Q&A with Jack Amies, managing director at The Place Agency

Jack Amies.

We’d love to learn more about how your interest in placemaking and retail marketing began. Can you talk us through your personal and professional journey to where you are now?

My family has been in the retail industry my whole life, so I’ve grown up around it, which naturally spurred my interest.

My Dad owned a chain of retail stores in North Queensland with my Aunty and Uncle, which was where I got my first experience in the industry. It was called ‘The Drunken Goat’, selling everything from beer and sports team merchandise, such as t-shirts and bar runners, to Borat mankinis and party gifts!

“The Goat” was a much-loved institution in the North growing up, and I spent most of my school holidays working in the stores. But over time, trends changed, and they were eventually pushed out of the shopping centres by the national franchises, who could pay more rent.

It certainly gave me an appreciation of the challenges retailers faced, seeing it firsthand, and I guess I’ve been motivated to help them succeed ever since.

After leaving school, I spent time studying and then in the property and construction industry, but I always wanted to come back into this sector.

After some chance meetings with like-minded individuals whose passions aligned with mine, the chance to set up a business came up and here we are nearly ten years later.


You founded The Place Agency with a vision to help high streets, commercial precincts, public realm, and retail destinations thrive and connect with their ideal customer base. How has that vision changed over the last eight years?

This is cliché, but I honestly, hand on heart, can say our vision hasn’t changed.

We started out working on our local high streets and mixed-use retail precincts to help them in competition with the bigger shopping centres. And ten years later, we are still doing just that.

However, how we deliver those services with a clear focus on creating a holistic service experience that sits across both physical and digital channels has changed.

Previously, we couldn’t compete with the more prominent retail players on a digital scale, so our focus was solely on the in-store experience. Today the playing field is well and truly level.

Our team provide services from initial strategy through execution and ongoing management, so we’ve really developed into a full-service agency, which I’m proud of. We’ve also expanded into Sydney with several great projects and precincts we now manage up there, which has been a significant endeavour in itself.

But at our core, we still help businesses and property companies elevate their retail experience, and I’m not sure that will ever change.


As consumers increasingly buy online, how can we support businesses in the retail sector and facilitate the meaningful evolution of retail? What are some of the changing customer experience requirements to win business and remain relevant?

I say this to many people, but consumers can help by getting out of their comfort zones.

We are creatures of habit and love easy routine and familiarity. Going to the same stores, parking in the same spots, and purchasing from the same brands is comfortable for us.

In many ways, this is a legacy from the monopoly market the big brands, and shopping centres have had for on us for over a decade now. They are incredibly good at making the routine as easy as possible to maintain and likely reward you for it as well.

But times are changing. The smaller players, boutique brands and quirky hospitality businesses are coming back in a big way. The new world of accessible online business creates opportunities for many more bespoke brands to provide products and services feasibly. And COVID forced people to try new things and break long-formed habits.

Therefore, this creates renewed competition, which is great for us as consumers.

And for the first time in a long time, it’s less about the smaller brands needing to innovate or pivot; instead, it’s the more prominent players who are radically changing how they operate to stay viable or retain market share. Whether that be David Jones’s ill-fated play into F&B or Ikea recently opening its “Planning Studio” offering.

So, I think our role as consumers is to enjoy the ride but, of course, to shop around, get out of our comfort zones and explore the tidal wave of fun and exciting new offerings coming our way.


How does placemaking factor into this? Can you define placemaking in 10 words or less?

To be brutally honest, placemaking as a term has reached a point of proliferation. Its definition is now washed across three or four different disciplines, and its original purpose, in my opinion, has been significantly devalued and confused.

But for the point of delivering an answer, I’ll use it in terms of designing great public places.

Placemaking is crucial in creating a place experience that promotes foot traffic, increases customer sentiment, and builds community, allowing people to spend longer in our retail precincts and public spaces.

The challenge has always been that shopping centres have been doing this incredibly well over the last decade. Centres such as Rouse Hill in Sydney’s Hill’s Shire district are designed to feel more like a community civic centre rather than a privately owned shopping centre.

This quality placemaking, such as great public open space, public amenities such as furniture, water fountains and dog-friendly areas, as well as a consistent calendar of activations and events for the local community, promotes a level of customer engagement that builds place stickiness, which in turn helps build economic resilience.

Which raises the big ugly challenge behind placemaking.

You need bucketloads of money.

Placemaking on a budget, as hard as we try, just doesn’t cut it.

Which is where our main street precincts fall down. They don’t have the financial structures in place to be able to fund and facilitate the level of placemaking required to match it with the big guys. And whilst our local councils are slowly stepping up (some more than others), the fundamental issue remains that new models should be explored to allow precincts to compete within this space.

Some interesting concepts on the horizon address this, however.

Australia is poised to have its first BID (Business Improvement District) encompassing prime Sydney locations such as Barangaroo, Walsh Bay, Darling Harbour and Pyrmont. The idea is that businesses within this district would pay a levy, with the funds supporting placemaking, marketing and infrastructure improvement initiatives which would return benefits to the investing businesses.

If it works – it could be a game-changer for local retail precincts.


Can you please give an example of placemaking activities that may help a place define its identity and strengthen its position in a highly competitive market?

This isn’t very objective, but I am loving what the City of Melbourne is currently delivering to help reactivate retail precincts across the city and in places such as Docklands and Carlton. It provides a fantastic platform for up-and-coming brands and businesses to get into what is traditionally an incredibly competitive marketplace.

Essentially it provides a service that businesses can apply to occupy vacant retail space for short-term pop-ups or activations. The City provides funding to help the business fit out the space and supports it through ongoing marketing and communications support.

It kills two birds, so to speak.

On the one hand, it helps fill vacancies in the city and improve the place experience for visitors. And two, it connects with hundreds of brands and businesses that may have never otherwise engaged with the city, creating a network that can be considered for future retail planning.

Good concept and delivered exceptionally by team Place Agency!

The Place Agency's award winning Metro Tunnel Creative Program.
Working with Lendlease, The Place Agency developed a place activation strategy to help launch Melbourne Quarter as Docklands new workplace of choice.

Change pushes us to rethink, evolve and grow. How does The Place Agency deal with this challenge day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year?

Our ability to provide real value as an agency to clients is based on us doing everything we can to stay on the trend curve. If we fall off, we might as well not be in business, as our clients rely on us to provide them with industry-leading advice and services.

It means I need to push my team to be constantly curious and explore market moves and changes frequently.

This manifests itself in our bi-weekly “Something Cool I Saw” meeting. It prompts the team to share things that may be helpful to our broader team. It might be a report they received on a project detailing unique insights, or a unique campaign, retail initiative or activation they’ve come across in their research.

These meetings and sharing of intelligence are vital to ensure our team is proactively searching for new ideas and initiatives to help us grow.

Outside of that, we make a genuine effort to talk to our retailers every day. Anyone who manages retailers knows that conversations with traders can sometimes go a little haywire from time to time. However, our team is incredible at deciphering the issues and identifying hot buttons for which we can work to develop solutions.

It is cliché, but engagement is crucial to growth.


What do you think people most commonly misunderstand about the changing nature of retail and the impact it’s having on major cities?

There are three critical factors at play currently with retail in our major cities.

One is an across-the-board shrinking of retail footprint demand. Brands want smaller, premium spaces with a more manageable footprint. The days of large-format stores, which require substantial staffing loads to manage and maintain, are very much behind us.

Importantly, brands also want space quality, and when you walk around our CBDs, the quality of retail spaces, well, it could be better. That lack of product is putting stress on the market and forcing our better retailers to look elsewhere (fringe and suburbs) for space.

The second aspect is that the city is missing, on average, 50% of its workforce.

This means the local economy built on servicing that demographic, including coffee shops, lunch spots, take-and-go food offerings, and service businesses, will start to shift, which has already begun. The challenge moving forward, however, is that replacing these businesses with other retail isn’t necessarily the solution either.

So, there is a real challenge to rethink how our cities operate long-term, and it needs to go much deeper than just superficial changes.

And finally, our working holiday visas are down somewhere between 65-80% from pre-COVID, leading to substantial staff shortages.

I initially believed this would be a short-term issue, but we may be in this predicament for some time, maybe years.

Without staffing certainty, businesses can’t pivot quickly, which creates innovation lag. And in a market that has moved so far in such a short period, we desperately need our retail businesses to be agile to survive. For me, this is the biggest issue facing the sector in the short term.


Is there such a thing as ‘the new normal’, or do you prefer to think about ‘the next normal’? What is that, is your eyes?

I’m probably like most people and feel like I talk about this topic way too much. And to be honest, my answer has changed over the past twelve months, given my changing perspective on things.

If you boil the “new normal” down, it is just that people aren’t coming into the office daily.

This is not insignificant, but I think many of the other concerns or assumptions people made in the early days of post-COVID have not eventuated. Most areas impacted by COVID-related stresses have stabilised. What does remain, though, is this issue of the CBD population and the subsequently fractured workforce.

With that in mind, and wearing my CBD hat, I feel strongly that we must rethink how our city precincts operate.

A world-class city like Melbourne or Sydney needs gears and a precinct structure that appeals to different needs and customer segments. The one shoe fits all approach (which never worked anyway, see Docklands) needs to be thrown out the window.

If you look at the best major cities around the world, they have precincts dedicated to a particular service or offer; think Soho or Lower East Side in New York or West End and Oxford Circus in London; these areas are known for something unique and are explicitly planned as a response to that. This structure helps build economic resilience by supporting customers, which in turn supports business.

Ultimately the three days a week in the office is here to stay long term, love it or loathe it, so the CBD must flex hard to meet this new parameter. Excitingly though, this offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink how our city presents, and I’m excited to see the response.


Is it really necessary to blend physical and online channels to engage consumers in the channel of their choosing?

We have focused a lot on this area over the last 3-4 years. It is vital for any retail or service-based business to align its physical and digital footprints and provide a holistic value offer to customers across both channels.

One of the most significant changes I witnessed early in our business was the speed at which national brands were advancing their digital and online footprints. They did this out of necessity as the early adopters in the market were killing their market share (see Surfstitch, ASOS etc.).

What this did, however, was put miles of space between them and their smaller business competitors, which ultimately and unfortunately killed a lot of unique brands off.

Pleasingly, however, over the past three years, we have seen a clawback and resurgence of the smaller boutique brand, primarily due to their ability to trade competitively online. With platforms such as Shopify, Mailchimp and others providing a turn-key and accessible solution for operators, the market share is changing quickly again.

Today, we are seeing major department stores such as Myer, amongst others, experiencing sustained drops in sales revenue, partly due to hundreds of smaller competitor brands popping up online. This increase is flowing into our high streets as a more stable retail environment is pushing these “digitally savvy” brands to pop up in more significant numbers.


What is the last book or article you read and loved on this topic? Where do you go to for ideas?

Slightly unusual, but the last book I read in this sphere was about a Mayor in Charleston, South Carolina, Joe Riley.

I was fortunate enough to spend time with him in Detroit in 2016, and I was just fascinated by him, and many of the principles he lived by as a leader impacted me significantly.

His book is duly titled “The Mayor”. It describes his leadership while transforming Charleston from a sleepy Southern town devastated by civil war into one of the most vibrant, fastest-growing cities in the US – and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

In that vein, I generally look overseas for my inspiration. I travel a lot and am always fascinated by different cultures and, notably, how they market and sell. I tend to gravitate towards places in some form of recovery mode, as that is where you generally see the best innovation.

Locations like Detroit in the US are fascinating economic recovery and development case studies, and having amazing, innovative businesses doing really cool things.

Jack Amies.