Why I’m bringing back The One Centre

The One Centre was one of the Australian marketing industry’s biggest victims of the GFC. In this guest post, founder John Ford explains what went wrong and why he’s giving it another go

The One Centre was a fantastic company hit by the perfect storm during the GFC.

In August 2008 we were one of Australia’s largest project-based creative companies with over 60 staff. Our clients included Audi, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Woolworths, Mars, IAG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, GE, The Red Cross, Freedom Furniture, Jetstar and Nakheel.

Growing at an average of 50% year-on-year for nearly a decade, we posted our best-ever trading month in September 2008 – just as the GFC struck.  

John Ford mumbrellaAnd as it happened, our biggest client that quarter, Dubai government developer Nakheel quickly got into financial difficulty and couldn’t pay us.

The combination of a A$1.25 million bad debt – our first ever – sharp downturn and high cost of downsizing created a cashflow crisis.

And this came at a moment when all the normal capital lifelines disappeared. Nobody would – or could – help us.

Investors, banks and government agencies were worried about the recoverability of the Dubai debt, we were losing money, and there was just so much fear and panic in the economy. Banks had stopped lending. Potential investors were themselves reeling from market loses and had no cash.

Our export success, which I’d viewed as a risk management strategy, ended up biting us. In a normal year 40-50% of our revenue was from international clients. That GFC quarter, over 80% of our revenue was from Dubai.

The One Centre product was great, people highly talented, clients blue chip – it was simply a financial catastrophe that took us out prematurely in the darkest days of the GFC.

I had pushed the agency hard; we were completing a major round of new infrastructure investment to support our growth – a new office floor, technology, traffic system, satellite office in London for Audi and in Dubai to support Nakheel and Audi and emerging clients in Abu Dhabi.

But this had all been done as everything was about to radically change in the world economy.

I am deeply saddened by what happened to our staff, clients and suppliers and hope to rebuild those relationships and trust with time.

I am also very grateful to many friends inside and outside the industry who have witnessed the reality of the last two years and encouraged us to keep going.

The lessons learned from this experience are so many. At a business level the most obvious being if you have variable project-based revenue you need a flexible cost base. We had too bigger fixed overhead.

We had became so successful at new business, and had such a high-quality client portfolio with reoccurring business, we began to insource all our multi-disciplinary talent needs to support demand.

However, during the GFC clients could – and did – switch off projects, or slash budgets, while an employee base isn’t as flexible, structurally or culturally….

To illustrate, our revenue in September 2008 was around A$1.27 million. By December it had dropped to $300k, 30% of what we had resourced for.

I also learnt a lot about human behaviour in a crisis, the weakness of what was ostensibly a centralised structure, the need for partners and backing, the balancing of vision with strong financial controls, the need for an external advisory team to challenge thinking, how a good network can save you, and never going overseas without capital and local contacts. Most of all I learnt about the importance of relationships.

My wife and I decided to restart The One Centre in April 2010.

I’d written a business plan for a new multi-disciplinary branded arts and entertainment business, but while the space felt right, the idea wasn’t resonating. It was evident it was the next evolution of The One Centre.

I went for a coffee with my now financial backer to get his opinion on the business direction and brand and his response was immediate and positive – resurrect The One Centre.

We poured ten years of our lives into building the original business, and lost everything trying to keep it alive, but knew its death was premature. Securing the trademarks and IP twelve months after the business was voted by creditors into liquidation was a major victory over an impossible situation.

The new One Centre will be positioned as an arts and entertainment company developing unique branded properties, platforms and programs for clients everywhere.

The arts is the most exciting space I can see. It offers our clients a whole other world of creativity. Our distinctive capability will be ‘strategy + artistry’.

Flexibly structured, with a core team of strategists and producers and global network of artists, the company will work from concept to public release, strategising, conceptualising, producing, distributing and promoting its arts and entertainment properties across media.

It’s multi-disciplinary approach will include graphic arts, digital arts, film and video, performing arts, architecture (exterior and interior), industrial design, fashion, photography and music.

Concepts will include combinations of films, shows and documentaries, artworks and installations, theatrical events, exhibitions and experiences, retail concepts, buildings, digital interfaces and experiences, music, identity, collateral, publications, products and merchandise.

There’s a lot of work to do but the brand has incredible equity and potential and I believe the new One Centre will be a better business for what’s happened. I feel I have all the necessary experience, and I know what it takes to build a great company.

My focus now is on developing a great team and producing excellent work.


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