EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Mark Hurley on stepping into adland with no experience

  • Awards
  • July 28, 2017
  • StopPress Team
EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Mark Hurley on stepping into adland with no experience

Little Giant founder Mark Hurley was recently selected as one of the 17 finalists in this year's edition of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards. We chat to him about starting an agency despite having no industry experience, hiring the right staff and ensuring that his business has the legs to make it through the disruption blowing across the landscape.

What are your thoughts on being named as a finalist for this prestigious awards event?

With past winners that include Peter Beck, Rod Drury, Diane Foreman, Sir Michael Hill, Sir Richard Taylor and Philip Mills, EY's Entrepreneur Of The Year award is associated with some iconic names in New Zealand business. I, therefore, feel incredibly honoured (and a little surprised) to be included as a finalist in this year's awards competition. Outside of convincing my fiancé Camille to move to New Zealand for me, building the team we have at Little Giant has been the greatest achievement of my life. I feel so lucky to work alongside such an amazing group of people, this nomination really does belong to them as much as me.

Little Giant isn't the first company you've started. Where did your entrepreneurial journey start?

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, my mother Lynda and my late father Nick Hurley Snr were successful entrepreneurs, both as a team and on their own, founding and driving successful businesses across New Zealand and in Papua New Guinea. Building my own business and making my own way in the world was all I ever knew or wanted. I founded my first company at the age of 17 and have been self-employed ever since. Up until 2013, my experience included running an apparel and soft furnishing design company, a second-hand clothing marketplace, among other ventures.

How is Little Giant tracking these days?

Little Giant is doing exceptionally well. It feels like we have some really strong momentum in the market right now. Our team in Auckland now exceeds 40 and continues to grow each month. We have had an influx of exciting work from some internationally renowned brands such as Fonterra, Fairfax Media, Rocketlab and Marketo, as well as leading New Zealand brands such as Les Mills, Harcourts, Spark and Green Acres. We were named one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing companies in 2015 (Deloitte Fast 50), one of Asia-Pacific’s fastest-growing technology companies in 2015 and 2016 (Deloitte Asia Pacific Tech Fast 500) and we continue to achieve more than 60 percent year-on-year revenue growth today. The most exciting thing is that it still feels like we are just getting started.

How did you get into advertising? Has your entrepreneurial spirit served your well so far?

In 2011, I could see that technology was drastically changing the way brands communicated with their customers. While I had never worked within the advertising industry before, I could see an opportunity to innovate the existing creative agency model. I wanted to build a new breed of agency to service clients better in the connected age, one that could sit at the intersection of consultancy, creativity and technology. We didn't start Little Giant with any notable clients, agency experience or any capital. It was a true lean startup environment. I had to improvise, grind harder, find smarter and new ways of doing things. I am not sure Little Giant would be as special is it is today without that early struggle, which is so familiar to all entrepreneurs. 

With the enormous changes happening across the industry, it seems quite an unlikely time to start an ad agency. Did you evaluate the risks before starting Little Giant? 

I believe 2011 was an exceptional time to start our type of agency. The channels through which users consume content, the impact of advertising in the marketing mix, and the way in which brands communicate with their customers has changed dramatically with the increase of technology in our daily lives. The line between management consultants, creative agencies and IT companies is increasingly blurred. The industry is going through a period of major disruption, and where there's change, there's opportunity. Little Giant was built from the ground up to be what we believe is the future of the creative agency offering. We are a creative agency, but we are digitally-led with our ideas and execution. We don't create traditional ‘ads’, we create beautiful brand experiences, communications, products and services. 

Given that you didn't spend the early part of your career in the industry, do you look at things differently? Do you think this has informed the way you run the agency?

Very much so. Being an outsider gave me the opportunity to take a completely fresh approach. I wanted to create something new, but also something special and authentic. A place where people loved coming to work every day. Everything that was implemented at Little Giant – roles, processes, people, software – was based not on what others in the industry were doing, but what would create a better experience for clients and a better environment for employees. For example, recruitment at Little Giant puts a strong focus on emotional intelligence, empathy and the ability to learn rapidly. A Little Giant person is a smart, passionate, curious and driven individual, and the company has hired individuals from unusual backgrounds for particular roles, taking a long-term view that the smartest and most emotionally intelligent person, even with limited relevant experience, will provide the most long-term organisational value.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting an agency today?

My advice would be to ensure you understand how the industry is changing and position your agency's offering for future success, rather than quick wins. Secondly, don't replicate the status quo, it's an ideal time to innovate and experiment with how you build your team and service your clients. Thirdly, make sure your organisation is a technology company from top to bottom. Every member of your team should understand technology's impact on how brands communicate. Finally, people are your most important asset, so hire the very best people and then treat them well. Your first ten hires will define your culture and organisation.

What's next on the cards for Little Giant?

We are so excited about the future. We have been working extremely hard over the past two years to bring on a world-class management team, as well as senior strategists and creatives to round out our agency offering. With this capability now in place, I’m really excited about the work we are producing. We will continue to grow our team and capabilities here in New Zealand as the market demands. We are forecast to double in size here in NZ over the next 18 months and we are planning to open our first US office before the end of 2017. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to grow our own global agency group, from here in New Zealand.

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  • Advertising
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  • Damien Venuto
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