Mike Hughes finds lots of reasons to respect Armstrong Watson’s Dave Clarkson. The 4th Dan black belt in Karate is only one of them.
Dave Clarkson’s admission that creativity is one of his driving forces is a little unexpected.
It’s not the first pre-requisite you may think of for someone in the accountancy business. But as business development director Dave specialises in accountants rather than accountancy, coaching and mentoring partners, directors, managers and clients.
He has a clear and calm voice, as if he has taken several minutes to consider and then compose his answers, when in fact they are instant. A lot of that approach comes from his dedication to karate, which he now teaches. But his marketing background gives him a unique view of the business and has helped him change how it views its operation and where its focus should be.
“I have a very creative mind, so my whole background is coming from design and advertising,” he tells me at Armstrong Watson’s offices on South Parade in Leeds. “I worked my way through from direct marketing and on to Poulters agency. I learned my craft and creative side there, where you were given a blank piece of paper, provided with a brief and you created an idea for everything from campaigns for a new car to a software device or retail outlet.
“I had done pretty well and had the house the car and the holidays, but I became more interested in how you got a client in the first place and working directly with them rather than sitting in a room coming up with ideas all day.
“You get to the point where you reach a wall and you are ‘idea-d out’. So I walked out without a job to go to.”
That might suggest a reckless streak, but is more likely to be a wide band of confidence that the truckload of ideas in his head could be put to better use. When a friend asked him to help grow his business, Dave says he went “from wearing a jeans and t-shirt creative costume to a suit and a very large mobile phone”.
But Marketing by Design grew from £800,000 to around £4m and Dave’s future direction
was set with the essential skills of finding a client, understanding the business and then growing it, managing a team and recruitment – when the company asked Dave to “find more people like you.”
“I’m not a believer in qualifications. What I look for are common sense and enthusiasm – if you have those two traits I can work with you.”
It was also at this stage that Dave walked into a martial arts academy to learn more about fitness. He became hooked on the art and the ethos and went on to earn a black belt and then to teach. Twelve years ago he set up his own school which is still teaching adults and youngsters.
The ethos that appealed so much is still very much a part of the way he conducts business and develops a brand. It’s all about how people look, act and behave and making that a genuine part of their character rather than just something that is tagged on to a personality.
Dave left Marketing by Design when a plan to take shares in the business didn’t work out as he wanted.
“I walked out with no job to go to but, again, had absolute belief in myself. I joined up with John Hammond, a former BBC presenter, because I wanted to learn more about influencing an audience and the art of communication.”
After 12 months Dave was looking for a business to invest in, joined Leeds-based Osmosis and for five years developed his skills in building a brand, with a particular interest in personal brands.
He was then targeted by people working with former CBI chief and Trade Minister Lord Digby Jones, who had left the Government and was preparing for media appearances.
Dave believes Lord Jones appreciated the strong Yorkshire honesty of the conversation. Rather than just finding another yes-man, Digby was offered his own brand, which relied on such fine details as a British-made business card, screen printed by a British business and then sent to Scotland to have the flipside made. Expensive, but part of the brand and a powerful statement for someone whose job was backing Britain.
Through Osmosis, he became a consultant to Armstrong Watson for about a day a week, and soon realised that there was great scope for the business to grow and change. “I remember a conversation with its new managing partner Paul Dickson, who said ‘the only way you can really get involved in a business is if you step in’. In my mind, it was ‘don’t be ridiculous – you’re an accountancy practice and I’m a creative person’, but the more I thought about it the more the challenge appealed to me to bring my skills into a professional services firm. Friends and family tell me there was real excitement about me when I talked through the idea.
“To win another day’s work a week with Armstrong Watson, I had written an A4 sheet for Paul covering five points that the business needed to address – brand, marketing, culture, coaching and development and going out to get clients.
“Then I met with the board, who wanted me, but there was no way the work could be done just with an extra day a week.
“So I left Osmosis about four and a half years ago and joined them, and it has been the best period of my working life to date. I get to work with all the senior team coaching and developing them into how to go out and develop the business. I also get to develop the growth of the business and Armstrong Watson allows me to work directly with clients using a strategic business tool we developed called Blue.
“That has benefited the business in a number of ways and kept me interested in all aspects of it.
“I think I have exuded a confidence that the business now shares in me and the ideas I have. We have a corporate brochure called ‘With’. I didn’t have to fight for that, it was accepted that it was part of a holisitic approach through the group that clients who are going through a difficult time would know that we’re with them.”
The approach, which must have raised some eyebrows inside the 148-year-old business when it was first outlined, stretches to walls decorated with inspirational words like humanity, knowledge, strength which have been carefully selected to promote the company’s beliefs as well as suggesting that there is a depth to the business that you might not have expected.
“People presume brand is the physical, the logo devices and the marketing material. But that’s the ten per cent on top. Brand defines the culture of a business, its action and behaviour. The words and colours are just a descriptor.” That returns to Dave’s principle of surface and substance. In his line of work, you have to have both working together. There has to be a presentable image, but it is pointless if there isn’t some substance behind it.
I was just going to emphasise what lessons there are here for SMEs. But Dave won’t allow that: “I can’t accept SMEs as a phrase – it’s not in my vocabulary.
“It’s a language of government and I have not come across any business at all that will proudly call themselves an SME. It’s a dreadful badge to put on to businesses. They are owner-managed businesses.”
There are lessons here for owner-managed businesses about the importance of brand, even when you are swamped with orders, staffing or rents, and the importance of not just nailing it on to the front of your business, but thinking about it so carefully that you believe in it.
“Many businesses will go out thinking everybody is a potential customer. That’s wrong. A business has to identify a particular niche or customer to market to.
“In order for that customer to understand you, you have to pigeonhole yourself and create a brand. The stronger that brand is the better chance you have of the customer understanding you and working with you. It becomes a good fit and a very cost-effective way of communicating. “It’s not enough for an entrepreneur to be the brand. The only way that a business will grow beyond a person is to nurture a brand and educate others in to it so they can go out and grow it with you.”