Jamie Helly, founder and chairman of Dynamo, on almost 30 years of change in the Irish creative industry, driving international success for clients and protecting employees mental health
"Jamie has a true creative soul and as founder of Dynamo, he has built one of Ireland’s foremost branding and design agencies. He’s an ideas man, results driven, and produces world class work from the studio with the coolest shop front on Ormand Quay – go check it out!" Charley Stoney, IAPI, CEO
LBB> You've been at the helm of Dynamo since you founded it back in 1992. What was the big idea back then?
Jamie> God lord, that was nearly 30 years ago, not sure I remember much of the ‘90s. I think the founding principles of the business were hard graft coupled with a deep desire to be the best at what we do, it was that simple. Back then our core offering was graphic design. Our aim was to surround ourselves with the rock stars of the design scene at that time and to market the hell out of ourselves until people recognised the energy and care we put into our work. I guess this is reflected in our name, which I still love to this day.
LBB> And what's the biggest difference between what you did then and what you do now?
Jamie> It’s not night and day although what we do today is more intrinsically linked with human emotion and imagination than it was then. Graphic designers have a tendency to design work they think is beautiful and often don’t really consider their audience. It sounds a little harsh but it’s true. The fault lays with how visual communications tends to be taught in university - it’s quite insular. Design thinking is all to do with putting the human at the centre, creating experiences that are purely focused on the ‘user’, otherwise it’s useless beauty. Our main difference today is we design experiences for humans not design aficionados.
LBB> What are some brands that you've worked on that have travelled outside of Ireland? What has been the key to making them internationally successful?
Jamie> We love all our clients equally, that goes without saying, but one client we are particularly proud to be working with is the US beer and spirits company Mark Anthony Brands International [MABI]. They are a phenomenal business growing globally at ferocious pace delivering a turnover of close to $4 billion in 2020. The worldwide marketing and innovation strategy is driven by a team of 50 people here in Dublin. We work closely with them in the development of their new and existing brands, one being White Claw Hard Seltzer which was the fastest growing ready-to-drink alcohol brand in the US last year with sales in excess of 80 million cases.
In terms of “key to making them so successful” – In this case, I think MABI are masterful at consistently feeling the pulse of what’s happening in societal terms. They have a dedicated ‘always on’ insights function of the business which uncovers emerging trends and utilise extremely creative ways to interrogate and act upon them. It’s a very speedy, responsive and rewarding adventure to be a part of.
LBB> You say you're not an ad agency as much as a brand design and communication agency. How does that affect the sort of brands that come to you?
Jamie> It starts with the question - what do today's clients need from their creative partners? Then, how do we feel their pain and fill that need?
We’ve always been a brand building agency at our core and will continue to be so, however over the years we have found that our clients wanted us to continue the brand building phase by developing their communications strategy and creative.
I think for the most part, historically clients’ agency needs have been segmented into communications, branding, web services etc. I believe this model is simply no longer fit for purpose. Brands don’t exist in a vacuum and consumers don’t see the world like that. We’ve broadened our skillset substantially, meaning we are now able to deliver end-to-end creative, from brand inception through to highly targeted, killer communications campaigns. What's more, working in this way has completely reinvigorated the entire studio.
LBB> And what sort of talent does that mean you look for as an agency?
Jamie> In 2020, we took the fateful decision to significantly invest in reshaping our agency model. We now have a multi-disciplinary comms team, headed up by former MD of digital agency ICAN, Siobhan Lavery as communications director. In conjunction we’ve recruited a wonderful ‘new school’ comms creative team who are born digital and bring incredible new ways of thinking.
LBB> Last time we spoke, you mentioned that confidence is lacking in Irish branding agencies. What do you think the Irish creative community needs to change to gain that confidence?
Jamie> It’s important to emphasise, I’m speaking of Irish brand design agencies in this respect. I might get hanged for saying this, I think, even today, by and large Irish brand design agencies still look to the UK as a benchmark to measure themselves against. Obviously, budgets are larger and projects often more global in scale but the fact of the matter is, our native creativity is world class. Scale of task doesn’t really have much to do with how good the end product is. However I do think we tend to be very inward looking as an industry in general. In my experience from having worked closely with a number of large UK/global agencies they can’t get over A, how modest we are, and B, how great our work is.
LBB> From an outside perspective, one of the unique things about the Dublin industry is the tech companies' heavy presence in the city. What do you think have been the biggest repercussions of that for the creative sphere?
Jamie> Repercussions? The beatings will continue until morale improves! Outside of those directly or indirectly employed by big tech in Ireland, I don’t believe there’s been a massively positive ‘trickle down’ into the creative community in Ireland. When you think about it logically, organisations like LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo, Facebook etc. are direct competitors in their quest for share of mind and wallet. That said, I do believe that creativity is king and that the need to craft meaningful messages in a way that an algorithm can’t has never been as important. Our challenge as an industry is to learn how to seamlessly integrate technology into the creative strategy at the birth of the brief.
LBB> I know you're keen to make sure the industry doesn't neglect people's mental health. What do you think are the priorities in that regard and how do you get it right?
Jamie> Ultimately what we do isn’t life or death. We help businesses prosper, as an industry we contribute to the economy and all the follow-on revenues that in itself creates. I don’t in any way mean to demean what we do, I love my profession.
Creativity is the currency of our business and creativity simply cannot live in an environment of anxiety or fear.
I think agency leaders’ understanding of their duty of care to their teams has completely transformed in a relatively short spell of time. When I started out, the culture was all about working the bejesus out of yourself and everyone else until something snapped. It’s kind of moronic when you think about it now. People worked somewhere, got burnt out, moved to the next job for slightly more money until they burnt out and so on.
We do our very best to look out for our team as any family would. We stay close to people with bi-weekly one to ones which are more to do with personal development than personal performance. If we see anyone struggling for whatever reason we always try to help them navigate a way to improve their state of mind without being intrusive. 2020 has shown us that remote working and time flexibility has only been good for us as a business both commercially and culturally. I believe we will all come out of this crisis stronger, more empathetic and more open minded than we went in.
LBB> Just to keep things positive, what are you most excited about in 2021?
Jamie> Geez – hope I haven’t been too gloomy. Selfishly, I’m most excited about getting out on my bike for a long spin, that said, I have much to be thankful for and I feel very lucky. 2020 was a challenge but as an agency we did some of our best work and put in a strong commercial performance. I stepped down as MD in September handing the reins to our previous head of insights, Roisín Ní Ráighne and am loving my role as chairman. I’ve more time to focus on our clients’ needs and the overall trajectory of the business while still contributing (hampering) the creative output along the way. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing us all, as a society regain some joy in our lives and reigniting our collective mojo. It is going to happen, for sure.