Lessons learned from listening

Water colour painting

By Icon Agency co-founders
Chris Dodds and Joanne Painter

As if Australia’s series of natural disasters over the last two years wasn’t enough to shock the world into action, a deadly heatwave is killing thousands in Europe, which is also looking over its shoulder at the first major war in decades. Women’s rights are being dismantled from Afghanistan to Arkansas, and we’re running out of energy because we didn’t commit to change a decade ago. The message is clear – we all have to do better.

We run a communications agency that asks our clients, “How can we help make better, more inclusive and sustainable services for people and the planet?”

Twenty years ago we took a gamble that clients wanted a different type of agency. Back then not many businesses talked about social impact or purpose in informing how a place was run.

Thankfully, industry and clients are moving towards organisations that want to have a meaningful impact on the world.

While Icon has grown to be one of Australia’s biggest independent (and family-owned) communications agencies it’s important we maintain the hunger and agility that got us here. Continuous curiosity and the ability to rapidly pivot keep us engaged and relevant – but not at the expense of quality or strategic rigour.

But as a 20-year-old, Icon is no longer a scrappy, bootstrapped teenager. Maturity has taught us that we don’t have all the answers, but a desire for context and change is what counts.

We’re wary of any binary approach to communications. We’ve learnt that by listening and not assuming, you often find what’s not being said is as important as what is. Just as important is collaboration and not imposing your views if you want to work from the inside out to make a change. That’s why we engage with service users and subject matter experts to understand barriers and act on insights. Our approach has led to some incredible projects with the NDIS, the Department of Health, the Department of Home Affairs, and numerous other government agencies and private sector clients.

Now we’re looking at the next challenges for communications, knowing that if you want to change something you sometimes have to work on the problem from the inside.

With that in mind, we’re embracing key areas like the energy transition. The story of Australia’s journey to a renewables-based energy economy is an exciting one and won’t be without its wins and losses. By listening, engaging and collaborating with industry and other stakeholders, we want to tell that story and help nudge people and organisations toward a more sustainable future. We’re also continually backing our endeavours in health, education, innovation, and accessible digital transformation.

Purpose isn’t just talk – our team genuinely wants to change the world for the better. We look for projects that improve lives, support communities and help the planet. We look for people who share these beliefs and see Icon as a place to learn, teach and help guide our most impactful work.

Social change is messy and nuanced, and we’re happy to admit we don’t have all the answers.

The next 20 years

Icon’s journey has included moments of great disruption and adaptation as we rode out the 90s recession, the 1998-2000 dot com crash, the 2007-09 GFC and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

A rapidly changing environment, humanitarian crises, under-represented minorities, inequality, the threat of misinformation, and fractures in social cohesion are the critical challenges that governments, businesses and communications agencies need to tackle now.

Technological change is also confronting. To remain relevant we have to adopt new technologies, mediums and communications practices whilst being aware of the impact automation has on people and industry.

Fostering our team’s skills and resilience, remaining true to our purpose, and leaning into adversity have helped us build and sustain over time. It’s also strengthened our resolve and ability to use change for good.

There’s a saying “Leave the place better than you found it”. As founders, we’re conscious of the fact that we may not be here to ring in Icon’s 40th anniversary. Still, we’re passionately committed to ensuring the work our team continues to undertake makes the world a better, safer, and more compassionate place for all.

That’s how we mark this moment.