Backing Kiwi creativity

Grant Difford solves problems and tells stories for a living. His creative agency Waking Giants is growing together as a team, with one eye on creativity and the other on entrepreneurship.

In 2007 Grant Difford and wife Amy arrived in New Zealand on one-way tickets, with $15,000, all their worldly possessions in a container, and a burning desire to live the dream. Eight years later they’re living it.

Grant and Amy had met while both studying for a design degree in the UK. They ended up working in the publishing industry – often for the same company. Their decision to move to the other side of the world was based on the recommendations of Grant’s sister-in-law and a friend – and ironically, when they first arrived on these shores, they competed head to head for a job with a local publishing firm. While Amy’s technical skills were outstanding, it was Grant’s ideas that secured their first Kiwi job.

Grant loved the new work environment. “I found Kiwis open to exploring new ideas and relationships more than in the hierarchy-led UK,” recalls the 35 year old.

But he also held a desire to move away from the computer screen. Solving problems and developing business were becoming his passion. After three years of learning the local ropes and actually working with company owners he was ready to start his own business.

Grant’s aim was to change the way creative companies work with clients; to form a ‘partner led’ agency “where egos were left at the door”. He wasn’t impressed with what he was seeing in the industry either – particularly when it came to work culture.

Grant had a clear idea of what a creative agency should be, so Waking Giants was born in 2011.

His observation was that Kiwis often don’t believe in themselves. “I wanted to build a brand that helped facilitate [that belief] in some small way.”

Solving problems for clients and telling better brand stories is what Waking Giants is all about, but the journey has been a progressive one. “Waking Giants was a reaction to a situation, but to be honest Auckland didn’t need another agency,” Grant explains. “It was only after two years that I saw what the future really looked like: a small, highly agile creative team that could respond to pretty much any challenge.”

Often that challenge is about brand execution, he says, which doesn’t happen overnight, but is crafted on a daily ongoing process.
Four years on, Waking Giants is successfully waking up the market. With seven staff, Grant has learnt that culture is the number one priority if you want to lead a healthy business.

“If you have the wrong people and culture then you have little chance of making a real impact for your clients,” he says. “So many times we’ve experienced people protecting their arses, rather than doing what’s right and best for their organisation and its stakeholders.

“This often means a lot of work we’ve done is undervalued and not executed well internally.”

The challenge is to get companies to break bad habits, he says. “There’s still a lot of education needed around marketing and branding in this country – that doesn’t have
to be big budget.”

Grant has learnt the value of being surrounded by good people every day. This has helped shape his style of management – one built on total transparency and a flat hierarchy. “Everybody’s equal, but everyone knows what their responsibilities are.”

Like all entrepreneurs, self-doubts rear from time to time, but he is thankful that he has the support of a ‘virtual board’ of four to five people he can trust implicitly.
“There are those moments when people are looking to me for direction, and I don’t always have the answers. But then I remind myself that I’ve only had four years’ experience in business. I’m still learning too.”

Leadership challenges
Having been part of the creative industry for many years, Grant’s conscious of burn-out – which is why he never allows his staff to work overtime. He’s aware they’re younger than him and is protective of their well-being – describing the environment at Waking Giants as a “life sanctuary”.

Grant also knows how leading a creative team takes a lot of energy; he’s been surprised by the amount of leadership skills required to run a business, but believes it’s all worth it. “I have to be lead thinker, business owner, mentor, counsellor, and so much more – which is why we’re bringing on people with natural leadership talents to share some of those responsibilities.”

Right now he’s expending a big deal of energy in pursuing one of his other passions – triathlons. His current HAG (hairy audacious goal) is to qualify next February for the Mexico World Triathlon Championships; to represent New Zealand in the sprint triathlon at his age group, and combine the trip with a family holiday (he and Amy have a two year old daughter).

Grant says he uses his triathlon training to balance his life. “If I’m having a rough day at the office I’ll head out for a run at lunchtime.” He admits that his ‘”obsession” with triathlons is all part of his need to” push the boundaries”, and regularly runs 13 to 14 kilometres before breakfast. “There’s nothing like the Auckland Domain when the sun’s coming up,” he says. “Running is my meditation.”

On the business front, Grant’s six-month goal is to build Waking Giants’ turnover to the level where he can become a full member of the Entrepreneur’s Organisation (EO) and “tap into a massive learning environment”.

This year in collaboration with Lizzi Hines, MD of Spaceworks Design Group, Grant is launching a new venture – It’s a service for retail, hospitality and office – looking after every aspect of space and brand, while connecting it all to a greater vision for culture, sales and long term prosperity. The collaberation will cover location, site feasibility, brand, interiors, marketing, sourcing and even launch events. SpaceGiants will become a unique offering and success because of its holistic and business-growth approach.

As for Waking Giants, Grant’s proud of what he’s achieved so far. “It’s important to keep checking in on ourselves to ensure we’re sticking to our purpose. We’re still babies in the Auckland creative scene, but we’ve done well to get this far.”

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