The words ‘delighted’ and ‘thrilled’ have become something of in-joke at the StopPress offices on account of their addition to virtually every press release announcing the arrival of a staff member.
So this week, upon receiving a release from 99 containing not one but both these words in relation to the arrival of Dan Bye, we couldn’t help but laugh.
However, looking at the CV that props up Bye as he takes the director of strategy seat, it quickly becomes clear why 99 managing director Paul Manning called the new staff member the most important addition he’s likely to make to the team this year.
Bye arrives from Sydney, where he worked for some of the most recognisable agencies in the country, including M&C Saatchi, OMD and Leo Burnett.
His consistent performance across brands such as Telstra, Google, Optus and Commonwealth Bank saw him ranked as one of the top ten planners in the world by the Big Won Rankings in 2015.
All this poses the question: why leave Australia and join an agency known best for its retail work?
As it turns out, Bye is married to a New Zealander, so a hop across the ditch was always on the cards.
But it only shifted from being a possibility to a concrete plan when Bye’s former colleague, Vannessa Nicol, who joined the Clemenger Group last year to lead the Spark account, mentioned there was an opportunity at 99.
“She connected me with [Clemenger chief executive] Jim Moser and Paul Manning and we had a few chats,” says Bye.
It was during these conversations that Bye says he became drawn to 99 because of the agency’s clear purpose.
“One thing that’s always surprised me about the ad industry is how bad the industry is at applying the principles we apply to our clients’ businesses to our own businesses, in terms of having a vision and a purpose,” he says.
“The thing that really struck me about 99 was that it has a very clear vision and purpose internally, and seeing that was genuinely refreshing. I’ve had meetings with people across the team, and they’re all singing from exactly the same hymn sheet.”
This may be a valid point, but it’s still somewhat surprising that Bye would opt to work at an agency that is largely focused on retail. This is, after all, someone who worked has worked on innovative campaigns such as Clever Buoy.
“Retail is almost seen as a dirty word in advertising because it has always been considered the sales part of the business,” he says.
“But these days, the big brand dollars that don’t necessarily have to deliver a commercial value to the business are pretty much gone. Most things need to have some sort of commercial metric or outcome at the end of it. If we call that retail, just for the sake of argument, 90 percent of what the industry does now is retail.”
There certainly does seem to be a trend toward this with the marketing and sales functions coming closer together in many businesses. Just recently, this trend was addressed in Mumbrella’s incendiary report on Vodafone being the most toxic client in Australia.
One of the more interesting lines in the story came from an anonymous agency head who said: “… everyone thinks financial services and telcos are like FMCG, but they are not as organised as retailers. With retailers they know what they are doing a long time out and they tell you.”
From a strategy perspective, retailers tend to have their years lined up well in advance and generally have a big focus on measuring the effectiveness of all their marketing.
As more means of measurement have become available, marketers across every industry are becoming more interested in evidence that their marketing spend actually drives results. And Bye believes this trend will only become more pronounced as the industry continues to evolve.
He also makes the point that just because an agency is typecast as a retail specialist by industry perception, it doesn’t mean the agency is incapable of producing exciting work.
To prove his point, Bye says that M&C Saatchi was considered to be a retail agency as recently as 2013 but this didn’t stop the team from being crowned B&T’s Agency of the Year in consecutive years (99 was also the agency responsible for developing Air New Zealand's safety videos).
Bye says that retail agencies also have an added advantage of having content creation capabilities in-house.
“Retail agencies have more control and don’t need to outsource any of that to other agencies,” he says. “It makes it easier to layer other smarts on top of it instead of trying to build out those capabilities.”
This also plays into Bye’s hands from a strategic standpoint, because it gives the agency greater control of the approach the client should be taking. The point being that if fewer external players have the client’s ear, the agency is better placed to determine how to move the business forward.
Clients such as Warehouse Stationery certainly see value in centralised agency control, with the business giving 99 remit over its creative, CRM and loyalty accounts. The verdict is still out on whether this type of consolidation works in the long run, but it does seem logical to have fewer points of contact where possible.
Bye also made the point that the willingness of clients to trust agencies in this way is becoming increasingly rare outside New Zealand, with major consulting groups often taking over strategic thinking.
“One of the reasons why Kiwi agencies have been so successful is because they have unprecedented access to their clients’ businesses,” Bye says.
“In other markets that’s pretty much unheard of. You don’t get that access. It’s the Bains, McKinseys and the Boston Consulting Groups that get the access. They almost have the seat at the top floor. Those strategic decisions are made by other people and those orders are then passed down to the agency.”
Increasingly, those big consultancies are investing in creative resource as well, but Bye says New Zealand agencies' closeness to clients is a big reason for its consistently strong performances on the international awards circuit. Strategic control gives agencies the ability to do brave and innovative work that wouldn’t necessarily cross the line if key decisions were relinquished to other organisations.
“There’s much more ability for ad agencies in this market to help set the agenda,” he says. “That really sets the industry apart from other markets.”
But with this power also comes a high level of risk.
At a time when agencies are consistently accused of developing scam campaigns, Bye says that agencies need to tread carefully when it comes to selecting which projects they pursue.
“I’m a big proponent of innovating and trying new things, but it’s important to remember that in this space you’re not always going to get it right,” he says.
“Once you stick your head above the parapet and things don’t work out the way you wanted it to, you’ve got to be prepared to pull it. It might be a cliché, but you have to look at brand like Google, which is happy to withdraw something if it doesn’t work.”
He says that when client money is involved, it’s important to be up front that an innovative campaign might not be commercially viable if things don’t go according to plan. This kind of honesty, he says, is integral to maintaining the strong creative relationships that typify the New Zealand marketing landscape.
And he starts working in New Zealand for the first time, he hopes for little more than to add a little to the proud canon of work that New Zealand already boasts.
“I think people outside of these borders look at New Zealand with such high regard… and I’m really just looking forward to being a part of that and producing work that’s worthy of the New Zealand brand.”