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Dick&Jane and the value of keeping things small

If ever a business better embodied the phrase ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’, it would be Dick&Jane, creative brainchild of Olivia (Jane) Swinn and Paul (Richard) Johnson. With almost 40 years of experience between them, the company was built from a desire to be smaller, faster and braver.

“In almost every company, other people's opinions have to at least be listened to and we just stopped wanting to listen. We stopped wanting to be polite and inclusive, we wanted to be able to say when things were shit without worrying about someone's feelings or KPIs.”

“You have to act out the charade of collaboration and yet settle on something single minded – these things are in opposition to each other. So we agreed we'd create a company of just two people and that we would never employ anyone else – ever.”

Almost four years on from deciding to jump ship, they’ve stayed true to that promise and to themselves. No receptionist, no suits, no team leaders or heads of anything, just the two people who own the business and do the work.

“We’re always seeing little companies trying really hard to make it seem as if they're huge – showcasing loads of people and promising diverse skills – when in reality we know it's just the opposite.”

“We actually feel that the promise of just the two people who do the work, turn up to the meetings, make the calls, send the emails and literally stand behind everything they do and say is simple, honest and powerful. There’s no one representing Dick&Jane but Dick&Jane.

“The only agenda is ours, we decide very quickly about what we do and what we don’t do and we’re also really neurotic about our own brand. When your business is only two people, you can control absolutely everything. For instance we wear regulation black every day to every meeting. We wear the same watch, carry the same suitcase, and write in the same notebook. Everything is standard issue Dick&Jane and clients notice. If we’re building their brands, they want to see that we’ve in turn built ours. They give us shit about it but if we ever deviate, they pull us up for it.”

While Dick&Jane might be small in scale by no means have they struggled to leave their mark where it matters. Last year, Mercury Energy needed re-engineering after the decision to merge the retail brand with their generation brand Mighty River Power. Dick&Jane first helped Mercury find a new focus outside the 'business as usual' energy category into something bigger and more ambitious and then they created an identity to match.

“The work we did for Mercury is far less about a new logo and much more about who they are and what they can be in a world where energy generation and use has been the same for years and is ripe for reinvention. We saw the ability for them to move way beyond the stale notion of just generating and retailing electricity and for them to move into a much bigger and more exciting and surprising world of what energy can do.

“Mercury are a company with a very big vision, and although it's only just the beginning we were fortunate to be there at the very start.

“We spent a lot of energy (pun intended) making the case for not launching the new direction with a big self-centred brand ad. Yes to an ad - but one where they talked about something tangible instead.

“One big passion at Mercury is the future of transport and an idea we couldn’t let go of was e.bikes and what with the national cycle ways agenda becoming increasingly visible, especially in Auckland, we felt it was a great step towards something more fun, human and liberating for an energy company to do.”

The duo continue to work across the Tasman as creative directors to the Australian bank now known as ME. A relationship that began with a new strategy and a brand identity and now two years later the two are embedded in the business helping them rethink and rebuild what it means to be a bank at every level. Having worked in the banking sector for decades this relationship is the first one where the commitment to really doing things and really innovating is paramount. “It’s an exciting journey for us with ME because we really get to touch the business, think freely and move fast. We’re the key creatives on every single part of this brand from TV and product innovation right down to the very shoes the team wear and and we love them and it with all our hearts.”

Managing Trans-Tasman relationships with big global brands such as OPSM and Lenscrafters in North America means the two are pretty busy. But the key thing for both of them is that it’s not the big global accounts they’re chasing – they turn as much business away as they accept. The key thing always is the appetite of the client to actually do new things.

“Sometimes there’s just one or two people in a company with the same level of ambition as us and it’s those people that we chase and love – and they can be in a big global company or a really tiny local one and we cherish both.”

The next step for D&J is to continue to reinvent what a creative company can be – perhaps taking on fewer commercial clients and focusing on being their own client.

“However good your relationships and your ideas are, ultimately it’s someone else’s business.

“What we’re burning to do is to solidify one or two ideas of our own and get those to market. We really admire the people that stand behind their own opinions and beliefs and we'd like eventually to count ourselves among them. We've spent years telling clients that New Zealand is a wonderful and open playground for new thinking, so now it's time for us to put our money where our mouths are.”