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How Graphite embraced a sector specialism to drive agency growth

The Drum featured our CEO Rob Verheul in an interview with Jody Osman from the Propeller group. The topic of discussion was Graphite's shift to sector specialism within the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry in order to drive the growth of our agency.

31 May 23
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  • Team Success

Propeller Group’s Jody Osman recently spoke to Rob Verheul - CEO at Graphite Digital - about the company’s decision to specialise in a single sector. The digital design agency decided to hone in on the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry three years ago.

Originally posted on The Drum

Propeller: To kick us off, tell us a little bit about how your Graphite journey started.

I joined Graphite 13 years ago - two friends asked me to come on board and run the digital business. This was two years after the iPhone first launched, when social media was in its infancy and you still had to convince people of the importance of having a website.

We started strongly, and things really started to take off when we landed Costa Coffee’s digital remit. We were their digital agency, creating everything from apps to interactive campaigns. At the same time, we were building expertise in the health and pharmaceutical sector with organisations such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer. This is an industry that’s highly regulated and fragmented across different markets, meaning many additional UX challenges and approval processes - and this drove us to develop a specialist skillset.

Eventually we came to a crossroads. We started asking “who are we, what are we really good at and where did we want to go?” We knew that clients want to work with experts and specialists, so we decided that we wanted to tackle and give value to a narrower segment of the market - and make a bigger difference. And it is this realisation that led us to focus on health and pharma.

That’s a very bold decision - but one that has obviously paid dividends. When did you start realising you’d made the right call?

The industry really took off when COVID hit. We recognised that it was experiencing its own renaissance. FinTech exploded 10 years ago - now it feels like the era of health tech. It was a brave move, and at the same time we decided to drop development & technology as a service, meaning lots had to change. But we had confidence that narrowing our focus would enable us to stand out more clearly in the market. Customer experience (CX) and UX design, user research - these were our new hero propositions.

Did you ever consider continuing to work with your existing interesting clients on the side?

It was a weird day calling Costa up to tell them we didn’t want to work with them anymore. And the temptation to keep them on the side was there. They were paying well - and whilst we were still adding value to their organisation, it didn’t sit well with me. It was important to make this call from an integrity perspective. Additionally, doubling down ensured we could give new clients the opportunity to partner with the best digital agency for them.

When you started redefining your service offering, were you driven by reactive measures - or was it something you could lead by defining your expertise?

It’s definitely more of the latter. We got to do more of the type of work that we wanted, and we were being asked for it - so we defined it as a speciality. Some areas, such as research, could then underpin our client strategy as well.

One of the most frustrating aspects of website designing and building is when you’re asked to change what you’re doing halfway through. But if you’re purpose driven - and derive purpose from the needs of your clients’ customers - you have a strong foundation for strategy. This enables you to avoid some of the traps that opinion-based decision-making can lead you into.

Now that you work exclusively in one sector, have you experienced any challenges partnering with overlapping businesses?

A lot of healthcare agencies regularly experience this, especially if they represent a particular speciality or launch a similar product. They aren’t comfortable with competition. At Graphite, we typically work above brand. We help observe and improve their CX more generally. And the reality is that we’ve seen it all before. They’re all trying to do digital transformation in a specific way, they’re all dealing with regulatory challenges - and they find it useful when we expand our expertise by collaborating with others.

What benefits, expected or otherwise, have you enjoyed since investing in solidifying your expertise?

Client trust is the most obvious one. It can be hard to stand out in today’s market. Clearly articulating your purpose and offering to your target audience gains you credibility and your target client is more likely to respond to your call.

Talent is another major one. If your agency tries to do everything, new staff may not fully grasp what the role entails and can be frustrated if asked to do something they don’t want to. At Graphite, we know exactly what we need when we hire. Everyone knows what they’re coming into from day one - we can provide a clear picture regarding our expectations. And this means that candidates are passionate about the role and the field, ensuring we build a team that’s aligned and speak the same language.

It sounds like the shift to single-sector has really worked for Graphite, giving you a clear position in the market. For other agencies considering following suit - is there anything you’d recommend weighing up? How can they assess whether specialising is right for them, or if they should stick with their multi-sector approach?

I’d ask them to consider what their aspirations for growth are. We recognised that our ability to grow was always going to be limited by our ability to win new business, and if that’s important then they need to have an edge over the competition and a point of differentiation if they want to grow fast and far - and this doesn’t have to be sector. It can be capabilities. As long as it’s specific, stands out and is something you can target, market and reach the desired audiences with - crack on.

Being sure of what you do - and who you do it for - is essential.

What would be the parting words of wisdom you provide off the back of your own experiences?

The best piece of advice I can provide any agency owner is to create a plan. Who are you going to target, how are you going to target them - and how are you going to grow off the back of that? We didn’t have a plan for so long, instead relying on goodwill and fantastic client relationships. But these only get you so far - and if external factors impinge, you’re left questioning your own identity. A strategic plan can ensure you don’t have to endure this discomfort and that every decision you make leads you towards your defined goals.

In the business world, you measure through revenue and profit. But with today’s creative talent - particularly in younger generations - that’s not enough. We want to make an impact and to align to a purpose. That was part of our justification for focusing on the health and pharma sector. And whilst some of the work makes more impact than others, the new age of digital health will empower us to make a genuine difference - and this is the key to unlocking our creative satisfaction.

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