For creative consultancies like Decide in South Gosforth, there’s little room for resting on one’s laurels.
Not only has the competition widened dramatically in recent years, but expectations from clients have likewise risen to new levels.
Hence, innovation and thinking differently have never been more important – and, at Decide, investment in executive education has a crucial role to play in this.
The company is currently putting its sixth employee through a postgraduate course, providing him with financial support as well the flexibility to work around the demands of his studies.
It’s a rare, if not unique, approach to upskilling the workforce, but, as chief executive Jerry Hall well knows from his own experience, the investment in time and resources can reap astounding results.
In 2007, Hall himself completed a MA in enterprise management at Durham University Business School, and, as an employer looking for new concepts and frameworks that can contribute to real-world solutions, has become a staunch advocate of remaining a step ahead when it comes to education.
“I chose my particular course exactly because the subject areas related directly to parts of the business which required attention,” he said.
“Assignments were related directly to business issues, encouraging a deep and rigorous exploration, through the models and methodologies learned at the Business School.
“This enabled me to act as an internal management consultant, and formed the basis of the business plan that turned our business around and gave me the confidence to carry this forward.”
The company, which recently celebrated its 60th anniversary, currently employs around 50 people as part of a three-strong group, with other offices in London and Geneva.
Working with a huge range of well-known names, from Nestle to Procter and Gamble, it concentrates on three main fields: packaging, shopper marketing and digital, the latter of which has been growing significantly in importance.
Around five years ago, Hall and others executed a detailed analysis of the business and the changing landscape in which it operates, sparking some fresh ideas when it came to employee skillsets.
“We looked at the direction the industry was heading in,” Hall said.
“We could see that companies like ours needed to become even more professional in their approach and even more accountable in their thinking.
“There are now management consultants moving into what was traditionally our space and clients are looking for us to play a bigger role, perhaps looking at the overall branding and how it impacts on the bottom line.
“When you’re giving business advice, guesswork just won’t cut it.”
For some, the postgraduate route might seem like an odd choice for a business so firmly grounded in the day-to-day reality of commerce. Academics, after all, have a hard time shaking the image of the Ivory Tower.
Working with universities across the North East and indeed London, however, the company has deliberately selected courses with strong practical, as well as theoretical, aspects.
Nobody at Decide is pushed into the route.
Rather, the business has sought to open up options in the most important areas, while identifying candidates who might be interested in progressing their knowledge.
“We’re creating an environment where it’s not only accepted, but celebrated and encouraged,” Hall explained.
“I believe we need to look to other professions. Elsewhere, this is expected; you wouldn’t go to an unqualified lawyer or accountant, for example.
“Investment in executive education is a way for organisations to show their best people how much they are valued whilst receiving immediate tangible dividends for that investment.”
If this is indeed the case, then why are more firms in the creative industries not yet following suit?
In Hall’s view, the answer is three-fold.
Firstly, many small and medium-sized businesses may not be aware of the benefits.
Secondly, there’s a significant time commitment involved.
Thirdly, there’s the classic issue of cost.
“These courses can be massively expensive,” said Hall.
“They could cost between £4,000 and £20,000 – or even more – although we’ve been able to get some support through the Growth Accelerator programme.”
While such investment might seem prohibitive, however, Hall argues that in a “people business” – where the skills and knowledge of the employee are the crucial asset – it’s no different to say a construction firm forking out thousands of pounds on new machines.
Certainly, for Michael Pagan – the latest Decide employee to take on a postgraduate degree – it’s been worth it so far.
Pagan is currently around six months into an executive MA in strategic marketing at Durham and, although it can be hard to fit an additional 10 to 12 hours of study around a full-time job and family, the experience has been “fantastic”.
“Personally, I thought very carefully about the course beforehand,” Pagan said.
“It’s a lot of work, but the university has been great, with the structure of the programme being broken down very clearly.”
Decide has also been equally accommodating, allowing Pagan some flexibility to meet his growing demands.
Hall, though, admits that he’s on something of “crusade”, not only to promote postgraduate education as a tool for businesses in general but to create a framework that makes it easier for other SMEs to take a similar route to his company.
Of great interest to him is the European Entrepreneurship 2020 Action Plan – a blueprint for decisive action to unleash Europe’s entrepreneurial potential – which he would like to see pursued by Government and other bodies.
“The powers that be should get serious about small businesses,” he said.
“Firstly, they could help raise awareness of postgraduate education and secondly they could put some real money behind it, funding 50%, 75% or even 100% of these courses, on certain conditions, such as that the course be completed.
“SMEs employ most people in this country.
“The knowledge economy is what we’ve got to fuel, so I’d really like to see them get serious about this.”