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Gang of four: from left, Heath Lowe, Tony Bradbourne, Michael Redwood and Rob Jack laugh at the work of competitors.

This way up

It started with one desk, three partners and no clients in late 2007. Now, as Ben Fahy discovers, Special Group has 30 clients in New Zealand, an Australian office that’s running hot and a desire to take its mix of magic, logic and decency to the world.

By Ben Fahy | June 9, 2015 | features

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of emails and phonecalls from Special Group’s creative director, co-founder and chief flag waver Tony Bradbourne helpfully alerting me to relevant angles for stories relating to his agency, or offering suggestions on ways to explain their work. 

For example, after winning the Grand Prix at the 2013 Media Awards (with Open) for Unitec: “How can one agency win across multiple different media time and time again? What’s the story? How is it possible? It can’t be right… it’s unfair… they should be banned…” Or, when asked if they would be working with the Green Party in last year’s election: “We haven’t done anything with them since our iconic, triple Gold Effie-winning, election communication redefining ‘Vote for Me’ campaign.” Or, when asked about the opening of the Australian office in the middle of last year: “Well it is just huge, huge news … unprecedented… probably befitting of a Marketing Magazine cover…”

Well played, Mr Bradbourne, well played. Your campaign has worked. 

Bradbourne’s gratuitous self-promotion has become something of a running joke between us. And while some might see it as overly-confident, few would argue that it’s been an impressive rise. It’s also quite a revealing trait that illustrates how proud he is of what the agency has achieved, how crucial building a profile has been to their success and how confident they are in their own abilities. 

In the beginning

After Bradbourne, Rob Jack and Heath Lowe cut the ribbon on Special in 2007, the agency took the brave and unusual step of running three full-page ads in the New Zealand Herald announcing its arrival and spelling out what it stood for and the type of work clients could expect. 

Its first ad, a double-sided newspaper ad for Sunsense, won an Axis Award, and it pitched and won the Volvo account in its first month. So it got off to a good start. And that form has continued. 

“We knew no-one was here to help us so we had to make it happen,” says Bradbourne. “And we had a ball. We did some great creative work and spent some late nights and weekends doing it.” 

And now he says there’s a whole catalogue of work that “goes above and beyond what categories are doing”. 

"Why couldn’t an office in Auckland or Sydney work on the global campaign for Adidas, Nike or Stella Artois? We can, we could and it would probably be, undoubtedly in my opinion, better than what they’re doing now." Tony Bradbourne.

Michael Redwood certainly took notice. He was working at Colenso BBDO when Bradbourne came in for a discussion about one of Special’s early clients, Auckland Festival. When he left, creative chairman Nick Worthington said to Redwood ‘watch out for those guys, they’re good’, which, in the world of New Zealand advertising, is basically the equivalent of being blessed by the Pope. 

“I emailed Michael a day later saying this is what we need and this is where we’re at and do you want to meet for a coffee,” says Bradbourne. “And he said, ‘thanks, but no way.’” 

About two days later, however, he wrote back and said ‘maybe’. Redwood saw the potential, he understood the vision and, after 20 odd years of being an ad guy, he wanted to learn some new skills and become a businessman. So, around 18 months after the agency kicked off, he bought a quarter share, joined as the fourth partner and moved into the tiny, near-windowless office in Kingsland.  

Going for gold

There are plenty of what you could call ‘lifestyle’ indie agencies that put out solid but unspectacular work. There are also plenty of multinationals that, as one of Special’s print ads said “spend million of dollars of their clients’ money on communications that people dislike (or at best ignore)”. And, perhaps the strangest part of this equation, there are also plenty of clients happy to buy it. But Bradbourne says Special has always had high standards. 

“We’re not here to do okay by our clients. We want to do absolute world-class thinking in New Zealand; the best we can possibly do. We want to always be slightly better than the competition, on our client’s behalf.”

Redwood believes it could probably make money a lot more easily if it did safe advertising. But that’s a short-term approach and it’s “just not in the genetics”. 

Of course, having a desire to do world-class work is a lot different than actually doing it. But Bradbourne quickly reels off a list of campaigns that he believes back its claim up: Orcon’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning ‘Iggy Pop’ campaign; the giant duck to launch MediaWorks’ channel Four; ‘The Smirnoff Night Project’ and #PurePotential campaign; Unitec’s documentary series ‘Change Starts Here’ and the follow-up ‘We make the People who make it’; and 2degrees’ ‘Play the Bridge’.  

As a result of all this work—and the concerted effort to raise its profile by entering and winning awards for it—it attracted plenty of attention, both here and overseas, and from clients and staff. And it developed a reputation as one of the region’s hottest new agencies, becoming the first independent agency to win NBR Agency of the Year and the first independent agency to dominate Axis. But that creative reputation wasn’t always a good thing in the early days. 

“We were getting meetings with clients who said ‘we love your work but we think you’re too creative for us’,” says Bradbourne. 

He felt that was an inaccurate perception and he says its early work was “really commercially mature”, pointing to the Green Party campaign and the Orcon work, which both won multiple Effies. But perception is nine tenths of the brand. And, generally speaking, the bigger an agency gets—and the bigger the clients it works with—the better its systems and processes need to be. So it worked really hard on promoting its strategic thinking and bolstering its account service capabilities.  

Redwood’s experience has certainly helped in that regard, and he’s also helped the agency navigate the often choppy seas of running a booming business (it was rated New Zealand’s 16th fastest-growing company in 2011’s Deloitte Fast 50). But whether it’s DDB, BBH, TBWA, BBDO or any other advertising acronym, he says all of the great agency brands have at least one creative partner in their name. Special has three and at its heart, it is still creatively obsessed, which was another reason he was confident about buying in. 

“As the Ad Contrarian says, ‘creative people make the ads, everyone else just makes the arrangements.’” 

Now the agency has 30 clients, including 2degrees, Red Bull, NZTE, Vodafone Warriors, AA Insurance, TSB, Smirnoff, Yealands and, most recently, one of its biggest wins, Holden. And it’s in a fairly enviable position.  

“We’ve had clients come to us because they’ve seen some of our innovative work but, if it’s been the right thing to do for their business, we’ve actually had to work quite hard to sell them a traditional advertising solution,” says Redwood. “And that still works when it’s done well.”  

On the journey 

As with any business, there are certain watershed moments that take it to the next level. Special Group has had a few of them. But winning 2degrees against the incumbent Whybin/TBWA, Colenso BBDO and similarly successful indie Barnes Catmur was one of them and sent a signal that it was now a genuine threat to the big boys. 

Malcolm Phillipps, 2degrees’ chief marketing officer, says he liked a lot of the work Special had done for other clients. And despite being known for its creativity, he says it was the strategy and planning offer that really impressed him. 

Special also has a broad and compelling range of skills, with a particular specialty in design. Not too many agencies have been able to succeed at both these disciplines and they believe ad campaigns made by agencies without a design sensibility often don’t have the aesthetic appeal or focus on user-experience, while design agencies don’t tend to communicate quite as effectively with people like great advertising can. 

“We win a lot of clients for our advertising and a lot of clients for design. They buy the story,” says Bradbourne. “They know the days of solving every marketing problem with an ad are long gone. So we can think about things like brand experience, product design, packaging design, retail experience, all the way through to an ad. Design helps because we look at the whole customer experience.” 

And with Phillipps admitting the changes to media consumption have decreased the power of TV, which it used so effectively to launch the brand, he says you need to change your approach to marketing. And, as evidenced by the ‘Play the Bridge’ campaign, which brought its new plans, its connection to Google Play and its desire to be seen as more than just a challenger brand into one idea, he says that’s something Special has been able to do. 

Creative juices

When Cannes Lions chairman Terry Savage visited New Zealand a few years back, he showed a few clips of senior clients advocating for creativity, including Diageo’s Andy Fennell, who said the company believes “you sell more at higher prices if you’re creative”. 

James Hurman explored this idea in his book, The Case For Creativity, and discussed research by Coca-Cola (and now Airbnb's) Jonathan Mildenhall that tracked the performance of Cannes Lions’ Advertiser of The Year winners like P&G, Nike, Volkswagen, Swatch and Honda during the lead-up to their success. And they all enjoyed their highest share price when they were producing their most creative work. 

Lindsey Evans, who ran the Campaign Palace, Happy Soldiers and TBWA London before becoming founding partner and chief executive of Special Group Australia, says the agency’s goal is to “remove the barriers between magic, logic and decency”. And she thinks those three things can co-exist.   

“Often you can have the magic without the logic,” she says. “[That philosophy] feels really true to what they’re doing in New Zealand and how we behave. And the same goes for clients.” 

Bradbourne believes smart clients understand this concept entirely. And he says there’s no client that wouldn’t benefit from a dose of creativity. 

“You can do exceptional work on any big brand. You just need the right people with the right attitude working on it.”  

2degrees understands its importance. Unlike its bigger competitors, Phillipps says its budget is comparatively small. So it needs its campaigns to work harder. And Bradbourne says the agency’s origins mean it knows “how to make smaller budgets do extraordinary things”. 

“The Smirnoff Instagram campaign was done on a limited budget, but it’s done great things for sales. Every year in our existence you’ll see campaigns like that. Maybe it comes down to the leanness of our structure, but our belief is that every single brief is an opportunity to do extraordinary work for a client.” 

But just because it can work with small budgets, it doesn’t mean Special classifies itself as a cheap option. 

“We’re definitely not cheaper than the big agencies,” says Redwood. 

Bradbourne: “We think we offer great value. We know what agency rate cards around town and we’re in that band, but we offer some exceptional people for a similar price to average people."

Open season 

Redwood says the lack of hierarchy allows “anyone to get access to anyone immediately, rather than having to wait a week to get a meeting with the creative director in a larger agency” and that’s an appealing part of working for and with a smaller independent agency. But that brings us to the old chestnut of the senior members of a fast growing agency not being able to maintain the connection to clients that sold them on it in the first place. With four partners, they say it can divide and conquer. A third of its business is design, so Lowe is involved in all of that. And it has a number of very capable senior team members to take up the slack, chief among them creative directors Kim Ragan and Maria Ward, general manager Hilary Cootes, strategy director Teresa Harris, who joined from US agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky last year, planning director Claire Beatson and recently recruited ex-Ogilvy staffers Angus Hennah and Sandra Daniel. 

“That’s been the story in the past couple of years in New Zealand,” says Redwood. “We’ve developed a really strong second row.” 

So what about that so-called dead zone, where indie agencies seem to blast off up to around 40 employees and then start to struggle? The New Zealand office has reached that point. But, in typically confident style, Redwood doesn’t believe size matters. 

“You just have to run it carefully.” 

Good guys finish first

Advertising doesn’t have the best of reputations in the eyes of the public. To many, it’s full of duplicitous, money-hungry shiny arses who get paid to interrupt and trick people into buying things they don’t need. But putting aside criticism of the industry they work in, the four partners are well-liked and well-respected. 

And while the competitive aspects of this industry are clear to see in the pitch process—or in the snarky comments sections of trade websites—there’s also plenty of collegiality and support, which Redwood says it has experienced plenty of in the past few years. He believes that’s because many of their peers still working in big agencies have a desire to start an agency themselves. 

"Being a businessman and being an ad guy are two different things. Dealing with all the issues of running a business and doing great work is hard." Michael Redwood

Even so, like most journeys of acceptance, respect has had to be earned and doubts overcome, says Bradbourne. 

“At the outset, everyone said ‘you’re really creative, but are you effective?’ Then we win multiple effectiveness awards. ‘But what about working with difficult clients?’ So we work with Unitec in a very difficult category and do the best work in the country and win. ‘But what about working with big clients.’ So we win 2degrees. ‘But how’s your digital’ …. There’s always a but.” 

Model behaviour

Bradbourne says he doesn’t want to slag off traditional network agencies. He says it’s not an us vs. them situation, they celebrate good work wherever it comes from and they love to see New Zealand agencies doing well on the world stage. But by default, its position is that the multinational model isn’t as good as theirs. 

“It’s a much more satisfying way to work,” he says. “This model, to us, ticks the most boxes. It creates the best break out work and the best client relationships.” 

And this, Redwood says, is partly down to having control of your own destiny. 

“You see people who have got to the top in this industry and they’re incredibly frustrated because they can’t go any further. They’ve got the weight of a network bearing down on them demanding extraction, profit and awards. They’ve got to where they are because they’re really talented but they don’t get to do what they’re good at anymore because they have an international owner.” 

Added to that, they believe having the safety net of a big global network means there is less of an appreciation for clients’ problems and less desperation to “make an impact so they will stay”. 

“Being a businessman and being an ad guy are two different things,” says Redwood. “Dealing with all the issues of running a business and doing great work is hard … It was classic when I joined Colenso from Saatchi and got some Clemenger shares and I stopped tipping taxi drivers on chits. It does cultivate a different attitude when it’s your money. And there’s no doubt your concentration is much more acute when it’s your business.”

Bradbourne, who spent three years as creative director at Generator, says he found it liberating and sharpening to have his own business. 

“It focuses everything,” he says. “It made me better and made me view the industry in a totally different way. With more responsibility comes more awareness of the fullness of what you’re trying to achieve for a client. Often when you’re in a larger agency as a creative you get the brief but you don’t get the full story before the brief; you don’t get the entire business context. And you certainly don’t get the ear of the CEO. The creative thing is just little part of it. It’s totally different when a CEO can call you on your mobile anytime, because you need to be coherent of the business situation they’re in. That’s so much different than sitting in your cubicle and saying ‘I want to win a Gold Lion’.” 

Redwood didn’t want to divulge any specific revenue or profitability figures. But he says it has grown the New Zealand business from scratch without any debt, which is quite unusual. And it has grown strongly and steadily each year since 2009.

“Billings have increased by an average of 64 percent each year, revenue has increased by an average of 67 percent each year and profit before tax has increased by an average of 58 percent each year.”

Global affairs 

It hasn’t all been beer and skittles, of course. Agency life is full of failed experiments, ups and downs and comings and goings. But Bradbourne says it never had any doubts about being able to reach its goal of “living in New Zealand and working in the world” and Redwood says it’s worked really hard on pitching—and on its entire model, from digital, to direct to strategy to presenting. So, if anything, they say their ambition and the broadness of their thinking have increased further. 

“We’re thinking how can we help New Zealand businesses go from here to their main market, Australia, or to the US and Europe,” says Bradbourne.  

And a major step on that journey was opening the Australian office, which has been substantially underwritten by the New Zealand partners, both in terms of funding and man hours. 

The traditional holding company approach is to start in the big markets and move down, which generally means New Zealand is one of the last cabs off the rank. Special is trying to flip that model upside down. And while some New Zealand agencies such as Republik, Strategy and the now STW-owned Designworks have set up Australian offices in the past, Bradbourne says his perception is that “they’ve had [an Australasian] client and they’ve tried to service it so they’ve opened a small office”. 

“But we’re prepared to relinquish a large chunk of shareholding and you need to do that to get the smartest, most talented people on board. We want a network of related agencies that we have a significant stake in [Special Group Holdings, which is owned by the four New Zealand partners, has a majority stake in Special Group Australia]. It’s quite a Kiwi thing to hold on to equity. But in a talent business, you’ve got to deal them in so they’re motivated. They need to be doing it for the right reasons and not being told to do something by anyone else or being constrained by multinational holding companies.” 

And with Evans, managing partner Cade Heyde, who was a partner at VCCP in London and ran the UK’s biggest account, O2, creative directors Dave Bowman and Matty Burton, who were multi-award-winning regional ECDs at Whybin\TBWA, and head of planning Dave Hartmann, ex planning director of BMF, it feels it has assembled an impressive team. 

So why did they all join? 

“In New Zealand [the talent and culture are] second to none,” says Evans. “So it’s a case of ‘Are they people you believe in? Are they world class talent? Are they good human beings?’ That was pretty much it. Those things all lined up. And there is no politics, no bullshit, no oversized egos. They’re just really good guys.” 

Not everyone has a stake in the business, of course. But Bradbourne says the main benefit for creatives wanting to make their mark on the industry is that “you’ll do the best work of your career because you know the agency will walk over burning coals to make sure you do”. 

Matty Burton, Lindsey Evans, Dave Bowman and Cade Heyde

Advance Australia fair

That approach seems to be working. In under a year, Special Group Australia has added ten clients, including Qantas (where it is one of the lead agencies), RM Williams, Red Bull, independent grocery chain Harris Farms, Sandhurst Foods, Mexican taqueira Guzman y Gomez, LinkedIn and taxi app Ingogo. It is tracking ahead of its goal to break even after its first year, it employs 20 staff and it’s already close to outgrowing its office, so it is planning to move into a new space that fits around 60. 

Special’s founding client in Australia was Paspaley, a well-known, high-end Australian jewellery brand. And, just as it did in New Zealand, the agency wanted to make its mark with the first campaign. So it commissioned acclaimed writer Anna Funder to pen an original short story titled ‘Everything Precious’. Given the Australian office wasn’t open at this stage, it was led by the creative team in New Zealand, but it ended up being the brand’s most successful campaign in 83 years and led to $1.3 million worth of PR. Now Penguin is planning on publishing the story independently. 

“That was quite visionary and brave,” says Redwood. “Nowhere is Paspaley or pearls mentioned [in the story]. All the associations were made around it so the author feels her integrity is untouched.” 

Plenty of multinational networks say they share resources. Colenso BBDO seems to be one of the few local ad agencies actually working on big global campaigns from New Zealand, and FCB New Zealand says its skills are regularly called upon by the global network, which isn’t surprising given the agency’s impressive recent track record. But it’s fair to say the emphasis will always be on fighting fires in the homeland.  

"Often you can have the magic without the logic. It feels really true to what they’re doing in New Zealand and how we behave. And the same goes for clients." Lindsey Evans.

But because they’re shareholders, Bradbourne says there is an incentive to support them and work on Australian business—and pitches—where appropriate. It even has a financial agreement called the ‘play pool’ where they put a certain amount of time aside to help each other. Although, as the “standing army” is in New Zealand, there hasn’t been quite as much assistance flowing in the opposite direction. 

So has the fact that the partners’ attention has been elsewhere alienated any New Zealand clients? Redwood doesn’t believe so. In fact, just as some of its staff have been working over in Australia, Redwood says some of the Australian heavy hitters have been able to bring benefits to New Zealand. Phillipps agrees and says it has had a presentation from Heyde on the creation of O2’s brilliant ‘Be More Dog’ campaign.

Friendly neighbours

While Australia and New Zealand both have stellar creative reputations and generally perform well in international advertising awards, Bradbourne says there hasn’t been much creative excitement in the Australian agency market since Droga5 and The Monkeys started up almost ten years ago. In the early days, Special entered a number of awards in Australia, largely in an effort to attract staff but also with an eye on future expansion, and it won B&T’s emerging agency of the year title in 2011. So it already had a profile there. But they say they’ve been surprised by the excitement over their arrival. And now, when pitch doctors are asked by clients to add a wildcard to the list, Bradbourne says Special is filling that role. 

All advertising is a leap of faith. But for an established brand like Qantas, which is currently going through a major turnaround and looking to cement its future brand strategy, signing up with an agency less than one year old seems like a pretty big one. So how did it happen? 

“Fundamentally, what it comes down to is talent, fit, culture and track record,” says Bradbourne. “Have they got the smartest people in the industry working on it, do they believe in the passion, and if all those boxes are ticked, that’s who you have to go for.”

Evans says Australia is still a very competitive market so it certainly didn’t just walk in. It had to prove itself. 

“All the senior partners have worked all over the world on big global brands,” she says. “Matty and Dave could be ECDs anywhere in the world. It’s not easy, but we’re all hands on and we’re all solving clients’ business problems … A lot of agencies get so big it’s hard to be agile and nimble, so they organise around departments and advertising briefs rather than problems and ideas. They’re encumbered by legacy systems and structure.” 

Bradbourne says it has tried to remove those layers and, as a result, he believes they have created a highly successful model. He says it’s also an enjoyable place to work and while the early stages were generally about looking out, or looking towards the next deadline, it has started to look in a bit more now and try to maintain the culture. 

“[In New Zealand] we all have a communal Friday lunch and sit on the steps outside [the Freeman’s Bay office].” And Redwood says they’ve even had boot camps on those same steps. 

“Being inside is a relief after that.” 

Special delivery

So can that culture be exported? Bradbourne admits it’s far beyond the four New Zealand partners. But Redwood says it looks to micronetworks like Wieden + Kennedy, Goodby Silverstein and BBH as examples of agencies that were able to retain their independence for a couple of decades, have always done great creative work and seemed to have been able to replicate their cultures in other markets. Evans adds Droga5 and, in its heyday, Naked to that list, although, as the failure of the New Zealand arm of Droga5 showed, success in other markets is certainly not a given. 

“It doesn’t matter where you’re residing,” Evans says. “If you’re not constrained by silos and individual P and Ls and if you’ve got a genuinely flexible model and allow talent to be liquid and move around, it will all come back to talent and timing. That’s what has to drive it. And I think the way New Zealand guys have set up Sydney is testament to that. You’ve got to find the best local partners and empower them so they can call it their own. That’s the main thing. I don’t think you can just open an office and put your name on the door.” 

Bradbourne and Redwood didn’t want to discuss future plans in detail, but it has had some discussions with people in other markets and the trade winds appear to be blowing them in the direction of the West Coast of the US and Europe. And, as they’ve been doing for the past seven years, they’re backing themselves. “Why couldn’t an office in Auckland or Sydney work on the global campaign for Adidas, Nike or Stella Artois? We can, we could and it would probably be, undoubtedly in my opinion, better than what they’re doing now.” 

I look forward to receiving a few more suggestions for story angles when that happens.  

This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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