It was an offer too good to refuse and after just six months in operation, indie agency Josh & Jamie have made their first creative signing: the entire Assignment Group staff roster. Or, slightly more accurately, J&J founders Josh Lancaster and Jamie Hitchcock will soon be nestling into the nurturing bosom of Assignment Group.
And rumour has it that Martin Yeoman, currently the planning director at Publicis Mojo, is to join them.
Lancaster and Hitchcock, who say the main Assignment brains (and past Saatchi & Saatchi main brains) Kim Thorp, James Hall, Howard Grieve and Peter Cullinane are about as close as you can get to advertising heroes in New Zealand, say it's a huge honour to be approached.
"These are the guys that originally inspired us to get into advertising," Lancaster says.
Assignment Group are notoriously secretive and refused to comment. "No comment," said Peter Cullinane, over the bubbling sound of his super-yacht jacuzzi. Asked if he was expecting to replicate the enormity, in both staff numbers and awards, of the old Saatchi's Wellington office, Cullinane croaked wryly and said "not likely" and then hung up whilst reaching for the smoked Alaskan salmon.
Meanwhile, the more verbose pair of Josh&Jamie were happy to spill the beans. Selling out to a larger agency was something the pair had envisaged, but it was on the distant horizon, "far beyond the curvature of the earth".
"To be honest, we thought we'd be in this for five to ten years," he says.
They never imagined it would happen just six months after setting up shop. But, as Lancaster says, some opportunities come up when you least expect them and this one was just too good to turn down.
Lancaster says they worked with Assignment Group, which is owned by STW Group, on the 40 Hour famine earlier this year, so it was a good test-drive for both parties. They have been in discussions about a deal for a couple of months now and while he says growing the indie from scratch has been enormously satisfying, "like ordering an entrée in America and finding out that entrée actually means main course over there", the pair had no reason to refuse.
"We're not going into this blind by any means. And it's not been a decision we've taken lightly."
He says the goal was never really to sell, but just to keep doing the sort of work they were good at doing. And that work, much of which has an unashamedly New Zealand bent, has managed to attract a host of clients looking for that explicitly Kiwi approach since the agency's inception.
"I think New Zealanders have a certain unique and awkward way about them and they like to be spoken to in that tone of voice, like Rhys Darby and the 2degrees ads. It's a tone of voice that I don't know travels very well, but it really strikes a chord here."
He says the chaps behind "semi-indie" Assignment Group, which has clients like Hyundai, Whittaker's, Telstra Clear, new addition Griffins and also Antipodes water (which it actually created), are renowned as New Zealand storytellers, so perhaps this acquisition is something of a passing of the torch. Certainly, with an opportunity like this, Lancaster hopes he and Hitchcock might be able to become the next generation of New Zealand storytellers.
"Those guys are in their end years, and we see them as being New Zealand storytellers. And the work they've been responsible for over the years is a lot more long-lasting than the flash in the pan stuff you see today. We'd like to be remembered for the stuff that people remember years after it's left the TV stations. We'd like to think that's the goal. And if we can do half of what those guys have achieved, we'll be happy."
The new incarnation of Josh & Jamie–initially tabled as JOSH&JAMIE&PETER&KIM&H&JAMES&JOHN&CHRIS&MARTIN&REALLYGOODSUITS—will officially be known as Assignment Group and the pair, along with "super suit" Jo Weallens, will move to Assignment's Shortland St offices on August 16.
"JOSH&JAMIE&PETER&KIM&H&JAMES&JOHN&CHRIS&MARTIN&REALLYGOODSUITS was a bit long and didn’t have enough names beginning with the letter ‘J’, so the decision was pretty easy," says Hitchcock.
And Lancaster: "We're still going to be Josh & Jamie, we're just being called Assignment Group. All our clients [3 Wise Men, Premiere Beehive, SBS Bank, Dairy NZ and recently won stuff.co.nz] are happy and excited [and he says there will also be some more announcements soon]. The only downside is losing the name on the door. But that's totally outweighed by the potential of what's going to happen."
Although reluctant to discuss specific financial details, a guy at the Grey Lynn TAB indicates the deal is in the vicinity of $100 million over five years, plus a year’s supply of Antipodes water and a big bar of Whittaker’s Dark Almond chocolate. But seriously, Assignment doesn't speak to the media (or enter any awards) and Lancaster wouldn't give anything away as to any sums that were handed over. It's safe to assume the TAB guy is a very reliable source, however. So drinks at the Grey Lynn bunker are on them.
"As an agency, they're less than 10 people over there. So they're still going to be a small agency. It's definitely not a big agency and it certainly doesn't subscribe to big agency thinking. There's a very different approach to relationships with clients."
And like Assignment's creation of Antipodes water, Lancaster says the pair are very interested in the trend of advertising agencies increasingly using their creative talents to create their own products, like Consortium's Darryl Parsons with Murder Burger, Special Group's Mr Vodka or, overseas, an agency that was pitching for Starbucks and said it would start up a cafe to show how committed it was to the account (turns out it made so much money from the cafe it flagged the pitch).
"We see the premium that non-creative business people put on creative ideas. Often those creative people could do with backing themselves. So it's something that interests us. What is advertising? What is a business solution? And can you do what you do to achieve other stuff?"