Lessons From The First 20 Years Of Running Bonfire

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20 years since it’s conception, Bonfire Creative Intelligence is officially no longer a teenager.

So what has been learnt?

Quite a lot as it happens, but if running a business teaches you one thing: it’s how much there is still to learn.

Resilience is part of Bonfire’s make up and this year more than ever this has helped refine the future direction of the business. I’m as excited now as I was all those years ago. A bit greyer perhaps, a bit wiser too (some might say, or I’d like to think), with still so much to learn.

It’s been so enjoyable to think back over the 20 years Bonfire has been going. On the one hand it feels a lifetime ago and on the other it feels like yesterday.

I’ll share more about the first 20 years over the coming weeks but I thought I’d start with a few principles that kicked the journey off.

Seize the moment

This story is a short one as it started on Sunday November 5th 2000, I was chatting with a fellow designer Jamie Charman on ICQ (remember that? :-)). We’d been working late and got on to the subject of setting up a company and that was that.

Over the next few weeks, 2 more people were invited along on the journey (namely Jason Pearce and William Sacharov), and on the 5th January 2001 Bonfire Design was incorporated. The name came from that night of conversation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Embrace the happy accidents with a little ® and ®

Some think we called ourselves Bonfire because it is luckily an anagram of onBrief which is a central part of our messaging. It’s actually a happy accident that fell into our hands in 2006 during a much needed rebrand.

During development it was duly noted that onBrief was two words, and that in making it one word meant we could trademark it, adding it to our existing Bonfire trademark. This core message is more relevant now than it ever was as we move forward with new investment, purpose and refined proposition to launch in 2021.

Never let money be your goal

My personal mentor during my MA, John Lowe, had always maintained a very clear stance on business: never let money be your goal, focus on doing something as well as you can and be true to yourself. This has stuck with me ever since and the drivers for me were, and always will be, the core values upon which Bonfire was founded.

Community: The Bonfire community, the local community and the wider national business/creative community we’re proudly part of.

Integrity: Caring about what we do, how we do it and who we do it for.

Results: Your success is our success: measurement, validation and mutual understanding is everything.

Do what you can, when you can

I had the fortune of an extended education due to what, at the time, were grants and for that I will always be grateful.

I’ve benefited from great tutors, mentors and many professional contacts who’d supported me during my early (and later) years as a designer, creative thinker/director and business owner.

I was always conscious and appreciative that these people had given me their most precious resource, time. This appreciation is reflected in the strong educational relationships I set up at the outset, as well as the community and charitable projects Bonfire has supported and/or organise over the years. These include TEDxBedford, We are Bedford, the Bedford Film Festival and many other charities and business/creative networks.

Not forgetting our Christmas foyer displays created for the local community (like most film franchises for me the first was the best!)

Build strong foundations, play the long game

My last full-time role prior to founding Bonfire involved developing a set of studio working procedures. Getting a creative agency to follow rules, policies and procedures is hard but if you want to be taken seriously as a business you need foundations like these in place.

Of course guidelines are there to be challenged but you still need a framework to work within and push against. You should never break rules until you know and fully understand them… if it worked for Picasso…

This commitment was at times very hard to maintain with differing opinions across the business about the value of having policies but this was rewarded when Bonfire became the first agency in the UK to be accredited by the Design Association, a then new initiative by the Chartered Society of Designers.

This was followed by PQQ Ready status from the Design Business Association a couple of years later and getting RAR+ Top100 agency status in 2016, now known at The Drum Recommends. Perseverance pays off.

Celebrate the wins

It’s fair to say we’ve won and been finalists in a number of award schemes over years (in fact 3 already this year!). These are great for both the team and business confidence. There is one scheme though I’d always selfishly had my eye on from the outset – the DBA’s Design Effectiveness Awards.

Having followed the scheme since its inception, imagine the size of my grin when we picked up 2 in one year! Professional selfish dream 1 complete… times 2!

Here's to the next 20

I’ve got many more memories, reflections, lessons (good and bad!) to share but I’ll leave those for another article, which you can expect to see in the coming weeks.

So for now here’s to the Bonfire team, all our clients and suppliers, past and present, and here’s to all our local peers and the wider creative business community (stay strong people!).

Finally, here’s to 2021 and the next 20 years (let’s face it we can’t mention 2020 anymore!)

We’re all raising a glass today from our current home offices - see you down the pub for our 21st - Cheers!

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