Andrew Hawley won his first piece of business—Telecom's youth-focused mobile brand Pulsate—in 1999 when he was still at design school at Massey University in Wellington. 15 years on and the executive creative director and managing director at 72-strong "digital experience agency" Touchcast is still working with his foundation client, albeit in a much larger capacity, as well as with a number of other big Kiwi companies that have been drawn to its attractive combination of speed and quality.
After winning the Pulsate business with his friend and business partner at the time, Lindsay Cast, the pair set up a creative agency called Breathe. And while it created a website that was quite innovative for its time and let punters send txts from the web, he says it also created branding and packaging for the phones (it put them in transparent capsules so they looked a bit like pills) and helped create alternative distribution networks, like skate shops. And that philosophy of fusing the digital with the physical remains firmly in place today.
"You remember real experiences for longer so back then it was about trying to activate a sponsorship, and trying to find a way to bring those two things together, rather than just putting some branding around events. [Pulsate] was into sponsoring music and, at the time, we were largely into the whole dance party space. The pill packaging thing worked out quite well, even though it was a coincidence, but there were parties in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch so our response was to create a live video link up between them."
As Breathe grew to 30-35 people, he says it became quite technical and largely systems-driven, whereas his passion was creative and ideas (it eventually became infrastructure company Modica Group in 2004), so he went overseas, did some cycle racing and eventually ended up back in Wellington at Clemenger BBDO in 2002.
The team there started an experiential brand called Touchcast, and a couple of people were moved across. It pitched a Rock Paper Scissors text knockout competition for Telecom, and he was brought in to help create it and take it to market as he had history with Telecom. 100,000 people played the round-by-round knockout game for four weeks so after that project it grew some confidence to do more under the Touchcast brand, with the stand out being 'Push the button', which replicated Battleships on people's phones and gave the last person standing the opportunity to blow up the frigate Wellington in real life.
Back then, "there weren't all these social platforms to generate participation with the consumer that we have today", so that campaign was fairly unique and got a shitload of international press as a result, he says. But it was also a juncture in the road with the senior protagonists and in 2006 the partners involved moved out from Clemenger BBDO and went into partnership with Starcom, working from the Saatchi building in Wellington. Hawley then wanted to take the agency further down the digital path and expand its remit from the fringe work it was doing, so they agreed to go their separate ways and Hawley took full ownership in 2008.
It fully embraced the digital side of things, grew organically and added a bunch of staff and clients. But he needed some more support and wanted to get into the Auckland market, so he partnered with Clemenger Group, which took a 76 percent stake two years ago.
"What they’ve done is help us reach the goals I’ve had a bit faster and in a controlled manner. We've got 50 plus people in Auckland and 72 across both offices, and it would be impossible to do that by myself."
The agency aims to create "exceptional human experiences that influence perception, behaviour, service, sales and loyalty". And while it has some impressive campaign work behind it, most recently Telecom's Unboxing campaign for the Samsung Galaxy S5, he says the agency also has a really strong user experience focus, and that allows it to "develop the story the whole way through". And he says this ability to combine UX and campaign-based content means it's one of the few full-service digital agencies in the country.
"There aren't many here. They do exist overseas, but as the market matures there will be more of them here. Part of what we do competes with other agencies and where we intersect with the bigger agencies is that more of what they need to do is online, because that's where your market is."
There’s lots of competition these days and they all have their own strengths, he says. But where he thinks Touchcast has an advantage is that it combines the speed and service mentality of an agency with the technical grunt of a development shop. And it also has the ability to "do quite a lot of big stuff; to bite down and swallow and deliver".
"The tricky thing with digital is you end up with a lot of dev shops that aren’t really about service because they come from a process background, then you have agencies who are all about service but might not have the knowledge or processes. So we're delivering stuff that dev shops would deliver at the pace of an agency ... When you sit between agency world and the development world you’re dealing with two speeds. That’s a challenge for people who come to work for us. If they come from web design or development, they say, 'shit, this thing is moving at twice the speed I'm used to' and they either handle it or they don’t."
As consumers increasingly interact with brands digitally, he says Touchcast is also starting to have a bigger influence at the start of the process and offering more insights and strategic direction, especially in terms of channel planning. As such, it's brought in a whole raft of experts to serve that purpose who "we couldn’t have afforded a few years ago".
And when agencies start playing with things that impact a client's bottom line, whether it's tweaking e-commerce sites or creating customer service tools, he says they need to have a belief that the agency can deliver, which is where the combination of digital creativity and solid processes come in to play.
But a campaign doesn't end once it's launched.
"A fundamental thing when you come from a digital background is that everything is always on. You never launch and walk away. A lot of the success of a campaign or project or experience often comes from the optimisation of it once it’s live. Brands no longer sit in a hermetically sealed display case. Once they’re out there the audience has so much influence on how they’re taken to market. They're always evolving."
documentary and challenged Chinese students to find out what their odds of success were like if they had a New Zealand education. It reviewed the analytics every couple of weeks and would move stuff around the page, which was quite challenging because what it thought were quite small changes to the site had to get approved by the Chinese government.
"But the incremental gain we got after a month or two after going live took the results to a new level. It makes you feel almost nauseous to think about what would happen if you left it untouched. It’s like growing a plant, you have to trim and prune until you get it right. And the philosophical approach of how you run campaigns digitally is indicative of where the world is moving. Because consumers work like that anyway."
While Hawley believes analytics are crucial, he says all good campaigns need emotional stimulus. It's a mixture of the two. And he points to the Telecom Tree as a good example of a physical installation that allowed a lot of digital interaction, whether from afar or at the tree itself.
"We created a number of different audiences that could participate at different levels. And the trick is getting them all together. That’s the moneyshot."
In that regard, Hawley believes more attention needs to be paid to digital brand experiences, which "often say more about a brand than the ads on TV". And, as Telecom can attest, customers increasingly want to deal with companies digitally rather than in real life.
"A buy journey for an e-commerce purchase seems like quite a mundane, functional thing. You're happy if you get them in and out quickly. But increasingly we’re focusing on how we make that a digital, tactile experience of a brand."
As an analogy, he likens it to the sound of a door shutting on a European car: it's a small, almost imperceptible difference between a standard car and a luxury car, but it "sounds expensive".
"That’s the way we should be looking at our traditional digital experiences."
So do consumers care about a nice looking website or a slightly smoother e-commerce journey?
"They don't need to care, that’s the whole trick. It's about subtly implanting things and building up loyalty to a brand with nice little flourishes and touches they wouldn’t expect. It’s not about going back to Flash intros, but it's about creating a seamless experience because the best experience is the one you don’t even know you’re having. It's about ease, speed and things making sense."
Some evangelists seem to believe that traditional channels will be overwhelmed by the tsunami of digital tools and media now available. But Hawley, who loves reading books because the "mind-mode" is different and "there are no distractions in the periphery", knows that context is important and says it's all about "choreographing those two things to work together".
"Digital is like fast food and the other is sitting in a boutique restaurant. It needs the whole ROI thing in the background. And it's learning how to get the best of both. Experience is stuff you remember, but digital is great for amplification."
Speaking of amplification, there's been plenty of it in terms of revenue and staff. Hawley didn't want to discuss specifics, but he says it's hitting all the Clemenger Group ratios and there has been significant growth in the last three years.
"It’s quite massive. When I used to run it without assistance, it wasn’t nearly as efficiently run, so it’s been really beneficial having Clemenger Group on board from that point of view."
He says it still partners with Clemenger BBDO on a number of clients and the broader network connection has played a key role in enabling the agency to service some of the group's international clients. But since the deal was done and its work for Fonterra and Telecom was moved to Auckland, he admits the power has shifted north.
"I float between the two cities and spend two or three days in Auckland every week. I had these perhaps naïve plans of having one unit where we share resources, but, despite the benefits of the digital age, that hasn't been the case. We have a managing partner for each office, a creative director, technical lead, operations director and me. Then there’s the regional nuances; the clients are very different. In Wellington, there's more of a skew towards heavy digital and social, whereas in Auckland it’s more in the UX scene."
He says a lot of the same core team are still with the agency. And he says all of its clients (among them, Sovereign Insurance, Te Papa, New Zealand Immigration, Dulux, Genesis Energy, Met Service, Forest & Bird, Education New Zealand, Positively Wellington Tourism, Fly Buys, Constellation Wines, Commission for Financial Literacy & Retirement Income and New Zealand Fire Service) represent long-standing relationships.
"You live and die by your reputation. So we always over-deliver for clients. I remember [in the early days] there were weeks when we almost sleeping working and were delivering to ridiculous deadlines so we didn’t let anyone down. And we still work with a lot of those clients. The pace is slightly less traumatic these days and we need to have processes because things are a bit more complex. But we stand by what we do and realise we’re only as good as the last job."