True opened its doors in 2011 after a few senior protagonists from .99 felt the need to go it alone and break away from the nurturing bosom of The Clemenger Group. Like any new business, the first few years were tough going and it focused on growth rather than profit, but it's gaining momentum, it's working with big brands like Air New Zealand and Vodafone, it's moving into areas outside traditional advertising and it currently employs 25 staff. Managing director Matt Dickinson spills the beans on its philosophy.
Many of New Zealand's independent agencies sprung from the loins of the bigger multinationals, with the senior players plying their trade at the behemoths, paying for their Maserati and then taking those skills across to their own businesses. It's the circle of advertising life, and that's certainly been the case with True, a 25-strong agency that's starting to get a bit of attention, both for the work it's doing and who it's doing it with.
Managing director Matt Dickinson, who joined as a partner around six months after the agency was established by fellow .99ers Craig Pethybridge and Michael Currie (he left the agency around two years ago), says the reason they all shifted from .99 was simple: "We had been there too long and we wanted to do our own thing."
"I’ve always wanted to own my own business. I work better if I don’t have to worry about people above me. We learned a lot from those guys [at .99] but we’ve got quite a different approach. I think we can offer a wider suite of solutions because we don’t have to use resource that’s there. If you’re paying for it, you need to use it. And I don ‘t feel like that’s giving the clients the best options."
It's certainly not unusual for indie agencies to claim that the big full-service agencies they're competing against are inefficient or that their model is different. But Dickinson says the agency has a commercially focused model, which means "we use creativity in all parts of the clients’ business". And that might not necessarily be an advertising solution.
"Our industry does gravitate towards what we trade in, which is natural. But I genuinely believe that [creative director] Craig has a broad skillset. The biggest proof will be us getting a couple of our own products to market, so a key part of it is product ideation. We've got a couple of those on the go, but it's always hard to keep focused on them when you’ve still got clients."
And it certainly has more of them than it did.
"The phone has been ringing, which is a bit different to 12 months ago. We're still relatively unknown, but I think a lot of people don’t know about a lot of independent agencies."
Dickinson says True's first clients were Mercury Energy and Telecom. And he says its first proper win was Freeview (it enlisted Pio Terei as the mascot, but while it does have briefs in now, there's less to be done on that account now that the digital switchover has come and gone).
Air New Zealand is the agency's largest client and it works with the brand and sponsorship team primarily on the in-flight safety videos (the airline also works with FCB and Saatchi & Saatchi). And the experience of Pethybridge and Dickinson on the account during their time at .99 certainly helped get their feet in that door.
"Craig knows how to write those scripts. They are quite tricky. We're up to eight versions now. And I know the ins and outs of the account and the brand. We have people around who understand the big production piece."
It's also working with Vodafone in the sponsorship activation space, with the first big project a very well-received Mother's Day activation for the Warriors; Yellow was a big win for the agency, he says, and its focus is now on the B2B side, because, like Freeview, the scope and size of that account has decreased as it's become an increasingly digital business and moved a lot of the work in house; and, just as Augusto seems to have New Zealand's rugby niche locked down, True's sport of choice is cricket (for the recent ANZ series against England, it came up with the idea of the Alternative Cricket Commentary alongside OMD; it's just got a new brief for next year's Cricket World Cup, "which is quite separate to the retail stuff we usually do"; and he believes it's no coincidence the Black Caps' performance has improved markedly since the agency started working with New Zealand Cricket).
"New business is always top of mind and that’s my remit. Our challenge is to be part of the conversation when people are establishing those pitch lists. We’ve done what we can when there is news. We don’t want to PR everything. But it’s tricky. Awards are still really important. But it hasn’t been a focus for us and we don’t have the kind of resources to spend a month writing entries. For big agencies, awards are vital. But we don’t have a strategy around that."
The current focus on content, especially on digital channels (gratuitous self-promotion ahead: the latest issue of NZ Marketing is dedicated to content) has been good for True and he says a key strength of the agency is video and online content, and "not just the concept and production but also the strategy; using video to own the customer journey". It has a guy inhouse who can do CGI glowworms, as seen in the Bear Grylls safety video, or "down and dirty stuff", so it's scalable and it also has a couple of writers inhouse specialising in online and social.
"The Air New Zealand stuff has taught us a lot. But that's large-scale. A lot of clients are looking for the stuff they can do cheaply and more often but still retain high quality. I think we could do better marketing ourselves in that and we’ve worked on that internally."
Like many contemporary independent agencies, Dickinson says True has a willingness to collaborate and no need to stick to traditional channels. In fact, because he says it is genuinely in it for the client, it's also willing to tell them to use someone else if it doesn't think it has the right skills for the job.
"If you’re truly focused on your clients and completely channel agnostic, then it's about having the bravery—or maybe it's stupidity—to go 'actually, you don’t necessarily need what we’ve got, so you should talk to these people'. It's a long game, but I think playing it like that will benefit us in the end ... People respect it. At the end of the day we are in it to make money but we’re not stupid about it."
While True has done its fair share of pitches, some of the work has come about through relationships, reputation and live projects where, occasionally, clients pay them if they like the work.
"I think pitching can be a bit of a false process. So sometimes we ask for a live project so they can understand what we’re like to work with. There’s a lot of second guessing going on [in pitches], a lot of stuff that’s not necessarily honest. So this way it sort of feels like you know what you’re going to get. What I have done before is say 'if you like the idea you pay for it, but if you don’t, you don’t.' It can’t be all take take take. And that’s been liked as an approach."
Dancing with bigger clients that already have an agency or agencies of record means it has invariably stepped on a few toes, Dickinson says. But that's business. And he says it knows its place in the world.
"We don’t want to go into Air New Zealand and look for some retail work ... We’re probably not seen as a threat. We’re probably a bit of a pain in the ass because we get to work on those dream briefs like Sports Illustrated. But it’s work. That’s what I tell my wife anyway."
As the old slogan goes, there's brass in the muck. And shooting swimsuit models in Rarotonga or working with Peter Jackson probably wouldn't be considered particularly mucky. So does doing the fun stuff equate to less money?
"It’s certainly not like the ‘80s. The first year was nothing. But the second year we had good growth and last year financially we quadrupled revenue. Because we’ve grown so quickly it’s all gone back into the business really. This year is hopefully going to be the one where we take off in terms of the numbers. In terms of people, it’s all about getting as much out of what we’ve got already."
But it's certainly not all fun and games and he says the partners' heritage at .99—and the large number of staff with ties to the agency—means the retail sensibility is still evident.
"But if a project needs time and thinking we will bring people in ... Freelance is tricky though. All the good ones get snapped up. We need to expand and contract. But the argument is 'do we try and invest in a junior to intermediate creative team?' It’s hard to know. What’s the ratio? I don’t know if there is a formula where if you’re an agency of 30 you need x number of creatives."
There's no doubt the agency has grown quickly. And it's attracted some senior players (Conan Gorbey, ex Publicis Mojo and Shine, came on board last year and owns ten percent of the company, Dom Antelme, another .99 alumnus, is deputy creative director and Clare Waldron, ex Rapp and Consortium, joined as group account director). So how big is too big?
"I still want to keep doing the business. If you don’t, you lose touch. How can you sit down and have conversations with clients and dictate the strategy of the business if you don’t know what’s going on? I think [the optimal number] would be 30-40. When .99 was growing, that was the sweet spot. Retaining the culture is important. And it’s difficult to do that with a massive agency. I respect people who can do it."
So does it look to other successful independent agencies for guidance?
"Not really. We like to try our own things. Some of the things Shine have done over the years we’ve got a healthy respect for. There is some quite high profile stuff and it's not necessarily traditional advertising. I’ve known Michael Redwood from Special for years [Dickinson also worked at Colenso BBDO] and he’s just a great guy with no ego. And Paul Catmur's obviously very clever. He was in my indoor football team a few years ago. Rock solid on defense. Saw him smile in a photo the other day too."
But Shine's role in the creation of the Mac's Brewbars is something True is obviously aiming to follow in the footsteps of, as evidenced by the launch of its spatial division True Space last year alongside Bruce Craig, who has over 20 years experience in architectural, interior and spatial design.
Dickinson says this area is still fairly fringe for the agency and it's "very hard to talk to the right people at the right time", but it's gaining traction and as interest and spend grows in experiential marketing, he's confident it can get some more work for the upcoming summer pop-ups and experiential work.
"With retail builds it's about getting in at the right stage of the planning process. The problem is the building teams aren’t always aligned with marketing. So I really respect what the guys at Shine has done with the Brewbars and that total brand experience, right though to the beer and the environment. That would be the dream for us. And with Bruce we can offer that end-to-end solution."
Another innovation—and another shift away from traditional advertising—is its move towards a consultancy offer, with the development of a methodology around using creativity to improve business culture, which he says is a big area in the US.
"It's not just an internal comms piece. It’s getting under the skin of businesses at the CEO level to find out what the problems are, and what you need to do."