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An eye for detail: 25 years of Dow Design

An eye for detail: 25 years of Dow Design

Boasting 25 years in business is a significant milestone for any company – let alone one in the ever-changing world of design. Dow Goodfolk, previously Dow Design, celebrated its silver anniversary at the end of 2018, and Caitlin Salter sat down with founder and managing director Annie Dow to find out what the last two and a half decades have been like.

Specialising in brand design and repackaging, Dow co-founded the agency with her husband, Greg Dow, back in 1993 and in the time that has followed, the agency has become synonymous with some of New Zealand's biggest brands: Big Wednesday, Kapiti Cheese, Anchor and Vogel's. 

In late 2017, Dow Design acquired Auckland-based digital design and marketing agency Goodfolk and rebranded itself to Dow Goodfolk. For Dow, the acquisition was a way of incorporating digital into the business, without losing Dow Design's own integral vision of putting visual first. 

"We didn't want to be a really broad agency," she says. "We want to take the brand on platforms our clients need but we don't want to be a digital agency. I don't want to take my eyes off the prize of a brand."

To mark the milestone, Dow Goodfolk gifted clients and friends of the agency with a limited edition bottle of pinot noir – complete with custom-designed packaging and backstory. Written by a freelance copywriter, the tale of 'The Tortoise and The Hare' is reimagined to tell the history of the agency. The fable finishes with a moral of the story: "Forget the finish line. If you want to win, run your best race, every single day. It's what we've been doing for 25 years."

Running that race for 25 years hasn't been easy. In 2007, Greg Dow died in the agency's office, which drastically changed Annie's life both personally and professionally. Suddenly, Annie Dow became the sole leader of the business they had created and that meant making some tough decisions. First, she knew she wanted to keep the agency alive, then she had to fend off the numerous interested buyers and then she made the call to sell Dow's Melbourne office back to its directors. The office had opened as Dow's Melbourne expansion in 2002.

"I found it too hard to manage everything in my business and personal life and I had a lot of support in the industry. My passion is here, I love the challenge of transforming business through brand and design," Dow says. 

"It was lovely having the Melbourne office and it was a great achievement, but you have to honest with yourself with what you can manage and what's right for you. Exiting that office was the right thing to do."

Dow says that during the mid-2000s, the Australian market was about 10 years behind New Zealand and was drastically different to what it is now. 

Closer to home, a 25-year overview has given Dow considerable insight into how the world of marketing and design has changed to suit developing technologies and different economic needs. 

When Dow Design was launched, the agency specialised in food and beverage clients at a time when Dow estimates there were as few as five to six key design agencies in the market. 

"Now there are at least 250 design companies in Auckland alone. That's always a challenge to us – having been around for such a long time, it's an honour to still  be standing and be delivering great work for the company."

A constant for Dow has been her creative director, Donna McCort, who has been at the agency for 23 years. 

Together, Dow and McCort are passionate about brand building and problem-solving – focusing on delivering business growth through visual design. This partnership has shaped Dow's key lesson in 25 years of business: act fast and listen to your gut.

"I've got an intuitive eye and Donna and I work so well together. We always know when a design is right or wrong, or when a client isn't a good fit. The biggest lesson for me is not sitting back. You have to continually be brave enough and firm enough to say 'no this isn't right'."

Dow has always maintained the practice of being open and transparent with clients when an idea is being overworked, and she doesn't shy away from confrontation when it's needed. 

Along with a number of longtime employees, Dow Goodfolk also has clients that have remained loyal to the agency for decades. Fonterra and its associated brands have worked with Dow Goodfolk for 24 years, and Heller's is approaching 17 years.  

"Our clients are loyal to us. They have different partnerships now as they've had to understand what digital means to them."

In the 25 years that Dow has led her agency, the marketing landscape in New Zealand has changed remarkably. What were once entirely New Zealand-owned corporates, now generally have international stakeholders that push decisions offshore. Plus platforms have developed and changed and export is huge now – so brands have to stand up in international markets. 

But Dow believes the core of marketing and design remains the same. 

"Fundamentally I don't believe marketing has changed at all. It's just the platforms we need to deliver on that have changed. Clients don't always understand what platform is right for them – because of the pressure of social media that's where they feel they have to spend their money but it might not always work for them."

One of the major issues in the market today is the lack of clarity around what each agency does and which is best suited to a particular client, Dow says.

"Clients get confused about who is offering what, and there's been a real swing from being a specialist to a generalist."

In terms of being at the helm of an agency for 25 years, Dow says she has learnt a lot and continued to develop her passion for brand and design. 

"A lot of lessons along the way, a lot of heartbreak, a lot of joy. It continues to give me joy, I love meeting new people and helping them and working alongside them. It's contact with the world and I'm not ready to hang my hat up just yet."

This article was originally posted on StopPress.

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