
Turning and learning points
Lesson number 1: “Recession is opportunity in wolf’s clothing.” Robin Sharma. Plato Creative started at the cusp of the 2007 GFC. In the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes we lost and replaced our office and equipment – TWICE. But these events and what followed have taught us to be responsive, resourceful and resilient.
Being awarded the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) contract validated us in the market; with high pressure for all parties involved and turnaround times that necessitated working through the night to make it happen.
Being named winners in the Deloitte Fast 50 three years in a row (quite an achievement), Lisa being an Emerging Leader finalist in the Westpac Women of Influence and John being EY Young Entrepreneur finalist put us on the map with people that were like us – ambitious and looking to do interesting things.
"Anyone can sail in smooth seas. But for us, all the challenges we’ve hit have really taught us something. We know how to help people navigate tough times. We can be brave with you." LP
Turning our hand to commercial investment and development saw us embark on building our Manchester Street office where we are today. Also somewhat of an unusual move in our industry, but always part of the plan. It is the largest creative space in the South Island and has been purpose designed to enable our method and approach. This includes:
- The largest creative space in the South Island
- Pinboard walls give us hundreds of square metres of thinking and planning space
- A variety of break out areas accommodate everything from casual sit downs or quiet time, to multi-person workshops; even dedicated project rooms so we can share and collaborate with clients as the work unfolds
- Large shared spaces mean the whole team can come together to socialise or present to the group
- We’ve also designed it to be a space our clients can and do use; whether it be as a neutral space for meetings or events, or just somewhere different to work every once in a while.
One of our clients always said “You can’t pay people to give a shit; no matter where you go, no matter how much money you have.” So that’s something Plato has always put first – having the right people on board and giving them what they need to nurture a genuine care for the work they’re doing and who they’re doing it for.
"We do get very invested in our clients and their success. In many cases we have ended up being part of their business and operational strategy, often at board level. You have to make a real difference." LP
Playing the long game
From experience we can tell you, there are lots of people out there offering advice. But you need more than that. For it to be good advice and the right advice, it needs to come from people who are the right fit for you.
"True partnership is about learning from each other. When meeting clients for the first time we very rarely talk about our services, we talk business, operations, market, culture. This gives the client confidence we understand their world, and us confidence in what really matters." JP
It’s an ability to listen and have real discussions beyond our service offering. It’s asking better questions so you get better outcomes. It’s being able to interpret the real challenge behind what’s being said. It's understanding and being prepared to support execution as well as developing the strategy.
From day one to now (and into the future), at Plato, it’s always been about more than the work we’re tasked to do. We ask our clients to trust us, to lift the veil and let us look at everything that’s going on.
"Business objectives are different from marketing objectives and the operational part is so critical. Many shy away from this because it is complex and time consuming. But we don’t believe you can execute successful brand and marketing activity without knowing the business to a fairly in-depth level. That’s where you add real value. If you’re only looking at it from one angle or at the surface only, it’s hard to get clarity on the bigger picture. You miss opportunities. You might get some movement but you’re not really going to create significant change for that business." LP