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You can't beat Clemenger BBDO on a good day

September 16, 2014 | features

If John Key wanted to add a phrase under his newly redesigned New Zealand flag, ‘punching above our weight’ would have to be a front-runner. The classic Kiwi combination of pride and self-doubt has certainly created a penchant for the use of positive per-capita statistics, something particularly evident in the world of advertising, and, sitting down for a chat with the ‘Clemical Brothers’—Philip ‘Duster’ Andrew and Andrew Holt, executive creative director and managing director of ClemengerBBDO/Proximity in Wellington—it’s a phrase uttered regularly (nine times in just over an hour, in fact). But if you look at the 70-strong agency’s business performance, awards and consistent level of global recognition over the past few years—and combine that with the rather morbid discussions about ‘the death of the big agency model’ and Key’s now famous comments about Wellington being a dying city—then it’s probably a fair enough assessment. 

While Clemenger BBDO’s business is split 50/50 between private and public sector clients (and approximately 70/30 between Wellington and elsewhere), it is its work for NZTA over the past 12 or so years—and particularly its recent efforts—that tends to define it. As the usually acid-tongued ad blogger Mark Duffy wrote recently on Vice.com, together they have “have built a reputation for producing the best road safety PSAs in the world … The NZTA doesn’t solely rely on shock tactics. Over the last few years their ads have perfectly matched the creativity to their targeted audiences. That’s a sign of a great client/ad agency relationship, which just never happens with government accounts. Never.” 

So what’s the secret to their success? 

Rachel Prince, a principal advisor at NZTA who has been with the organisation for around 11 years and manages the advertising programme, sums it up succinctly: trust, knowledge and respect.  

“We work on campaigns as a team. It’s very two-way. They will challenge us, and we will challenge them. But there’s a great deal of respect between the two sides. And once we put that brief on the table we ask the questions that need to be asked, testing each other and pushing the boundaries.” 

In the driver’s seat 

Andrew, who has been with the agency since it was founded (see sidebar below), says “clients tend to get the work they deserve”. And for Holt, an Englishman who moved south from ColensoBBDO at the end of 2010, it’s about getting everyone around the table, locking the door and not letting anyone out until you’ve cracked the idea; about “interrogating the problem until it confesses the answer”. 

“Having clients in on that process is critical. You’ve got to be brave and open up the process to that level of cooperation and trust you’ll get a great outcome. And I think all of the work that we’re most proud of is absolutely a result of that collaboration.”

In the early days of the road safety campaign in the 1990s, the focus was on the ‘perpetrators’—and seemingly on shocking and/or guilting them into changing their behaviour. But as drink driving and speeding have declined, as seatbelt use has increased and as more attention has been drawn to the danger of fatigue and the importance of vehicle safety, Andrew says the improvements are now down to tiny increments, “so it’s getting harder”.  

As a result, more of the road safety work these days aims to target precise groups—and, in some cases, like the much-lauded ‘Ghost Chips’, praise good behaviour rather than tut-tut the bad. And, if you don’t want your audience to switch off to a preachy government message, Holt says “you’ve got to find their view of the world and their behaviour and be brave enough to reflect that”. 

Brutal honesty

This quest for honesty manifested itself recently in another noticeable trend in road safety ads of portraying what some might consider bad behaviour, like drinking and drug-taking. 

“For us to get our audience to buy into the message we have to portray a realistic situation,” Prince says. “If you gloss over it or exaggerate it too much, they switch off and say ‘that’s not for me, it’s not relevant’...  it’s not our place to judge what they’re doing. But it is our job to stop them from jumping in a car in an impaired state.” 

Entertainment and humour also go a long way when it comes to getting attention, she says, and that’s been another trend evident in some of the recent work. But this, she says, is less about a sudden change of strategy and more an example of “always looking for new ways to reach the same audience” and “keeping it fresh and surprising and not giving the audience what they expect”. And there’s certainly still room for some shock and gore. Its ‘Flying Objects’ spot featured gruesome slow-motion injuries and, as Prince points out, the latest ad, ‘Mistakes’, which throws back the ‘it’s the other drivers who make mistakes’ line at those who speed in an effort to get them to think about their own behaviour, is neither humorous nor entertaining yet struck a chord with the target audience and has clocked up close to ten million views on YouTube. 

“All the ads tell a story, and that’s key,” she says. “ … But we can’t just create work because it’s a good idea. We need to be very sure that we are creating work that will have an impact on road safety.”

Andrew thinks ‘Blazed’, the drug-affected driving ad it did with Taika Waititi and Maori Television, is a good example of that honesty, freshness and rigour in action. 

“The reason I think it resonated right across the country, even though it was a very, very tightly targeted brief, is because it was so baldly honest. New Zealand is a small place and we are a Pacific nation so everybody understood what that was about. And it was really interesting watching people’s reactions to it. They find it funny at first and then sad. And that’s exactly what we were trying to do.” 

Road warriors

Aside perhaps from the ‘Ghost Chips’ follow-up, ‘Donna Time’, the NZTA work has been remarkably consistent—and widely applauded—and Andrew says that can be put down to the institutional knowledge the core team has built up over the years. 

“There’s always four or five teams on every brief. And when we get a new creative team and put them into that business, I never expect them to crack it straight away. You need to get your head around it, and it takes quite a while just to know how to hold your tongue right and what language to use.” 

Prince says its advertising is always “evidence-based and research-driven”, but Holt says NZTA also understands the value of creativity.

“Advertising has always been plausible lies, really,” says Holt. “And you have to recognise that we’re sprinkling a bit of magic dust. It’s not just about great strategy, you need to have that leap to make great work.” 

Safety not guaranteed 

So how much credit can those responsible for the advertising take for the improvements to road safety? Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the Dog and Lemon Guide and outspoken road safety campaigner, said recently when asked about a $400,000 campaign aimed at promoting cycle safety: “Let me be perfectly clear: almost every credible study ever done has concluded that road safety ads don’t work.”

Not surprisingly, Prince disagrees. 

“Advertising is a cog in a big machine,” she says, with better roads, better vehicle technology and better enforcement obviously playing major roles. But she points to a recent study that showed that for every $1 spent on road safety advertising—without any enforcement measures—it saved the country $4 in “social costs”. 

Andrew dismisses the theory as well and says a lot of the positive changes in driver behaviour over the years are simply a result of social pressure. 

“It’s undeniable. That campaign is so heavily tested and it’s so robust that we can certainly take some credit for the way people drive on the road today compared to ten or fifteen years ago. When we started working on NZTA, or LTSA as it was known then, the average mean speed if you were categorised as a speeder was 120kmh. Now it’s under the tolerance, around 107-109kmh. That progress hasn’t been made because of engineering or car safety technology. That’s happening because of lobbying and the work we’ve done to get people to accept that there are other people on the road.” 

Andrew says the current focus is on showing the road as a network, “a social space, where it pays to behave accordingly”, something it has been drumming home with the recent ‘Drive Social’ campaign. 

“The whole technology of cars works against us in that context,” he says. “It isolates you from the road, so you don’t tend to see the people, you see the cars. But if you’re getting pissed off by someone on the road, you’d probably change the way you responded if you knew a bit about them.” 

Bleeding edge

While Andrew says similar thinking on road safety communications is emerging around the world, he believes the work the NZTA team do “is ground-breaking and world-leading”. And, judging by the number of YouTube views, awards and international media attention, he’s not alone in his assessment. 

But does that international recognition actually mean anything? It’s certainly nice to be noticed, but Prince says “the important thing is that the message is hitting home in New Zealand”. More holistically, however, she says other countries are looking at what has been achieved here in New Zealand and “wondering how they got to that point,” so it is possible that the ads could have a wider impact on road safety around the world if they are able to follow New Zealand’s lead (she says she has had a lot of requests to use ‘Mistakes’). 

From the agency’s point of view, Andrew says this recognition is also very important for recruitment, “because it’s really quite difficult to get people to come to Wellington.” When they do arrive, however, it often gets into their blood. 

“A number of people started here, worked around the world, had a few years off for bad behaviour and have come back. Brigid Alkema, our creative director, is a case in point. So, for us, it’s really important that we’re seen on the world stage so people know it’s a great agency to work at.” 

Holt says the BBDO mantra he’s always liked is ‘the work, the work, the work’. “And our take on that is doing great work, which is a prerequisite really; being great to work with; and being a great place to work. You want people to enjoy their job and stay. And if they do leave, you want them to come back. It’s a great measure of a successful agency.” 

Axis of evil?

A few years back, there was plenty of chatter in the industry when Clemenger BBDO and NZTA’s ‘Ghost Chips’ ad was largely snubbed at Axis, but ended up doing very well in other international award shows. But the agency’s at-times tense relationship with the local creative derby goes back much further than that. 

“It frustrates me that people think that was the genesis of that,” says Andrew. “We had pulled out of Axis in 2007 for the same reasons, because the show just wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t professionally run, it was a bunch of creative directors that got together and I didn’t think it was a fair show. So we didn’t believe it was delivering a result for us that was in any way relevant.” 

But recent improvements, which Clemenger BBDO has played a major role in implementing, changed that attitude. 

“It’s been a long process for Axis but it’s much, much better than it’s ever been. Last year was a really good result workwise and a really good show. I think the judging process and positioning of the international judges is about where it should be. And we’ve now got the clients invited and more involved … Put it this way, in the bad days of Axis, most of the stuff that won, you’d never seen before and you’d be struggling to find a client. But last year everything that won was for genuine clients with proper budgets.”

He says it’s not about trying to make the awards client centric, it’s about trying to make the awards more relevant to clients so they see value in their agency winning. 

“One of the great moments of my career was being up on stage with NZTA last year when they won client of the year. It was just brilliant … What our industry and marketers don’t want is for something to win an Effie that’s creatively average and likewise something to win at Axis that hasn’t worked.” 

Also working in Axis’ favour is the fact that, as Holt says, there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that more creative work is more effective, more efficient and also more fun. 

“I think that’s really exciting and it makes it a really great time to be in the agency business, because that’s becoming accepted and clients want to have that conversation about how creativity can help their business.”

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Creative capital

There are plenty of other measures of success, too, and the agency’s financial performance has never been better, says Holt, with ten percent revenue growth across its top ten clients in 2013 and 22 percent revenue growth in the past three years (Holt wouldn’t discuss specifics, but it’s thought its total revenue is somewhere between $10-15 million). In the past year, headcount has increased by 17 percent; it moved into a new office in 1 Post Office Square after its building at 8 Kent Terrace was damaged in the earthquake; it earned a swag of creative awards; and it won the Education New Zealand, Cricket World Cup, NEC and Worksafe accounts and retained the Positively Wellington Tourism business after a pitch (Assignment also works on part of that account). 

And being based in the capital certainly hasn’t stopped it from setting some pretty bold targets: to be “world famous in Wellington,” to be in the top three agencies in the country by next year, and to be in the top 25 agencies in the world by 2016. It also hopes to do more business outside of Wellington, which Holt says “is very much a market in flux.”

“Certainly the old model of large, full-service agencies is changing. You’ve still got them but increasingly there’s a ‘front of house Wellington, back of house Auckland’ arrangement. There are specialist design and digital agencies we’re competing against increasingly. But the myth that everyone’s giving up should be dismissed. It’s a changing landscape and the days of looking discretely at Wellington are probably gone. I think Auckland agencies have an eye on Wellington business, just as we don’t want to constrain ourselves to this market.”

 Andrew: “I think you’re under threat from your competitors all the time. But that issue of ‘the death of the big agency’ is why every agency has to continue to change and recreate itself. We can be a big agency or a small agency. Part of being in the same building as Proximity, Touch/Cast and OMD is that we can leverage all of those assets or we can be a boutique offering. And that’s really important. We talked about it a lot when we made the decision to move offices. Clients thought ‘look at that big building, they’re too big for us’. And what we like about where we are now, apart from being at the business end of the city, is that we’re no longer defined by the building, we’re defined by the work we do.”

Holt says it doesn’t see itself as the biggest agency in Wellington. It sees itself as the “biggest small agency”. 

“We have to think of ourselves as nimble, as able to cut our cloth as well as any of those independent, smaller players,” he says. 

And often it has to work alongside them. 

“We collaborate a lot more than we would have ten years ago,” says Andrew. “Clients want it. And it cuts across everything that advertising used to be. But it’s just part of doing business. In fact, I would say that collaboration has created a much stronger body of work for Education New Zealand.” 

Public affairs

Under National, government accounts—the long-time bread and butter of the Wellington advertising industry—aren’t as lucrative as they once were, with Holt saying a lot of the marketing expenditure has moved from high-profile social marketing expenditure to more under-the-radar campaigns. 

“Yes, spend is going down, but the more interesting challenge is the nature of that spend,” he says. “They’re increasingly looking for a private sector comms approach and that’s where we can play a really strong role.” He thinks it also goes the other way, too, because a lot of what might be described as social marketing is now often seen as good commercial practice, because the work reaches out to people or offers them something of value. 

“We’re very proud of the work we’ve done for Education New Zealand, which was a multi-language campaign to create a global brand platform for export education. We worked closely with BBDO in Shanghai and other agencies around Asia to develop that. And it’s a bit of an unsung client. It’s the fifth largest export group in New Zealand and they want to double the value of it, so we’ve been building the communications and it’s an aspiration for the sort of stuff we want to do more of.” 

Wellington the brave

If New Zealand is an advertising underdog in a global sense, then Wellington is now an advertising underdog in a national sense. It wasn’t always that way, however. The city was once renowned as the heart of the creative nation, with Colenso kicking things off, Saatchi & Saatchi gaining an international reputation and Italian restaurant Il Casino often the place where inspiration seemed to strike. But steadily, big chunks of business moved north to Auckland, government accounts shrunk and agency consolidation began. 

Similarly, Clemenger BBDO is often seen as an underdog, sitting in the shadows of its big brother Colenso BBDO. And that was even more overt in the early days. 

The Clemenger Group took a 20 percent share in Colenso in 1973 (it opened in Wellington in 1969 and added an Auckland office a few years later). And it also bought into Rialto and HKM. In the ‘90s, both agencies were struggling (Andrew, who worked at HKM, says co-founder Mike Knowles described the agency as “a skyrocket that blazed into the heavens and fell to earth as a burnt stick”), so Clemenger decided to merge the agencies with Colenso, which was now primarily focused on the Auckland market, and create a new entity in Wellington. 

Andrew tells a great story about “a horrendous meeting one day in the HKM boardroom” circa 1998 with Hilton Mackley (co-founder of Colenso and chief financial officer of the Clemenger/BBDO Network), Peter Clemenger, Peter Biggs and himself.  

Clemenger: ‘I’ll tell you what we’re going to do Duster. We’re going to merge these two agencies. Knowles is out and you and Peter Biggs are going to run it. Now, I’d like you to play God for a moment. What would you like to call the business?’

Andrew: ‘I’d like to call it Clemenger BBDO.’

Clemenger: ‘Well, you can’t have either of those names. We’re going to call it ‘The New Colenso’. ‘I can see you’re not enamoured with the name Duster. Why not?’ 

Andrew: ‘Well, I just don’t know how long it will be new for.’ 

Clemenger: ‘I believe it’s been called New Zealand for quite some time.’ 

Andrew says they were being careful not to offend Colenso with the establishment of the new Wellington agency and while it was known as the new Colenso for three years, it changed to Clemenger BBDO in the early noughties. 

From the start, Holt says Clemenger BBDO defined itself in competition with Saatchi & Saatchi. But while it’s now assumed the mantle of Wellington’s biggest agency, does it still feel like it’s in the shadows somewhat? 

“Creatively it’s been regarded as an agency renowned for quality work,” says Andrew. “It’s always punched above its weight and we’ve had plenty of international recognition. And that’s why Clemenger Group always sees it as a really important part of the portfolio alongside Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney.” 

Holt says “you have a choice of whether you live off history, or live up to it”. And that’s the motivation for Clemenger BBDO. 

“You’ve got to write the next page and make it as good as the ones that have come before.” 

A lot of agencies give back to the communities they operate in, whether through pro-bono charity work or efforts to help the local economy grow, but Andrew says Clemenger BBDO makes it a priority. In some ways, this unified sense of civic pride has been further accentuated after John Key’s comments and Holt says there’s a “groundswell of activity around telling the city’s economic development story”.

“Wellington is very much a relationship city,” says Andrew. “We live there, we’ve got 70 odd people in our agency [or around 110 when you add in Touch/Cast and OMD, which are in the same building] and it’s important to give back. And when you head into a pitch, people remember that stuff. We do it for our own profile, but we also do it because if we didn’t get involved these things wouldn’t happen, like raising funds for Christchurch with a cricket game at the Basin, helping with the ambition to make Wellington the craft beer capital of the country with the ‘Wellington in a Pint’ campaign, or wrapping our old building [in Kent Terrace] for TheLord of the Rings premieres, which we did out of our own pocket.” 

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Adapt and prosper 

Larger agencies are often criticised for sticking to tradition. But, where it isn’t dictated by the client, Andrew says it always tries to be agnostic about where the message is going to go. 

“Any agency is defined by its clients and it just so happens that the most powerful way, currently, to develop behaviour change for NZTA is by having a strong TV presence,” says Andrew. “Mistubishi is also still very heavily focused on TV work. But we always surround those stories with material in other media. And we are actually strong in digital. It’s a growing part of our business [it now makes up around 40 percent of its revenue].”

He says there is a perception that “all we do for NZTA is TV”. But he points to the online game ‘Flash Drive’, which was also a bit of a global sensation and won a heap of awards. 

“That was a purely digital piece [built by Resn] that wasn’t supported with any TV. And that’s a good example of taking our commercial discipline to the public sector. I took my kids to the Speedway recently and they were handing out a DVD of that game. And everyone who got it thought it was really cool … Education New Zealand is another good example, because it’s pretty much all digital.” 

Plus ça change

It seems almost fashionable to lambast old, antiquated TV advertising. But Holt believes “there is a back-to-the-future moment in our industry of people recognising that great content, and specifically audio visual content, is as powerful as it’s ever been”. 

 “I think what we’re seeing is the format’s changing again,” says Holt. “It’s moving beyond digital and now were looking at mobile, short form, snackable video. How do you tell those stories in 15, 10, five seconds? That’s where we’re headed. Our Positively Wellington Tourism work was seven 15-second spots, all produced in-house, and it’s amazing how much of a story you can tell in that time.” 

Holt believes there’s another important shift taking place, and agencies need to move from merely doing creative advertising to doing creative business. 

“The macro trend is that everything communicates,” he says. “So, increasingly, it’s about where you can add value. Clients are increasingly recognising that our thinking is applicable to different parts of their business. We’re working with the likes of NEC and using their technology to create new products and increasingly the kind of briefs we get from clients like Fly Buys are how can we change the programme, as opposed to how we change the communications or brand … We’ve been doing a lot of work with NZ Post on how that business transforms and how that story is told internally. It’s partly a respect thing, but partly a recognition that we can help in areas that perhaps weren’t seen as advertising agency jobs in the past.” 

So while some yearn for the good old days, the pair are wholeheartedly embracing an era of options.  

“We’re not constrained by a predetermined set of media outcomes anymore,” says Holt. “That just seems old-fashioned. Now the answer could be a product, a game, a service enhancement or a little nudge with a piece of communication.” 

And, perhaps just like Wellington on a good day, “that’s a pretty exciting place to be”.  

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