I joined TCO to work collaboratively as part of a newly instilled management team to elevate the quality of work, improve and develop creative processes, and help build a portfolio of clients and award-winning ideas that could stand up against the best in the world.
Our goal was to rebuild, reposition, and rebrand TCO as Australia’s leader in insight led, socially driven, content rich campaigns, however at the time the business had been primarily producing low budget content and social media campaigns (community management), and operating at a loss.
In less than a year we turned things around dramatically, going from negative growth and high staff turnover to over 65% growth – well above the norm for STW Group holdings. We achieved this by rewriting the rules about how creative agencies work and applying our innovative model – and expanded offering – to existing and new clients.
My key contributions to this success included merging strategy and creative (and often, production) into a new human centric, co-creative and holistic way of working we called “Agile Creativity.” By curating multi-disciplinary teams of full-time and freelance talent with wide ranging specialties such as art, copy, code, media, strategy, design, innovation, and even behavioural science, we were able to deliver great ideas with such velocity that our timelines were often half that of our competitors.
To make it work we had to: compel creative and strategy to join forces from go and work in this new cost efficient way, teach traditional Copywriter/Art Director teams to think less about TV and more about atypical solutions, nurture existing skills and run peer training workshops, and create a safe, fun environment where everyone felt comfortable putting any and all ideas forward for review.
Our challenger position and revamped offering reestablished the agency’s credentials, opened doors, and gave us access to briefs and opportunities, and set the agency on a trajectory towards continue future growth.
However, whilst we were getting good runs and crafting great strategy, we were constantly fighting for a lead position which often meant our ideas would either get produced by others (Optus, Kit Kat), or not at all. Additionally, in spite of our success, it soon came to light that the management team and the individual owner were not aligned on the long term vision of the business, and as such, we collectively agreed to amicably part ways.
Major highlights include:
- Re-opening the doors to Coca-Cola (TCO’s founding client over 10 years ago) and becoming their innovation lead
- A proactive pitch that put TCO on the Samsung roster of agencies
- Winning the digital and social creative work for Optus and getting on their roster of agencies
- Winning Johnson & Johnson (Johnsons Skin Care, Nicorette, Neutrogena)
- Working collaboratively with peers at a CD/ECD level on globally aligned agency brands like Nestlé (Kit Kat, Allen’s Candy, Aero, Wonka, Lifesavers, Nespresso, Uncle Toby’s etc.)
- Leveraging my experience to mentor, and get maximum value out of, interns, juniors, and mid-level talent
Major campaigns that hit market:
- Optus – “Live More Yes” (a campaign idea that originated at TCO, but was most visibly produced by lead agency M&C Saatchi)
- Kit Kat – “Break Rescue” Team (another campaign idea that originated at TCO, but was most visibly produced by globally aligned agency JWT)
- Maximus Sports Drink – “Go Big”
- Nespresso – Inissia Colours
- Uncle Tobys – Complete Rebrand, “Homegrown”
To be launched:
- Kit Kat – 2015 Campaign
- Uncle Tobys – O&G New Product Launch
- Coca-Cola – NFC Enabled Mini-Cans & Interactive Tables
- Universal Music Record Launches (Artists TBA)
- ALM Cellarbrations – App
TBWA Sydney is where I learned how to work “Australian.”
People always ask me; “What’s the biggest difference between advertising in Australia and America?” And I often joke that in America, Marketing Directors want to be famous. And in Australia, Marketing Directors want to go to the pub. Of course I am generalising, and there is nothing wrong with going to the pub. But there is a real cultural difference, and “Tall Poppy Syndrome” far too often leads to an appreciation of “average.”
This means in Australia we have to work longer and harder to sell bold, creative, award worthy work. We have to mitigate all risk, we have to all but guarantee exact results, and we usually have to do it at every level within a Client’s organisation, starting at the bottom and working our way to the top until we get final approvals.
As a Group Creative Director in the Sydney outpost of this global agency network I had many opportunities to master this process and help elevate the quality of work, inside the agency, as well as the network. I did this by sharing learnings from time spent inside US and British agency models, adapting my own methodology and personal style to better match those of my peers, and with undeniable Yankee enthusiasm and ambition.
- Working directly with Agency Founder Neil Lawrence
- Advocating for procedural change that led to our internal digital team at Tequila being involved on projects at briefing stage, rather than after the “big idea” was cracked by Above the Line creatives
- Finding and mentoring junior talent, some of whom returned years later to run the place
- Winning acces to global Sony PlayStation briefs
- Perfecting my “Strayan” language skills whilst reworking US Apple comms for the local market (Did you notice I used “whilst?”)
- Creating the Distinguished Vineyards brand for Lion/Nathan
- Working with Qantas to improve their airport kiosks and experiential design
BBH is where I formed many of the beliefs and principles that guide my approach to the work to this day.
I remember after our very first briefing my partner, Rob Baird, turned to me and said, “Wow, we’re not the smartest people in the room anymore.” (I don’t know if we ever were, but still.) At BBH we were surrounded by super smart cookies. And we loved it.
We learned to deliver ideas for brands like Reebok, Lipton, and Bolt.com that were on-brief and strategically bulletproof. And we enjoyed the unique sense of confidence that comes with knowing, or at least being pretty damn sure, that the work you’re doing is not only smart, but right.
A favourite moment that best illustrates this was when we were sharing our creative solution with a client who developed software for Palm Pilots (remember those?). The client never looked up from his phone once during our presentation, and when we were done, said “he didn’t get it.” Our MD, Cindy Gallop, told him he didn’t need to get it. All he needed to “get” was that we knew it would work – and he could either run it, or not.
That taught me to never undervalue the power of ideas. And to never work with dickheads.
Other valuable lessons I learned there include:
- Pitch creatively, but don’t pitch creative
- Strategy / Creative / Production – in that order, in equal parts
- If your process works, don’t compromise it. We had a month for each phase (yeah, those we’re the good ol’ days). If new clients needed work sooner than 3 months, we told them “good luck with your next agency.”
- Define your business’ principles and stick to them. Hegarty once told me “the decisions you make about your business when you start it will affect it forever.”
- Offer a premium product and charge a premium price
- Create fame for your clients and you create fame for yourself
- Try new things. Our CD, Ty Montague said it best: “You’re going to get a lot of chances to stand at the plate, sometimes its good to swing a different bat.
- If you’re CD likes you, then leaves and offers you a job at another killer agency, say “yes.”
- In fact, just say “yes” to everything you can. Always.
I could be wrong, but I think almost every person who has ever worked in an ad agency dreams of one day opening a shop of their own. For me that day came when, by chance, I was in a shared office space next to Jonathan Duncan, the man who was to soon become my business partner.
Jonny had just arrived from London with the idea to set up an independent outpost of Freeform where he has previously been working. In the UK Freeform has a reputation for doing great film promotion work, but in Oz, that sort of specialisation equals starvation.
To make the agency function he needed a creative partner with broader, more mainstream experience, and I was in the right place at the right time. Plus I really wanted to design our own logo and business cards.
In a few short years we established the agency in Australia from scratch and in the process created a top-tier folio of clients within FMCG, Tourism, Media and Entertainment, Alcohol, Youth, Fashion and Property with offices in Sydney and Melbourne.
We started off working as an outsource creative and production arm for many of Sydney’s emerging strategy companies like Naked, Bellamy/Hayden, Razor and more. From there we attracted project work for clients like MTV, Brown-Forman, Joico and eventually landed our first retained clients including AMF Bowling, Screen Australia and Gizmo to name a few.
We had some great times, worked with some great people and I learned a ton. But the biggest surprise for me was how much I didn’t know – about starting a business, about working with a business partner, or even about the industry I’d been working in for years.
Creative people are coddled inside most agencies. We’re told over and over, just come up with ideas and not to worry about anything else. We are given the luxury of working inside an business which doesn’t require us to fully understand how it actually works. And if you never ask, if you never find a mentor, if you always only worry about the ideas, then its possible to spend a career inside agencies as a creative without ever truly appreciating or understanding the machine you’re only a small part of.
So if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I’m gonna open my own shop one day too!” Take this advice: Learn everything you can about the business and how it works, before you do.
Setting up Freeform was a dream come true, and in the end the Sydney office was merged into Melbourne and eventually sold to AJF Partnership.
But if you look carefully, you can still see our stencilled Mexican wrestler logos spray painted on the sidewalks around Taylor Square.