Meet the Icons: Chris Dodds, Co-founder and Head of Digital

Tell me a bit about yourself and your role at Icon.

I’m a co-founder of Icon and run our super talented digital division. My day-to-day role involves liaising with clients on strategy, ensuring projects are well resourced and managed plus developing new opportunities for the business.

I’m also the go-to guy for debugging Icon’s computers, maintaining software and dealing with networking issues – a passion job I’ve been doing since I first booted up a Macintosh SE in the late '80s. If you understand how a business works at a granular level it makes it easier to debug at a higher level. Pro tip: start with “Is it plugged in?” – for devices and brains.

When and how did you start your business?

I was interested in design and technology from a young age. Growing up with a father who was an art and media studies teacher meant we were surrounded by creativity and the latest gadgets. I spent much of my youth pulling stuff apart to see how it worked and assembling weird contraptions from the parts.

I spent my late teens and early 20s laying out music magazines and working for small design firms. I decided I could do a better job running my own business and set up Icon Art (as it was known then) in the early 90s. We lived and worked in an apartment above a shop on Swan Street in Richmond, using a second-hand Mac to produce finished art files. These were the heady start times of the desktop publishing revolution and a first taste of the impact the digital revolution was about to have on industry.

It took me a year to create a stable income, with my partner working as a journalist to support us both. I ate a lot of toast and worked alongside some amazing people over the next few years. Every one of them has left a valuable imprint on my professional and personal development. I also made a lot of mistakes. Learning how to fail is an important life skill.

What started as a finished art business blossomed as we added design, then PR/comms and finally digital capabilities. In some ways you’re always starting a business as the landscape moves so rapidly. This ongoing challenge definitely sustains my interest and passion for building new ways to approach common problems.

Do you miss anything about the earlier days of your career when the company was much smaller?

I used to be a designer and still try to keep my hat in the ring, although there are far better designers at Icon than me. Most of my time is now spent helping run the business – keeping everyone well-resourced and able to do their very best work.

One thing I haven’t let go of is understanding how every piece of the business works and looking for ways to make it better. As our team grows this becomes more complex and time-consuming. When the business was just me I could quietly drink a beer, take a vote and unanimously action a motion that afternoon: “OK – no more drinking beer at morning meetings!”.

Were there any structural changes that you think really pushed Icon’s growth?

There are two transformational standouts. The first was over a decade ago when Matt White, Icon’s UX Director, convinced me we needed to in-house our development resources. By offering an end-to-end service model we could control the quality of website builds and ensure the design vision was seamlessly implemented. It also meant we were exposed to a whole other experience set – one that moves seriously faster than any other industry. Having design and development teams sit shoulder-to-shoulder seems logical now, but it was a big investment at the time and took years to refine.

You can see some recent website projects here:

Defence Design System
Air Force – The Runway
National Disability Insurance Agency
Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission
Australian Building and Construction Commission
Sprout Product Design System
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers

The second was bringing in a senior creative team. Ed and Rod have helped crystallise our purpose-driven brand, defined our creative approach and are committed to working on projects with a social cause. I’m incredibly proud of the whole team behind these transformative projects:

Australian Cyber Security Centre – Stay Smart Online Week 2018
Yarra Trams – Community Safety Campaign
Sustainability Victoria – E-Waste Recycling Behaviour Change Campaign
Australian Government’s Attorney-General’s Department – National Firearms Amnesty 2017
Sustainability Victoria – Love Food Hate Waste – I Love Leftovers

How do you think the digital industry is affecting traditional agency models?

Successful agencies are embedding digital strategists, designers and developers as into their permanent teams – some better than others. “Integration” is a common catch cry and is something we’ve been refining for over a decade. I’m old enough to have lived through the birth and rise of digital media and it’s been an exciting ride. Getting it right and maintaining relevance keeps it so.

With consulting firms moving into the digital and creative space, and global advertising agencies moving into web, mid-sized independent agencies need to differentiate to remain relevant. Everyone is gunning for each other's traditional territory – which makes sense if you're fighting for consistency, control and quality. We need to remain focussed and curious while allowing staff to experiment and learn. Our power lies with being more agile and able to adapt at speed. And as business owners we're passionate about client service and accountability.

The Internet of Things (IoT), AI, machine learning, bots and automation are already having a profound impact on the way society functions. We’re on the edge of a major wave and there are bigger breakers to come. Thankfully there’s a growing focus on user needs and rights, and the ethics of digital disruption. Agencies need to be aware of how digital transformation is impacting the communities they are a part of – not just using the tools our industry builds to cast ads. If social platforms keep selling your data to companies who use it to destabilise democracies, we’re going to have a really bad time. If anyone is listening I’m also still waiting for my flying car.

What do you think are the most important elements for forming and maintaining a successful team?

Hire people who are better than you, or at least think differently. I’m surrounded by experts. It’s my job to give them a voice and bring opportunities that have meaning and purpose.

Foster a culture of respect and innovation. Start with yourself and it will naturally express itself throughout your team.

Encourage everyone to find alternative pathways through common problems. We call it 'The Pursuit of Possibility' – a mantra that helps us look to the future and makes us ready for what’s coming.

And as Ferris Bueller so famously stated: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”