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The Reimagining of 99

In the world of retail advertising, there has been a race to the bottom with an over-reliance on price, sales and discounts. With that as a background, Graham Medcalf takes a look at how 99 is showing a surprising turnaround and rediscovering the mojo that was apparent in the giddy heights of 2011.

By Graham Medcalf | April 26, 2019 | news

So, what is it that is different about 99 today? Yes, there has been a change at the top, with Troy Fuller replacing Paul Manning a year ago, and there has been a change in creative leadership with Mick Stalker replacing Craig Whitehead.

Fuller is a new breed of agency leader with a proven track record, having guided Raydar to commercial success. While Stalker returns to the Clemenger Group, having previously been deputy creative director at Colenso BBDO, where he spent 10 years building an impressive reputation.

But there have also been a number of other recent appointments that have shored up the agency's intellectual power base: Dan Bye – group director of strategy, Nicola Henshaw – experience planning director, Greg Forsyth – group director of operations and Danielle Barclay – director of experience design to name just a few.

The reality is, the culture of 99 has changed and, “the engagement of staff has been incredible,” Fuller says.

“You get the sense that our people are feeling they are part of something bigger. Getting the right people working for us in the right areas has been a focus.”

Stalker describes the revitalised agency in typical copywriter fashion: “99 is a creative agency with the customer at its core. We now have the ability to understand the customer – where they
are and why they’re there, when they’re there; what they are looking for, how they want it. Therefore, we can engage, endear and provoke or persuade them to buy your product at the right time.”

Not bad for an off-the-cuff description without an opportunity to edit or refine, but he adds: “Our understanding of the clients' customers is so great, we can now hit them at the times we need to do the job that needs to be done, and to be as effective as possible.”

Now what client doesn’t want to hear that?

“We are a creative agency, first and foremost,” Fuller says, “a creative agency that happens to have the customer at the core. We are having the right conversations, without burdening ourselves with things that are unimportant. We’re making sure we are listening to our clients, asking the right questions, and figuring out how we can be part of the solution to their issues and problems.”

It is evident from talking to Fuller and Stalker, that the agency is finding new and different ways of working with their clients, not just working more efficiently but being truly innovative and strategic. 99 works with cross-functional teams, constantly growing its capability.

Part of that capability involves working with the Clemenger Group’s in-house research capability. In December 2018, leading customer intelligence agency Perceptive announced a planned merger with behavioural science specialists Sapien. The combined strength of the two Clemenger Group agencies is already helping 99’s clients with a new level of exceptional customer insights and behavioural research.

The additional research is adding to the already impressive suite of data, analytics, journey planning and CRM capabilities. This potent combination of data, research, insights and creativity allows 99 to motivate behaviour in the moments that matter most. Data is just information, it is the insights that unlock that data, to help define the brands and plan the communications.

99 has an impressive list of clients: Farmers, Mazda, New World, Green Cross Health, Spark, Pizza Hut, Kiwi Property to name a few.  

In April, Stuff ran a story: “Now you can buy a new Mazda at a mall as the company follows Apple Stores model.” What the article didn’t show was the tremendous amount of work done in the background by 99 to help get this innovative scheme up and running in New Zealand. The Mazda Connect store (the first opened in Silverdale) is based in a shopping mall, with "ambassadors" whose job it is to provide information and assistance to the customer, rather than push the product.

As Stuff reported: “Customers can also use the store to configure the new car of their choice on a massive wall-mounted touch-screen — in their own time.” There is also a virtual reality experience. Mazda Connect is an example of the changing face of retail both here and overseas. “Going into a dealership can be a little daunting,” says Fuller. “So, this experience is more conducive to customer appeal.”

Most readers will be aware of Elton John's John Lewis Christmas ad, with John recalling heartwarming memories. But the UK retailer is at the forefront of improving the retail experience with innovations like after-hours private shopping and has 15 pilot stores nationwide to be used to trial new ideas and concepts.

This is the changing retail landscape which 99 and its clients are having to face. 

Much has been written about the challenges of online shopping and the dangers of bricks and mortar retailers are having to cope with sales being usurped by the likes of Amazon. Creating a seamless shopping experience is a focus for Fuller. 

"We are about ideas, not ads," he says. "We are not going straight to a comms outcome."

The 99 approach to success is multi-dimensional, searching for new revenue streams and opportunities.

"For a long time, we've worked besides retailers on a retail or client timeline," Fuller says.

"The world has changed though and now we have to work on the customer's timeline. We have to be relevant to them at the time of their choosing. We can't wait for the next green light or red dot sale to talk to the customer. The change that we have to make the changes for the businesses we support, is understanding the customer journeys – speaking to them in the right way at the right time. We have the data, the context and the insights to be so much more effective.”

The reality is, the customer has so much more choice today, they can buy online, they can be buying at midnight from the comfort of their couches. Competition is so much hotter than it has been in the past.

“Not only are our clients becoming more sophisticated, but their competitors are becoming more sophisticated," Fuller says.

With a far more empowered customer base, armed with far more information, able to buy what it wants, when and how it wants it, the need for data-driven insights is imperative. 

“Data is data but without insight it is nothing,” Fuller says. “That’s why we’ve brought in specialists that can map the full customer journey and understand the motivational triggers and behaviours."

Fuller is also managing director of shopper marketing agency, Raydar which launched the behavioural research division, Sapien, in 2018. Sapien, which is now merged with Perceptive, goes beyond traditional research methodologies to understand human behaviour. Its curated toolkit is used by both Raydar and 99.

As an example, the potential for eye-tracking in-store is immense. Eye- tracking can assess how much time a customer needs to look at a product on shelf, how long a particular customer actually looks at a product and quantifies the number of customers who look at a product and how many times they looked at it.

As Fuller puts it: “The art of persuasion is now so much more scientific.”

While 99 and its clients are changing in the face of an international shopping trend that is fast deciding winners and losers on the retail landscape, many New Zealand retailers appear to be in a race to the bottom.

We are all too familiar with the over-reliance on price and the constant shouting in the media of ever-increasing discounts and seemingly never-ending sales. As a result, margins have been completely wiped out in certain categories. Retailers are driving people into their stores on the basis of loss-leaders. It is anyone’s guess as to when this race to the bottom is going to end.

“I don’t think we’ll completely switch off price as a lever,” says Fuller. “But I do think there will be more meaningful messages being delivered that will matter more to the customers.”

99 likes to focus on the physical experience in the store, one that allows the customer to explore, discover and be inspired. Something that adds value to the retail experience. 

"The retail space will become more about the experience,” Fuller says. “It has to, because there are so many other ways to purchase.”

Fuller references The Iconic, Australia's popular online fashion and footwear store, which he says offers a completely seamless online retail experience, right up to the time your package is delivered to your door.

“How do we make a frictionless customer experience?” he asks. “How do we bring back utility and value to what is a traditional retail experience? That is the challenge!”

With any luck, new hire of Danielle Barclay, director of experience design, will help. Barclay’s previous role was managing director brand experience at Designworks. Apple appears to be one that has met this challenge, as is Dyson, who initiated super slick salons in London and Dublin, to get people talking about how Dyson’s haircare products are unlike any other. These are forerunners of the new type of retail experiences, which will become more common in the future.

As 99 moves from being a very transactional agency to operating as business partners for their clients, what can we expect and how will they be held accountable for their bold vision?

Both Fuller and Stalker believe that in a year’s time (give or take a few months) they will have some new clients and they'll be offering these and their existing clients new options, they’ll have an impressive body of work that will lead to some new impressive case studies, and the agency will have grown. These are confident predictions.

“We won’t just be measured by the work we do and the company we keep but how we attract, grow and retain staff. We’d like to be known as an employment brand!”

Sounds like there will be some knocking on the door at 318 Richmond Road. 

How 99 and Church Road made a docu-series to help inspire their head winemaker

Church Road Journeys of Discovery follows award-winning winemaker Chris Scott as he travels the country, meeting with other exceptional craftspeople and discusses their inspiration. In Napier, he meets with furniture maker David Trubridge, then to Auckland to chat with graffiti artist Paul Walsh and world-renowned fashion designer Kiri Nathan, before travelling on to Queenstown to talk with environmental architects Siân Taylor and Mark Read.

The four-part, stunningly-shot series uncovers the unexpected connections between their crafts and Scott's own wine-making and shows him taking away new inspiration and new ways of thinking to apply to his own work. 

How 99 and Frucor recruited someone who'd never tasted V Black to help sell out of V Black

You would be hard-pressed to find a fan more passionate than Jordan Tini is with V Energy. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of every flavour and new release. In fact, during a research interview 99 discovered that the only flavour he'd never tried was V Black, a fan-favourite version no longer available. So, who better to evangelise about the rerelease of a V legend than a legendary fan? 99 gave him the first taste anyone had had in years, and in doing so, started his crusade to make sure no one else would miss out.

In a social-only campaign, Tini took his message to the fans, recruiting them to spread the word. He got V more than 4.5 million impressions and a 90 percent increase in brand conversation. Oh, and ultimately selling every last can of V Black made.

How 99 and Auckland City Mission used gifts that didn't exist to solve problems that did

For many of us, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. But the unpalatable reality is that while the majority enjoy a season of overindulgence, for more and more Kiwis, it’s a time of stress, embarrassment, and going without. Last Christmas, Auckland City Mission had the largest demand for food parcels they’ve ever had. With more Aucklanders than ever facing a Christmas without food, shelter, or support, their 2018 Christmas Appeal needed to bring in more donations than ever before.

Kiwis often get to the other side of Christmas and feel guilty at the waste because we have been overly excessive. Couple that with a society that is on a mission to reduce waste and it’s quite the paradox. We want to do good as a society, but we don’t want it to get in the way of Christmas joy.

So, 99 launched Bad Gifts for Good, an ecommerce store that let people buy novelty products that didn’t exist, to help alleviate problems that do. Each item in the range was relevant to an aspect of Auckland City Mission’s work, so everyone could understand how each donation would help.

The recipient would receive an ecard with a specific explanation of how the money spent on their gift helped an Aucklander in need and an accompanying unboxing video. They could experience
the dopamine hit of unwrapping their gift but enjoy a much more lasting feeling of knowing they had done good. And without any landfill at all.

The Bad Gifts for Good campaign raised more money from more donors than ever before, and almost 10 percent more than 99’s target, making it the most successful fundraising period in Auckland City Mission’s history.

This story was originally published in the 2019 Agency issue of NZ Marketing. To subscribe, click here.

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