Rainger and Rolfe on five years of Rainger & Rolfe

Last month, Rainger & Rolfe blew out five candles to top off what managing partner Ant Rainger is calling “the best year yet”. To find out why, StopPress sat down with Rainger and his managing partner Jen Rolfe to reflect on the last five years and what’s to come for the indie.

By Erin McKenzie | December 11, 2018 | features

“It’s been the best year yet,” says Rainger as we sit down following the agency’s fifth birthday party.

Five years brought with it the Supreme Award at the 2018 TVNZ-NZ Marketing Awards with client AA, account wins and a new creative director – Chris Long.

Long’s arrival means the agency now has three pillars to its offer, Rainger explains, including brand, loyalty and activation.

"Essentially we have a totally unique offer."

Chris Long, Jen Rolfe, Ant Rainger

Go back five years to when Rainger & Rolfe was founded and Rainger says no one was blending brand and loyalty. "You were either a brand agency or a loyalty agency," he says, and that left an opportunity to tap into the market.

The agency's foundation clients were AA, BP, Craigs, and Oceania Healthcare while Solarcity and The University of Otago came quickly afterwards.

Now the client list has grown to include Auckland Zoo, Huckleberry, Healtheries and Contact to name a few. They’re serviced by 15 permanent staff, plus those brought in for specific projects.

This bringing in of the required talent to be wrapped around a project is one of the reasons Rainger says the agency was “born agile”.

The week I visited the agency, there was an extra 15 people in the office – a challenge for the chocolate biscuits but a demonstration of its commitment to tackling client projects with the best solution, not necessarily one that already lies in the building.

“When we sit down with a client we can genuinely go ‘what’s the best things to do here’,” Rainger says.

He adds there’s no hierarchical delivery of marketing, no layers of account managers, and clients are serviced with senior staff.

Both Rainger and Rolfe come from multinationals so are aware of this way of working is different compared to the competing agendas, templated operations and ultimately different culture that lies within those bigger agencies.

“There’s a freedom to be able to try things and also to define your culture of who you are – what you really are in the market for,” says Rolfe about her agency.

In discussing this, the news of ad agency J. Walter Thompson merging with digital network Wunderman, and Y&R and VML coming together to form VMLY&R is raised.

Rainger says these are examples of holding companies responding to clients looking for a fresh and dynamic approach.

“You can’t roll out the same agency and model each time.”

With Rainger & Rolfe’s model build around bringing in expertise and talent as they're required, both say there are no sleepless nights about its capabilities and whether they are enough.

This may be why Rainger says it has had a good strike rate when it comes to pitches, however, for those they don't win, again he says there's no lost sleep.

“You can’t lose sleep about it,” he says. “You just have to get on.”

He explains how he’s seen the industry progress from the days of “heavy advertising”, when work was easier, to an industry of halted budgets, encroaching consultancies and clients internalizing capability.

However, that’s not to say agencies will one day be redundant. In fact, Rainger sees internalizing capability as a cycle, saying marketers will soon learn the benefit of having external agency partners.

Not only is there a significant cost associated with having bums on seats in-house, there is also technology that requires regular updating and licensing, and a risk of harming the creativity by closing it off to outside input.

“Ultimately, internal thinking leads to decay,” says Rainger. “And the pendulum will come back.”

Indie rising

Talking about the changes to the industry, it’s those changes that Long says swayed his decision to sign on with the agency from 99 where he’d spent the last five years as the creative group head.

As a creative, he has more opportunities for employment than ever before with numerous agencies and in-house teams as well as big tech companies like Facebook and Google on the hunt, but he sees the greatest potential in the nimble indies.

“I thought about what I wanted to do next and I thought this is the type of business model that’s poised to strike in disrupted moments.”

Another indie that could be described as “striking” is Special Group, which this year celebrated 10 years in business as well as being named Campaign Brief New Zealand Agency of the Year.

The celebration came after a challenging 2017 for the agency, with creative partners and founder Rob Jack leaving as well as client 2degrees.

However, 2018 has seen it take loss in its stride as its on-boarded new clients – Uber, Tourism New Zealand, Fonterra, Tip Top, Delmaine Fine Foods, The Alternative Meat Co, Taylor Pass Honey Co and Johnnie Walker­ – and hired a number of new staff, including group business director Marcelle Baker, who joined from Assignment Group, and head of strategy Rory Gallery, who joined from McGarry Bowen London.

Talking to StopPress in March, executive creative director and founder Tony Bradbourne said you don’t start something for yourself unless you’ve got ruthlessly ambitious goals and a belief that of course, you will achieve them.

He adds the agency shares its ambition with its clients.

“It’s our ambition to work with ambitious clients, whether they are the biggest in the country or whether they are just starting out. I think it’s important that in the bottom of the world we have that thinking and smart clients that say: ‘I want to change the world, I want to do something that is highly effective and changes everything.'”

The next five

Both Rainger and Rolfe are thrilled to see Special Group reach 10 years and when asked to look ahead at what Rainger & Rolfe might look like in five years’ time, Rolfe says:

“I think to grow as always been our mission. We think there is more to give and growth is good.”

But that’s not to say there will be 100 staff dropped on the agency. Rolfe says they’re going to follow the aspiration of the team and what the individuals see the agency looking like.

And beyond growing staff numbers, Rainger also sees an extension into business creativity as well as communications creativity.

“Businesses will say ‘we need to embrace innovation with new products etc,” he says, and while PwC offers this advice, there’s no reason Rainger & Rolfe’s creativity can’t be put to the use to solve those problems.

"I think the design agency and the creative agencies have creativity in their DNA so if you want to extend that beyond communications to new products and services in new markets and new ways of doing business, I suspect we'll be well placed."

With another year ticked off, there's no sign Rainger and Rolfe are resting on their laurels. In fact, it appears to be full steam ahead.

“Five years doesn’t seem that long given we have a lot more years ahead of us," says Rolfe.

“Put your boots on Ant Rainger, we have a lot more to go.”

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