Gavin Downes, Head of Strategy at Neon Agency

We have a chat to the Head of Strategy at Neon Agency… 🎙️

6 min read


Hi Gavin! Can you give us a bit of the background of yourself?

Born in Dublin, raised in Greystones Co. Wicklow and Bethesda, Maryland (just outside Washington DC) and also lived in Jakarta, New York, San Francisco and Sydney. Now resides in Clonskeagh, Co Dublin with my wife Susie and 3 young boys, Carter (7), Harrison (6) and Brody (3).

In addition to many lessons learnt in the school of life and business, I also hold a BComm from NUIG and a MBS from the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, UCD. Apart from trying to get back into triathlons & competitive or even non-comp sport, I also have a genuine passion for travel, wine, cooking, music, sport, technology and gardening!

What is your role at Neon day to day like?

My main focus in Neon is in managing & leading a team of motivated individuals, in order to get the best out of them daily. The day to day is a mix of internal planning, creative & client meetings. I spend a large portion of my time trying to develop the skills & abilities of my team so they can truly grow in their roles, briefing creative and other suppliers, problem solving (a lot of problem solving), taking the lead on proposal development and managing clients – their budgets, expectations and requests.

I try to spend as much time as I can out and about, meeting people, at site visits and planning the experiential journey for our events. The live event is still the pinnacle of what we do and from a strategic point of view, I really try to get into the mind of our guests & event attendees in order to develop experiential event plans that will wow, engage & inspire them. It’s important for me to stay on top of the latest production wow factors, strategic trends/insights and emer technology. Technology, along with the importance of sustainability initiatives, is having one of the biggest impacts on our industry. In my role, I’m fortunate to have an international remit, so I get the opportunity to travel, present at & attend international conferences, while meeting some truly fascinating people.

In addition to that, I also have a significant role in driving the brand & marketing strategy for the business, while taking a senior management role on matters involving HR, operations, financial forecasting and general business strategy.

Want to grow?

What’s the vision statement for Neon?

“We are here to create amazing Phygital experiences that engage audiences, grow businesses and let great brands glow.”

Can you tell us a little about your early growth strategy?

Early growth strategy probably wouldn’t have been as planned or mapped out for the business as it is now. Like with many SMEs our MD, Dan MacDonnell was focused on surviving the early years, always being hungry for business, trying to offer something different to competitors and fostering great client relationships.

What challenges did you encounter early on?

As with many SMEs and/or start ups, there would have been challenges in managing cash flow, winning the big client contracts, retaining good staff and keeping focused on growth. All done while delivering very high standards of creative, memorable event production and flawless execution.

What’s the approach to strategy planning now?

Keep it simple really. We’ve recently undergone a process of revising our strategy for the business. That involves developing the overall company vision, mission, values & goals. Then map out a 3 year financial plan and lay out the key building blocks to get there across sales, marketing, operations, finance and our most important asset, our people & culture. Culture can be a huge source of competitive advantage in our industry and I try never to forget that.

Looking back, have you made any key strategic mistakes?

For me personally, I’ve made plenty. But it’s all those mistakes that have taught me great lessons too. Who to trust, when to go with your gut, how to get things done, the advantages of networking & always connect with people, the importance of using experts, when to say no and the reality that at the end of the day, family, health and happiness are what matter most.

How often do you review your strategy?

I would say every year we do a strategic review which involves looking at how we’re doing & a full review of the competitive landscape. But in reality, I’m always assessing the current opportunities and what’s working, so strategy needs to be continually evolving in my eyes. I think the structure of plans actually give us freedom to act, measure, respond and be flexible.

What have been some of your key strategic objectives and why?

Key strategic objectives for us as a business fall into 5 categories across 1. Financial Targets 2. Sector or Brand Client Targets (that area or brand we really want to work with) 3. Agency Positioning 4. Team Growth 5. Leadership

How do you engage your employees with your strategy?

In many ways. I really believe that everyone is different, so we need to provide multiple ways & means to engage employees. As a business that has a strategic specialism in engaging audiences & communicating key messages, we need to remind ourselves the importance of practicing what we preach.

Everything from the weekly meetings we have to 1:1 catch ups, monthly planning sessions, quarterly reviews, and annual events – kick offs, award shows, town halls, internal conferences and roadshows are not only the services we provide, but also the things we need to execute within our own business.

How do you think Neon will continue to succeed and grow?

Through continuing to be focused on the long term plan, but be tirelessly driven to deliver fantastic work for our clients while being brave enough to follow our beliefs, nurture great talent, always aspire for greatness and never settle for mediocre work. It’s as much a business plan & vision as it is a cultural manifesto that every member of the team can believe in, contribute to and drive their own future.

What strategy tip would you give SMEs?

Think like a big business in planning, but stay true to what your core values and service offering is all about. Ask yourself what makes your business the best it can be or what makes you different from competitors; and stay true to that. If that doesn’t give you a source of differentiation or advantageous competitive platform, then create one.

In addition to getting the basic building blocks of strategic planning in place, don’t forget the significant value of your employees & every single customer. Engage, motivate, empower and reward your employees while you allow them to give everything to your clients.

Thanks Gavin! 👍

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