The Long Read: Anthony Collins

Anthony Collins is the new Design Director at Zoopla. As he starts this new chapter he reflects on his experience of working collaboratively with us in his previous role at Auto Trader.
Rob Coke
Rob Coke
Founding Partner

What’s been your role at Auto Trader, and how did you get there?

I’m the outgoing Design Director at Auto Trader UK, and I’ve had the pleasure of leading product design across the company for close to a decade. My focus has primarily been on designing products and services for consumer and retail customers. I started out as one of the first in-house UX designers and I’ve been lucky enough to have opportunities to progress my career which led me to a leadership role.

Sounds like an impressive rise through the ranks. So, what kind of work do you and your team make day to day?

The product design teams at Auto Trader are involved in discovering, delivering and optimising products and services for consumers and retail customers. This can be research tasks, journey mapping, user testing, building design systems or writing copy. There’s a broad variety of skills, with Product Designers, User Researchers and Content Strategists working in multiple cross-functional product teams.

What do you not have in terms of skill set? How do you know when you need to bring a partner in?

Even though our teams have a broad range of specialisms there are some disciplines we just don’t need all the time. As an example, we don’t have a team dedicated to brand design work. There’s no role for a classic Creative Director, as there just isn’t enough ongoing work to keep that person occupied.

We have a solid team of visual designers translating our brand design and direction into our products. They’re focused on not only injecting the brand design into our site, apps and design systems, but also making sure the design direction is usable, colours are accessible and that, as we evolve, our brand execution in the product experience is improving. And they’re always keeping an eye on key metrics we’re measured by as a business.

So when we recognise we need to bring in a skill we don’t hold in the core team, we’ll go to one of our trusted partners.

Our recent brand evolution for Auto Trader

It sounds like a good approach. What are the advantages of working like this? And the main watch-outs?

Working with an external agency helps to bring a fresh perspective to work where the internal team might be stuck, or haven’t got time to give it the amount of focus it needs to be done well.

I think the key is it needs to feel like one team. In the past I’ve worked with agencies who work a little ‘over the fence’. This way of operating has always fallen short because of the level of understanding needed in some highly complex and nuanced products. When you get a team that wants to become an extension of your team and truly understand what a good outcome looks like the results are inevitably better.

With that in mind, you’ve worked with Output on and off for the past few years. What do you like about working with us, and why did you come back to us?

When we were looking for a brand partner to come in with us at Auto Trader, one of the things that Output did better than anyone else was to ask the right questions and form an understanding of how we operated. Because of that effort up front Output could define a way to work within the business, essentially becoming an extension on the Auto Trader team.

How did that work, practically?

Output and the AT teams worked to the same cadence, sharing office spaces, sharing ideas and feedback early and often. There were no big ‘ta-da’ moments, just everyone working together towards the desired outcome.

Working with an external agency helps to bring a fresh perspective to work where the internal team might be stuck.”

From a technical point of view, how important is it for a brand agency to understand your digital platforms and the way you need to work?

It’s absolutely critical. If there’s a disconnect between the agency and client around the real outcome of the work and the potential risks involved in its execution, then you’ll inevitably end up with a train-wreck.

Brand work is tricky when you’re working on platforms as highly optimised and nuanced as Auto Trader. There are many areas within the digital experiences where colour, contrast and affordances are leveraged to drive conversion. It’s critical that an agency understands the depth of impact some changes could potentially bring about.

And, do you think it’s important to use shared tools and software?

It’s really helpful to be able to share work between the teams. So, yeah, using the same set of tools and software is useful in the ease in which individuals can pick up others’ work and run with it.

What about your team – how did they feel about working with external brand partners?

I think most people were excited. Being able to attack the brand design is something that can often go without focus for too long when you’re working on sites with the scale and complexity of Auto Trader. So when the team hear we’re going to give it the right amount of attention, they’re going to be involved and working with a team they respect and enjoy working with, it’s met with a lot of enthusiasm.

What do you think they get out of it?

After any work that focuses on the brand there’s always a bigger job to do – delivering that into the wild. This is where it’s all on Auto Trader to deliver. What the team has always carried over is the energy from the initial sprints. They feel an ownership and passion for the work, because they’ve been a part of its creation.

One of the things that Output did better than anyone else was to ask the right questions and form an understanding of how we operated.”

Thinking more about the specifics, how collaborative should the process be when working with agencies? Is it better if they go away and work on their own, or is co-working and embedding important?

My experience suggests a combination of co-working and time to focus separately works best. Giving an agency the time and space to go away and form ideas that potentially challenge what an internal team might consider immovable is really important. You don’t want to hamstring an agency’s breadth of thinking by imposing too many rules up front, or shutting down ideas that may have been considered before. Better outcomes tend to come when thinking is refined later rather than restricted upfront.

Does your team feel invested in the work we produce together? How do you ensure they feel part of it?

Yes, they feel like the work is as much theirs as the agency’s. It’s important to set this up from the beginning. A good kick-off session is key to getting everyone focused on the right problems and outcomes from day one. Everyone has an understanding of the way the work will happen and how they can get involved and add value.

Showcasing and critiquing the work helps to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. If someone sees a potential issue or opportunity they’ll walk out of the session being the one that’s been tasked with solving it. Everyone has skin in the game, and a huge sense of pride in the work because of their involvement throughout the process.

Do you think they’ve learned from the process?

Well, their eyes have been opened to a broader design toolkit and processes that they don’t necessarily need in their day-to-day roles but have definitely found value in.

What have you got out of doing it? What’s been the main benefit to you and your team?

We now have a much more contemporary brand design that’s now being pulled into a design system and delivered across our products and services used by millions of car buyers and sellers. We wouldn’t have got the quality of work in the short timeframe if we didn’t bring in Output to assist.

Everyone has skin in the game, and a huge sense of pride in the work because of their involvement throughout the process.”

If someone was thinking of working with a brand partner, what advice would you give them?

It really depends on the individual needs of the company, but I’d say in general you want to find an agency you can form a long-term relationship with, so you can learn together. Brands are complex and understanding how to evolve them in a way that works for all areas of a business takes time. In my experience, it’s an iterative process, not a one-off project.

What sort of questions should they be asking a potential agency?

Ask questions about their values, how they like to work and check it fits to the way you do. Ask for case studies that focus on business outcomes and how they helped that business achieve them. This tells you a lot more than what trophies are in the cabinet in the reception.

Did you need to make a case to the business to do this work? How did you go about that?

There was recognition in the company that we needed to “refocus and refresh” the brand design. There were obvious areas where the current brand design wasn’t working and there were elements that were starting to feel tired and overused.

Making the case was fairly straightforward because there was also a recognition that we don’t need a function internally that focuses on brand design full time. And, to get this work done we needed to bring in external help.

Finally, how do you justify the expense of working with external partners? And how do you measure the impact of it?

For Auto Trader the economics favour working with an external partner over retaining a brand design team internally on a full-time basis. We work with external partners who provide a wide range of services, all are needed but none are needed as a permanent function.

To measure the impact of the work we put the design in front of users as early and as often as we could. This was a mix of people coming into the office and running tests and surveys remotely.  We also did split A/B testing on some of the more critical changes we were proposing. It’s great to hear people say how great the new design looks but it’s also exciting to see it have a real impact when it’s live and helping drive more value to our customers.

The Long Read is a new feature exploring the benefits of collaborative working and celebrating the clients that make it possible. Look out for more interviews coming soon.


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