How do you keep a 90-year old company relevant in the digital age? You instil a culture of adaptability.
By Freeman Vice Chair Carrie Freeman Parsons
Unless you’re familiar with the world of B2B experiential marketing, you may not have ever heard of Freeman.
For 90 years we’ve been the company behind the curtain, designing and building some of the world’s most beautiful brand experiences. Our job is to bring our clients’ stories to life in a physical space, and many consider us to be the world leader in our industry.
But our roots are quite simple. We started out as a small family business built by my grandfather, Buck Freeman, and early on the company developed a knack for weathering adversity. During WWII the US government banned trade shows and fairs, so Buck started a new company–Freeman Contractors–to support the war effort. For the next four years, they painted barracks, hospitals, and airfields throughout the US.
My father Don S. Freeman, Jr. took over in 1977 and led the company for the next 30+ years. During his tenure, he ensured that the resiliency his father had instilled became the driving force behind our culture. Under his leadership, Freeman expanded to a national contractor, grew its global footprint, and persevered through three recessions. Don was the “architect” of the modern iteration of Freeman, and as our chairman continues to be a big part of the reason that spirit of adaptability lives on today.
I joined the family business in 1985, and since then I’ve seen Freeman acclimate to changes in the economic, political and technological climate of the industry (and the world at large). I’ve also seen us expand to every corner of the globe, welcoming new markets and cultures to our family.
So how does a company scale up and survive change without losing sight of its heritage? You make resilience part of your DNA.
Instil a culture of adaptability
In this day and age, it’s essential for companies to nurture an environment where change isn’t just accepted, it’s the norm. That ability to ‘roll with the punches,’ that my father imbued into Freeman is what allowed us to scale up and still retain our original ethos. The same principle applies to all companies, great and small.
It starts with a culture that enables adaptability. We know that things don’t get done by people in meetings or boardrooms; things get done by people who are empowered. The world’s most successful companies encourage every member of their team to feel ownership of what they do and who they are. They encourage them to make it personal.
There is tremendous value in a culture that is not only comfortable with change but actually thrives in it. It’s how successful companies meet the changing demands of the industry and the evolving needs of their clients.
Grow your capabilities around your clients
So how does an older, established company compete with high-flying tech startups? Well, you have to think like them.
A lot of tech startups are created to solve a problem for the end user. Rather than rely on technology or trends to drive our own evolution, at Freeman we’ve always made it a point to focus on our clients’ needs first. By putting them at the centre of everything we do, we’re empowering ourselves to find new ways of creating incredible experiences for them.
Naturally, technology plays a big part in that. But it’s not just about acquiring the latest toy. It’s about broadening your expertise, and in turn, improving your ability to provide your clients with the best end product. On paper, the recent forays Freeman has made into VR/AR and technology integration platforms sound cutting edge, but in reality, they better equip us to tell our clients’ stories in a more beautiful, engaging way.
Enlist the best minds in the business
Marketing as a whole is experiencing a sea change. All of our old formulas and strategies are being replaced by an entirely new suite of ideas. The beauty behind this is that we’ve opened up our industry to fresh thinking, and it is sparking exciting new directions for us and for our clients.
We recently created the Freeman Design Leadership Council for this very reason. Rather than enlist a panel of traditional marketers, we sought out a group of decidedly non-traditional thinkers. Constant self-disruption helps established companies truly unlock their full potential and stay relevant.
The only thing that shouldn’t change is your purpose
It’s not always about profits and losses. Sometimes it’s about doing the right thing–not just for our customers, but for the world that we share with them.
My father was a big believer in aligning the Freeman family values with the company values, and that ideal is still going strong today. Our higher calling has always been to connect people in meaningful ways, and we feel that putting culture first strengthens our purpose.
When your stakeholders are at the centre of everything you do–clients, partners, communities, and employees–you become better at predicting their needs. You use those insights to drive innovation, and you give them an active role in designing your future. This ensures that you not only flourish, but your stakeholders do as well.
At Freeman, we believe that in spite of our 90 years of growth, our best days are in front of us. This optimism is because of our commitment to a culture of adaptability, and the relentless pursuit of our purpose of connecting people in meaningful ways.