Icon Agency marks its 20th anniversary

2022 marks Icon Agency’s 20th anniversary. This milestone comes at a time when our collective efforts have been recognised with multiple agency of the year awards – a feat we couldn’t have imagined two decades ago.

In this post, co-founder Chris Dodds reflects on how Icon came about, why we exist, and how the agency remains relevant for our team and clients.

We hope this reflection helps inspire others to be brave, curious and creative in their approach to work and life.

From little things big things grow

I grew up in the 70s and 80s in a suburban family home filled with the latest media technology and theory. My father, Peter Dodds, had helped co-create the first ever Media Studies school curriculum in Australia, and he was constantly bringing home new ‘toys’ for us to muck around with. We were encouraged to experiment with photography (our bathroom was regularly converted into a processing lab), 8mm film, VHS video and audio editing. He even built us a stop motion animation bench.

Our home was enriched with history and art books, underground comics, printmaking and sketches, beautiful cooking, crazy parties, native flowers, collectables, music, and assorted pets. But my favourite place to hang out was my dad’s studio that he built in our backyard. It was an eclectic man cave filled with all manner of weird and wonderful stuff. It was a place of creation and experimentation that smelled of kerosine, wood shavings and possibility.

My passion had always been mucking around at the intersection of art and design (graphic and physical), technology (mostly understanding how my electric toys worked), and storytelling (I was your classic ‘Stranger Things’ D&D geek). To set the scene just picture a skinny, wild haired kid building a miniature spaceport in our backyard to launch Cosmonaut snails two blocks over. Or pulling apart old toys to build a hovercraft. Or, I hate to say it now, manufacturing high grade gunpowder and explosive tipped arrows with my best mate. Many of these experiments are buried in home made time capsules somewhere in my parents’ backyard, including the laid to rest CosmoSnails who never made it off the launch pad.

Why is this relevant? It’s because being eclectic, different, and questioning everything you see and do wasn’t just OK in our home, it was normal. As kids we were encouraged to have curious minds and had permission to experiment in that hand’s off 70s parenting style. We try to bring this ethos to Icon every day – giving people permission to be themselves, to experiment, and question.

My first ever ‘ah ha’ moment, when everything I was fascinated with as a kid gelled, came about when playing with a housemate's GUI computer for 24 hours non stop. I literally stood up and said to myself, “I know what I want to do with the rest of my life”.

Finding the thing you’re good at and passionate about can be a struggle. My advice? Surround yourself with the unfamiliar, look for the alternative, travel on the cheap, take the occasional risky option, and don’t worry if you’re still on the journey. Being present and observant is what counts.

That ‘ah ha’ moment was actually part of a whole movement – a revolution – that was kicked off by Apple in the mid 1980s. The first Macintosh Computer gave everyday people access to a suite of affordable digital hardware, tools and applications to spin their craft as designers, writers and creators.

These were the first heady years of a major pivot point in the technical, media and communications landscape. Magazines like Whole Earth Catalog had set the scene in the 60s and 70s, and Wired and 21C helped usher in a new cyberpunk inspired digital age. Catalog founder, Steward Brand, told the first ever Hackers Conference in 1984 that “Information wants to be free” (in a roundabout way). A decade later, technical visionaries such as MIT's Nicholas Negroponte were stating the Internet was about to "flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people.”

The Digital Revolution (the Third Industrial Revolution) has already caused massive opportunity and disruption, and there are more waves to come. Being aware of what’s come before and keeping an eye on the near horizon will keep you fresh, engaged and relevant. It can also help humanity plot a more fair and sustainable future.

An Icon emerges on the first digital wave

Before Icon Agency there was Icon Art. In the early 1990s I purchased a second hand Macintosh Computer, fax machine and laser printer. My ‘office’ was our spare room in a run down rental above a shop on Swan Street, Richmond. I’d worked as a paste-up artist for street magazines, and held down a few finished art jobs across Melbourne. I soaked up everything I could, saved every cent I earned, and decided to back myself. This was the genesis of Icon Art.

Armed with a freshly minted logo, card and DL brochure, I letter dropped local businesses offering graphic design services. I didn’t know it at the time, but Cato Design (of Ken Cato fame) was opposite our apartment. I got a visit from their head of production one morning and they became one of my first ever clients as they transitioned from analogue to digital production. One of my first ever jobs for Cato was creating digital finished art files for a new range of Uncle Toby Muesli Bar boxes their talented designers had created. I’d never attempted packaging before, but I said “Yes”, bought some industrial packaging design books, stayed up all weekend, and got to work that Monday.

While my partner, now wife and Icon Group Managing Director Joanne Painter, was starting her journalism career, I got to work growing my skills and a small local client base. Jo had recently completed her Masters Degree and had been tapped to work in academia or government intelligence. She chose a communications path and was a natural writer and journalist.

The desktop publishing revolution had kicked off a major shift in design aesthetics. Designers like Nevil Brody and David Carson had been rewriting the rules of graphic design and typography. Design had become more experimental, messy and brave. The 1988 book “The Graphic Language of Neville Brody” literally changed my entire view of what graphic design could be.

And then there was Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. It’s hard to describe what living through a pre and post Internet world is like. My closest analogy would be seeing the first internal combustion engine car on a street filled with horse drawn carts. You could feel this thing was about to change the world in so many ways, and knew you probably understood 1% of what was about to change.

The internet and its capability to distribute free and open information was going to revolutionise the world – and we wanted to be a part of that change. Of course Negroponte’s vision doesn’t quite match the current state of walled technology gardens, accelerated inequality, subversive data collection, and manipulative misinformation campaigns designed to destabilise trust. But hey, you have to have something to fight against right?

In the late 1990s Jo and I had our two beautiful kids on the way, and in the early 2000s I convinced her to join Icon after a long stint as a senior journalist at The Age Newspaper. She set up our thriving communications and PR division, and helped build our business development and sales skills. She also led the agency through an incredible period of growth and change.

We threw ourselves into the unknown and said “Yes, of course” to every client request. During one memorable early moment a large production house somehow convinced us we could design and help code the first ever White Pages website. We were literally reading books on how to make a website while we made it. Parts of it are still cached on the Way Back Machine.

As Icon grew, early principles helped us define our values and drive innovation:

- Do whatever it takes to keep respectful clients happy and coming back for more
- Learn everything you can about the stuff you're interested in – and never stop acquiring knowledge
- Challenge yourself by working on projects outside of your skill-set
- Embrace your mistakes and forgive those of others
- Check your ego at the door
- Take risks where you see opportunity
- Hire people that know more than you do
- Ask "Can I help?" early and often
- Knowledge isn't a tool of control – it's a shared experience
- Expertise is a commodity – invoice for it
- Enjoy the ride and don't sweat the future.

Life was exciting and busy with young kids and a business to take care of. We were stretched but growing off the back of the dot-com boom. Then it all came crashing down. If you were a part of the crash it was pretty damn scary.

The reset

Owning and running a business is hard work. It consumes every waking hour of your life, which means you better enjoy the ride if you want a fulfilling existence.

The dot-com crash of the early 2000s and the ensuing years were the biggest challenge we’d faced as a business. We were overly exposed to a collapsing tech industry and didn’t have enough cash reserves to ride out a revenue slump. It was a brutal time for our team, for us personally, and for our business partners. We lost amazing people and re-mortgaged our home to keep the remaining team employed.

If you’re around long enough you’ll experience other upheavals that are out of your control. The pandemic; multiple global financial crises; technical, socio-economic and environmental change all require an adaptive mind and steady hand to navigate. You’ll never have all the right answers, so surrounding yourself with alternate views and experiences is a vital survival tactic.

Yet, disruption creates opportunity if you go searching for it. Jo and I set about imagining what a future-proofed agency looked like. The egos of the advertising industry, old-school PR model, and siloed digital teams felt disjointed. We wanted a people-focussed workplace that encouraged and celebrated the integration of disparate fields of practice. Because integration doesn’t just build efficiencies, it encourages empathy, understanding and creativity.

The pivot

The early 2000s downturn helped forge who the agency is today. Towards the end of that decade we realised a multi-service agency could better protect itself from industry fluctuations. It was also a more useful model for clients, and meant we could deliver truly integrated thinking, digital, and creative communications campaigns.

Over the ensuing years we’ve grown our service set to include in-house user experience design, development and WebOps, strategy, creative, communications, reputation management, and media training.

And we’ve continued to relentlessly innovate right up to today, with the launch in February 2022 of a stand-alone dedicated content production space, incorporating photography, film and audio editing rooms. Called ‘The Content Garden’, this ambitious venture is testament to Icon’s spirit of purposeful innovation and curious reinvention.

Why is this important? Because business is never static. Stay still and you wither. Icon’s restlessness ties directly to our boot-strapped heritage and can-do approach. And while it can be challenging as founders, with scale comes more shoulders to the wheel. More ideas, more contrasting opinions.

The future

And so we exit our teenage years and enter our 20th year – a mixture of confident maturity and precocious upstart.

While the journey has brought myriad highs and lows, the past two years – the Age of COVID – has done more to shape our ethos, values and reputation than anything before. It’s been a heady time of rampant growth (we’ve doubled staff and turnover in less than two years), breakthrough creativity, international and national acclaim, and most importantly, the addition of pivotal leaders and creators in the business.

Jo and I have always said that our job as founders is to hire people who are smarter, more talented and more capable than we are. We’re only as good as our people. The current Icon family (and we do approach our people as family even after they move on to new horizons) is a truly exceptional collective of talented, dedicated and hard working people. Clients recognise this a mile off: it’s oft-commented that while other agencies may offer the same services and also do great work, it’s those intangible human connections – the spirit deep at the core of Icon – that sets us apart.

There’s something deeply satisfying about achieving 20 years in business. It helps to be at the helm of one of Australia’s pre-eminent creative communications firms, leading an exceptional team of digital, communication, content and creative professionals. It’s also gratifying that we’re still the go-to agency for those purpose-driven brands and clients we so value.

This is only a small part of our story, and it’s been made possible by the 100s of people who have worked with and for the agency. Every one is remembered and has left their mark. Icon will continue to grow and change as we offer the opportunity for others to influence and guide our shared journey.

Icon started as a family business and has transformed into a place that treats our people as family. That means creating a workplace that is safe, respectful, nurturing and ethical. It’s a place for creativity, support, exploration and challenging the way things have been done in the past. It’s the home I grew up in, reimagined for a new future.

Thank you – and here’s to another 20 years!
Chris Dodds

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