Design Assembly has become the home of New Zealand visual design – providing a collaborative digital and physical platform for kiwi visual designers to learn, keep up-to-date and be inspired. We couldn’t do that without the support of our Friends. This series profiles some of the studios and individuals who have shown their love and support for DA. Today we spoke to James Hurman to learn more about our friends Previously Unavailable
Can you tell us about the milestones of your career and what lead you to founding Previously Unavailable in 2014?
I’d been a strategic planner in the advertising industry for most of my career, and I was always drawn to the more innovative end of the creative spectrum. I loved it most when we’d done things like build a treehouse restaurant for Yellow Pages, or stick a road cone at the top of the Sky Tower for V, or bring the original DB Export beer from 1960 back to life. When I started in advertising we made TV commercials, and when I finished we’d found ways to communicate that weren’t really about communication at all. My experience was that the biggest business results came not from words but from actions. This kind of dovetailed in with a frustration that clients wanted us to make advertising that sold more of their product, when in fact their problem usually wasn’t a lack of advertising – it was a product that just wasn’t really good enough anymore. My thesis was that we’d see much better results for clients if we applied all that great strategic and creative thinking to their product rather than the advertising. The trouble was, most businesses don’t believe their ad agency understands the commercial aspects of business well enough to advise on product. So I knew I had to start something that wasn’t an ad agency and didn’t produce advertising, so we didn’t end up back in that box.
Where are you based and what shape does the Previously Unavailable team take?
We’re based in a loft above Ponsonby Road among the hairdressers and art galleries. We’re only a small team, four partners, and so the volume of our output tends to surprise people. I’ve always been fascinated with how small companies can often get a lot done, and how large organisations can seem to struggle to do anything much at all. Up until now we’ve all been pretty generalistic. Almost everything we do is entrepreneurial – whether working for giant corporates or early startups – and so it’s a highly creative approach to entrepreneurialism that defines us, rather than having particular disciplines.
What kind of atmosphere or culture have you’ve tried to create in your studio?
A friend of ours rents a desk in our space, and we asked him the other month what he thinks defines us, and he said that we get more excited about things than normal people. I liked that. It’s difficult to imagine nowadays, but a long, long time ago, Vodafone here in New Zealand was considered a cool brand – and they said their brand was about ‘the thrill of fresh new ideas’, which really resonated with me at the time, and still does today. There’s that feeling you get when a new idea arrives and you can intuitively feel how awesome it would be if it were fully realised. I guess we try to make that the central feeling at Previously.
The barriers between traditional design disciplines have been dissolving and Previously Unavailable work across every aspect of innovation from research to strategy to ideation to prototyping to design to business modelling to brand creation to go-to-market, with such a diverse spectrum how do you scope your roles, collaborate and cross-pollinate within the studio?
One of the reasons we’re small is that it does take an unusually broad skill base to be able to deliver everything from a blank sheet of paper to a fully realised new product or business. So we need to have people that are confident and competent with the whole process. A good business or product idea is going to be at a sweet spot between what the consumer wants and what the market’s doing and what the operational realities of the business are and what will work from a commercial model perspective and whether that can all be designed into something that’s going to be a simple, engaging thing. And I think to do that well and at the pace with which we move, it’s really hard to have different people doing each bit. So often you’ll have the product idea when you’re talking to the consumer and they say something triggering that would never have ended up on the page in the research download. And to know whether it’s a good idea or not you have to have a pretty good grasp of strategy and product and design, and be able to evaluate those things in the moment.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I love that we spend very little time doing things that aren’t fulfilling or important in some way. In the ad agency world, you probably spend 10-20% of your time on stuff that’s really exciting. The rest of the time is spent on grinding out not particularly creative stuff for the big clients the agency makes all its money on. Back then I’d always daydreamed about working someplace where you only had to do that good 10-20%. And for me, that was birthing really innovative ideas. So what I enjoy most is that we have this little enclave in which we only really do what we enjoy most.
Your studio has worked with some big brands across a lot of sectors. What have you learnt about the client-designer relationship that is consistent throughout these opportunities?
I think the number one thing I’ve learned is that relationships are hard when you’re not into the same stuff. I’ve done a lot of battle over the years with clients who just fundamentally didn’t believe the same things as I did, or didn’t get excited about the same things. And as clients and humans, that’s their prerogative. What they believe is just as valid and important as what I believe. But when it’s different, it can be intractably hard to get anything done. So I think we’ve gotten good at attracting the sort of clients that believe the same things we do. And scaring off the ones who don’t. We’re not at all afraid of being an unpalatable proposition to conservative clients. As a result, the process with the clients that self-select in doesn’t tend to get difficult.
Are there any recent projects that the studio is particularly proud of?
We created a new RTD brand for DB called Odd Company. The whole way through it felt like the really off the wall concept that the client would never buy, but somehow it was the one that everyone – the client, the consumer and the retailers – fell head over heels for. It’s selling it’s socks off. And I personally had almost nothing to do with it, which makes me all warm inside. Something I did show up for was a major piece of strategy work for Helius Therapeutics, which led to their raising $20M in a single meeting at the end of last year. And the other recent one was our exit of Toothcrush. We started that company in 2016, we launched it 13 weeks after we first had the idea. Three years later we had 20,000 customers across NZ and Australia and a successful sale of the business. It was awesome to go right through that entire cycle.
What is the most difficult or challenging project you have undertaken and what lessons did you draw from it?
The biggest challenge in our business is coping with loss. The horrible reality of innovation in corporate organisations is that it’s often started and rarely seen through. A couple of years into Previously, we were working with one of New Zealand’s largest companies, and I think we’d started 15 different projects and not one had made it to market. They loved the ideas, but the internal politics were such that they simply couldn’t shepherd anything successfully through their organisation, no matter how much they wanted to. I ended up so upset at them that I sent them a Dear John letter and refused to work with them again. Since then, I’ve calmed down a bit. It still sucks, but we’re better equipped to deal with the reality of significant attrition in large organisations. And we’re balancing that with a lot of output for start-up clients.
Speaking of Challenges 2020 has thrown us some curveballs, how has your studio adapted?
We hit the crisis in good shape, and I’m grateful to be in a business that attracts entrepreneurially minded clients – they tend to shift up a gear in a crisis. So I’m optimistic about this being a period of growth for us. I think we’ll need to adapt a lot as we move through the next year. And I think that’ll need to be in quite a reactive way, as I’m not sure you can plan for much right now. But weirdly we find that a bit exciting.
And finally, where to next for Previously Unavailable?
Per above, it feels almost dangerous to try to plan or set a clear direction through all of this. What I do know is that we’re ready to get a little bigger and will hire for 2-3 new roles in the near future. One of those is a Design Director who has the ambition and ability to put us on the map in terms of design. And I want to further build out the portfolio of start-up businesses that we have an equity stake in. My determination in growing is to ensure we continue to be retentively choosy in terms of people, and that we remain able to say we spend all of our time doing stuff we get excited by.