By Nick Parminter
We’ve grappled with finding the right descriptor for Class35 since the early days. We’ve described ourselves as a growth / strategy / customer value consultancy and a design agency / studio / practice at various points (largely depending on the audience).
The truth is that we are a bit of a crossbreed. We have some people from consultancy backgrounds (Deloitte, Accenture, Bain) and some from design studios (Fjord, Bio, Fantasy Interactive) - and a lot of people that have worked for consultancy-acquired design studios. But we’re also made up of entrepreneurs, product people, software engineers, even venture capitalists.
So we find it hard to answer the dichotomous question of “which are you” without removing the texture of what we do, and why we are built to be different.
But for many, this isn’t a satisfactory answer. So, you decide:
Our home in Shoreditch gets referred to as our ‘studio’. This happened organically but is a true representation of how we work. A few days a week, we come together in an open office, we work together on stuff, we have lunch together, and we make things (digitally). No one has a fixed desk, some people don’t use desks. A lot of our client meetings are workshop style. We have a few entrepreneurs that don’t work for us sitting here too, and they are as much a part of our culture as our perm team. Some people are on the same projects, some aren’t but we come into our studio to stay connected.
People are trusted to work on their own terms, wherever and however they like. But our week is structured around a few key “ceremonies”. We have a weekly stand-up to share and align priorities for the week, we run internal efforts in sprints, we wash-up the week every Friday afternoon. Similarly, in project work, we work in sprint teams, run standups, demo work - whether it is a strategy gig or design and build, we take the same approach. We manage the risks, issues and decisions of our work as a leadership team every week, and essentially treat all of our projects as we would a programme with work streams.
We start every project with a hypothesis, whatever the starting point or intended outcome. We work directly with real customers to prove or disprove these hypotheses as quickly and effectively as possible - whether that is uncovering an unmet market opportunity, clarifying how a service really works for customers, testing a digital touchpoint or split testing marketing messages.
There is a commercial lens to all our work. Having worked client-side ourselves, we know that there are constant tradeoffs to make, approval gates to pass, and stakeholders to get buy-in from. So whether it is a quick thing, or unleashing a much bigger transformation effort, we set ourselves commercial targets for our work and measure our outputs against them. We view business drivers like business, distribution and pricing models as textures of design, so we consider them when we are conceiving, designing, developing and launching new services. We are as comfortable with management accounts as wireframes, and spend a lot of time doing commercial modeling.
We came from worlds where the currency was journey maps and powerpoint (or keynote), usually unimplementable or detached from reality, so when we started up “we don’t measure our impact in slides” became an important mantra for us. This has very much stuck over the years, and we always make sure we produce things that move the dial - whether a demo, vision, model, manifesto, app, website or a fully fledged technology system. Even in upstream “strategy” projects, we make and test things to prove out strategy, and make sure recommendations we give are practical and achievable, validated and viable.
At the start of every project, we design our approach based on the task at hand - to get to tangible outcomes for clients, not to produce artifacts for the sake of it. We don’t use needlessly fixed frameworks or engagement patterns, because we find they can end up forcing a problem down a certain path, and biasing the answer. If we get 2 weeks into a project and realise what we are doing isn’t the best route to get to answer, we will change approach. This means that we need trusting and open relationships with our clients, and to hire people who are comfortable with ambiguity and change. Some of the best outcomes we’ve achieved have been through quite unconventional means, and simply wouldn’t have happened if we stuck to tried and tested “methodologies” of our bigger and more traditional peers.
Internally, we are structured as a hybrid of the traditional agency-like capability model (‘designers over there, strategists over there, tech over there’) and a more tech start-up like structure of cross-functional teams. We separate the ‘day job’ (project roles) from the ‘career job’ (practice or craft). Priorities are set within projects or programmes by whoever is leading the work, not necessarily by someone of the same discipline. Developmental objectives are set by a ‘mentor’, again not necessarily of the same discipline, but we also run ‘communities of practice’, where disciplines come together to talk about their craft. We have a big extended network of freelancers and independent consultants, which we also run as a community. We let them bring expertise and experiences from their travels into what we do, and they learn stuff too.
We started Class35 like we start projects, by talking to customers, to understand their frustrations and we heard that getting ‘from idea to adoption’ felt impossible with one partner. The needless siloes in the supplier landscape and the broken relay is exactly what were created to solve for clients. A huge part of that is in the taxonomy of what we do - we are part design agency, part consultancy, part technology partner, part start-up and part marketing agency. Because we honestly believe that getting from a weird-shaped business problem to a successful product or business in the market needs all of those parts to solve. And our work tells this story better than any descriptor ever will: