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In your space: True

The advertising industry is renowned for its creative offices. And hot-to-trot independent agency True’s new space in Auckland doesn’t disappoint.

By Ben Fahy | April 1, 2016 | features

In an industry where perceptions matter, where ideas are the main currency, where momentum is crucial, and where finding and retaining staff is extremely competitive, there often seems to be a degree of one-upmanship when it comes to the offices of adland. In service of the Great Lord of Creativity, the typically relaxed, generally aesthetically pleasing, often fairly kooky physical spaces are designed to inspire creative brilliance. And that’s what the main brains behind True were aiming for with their impressive new office in Grey Lynn. 

True cut the ribbon on its business around five years ago and since then it has gone on to do some great work for the likes of Air New Zealand, Vodafone and ANZ. It has now expanded to around 40 staff, and it was bursting at the seams of its old office, so it looked for somewhere bigger close-by and found a building that had previously housed the Department of Social Welfare and Literacy Aotearoa (Mike Mizrahi’s Inside Out was also based here). 

“It definitely had that social welfare vibe at the start,” says Bruce Craig, a registered architect, self-proclaimed ‘space man’ and leader of its spatial division, True Space. “It felt like it needed some juju cleansing.” 

The office featured soul-crushing grey partitions, lowered ceilings, fluorescent lights, horrible old carpet and a tearoom. But it has now been transformed into a modern, welcoming, open plan gem. And they did most of it themselves. 

“It’s about walking the talk,” says Craig. “They’re a creative bunch so they wanted and got a lot of input. And we worked together to hold on to that True vibe.” 

And they describe that vibe as “raw—with some polished bits”. 

“A lot of creative and design agencies are quite earnest and overly sophisticated and we didn’t want that,” says co-founder and managing director Matt Dickinson. “We wanted our personalities to shine through.” 

While some claim the open plan office is a boon for collaboration and a facilitator of serendipitous encounters, others believe it’s the height of distraction and, as a recent article in The Economist stated, things have gone too far. As it said: “’Deep work’ is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem.” 

But Dickinson says it aims to have the best of both worlds. 

“Because the other building was so small, we didn’t have places away from the desks to chill out and work or escape a playlist. So we created areas like the bar, the library and another area in the creative department where they can do that. We’re already looking at more staff, and as we expand we want to avoid taking those areas away,” he says. 

There’s a perception that the ad industry tries to get as much out of their labour units as possible until they burn out and get replaced and the high turnover rates (thought to be second only to hospitality and retail) attest to that. Co-founder and executive creative director Craig Pethybridge admits it can be “a quite high pressure and sometimes high stress environment at times”, and while some seem to enjoy the drama, the late nights, the big pitches and the regular ups and downs, he says it wanted to create the most relaxed working space possible to try and counter that. 

“That’s about the break-out areas as much as it is about the aesthetic … It’s a response to how I would like to be treated. And you attract better people,” says Dickinson. 

And those good people tend to stay. 

“We have probably got one of the lowest, if not the lowest, attrition rate in the industry,” Pethybridge says boldly, potentially tempting fate. “Since we started, we’ve only had about ten or 11 people leave.” 

As there are concrete floors, it put a lot of money into the acoustics to ensure noise didn’t bounce everywhere; there’s plenty of plant life to balance all the technology; art, including a commissioned piece from the now-separated BMD, lines the walls; and Craig and True’s industrial designer Oscar Fernandez also designed a bespoke modular desking system (“it’s a beautiful piece of kit,” says Pethybridge). While they wouldn’t reveal the total budget, like any major renovation, Craig says “you think you’re saving money, but you spend a shitload more than you expect”. 

When it comes to inspiring creative thinking, the pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the ball pit. Yes, that’s right, the ball pit, which Pethybridge claims is “maybe the only one in New Zealand”. 

Dickinson says it was definitely a contentious idea, but Pethybridge got his way in the end. 

“I wanted it for the silliness of it. If you wanted to act like a kid, you could. And invariably that’s what happens. For me, it sometimes gets you thinking on a different plane. You can achieve that all kinds of different ways. We just decided to do it with blue balls.” 

Most are familiar with the images of slides, foosball tables or video game rooms in fancy modern offices that seem to scream ‘We’re hip! We’re cool! It’s fun to work here!’ And in many cases, there’s a danger of slipping into cliché. 

“It certainly wouldn’t be our thing to try and keep ahead of the game in that sense,” says Pethybridge. “It was more about just keeping it fresh and interesting and having some fun.” 

They say the ball pit is not deserted and filled with mouse droppings (yet). In fact, it gets a lot of use in the school holidays and “it’s surprising how many clients have jumped in”. 

It’s a leap of faith to invest in a new office, just as it’s a leap of faith for brands to invest in advertising. But, in both cases, the best efforts tend to get results and it’s amazing what a bit of creativity can do for morale. And there’s a fair bit of research showing that simple things like being able to see outside can improve happiness—and, ideally, productivity. 

Dickinson says six months is probably not long enough to gauge the return on investment, but the staff have certainly enjoyed the change of scene. 

“You’d hope that things improve when you go from one place to the next.” 

The new space has also been a positive signal to the market, both in terms of attracting staff and impressing clients. 

“I think people probably take us more seriously because it means we’re growing and have more resources at our fingertips,” says Dickinson. “ … We’re also getting a lot of anecdotal feedback about how it’s a really good place to work here. Even from recruitment agents. You have to be careful they’re not just trying to sell their wares. But I’ve heard it from various people in the industry so if that’s something we’re getting a reputation for then I’d be very proud of that.” 

Because it’s such a standard, non-descript ‘70s building from the outside, Dickinson says there tends to be a moment of surprise when people come up the stairs. 

“The last office was tucked away, but here they say, ‘wow, it’s big’,” he says.  

So far, a couple of clients have held planning days there. And there have also been quite a few kids’ parties. 

“Having kids in here is something we encourage,” says Pethybridge. “And that’s one of the reasons for the ball pit. They absolutely love it. It happens a lot. If a child is sick or it’s the holidays and it’s hard to find childcare, we say ‘bring them in'.” 

They’re also very pet friendly (it’s ‘bring your dog to work’ day every day, they say). And these HR policies are based much more on gut feel than on science. 

“We make up our own rules. But we don’t tend to overthink these things,” says Pethybridge. “We do what feels good.”

And Dickinson says it is working on pushing things even further. 

“And not just for the sake of being different, although that’s a good marketable outcome. But treating people in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re coming into the office every day.” 

Craig, who has redone a number of ad agencies in his time and also works on retail fit-outs and product design, says his work is all based around “what is the experience we want to create, what is the outcome we’re looking for?” And he believes more businesses are realising that if you want to reinvent your brand, you need to start from the inside. 

“There have been companies that have done the whole brand story and one of the pieces was to do an office space to reflect what that brand needs and what it looks like in the physical space,” says Craig. “When budget permits, there are more and more companies saying, ‘actually, how we treat our staff and our environment has to reflect the brand as well’. It can’t just all be external. There’s got to be a connection there.” 

Things are moving very quickly in the communications industry. And the office continues to evolve as well: they’re already starting to make a few minor adjustments to their new space in an effort to maintain the freshness. 

“It’s a little bit like getting tattoos,” says Pethybridge. “You just want to keep adding to them to keep life interesting.”

And, with the reputation the agency is developing, it’s likely to add a few more clients to the list as well. So is there an element of surprise that big campaigns like Air New Zealand’s ‘Where to Next?’ and Men in Black, or ANZ’s ‘Dream Big’ have come out of a relatively small, independent agency like True?

Vodafone Mother's Day from True Advertising on Vimeo.

“Hopefully they thought we had it in us,” says Dickinson. “I think the big brand campaign [for Air New Zealand], as an ongoing thing, has been really good for us. We were young when that started; less than four years old. And we hadn’t had the opportunity to do a big heavy-lifting strategic piece.”

He says that was a massive piece of work based on a lot of insights and plenty of executive level involvement.

“We ticked that box, if you like.” And he’s confident more clients will want True to do the same thing for them. 

So is this evidence of the classic Trojan Horse strategy in action? Get a small piece of an account (in True’s case, as the sponsorship or experiential agency, that might be outside the scope of the procurement department or an alignment), prove their worth and eventually get given some of the bigger briefs?

“I’m not sure I particularly like the Trojan Horse analogy,” says Pethybridge. “It’s not really our style.”

Dickinson: “We’re not the slippery, you've got to get down there and work the floors to work your way in. We’ve been approached. And with the airline, it grew from doing work [both Dickinson and Pethybridge had worked with Air New Zealand during their time at .99 and have done a number of the safety videos].”

Quite a few independent agencies seem to get to the level of around 40 and find it hard to take the leap to the next stage. But it can be done, often by diversifying or moving into a different market. Special Group has around 40 staff in Auckland, it has added design to its mix and it has expanded into the Australian market, where it expects to have more staff in Australia by the end of the year; Barnes Catmur brought media in-house and recently sold a stake to Dentsu Aegis; and Shine used its skills to expand into areas outside of advertising and now has a thriving hospitality arm.

So does True want to take that leap? Are they, ahem, ‘Dreaming Big’?

“Not necessarily, no,” says Dickinson. “We’re happy around this size, give or take a few people, depending on what business comes through your door."

"Personally, I didn’t think we’d be at this size at this point. I don’t think I looked that far. But I’m delighted that we are,” says Pethybridge.

But it is certainly looking to diversify and use its skills to create its own products, something ad agencies generally aren't very good at, for a variety of reasons

“That’s definitely happening,” says Pethybridge. “There are quite a few projects that we’re going to take to market that will come out in various stages this year.”

Among them is a flexible, modular “domestic horticultural product that will change the way your average gardener approaches gardening”.

“It complements both your backyard gardener and your high density apartment dweller,” says Pethybridge.  

And the ability to check in via your phone—or, as he says, "smart gardening"—will come in the future.

“It means you will be able to go on holiday and not just water your plants but keep them on nutrients.”

Another really simple idea that’s pretty close to manufacturing is a product called Barkitecture, a screwless, flatpack designer dog kennel that was created by Craig and Fernandez.

While it is technically transportable and easy to assemble, the most important attribute is that it looks good.

“The big thing is dog kennels look like shit,” says Craig. “So many of them are these horrible big brown and green plastic things.”

So it’s aimed at the aesthetically-minded Grey Lynn dog-owning community then?

“And Ponsonby,” Craig laughs.

Designer dog kennels aside, the core of its business is still good old fashioned advertising and strategy. And while it didn’t want to divulge any specific numbers, Dickinson says it has increased revenue and profit significantly in the last year. The growth has been steady and the phone is still ringing.

Recently, a big client that it can’t name yet came to the agency and said it had received some fairly traditional responses to a brief.

Dickinson: “They said ‘we know what you guys can do, have a crack at it yourselves.’ So we went back with 5 or 6 ideas, we had hardly any time to spend on it, and they were suitably scared and impressed and one of those got over the line. That all happened in the last year, and we have about four others on the table as well.”

At a time when many of the bigger agencies are under pressure from global tech players, nimble specialists and continuing convergence, True has faith in its model and its talent, although Pethybridge say it’s not better than the big agencies, it’s just different.

“I feel like we’re all in the same boat. Advertising feels like it’s being done at a different pace these days,” says Pethybridge. “As I’m going round talking to different people, agencies big and small, and everyone is feeling the same things.”

He says being independent helps you tackle those problems in your own way, rather than toe the group line. And, as it doesn’t need to ask anyone for permission, it can tackle them quite quickly and be more responsiveness.

“We’ve deliberately diversified our offering, and we’ve got a lot of people in specialist roles and that helps a lot,” says Pethybridge. “You don’t always get the same revenue streams presented to you.”

While the agency does pitch, “we’ll pitch in our own way”. And while it does enter awards, Pethybridge has some reservations about the industry’s unhealthy focus on them.

“There’s been a lot of chat around awards recently. It finally seems like the industry has woken up to itself. We’re not anti-awards, we’re just anti the way they’re seen as everything in our business when they’re not. They’re a really nice outcome and it’s nice to be rewarded for good work. But they shouldn’t be the absolute objective and the reason why work is made.”

Pethybridge judged the AWARD and AXIS shows recently and he says he was “really encouraged and inspired”.

“There were a couple of pieces that may have been a little self-serving. There used to be some really obvious scammy stuff out there and I’d even hesitate to call it scam now. But there’s some fantastic work and it all looked like it was genuinely there to do a job for the client, which is fantastic. I’ve been guilty of thinking awards were a lot more the other way in the past and I’d quite happily can confirm that it doesn’t seem to be the case.

“I like celebrating creativity as much as the next guy but I keep reminding the people here that we’re here for the client, we’re here to do a job for them, we’re here to meet their targets and if we can do bloody awesome work along the way, all good.”

And it’s taking steps to ensure that work will be slightly different to what it does now by investing in production and digital.

“We’ve got three guys who can shoot, and edit and do motion graphics and we just got a new producer on board who can also direct,” says Dickinson. “He’s brilliant. So we’re just rounding out that content piece. We’ve also just hired a planner who has a background in data so we can have those conversations with the Googles and Facebooks.”

As the marketing world continues in this digital direction, Dickinson says it’s important that the agency understands that realm well. But could it go too far? Do they see a time when those discussions with the Googles and Facebooks will be led by clients, potentially negating the need for a creative or media agency?

“I think media agencies are the ones who are getting cut out, because clients are going direct to those guys,” says Dickinson. “But you’re always going to need creativity—and creativity that is independent of those third party media organisations—to help clients get the best independent advice. At the end of the day, our success is based on their success.”

And by landing a couple of the opportunities it’s currently got on the table, formalising its content offer and improving its creative product even further, it’s confident that mutual success will continue. 

A version of this story originally appeared on Idealog

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