The problem with agencies and the future of 383

How we eat our own dogfood and what the future has in store for 383.

Agencies talk all the time about the work they’re doing for clients but not a lot about how they’re applying their capabilities to their own business. Here, I want to share with our people, our clients and the wider world how we took our own medicine and what the future has in store for 383.

Every couple of years the leadership team get together to review 383. Not the work, or our people, or the numbers, but 383 as a proposition. We fundamentally want to understand whether we’re still excited to get out of bed in the morning, whether we’re serving the needs of modern clients and if we still have an interesting point of view on the world.

We’ve done this 4 times during the 8 years since I met our two co-founders in the pub that we still meet in. We’ve evolved over that time from being regarded as a respected design shop, to an award winning digital agency (agency of the year — twice) to where we are today.

It’s really hard to have this fixed 24 month review cycle and have an honest conversation about the future of our proposition, how we best deliver on it and what we need in order to succeed. Not least because at every single review, things have generally been going really well. To evolve and pivot out of something that is, at the time, working, is tough — but 383ers don’t come to work to just ‘do well’, they come here to do the work of their careers and so for us, change is not only inevitable, it’s something that keeps us interested.

We’ve just had our latest review and you might have noticed we’re talking about ourselves a little differently, that there’s new case studies of (some!) of our work and that our staff hires have increasingly been coming from startups and tech companies like Facebook and Google. Also, following months of codifying every single process in the business, we’ve also been building out 383 OS — an operating system that our people can query in order to do everything from hiring the right people to designing better client engagements to compensation agreements.

Here, I wanted to explain what’s changed, and how we’ve changed in response.

Our Proposition

We don’t believe that the world needs another management consultancy, marketing agency or futurist and neither do clients. Today’s leaders are grappling with urgent, complex and significant challenges brought about by changes in customers, competitors and technology.

Our new proposition on the new 383 site.

In this new world, there will be winners and losers — that’s a fact. 50% of the S&P 500 will disappear over the next 10 years.

There isn’t the time for another lengthy report from a strategy consultancy, there’s more complicated problems at hand than can be solved by a marketing campaign and the problems won’t be solved by a shiny new object from a digital prophet.

Established organisations are fighting for relevancy, market share and in some cases, their very existence. They need to get in the same room as their customers to understand them, not hear a lecture on them. They need to adopt the practices of the businesses who are working to disrupt them every day, not continue in the same vein. They need to move to core technologies that will help them to move faster, not get bogged down in technology that’s yet to be adopted.

Established organisations are fighting for relevancy, market share and in some cases, their very existence.

We’ve assembled a team of thinkers, designers and makers from the corporate and startup worlds to work with companies who to want to win.

We’ve been called a strategy firm, a design studio and an engineering team. We’re all of these. We’re sleeves rolled up, working in days not months, operating at the coalface — helping to build modern capabilities, transform customer experience, find new sources of revenue, build better products and leave a legacy of innovation.

Recently we’ve been:

  • Changing the way that everyone inside a major record label thinks about their transformation journey
  • Reimagining the global guest experience for one of the world’s biggest hotel companies
  • Bringing revenue generating new propositions to market in weeks for one of the UK’s largest car maker
  • Inventing a product to help a huge insurance company better serve millions of customers
  • Running an innovation programme that brings startups and corporates together like never before for a major train operator.

We’re here to get big companies and their teams get fit for the future, helping them to act like the businesses that are disrupting them and delighting customers in the process.

Our Services

We think that there are too many consultancies, agencies and studios around who claim to do so much, that they can’t possibly be good at all of them. It’s a bit like going to a japanese, indian, scandinavian fusion restaurant with a 100 page menu. We think that there are 5 big challenges that clients will face in their quest to get fit for the future and so we’ve aligned our offering to these.

Too many consultancies, agencies and studios around who claim to do so much, that they can’t possibly be good at all of them.

1. Capability Building
Big companies will need their people to possess more modern skill sets (design thinking, lean and agile for example). We’re going to help to develop the knowledge that those teams will need and our programmes will help our clients to become more customer focused, to innovate with purpose and deliver at pace.

2. Experience Design
Big companies will need to offer customer experiences that are at least as good as their emerging digital-first competitors. We’re going to help them to build customer experiences that differentiate. Our experience design programmes will help clients to understand their existing experience and to re-design and transform it to meet the expectations of today’s customer.

3. Proposition Invention
Big companies will need to be able to find new customer propositions and revenue streams get them to market quickly. We’re going to help them to consistently bring successful new products and services to market. Our proposition invention capability will help clients to rapidly identify, test and validate new value propositions and business models.

4. Product Development
Big companies will need to abandon their traditional waterfall approach to digital product development. We’ll help them to develop digital products that people love. Our product development programmes will help clients to iterate their way to success by designing, building and testing with users throughout the process.

5. Innovation Programmes
Big companies will need to view innovation as an always-on capability rather than a project. We’ll help them to create a scalable and repeatable cuture of innovation. Our innovation programmes will help our clients to innovate consistently by engaging employees, partners and the startup community whilst reducing their reliance on us over time.

Sometimes clients will engage us across all of these areas, sometimes one, sometimes a combination of a few but they are squarely focused on the challenges they’re facing.

Our Operating Model

We think that most vendors are set up badly to partner with clients on these big challenges. To be structured like a digital agency is fine when your job is to produce something pre-defined like a website, banner ad or social campaign but we need to be set up to help our clients to navigate the unknown. The problems we typically see with the traditional model are:

1. Client knowledge is fragmented and distributed across too many people in the business

2. Things are often frenetic and made up on the spot with no codified approach that guarantees the scalability of the model

3. A sequential production line approach to making stuff means that we can’t test, learn and iterate with customers.

To make sure we’re set up to partner for success with our clients we’ve built ‘Pods’ around them. Pods are made up of a Client Partner, Programme Manager and Strategist. These are the 3 people who will know everything there is to know about this client in terms of commercials, their projects and their business. These pods collaborate with our clients and the studio teams (made up of Insight, Design and Engineering) at 383 across our 5 service lines.


We’ve completely codified every single thing a 383er could want to get done into a set of proven processes that we’ve built into 383 OS. The 383 Operating System is a query-able knowledge base that ensures everyone at 383 has a consistent experience, from the people we hire to the clients we engage with and partners we do work with. 383 needs to scale to our clients needs and we can’t do that with knowledge held by just a handful of people. It can tell you how we hire someone, what type of programme to deploy for a specific client problem or how to structure the compensation model if we’re co-investing with a client for example.

Finally, we’ve done away with the traditional sausage factory model that most agencies employ. Instead of passing down a brief from one person to another until we get to the end of a process, we’re working in sprint teams with our clients ensuring that Insight, Design and Engineering work together to solve client problems, test solutions and iterate on them more rapidly.

We don’t think that the vendor propositions that exist today are going to help clients to tackle some of the biggest challenges they face.

We don’t think that things like UX capabilities are a service line, they’re table stakes. We don’t think that traditional agencies, studios and consultancies are built around how clients need to work — so we’ve changed it. Of course, in the 383 spirit, this is the result of years of hypothesis testing, learning and iteration and we won’t stand still, but if you’re excited about what I’ve talked about and would like to work with us, partner with us or do the work of your career — I’d love to hear from you.