Walking in their clients’ shoes: Culture & Theory’s creative collision

The design-led brand and digital agency, founded by Nick Riley and Jonte Goldwater, has recently taken over the floor after two years establishing itself in the market. Now, with clients like Westpac and New Zealand Cricket under their belt, the pair feel they are really beginning to hum.

They explain that while the agency is made up of three core pillars that interact with clients—strategy, creative and business side—it’s really important they interact to create one solid foundation. Enabling this is a big white wall in the heart of the agency on which ideas are put forward and worked on by the entire team.

They call it “a creative collision” because even if someone isn’t working on a project, they might walk past and suggest another approach.

“You have to have the commercial reality of actually making a business stand up, which is what the business team is all about, then you’ve got to be strategically sound because it’s got to solve problems to grow business and then creatively it’s got to inspire people and achieve amazing things and deliver on that strategy,” says Goldwater.

But even without considering how the wider team operates, the idea of a collision of skills can be seen in the pairing of Riley and Goldwater.

Riley comes from agency side, most recently working as a design director at Designworks, while Goldwater comes from client side, having spent over 20 years in marketing. Most recently, he worked at Lion and it’s there he says his interest developed in how business works.

“I was starting to get curious about how business connects with brand and how that connects with consumer needs, and how that all comes together to construct an offer that’s going to future-proof a business going forward,” Goldwater says. “Especially when we are seeing such radical changes so quickly in the market.”

That curiosity was shared by Riley and with both looking for something new to sink their teeth into, Culture & Theory was born.

Summarising their proposition, they say Culture & Theory is about using clear, practical thinking and intelligent ideas that grow brands for the long term.

“It’s not about the next campaign,” they say. “It’s about putting down really solid foundation stones that connect business and brand to make sure they grow in the right way for the long-term.”

L-R: Nick Riley and Jonte Goldwater

Because of that, the agency’s offering ranges from research and insight, brand positioning and brand architecture, to naming, brand identity, brand books and guidelines, digital, print, packaging and environments.

With each comes a balance of strategy and creativity, and that comes from the melding of their two backgrounds. They understand clients only spend 10 percent of their time interacting with an agency while the other 90 percent is spent working on non-creative work like management, logistics and P&L.

And because of this appreciation, Culture & Theory is forever checking itself to make sure everything it’s doing for a client is for the right reason.

“Quite often in our conversations I might be talking about a creative idea or solution,” says Riley. “But Jonte will go back and say ‘hold on, let’s just put ourselves in our clients shoes, because I have been there’.”

Though the two perspectives create a tension in their offering, it’s in no way considered a negative. Instead, they see the pushing and pulling as an opportunity to create a purpose-built solution for a client without cutting corners.

Both have seen cases of existing ideas retrofitted to a client but Goldwater’s structured and analytical side combined with Riley’s creative side doesn’t allow that to happen.

It all starts during the pitching process when the agency gets under the hood of the client’s business to see what’s going on—before they even take the brief.

“When we get involved, we conduct research,” explains Goldwater. “We have propriety ways we do research; we do stakeholder interviews, we’ll go in there, we’ll do immersion, we’ll understand the mechanics of their business and how their business model works so we are really understanding the constraints.”

They acknowledge the market is saturated with potential partners for businesses to turn to for advice so see step one as showing a true empathy towards the business and its needs.

That means presenting the client with an analysis including suggested macro trends and issues, and possible solutions or thought starters.

That empathy in their approach is reflected in the way they talk about their varied client range that includes New Zealand Cricket, Westpac, Spark, Jacobs Douwe Egberts as well as 3D visualisation company Seequent.

For Seequent, the agency worked to reposition the business by changing the name from ARANZ GEO and changing the offer. What was once 3D mining software is now a software business with multiple solutions for a wide range of industries, including geothermal and renewable energy to civil engineering and beyond. 

Similarly for New Zealand Cricket, the agency worked with it to reposition the whole cricket category. It shifted the organisation from one focusing on finding talent and the Black Caps to one that connected New Zealand with the game.

The effort saw Culture & Theory position the Black Caps as a product or brand within the New Zealand Cricket framework and changed the focus of everyone within the organisation in terms of how they foster the game.

An articulation of this will see a Family Night sports exposé alongside the New Zealand/England test in March. And it won’t just be cricket, there will be a number of sports with the idea being that the more people who play sport, the more people who will play cricket.

Meanwhile, for Westpac, it’s been working since 2016 to develop a purpose-driven strategy and by flipping everything in terms of what the bank takes to market, to how it structures its offer and how that flows through to digital.

It’s such a substantial project that Culture & Theory is now working with Westpac’s retail, digital, innovation and brand teams.

One size does not fit all

With such a variety of clients under its roof, it’s no surprise Riley and Goldwater find pleasure in the fact they are always having to learn about something new.

“One of the things I love about this job is that one day you’ll be working with a business that creates taps and showers, and the next day we are doing a big bank and then cricket,” says Riley.

And in the same way the pair don’t want to the agency to be pigeonholed to working in any specific categories. 

Riley says it creates the solution according to the experience that will best deliver on the purpose, rather than assuming anything from the beginning.

“We are not thinking about being pigeonholed into saying ‘we only do traditional communications channels’,” says Riley, adding that a solution could be vastly different things.

Taking their own advice

And it’s not just the clients taking their advice. With two years under their belts and the nuts and bolts of their offering figured out, Riley and Goldwater have been considering their own long-term strategy. And that means living and breathing what they do for others.

“I was thinking about it the other day: if the people we work with are successful because of the work we do for them, then damn straight we have to do it for ourselves,” say Riley.

That can be seen in the pair undergoing a naming process similar to the one it goes through with clients to determine ‘Culture & Theory’ as the best fit. They explain the name represents the marriage of their two different skillsets and creating a balance to find the sweet spot.

“It’s the business understanding, it’s the creative, the idea, the culture, the theory.” Riley says. “It’s about that balance which is integral to our offer.”

Furthering the agency’s move into the future, Riley and Goldwater have recently built a senior leadership team and are working to structure the team below that accordingly.

In the agency’s early days, the pair worked with contractors when required and taking that time to find their groove has enabled them to be considerate in their hires. People are employed based on their fit to the agency and the agency’s fit to them.

Right now, there are 14 people and Riley and Goldwater agree they don’t want to grow too much, as for them it is about the right work, with the right clients, in the right way. 

Looking further into the future, both are excited by the prospect of a digital offering and working with businesses to transition them into the digital world.

“How digital changes business models, and how do we help these businesses transition is the question that everyone is asking?” says Goldwater.

“Watch this space.”

This story is part of a content partnership with Culture & Theory. 

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