Out With The Old, In With The New: Acorn Strategy Managing Director Kate Midttun On The UAE-Based Agency's Tenth Anniversary
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“The most important lesson from 2020 has been that clients really do appreciate being guided by seasoned and experienced professionals who have their best interests at heart,” says Kate Midttun, Managing Director of UAE-based Acorn Strategy, when talking about her firm’s stance on marketing strategies. "Working together to achieve common objectives, rather than let supplier/client relationships become adversarial, is much better for everyone.”
Founded in 2010 by Australia-native Midttun, Acorn Strategy is an integrated marketing, public relations (PR), and digital communications agency that aims to help businesses gain a competitive advantage through tailored, organization-specific marketing approaches. But the underlying criteria behind a fruitful collaboration with any given firm isn’t purely driven by marketing results– it is a positive community impact that appears to be the invisible thread that binds all of Acorn Strategy’s services together. “We have the greatest impact, and drive the best results, when we work with entities that have a focus on developing community,” explains Midttun. "We are open-minded about the industries and sector of our potential clients, but only ever take on work that we feel is important to developing community, and where we know we’ll make a meaningful difference."
More than a half (60%) of Acorn Strategy’s client base consists of government entities, while another 30% belongs to the private sector, and the final 10% involves working with SMEs. With offices based in the UAE, UK, and Australia, the firm is also handling PR for the Australian pavilion in the now-postponed Expo 2020 Dubai. With its services in the UAE provided across the hospitality and leisure, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and real estate sectors, it’s clear that Acorn Strategy is eager to work with firms belonging to different industries and backgrounds.
How different, or similar, then does its approach become for each project? Creating true competitive advantage requires robust strategies that deal with different types of challenges, Midttun says. “Everything we do comes down to helping our clients grow, and for each one, this means something different, as they all have varying sets of challenges to overcome,” she explains. "A very common scenario is that a client will come to us and say, 'We know that we need to be doing more –or better– marketing and public relations, and while we’ve worked with many agencies before, we need someone to show us the way.' So, we begin with the marketing and communications strategy, clearly framing the challenges at hand and boil everything down to a succinct statement of purpose.” Once a strategic direction is agreed, Midttun adds, it’s a matter of focusing on what’s likely to help achieve the best results against objectives, by homing in on target markets, channels and key messages. "From there, the plan for the year ahead snaps into place,” she says.
The current marketing and PR landscape may often seem to be inundated with services and options to choose from. With the COVID-19 crisis having catalyzed the move towards more digital marketing and communications strategies, it is interesting to note that Midttun and her team continue to focus primarily on creating the “right impact” for the businesses they work with. “Too often, agencies become executors of client demands, rather than taking the opportunity to align and have a two-way discussion about what is going to yield the best results,” says Midttun. It is perhaps this approach that has helped Acorn Strategy, which completed 10 years of business in the UAE in November, sail through some of the slowest months of an otherwise tumultuous 2020 without any redundancies or salary cuts, while also achieving 170% of its preset targets for this year.
But it wasn’t without active attention to what consumers truly want and a focus on continuous adaptation that Acorn Strategy was able to achieve this. “The biggest change we’ve seen and implemented as a response to COVID-19 is the extension of communications from written form into more visually consumable formats,” explains Midttun. "Press releases as a written form should also be accompanied by video, static infographics are better communicated as an animation, social media requires far greater articulation using copywriters, creative and digital knowledge." Equally important to making these service modifications has been creating transparency and honest channels of communication with the end-users, says Midttun. “Where we’ve seen the most success in the market is when organizations are consistent and transparent in their messaging,” she notes. "As long as consumers are receiving frequent communications and understand what’s happening, they’re on the journey with the business owners and operators.”
When asked about how she looks back at a year that saw one of Acorn Strategy’s biggest projects getting postponed owing to Expo 2020 Dubai’s change in dates, Midttun says she remains optimistic about the event. “The decision to postpone for a year was well received, because they had strong community support and were acting with the best intentions of health, safety and collaboration,” she says. “In some ways, it’s meant that countries have more time to prepare, but of course, there’s a new set of unforeseen issues to prepare for now. We’re taking the opportunity with our clients to support their stakeholder engagement, to improve their content in the lead up to Expo 2020 Dubai.” What, then, are her biggest three takeaways from this experience? “Engage your stakeholders, even when you don’t need to, maintain clear and consistent communication, even when you don’t have all the answers, stay focused on the priorities and be open to adjusting the path.”
With over 18 years of experience across different nations under her belt, and having had a fairly successful 2020, it appears that Midttun’s expertise will hold Acorn Strategy in good stead in the future. “Using these experiences and shaping a context alongside with being a strategist, I’m constantly scenario-planning, and thinking in terms of best, worst, and middle-road outcomes,” she explains. "I’d also add that, having not come from an agency background, I believe my insistence and view on creating value for clients has meant that we’ve always naturally looked at how we’re relevant and how we evolve to meet the needs of the market."
But Midttun also remains fully aware that the key to further expansion in the MENA region, while garnering successful projects in existing locations, lies in continuously adapting to a new, ever-changing, almost volatile market. “The clue to successful adaptation in a post-COVID landscape is in our name– if there’s no strategy to implement, then how can anyone expect to succeed in restoring and growing their business?” she asks. "If we’re stuck in our ways, and don’t adapt to market conditions, then we’ll sink– that’s the same for everyone. The most dangerous phrase in the English language, at least when it comes to business, is, 'We’ve always done it this way.’ But, in conceiving and implementing strategies that work to grow our clients’ businesses, we not only remain relevant, but achieve our own growth in parallel.”