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.”