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Clemenger BBDO/Proximity: familiar name, new style

Clemenger BBDO/Proximity might be considered a traditional agency, but it’s certainly not operating that way. We caught up with the agency’s three leading lights to find out what they’ve been working on, what they think of the industry at the moment and how their NZTA campaigns manage to nail it every time.

By Holly Bagge | June 17, 2016 | features

Nestled in Post Office Square, Wellington, a historic site for strike meetings and speeches by unionists and radicals as far back as 1913, sits Clemenger BBDO. For an agency that is successful and well established, I was surprised not to spot big, block glowing letters down the side of the building spelling out its name, like I’ve seen with other agencies. In fact, I didn’t even see a sign. But, sitting down with executive creative director Brigid Alkema, managing director Livia Esterhazy and Proximity BBDO executive creative director Brett Hoskin, leaders of the 65-strong agency, it seems sometimes things don't need to be spelled out. Sometimes the work speaks for itself.

Livia Esterhazy, Brett Hoskin and Brigid Alkema

The agency has been responsible for some memorable campaigns this year. Most notably its road safety work for the New Zealand Transport Agency in ‘Thoughts’ and ‘Hello’, which used humour to relate to a hard-to-reach audience.

It seems Clemenger has found the winning formula for its NZTA approach after a string of well received (and some globally recognised) campaigns for the agency – including ‘Legends’, 'Blazed, ‘Tinnyvision’, 'Mistakes' and ‘Ghost Chips’ – and Alkema says a lot of it has to do with “empowerment and truth rather than judgement and blame”.

In relation to ‘Thoughts’, a campaign raising awareness of drug driving, Alkema says the agency’s idea came from human truths and insights. 

“The great thing about this is we interviewed a whole lot of these people that smoke marijuana, we call them sensible stoners. They aren’t who you would stereotype at all. They are around us in this office, they are probably working in government, they are intelligent people who occasionally smoke and up until a couple of years ago thought what they were doing was absolutely safe on the road.”

Alkema hesitates to use the term “flexible content” calling it “ad wank” but says it wanted to use a closed visual piece that could be reinterpreted again and again, so each time it’s seen, it’s fresh with each execution overdubbed with the voice of a different comedian.

But, she says the ads aren’t just funny for funny’s sake, they’re based on research.

“The science is tested. We don’t make things that are just funny but don’t pull through. I think the client believes in the power of creativity and knows that is the way to open the minds of people. Go through their hearts and open them in some way, whether that be in entertainment or through unease and that will change behaviour.”

Clemenger used a similar approach of repetition with ‘Hello’, a campaign drawing attention to phoning and driving, Alkema says.

“Our audience has an attention span of seven seconds, so if you look at it, it’s just repeated again and again. And if you have fun in the creating it shows through in the end result.”

Hoskin agrees, saying it almost feels like the consumer has moved on from advertising:

“So we have to [also]. We’re getting more into the world of what they want to be watching and of experiencing and sharing so you can no longer produce glossy, packaged up stories, which everyone knows is fake. You’re telling more compelling, interesting pieces which people believe more.”

Alkema says the NZTA is also great to work with. “They’re in it with us, it’s definitely one team. There’s a lot of respect, a lot of trust and a lot of great pushing and pulling each other, which is cool.”

Times are a changin’

Though the name Clemenger BBDO is well known among the larger, traditional network of agencies, these days the way it works is anything but traditional and as Hoskin asserts, you can’t just throw money at a campaign anymore and hope it works.

“It’s also bringing that reality to our clients. When you’ve got something to sell it’s kind of easier to default to what you’ve always done and just try and ignore the fact that the consumers have moved on a bit … consumers are much more savvy than that now.”

Esterhazy says one of the main challenges for the industry is keeping up with constant change and evolution.

“When we look at our clients’ businesses they are barely hanging on to the ever changing world and changing technology and the consumer landscape and that’s meant our world has had to change just as fast, if not faster to stay one step ahead of our clients,” she says.

She says the agency has gone well beyond the traditional comms creative possibilities that an agency like Clemenger would previously be known for. “We’re getting our hands dirty in quite a few different areas that many wouldn’t realise.”

She points to Wipster as an example as well as its work helping out start ups like Lightning Lab. “There’s those different inputs that you would not necessarily have gone to in the past but are now absolutely around the table with us. It’s a lot of fun.”

Esterhazy says the agency has a real variety of clients from government, to FMCG to the corporate commercial space.

A more recent win was Farrah’s Flat Breads, which became part of its lineup towards the end of last year and is the agency’s first FMCG client. “It’s exciting,” says Alkema. “Don’t fuck it up,” she says to herself, laughing.

And just this month it won the Defence Force account.

Clemenger also looks after Wellington Zoo, Fly Buys and NZ Post – a recent campaign has been launched for the later focusing on packaging, and NZ Post gained some attention for having Game of Thrones star Charles Dance in its off beat You Can ad last year. 

Better together

And this change is not only reflected in the agency’s work and clients, but also in how it functions internally, most notably in the much closer working relationship between Clemenger and Proximity.

While Hoskin says once upon a time Alkema and him would have never even talked to each other, now they share a desk.

“In our clients’ minds we had to work in separate worlds, one in digital and one in customer marketing and storytelling. But now the two have to be entwined,” he says.

“I guess it’s the way businesses operate, they want to make sure that there is data and intelligence driving what they do and consumers are wanting a relationship with brands that is useful. We do a lot of work in the data digital platform space but without great storytelling or content or creativity, those platforms and the engagement we create with consumers end up being a bit flat, to be honest.”

He says as recent as a year ago, when a brief came in it was either him or Alkema that would tackle it. “Now it’s just accepted that both ECDs need to be on this piece, it needs to be fully integrated.”

Esterhazy says the three are the perfect complementary marriage. “When someone is away we feel it. We all bring something unique to [the business].”

She describes herself as the head, Alkema as the heart and Hoskin as the machinery.

“Just don’t give Brig the chequebook,” Hoskin jokes. 

Friendly competition

Adland is becoming much more fragmented, with digital and design agencies popping up left, right and centre, taking a slice of traditional agencies’ pie. So, is the team concerned? Not really.

Alkema says an advantage of offering the whole package is that the agency can understand its clients’ business inside and out. “And no one else can do that, and it very quickly does get fragmented and you see so many examples where that brand or that business gets fragmented too and that’s confusion out there.”

Esterhazy agrees, but also says the agency doesn’t see the smaller agencies as enemies either. “We are actually friends with them now. And we can’t do it all so we collaborate with other partners. We invite specialists to come in and work within our business quite often, so everyone has their space I suppose. It’s certainly not a one-stop shop, full stop. We don’t pretend to have it all here and we do co-create.”

She says smaller businesses often say they can turn things around quicker, which she says is a false gain.

“When you know the business inside out and you have one shot to turn something around in 24 hours, you get it right. And the ability to call on a sound engineer and a film director and send them out to shoot content when they know the full context of that business, rather than a slice of that business, allows the wheels to spin,” she says.

Hoskin says the real competition isn’t from the new kids on the block or the traditional agencies, but rather from the likes of Facebook, Google, PwC and Deloitte.

“Those organisations, which were traditionally off our radar, are now coming in as business consultants and have large networks and large customer bases where they are quickly moving into the advertiser space,” he says.

“But even working with some of those people and learning their philosophies, where they fall down is where we have stayed great. [We have the] creativity and the power of connecting with human beings and telling stories. Humans inherently love creativity and telling stories. They still go to the movies and watch TV episodes. We love storytelling and we love to be captivated by stuff.”

He says these other organisations don’t have the culture, people or the history to deliver the same level of storytelling. “But we are all moving into each other’s space, so that’s a challenge, while clients are expecting everything, quicker, faster, better, cheaper.”

Mad Men days are up

It’s no secret in adland that agency life has traditionally been male dominated. At one stage, globally, only three percent of creative directors were female (it's now about 11 percent). And in New Zealand, still, you don’t see many women in top creative or executive roles in advertising, but things are moving forward. 

Clemenger BBDO is one of the few agencies in the country led by women. Alkema, a 15-year veteran of the company took up the role of executive creative director in May last year, while Esterhazy moved over from Assignment Group in March last year as managing director.

Alkema says as far as women in advertising is concerned, the industry is on an upward spiral. “Ten or 15 years ago, there were next to none,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s a woman vs a male thing. I think it’s more a diversity thing. There cannot be one type of ad person or ad leader anymore, it’s as simple as that.”

She says the industry has become aware of that.

“I think if you asked any young females entering the industry today and said ‘what do you want to be?’, they would say ‘the top’. They wouldn’t put a limit on themselves. But, I’m not saying that’s the world all over.”

Hoskin says there is a sense in Wellington that there is no boy club culture. “It’ll probably depend on the agency you’re in. But certainly here you don’t look around and think it’s a culture where women have to really push themselves to succeed.”

He says a woman’s perspective and leadership is much more relevant with the work that agencies are doing now. “Whereas once upon a time it was kind of that one-hit-wonder, Mad Men kind of environment. Whereas now clients are expecting a much more nuanced, collaborative, understanding relationship with agencies, which women might do better.”

Alkema admits it can be a difficult subject to navigate. “But put it this way. If you’re made to feel different because of your gender, then you’re working in an incredibly unhealthy environment. And it isn’t just a world of extroverts anymore, it’s the introverts and it’s opening up and allowing all those quirks to come on board.”

Real people out there come in all different shapes and sizes, she says. “And you have to be able to relate to them … And that’s the beauty of this place today, we let everyone shine, everyone brings their skillset and if you allow people in to bring their skillset and allow people to shine, you do create magic.”

Esterhazy says the talent is the main focus. “And what they bring to us and the thing that we try and address more is people’s personalities rather than their gender.” 

Working in Wellington

While Clemenger is in the capital of the country, the centre of New Zealand advertising is Auckland, where most of the other big agencies are based. But as far as the Clemenger/Proximity team is concerned, the capital city is a great place to be working from.

“Isolation has its advantages,” says Hoskin. “Because you’re not constantly looking at what other people are doing. You’re so connected now anyway. It’s not like the physical location means you’re in a cave somewhere.”

He says in the industry everyone is trying to compete and sometimes end up following others too tightly. “Because you see what the other agencies are doing so you tend to do what they’re doing because you’re in the same climate and the same industry after the same clients trying to appear attractive. Whereas we can just kind of do our own thing, which lends itself to a more creative approach. We’re not hamstrung by what the agency down the road is doing.”

“It could also be down to the fact that we can actually get to work in ten minutes,” Hoskin adds.

Esterhazy points to the talent around Wellington, saying the city is a creative hub of power. “So we can just go and chat to Taika [Waititi] and Weta Studios and Park Road Post, they’re just down the road. It is a very tight community.”

And for an agency working out of little old Wellington, it’s doing pretty well. Esterhazy says the agency was ranked 22nd in the top 100 agencies in the world. “So that’s third in New Zealand and sixth across Australasia and out of the top 100 campaigns we had two in there as well. We really punch above our weight.”

And while it sometimes seems agencies have creative wizardry up their sleeves, the 'Alkemist' at Clemenger has a far more pragmatic response to what they do at Clemenger. 

“We’re enjoying it. It’s a pretty cool ride,” Alkema says. “When a brief comes in you go, ‘How the fuck are we going to do that?’ and then you get to the end and look at what you created out of nothing. It’s insane what we do, I love it. It’s great.”

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