The epicentre for creative growth in the South Island

Fourteen years ago, John Plato and his partner Lisa set out to carve for themselves a slice of the agency pie in their own hometown – Christchurch. A decade and a half down the track, they’re proving you don’t have to be amongst the big players in Auckland to make a splash.

Both from the South Island, the pair remain passionate about proving Christchurch’s place on the agency map – but it hasn’t been without its hurdles. Shortly after they opened their doors in 2007, the Global Financial Crisis hit, with businesses far and wide tightening their purse strings as the crisis took hold. This was followed a few years later by the far more local emergency of the Christchurch earthquakes, the after effects of which the city is still rebuilding from.

Despite the huge ups and downs around them, founder and chief executive John Plato is philosophical about what it means for Plato Creative.

“One thing we’ve found in business is that every time there’s a crisis we’ve taken the attitude that it creates opportunity and a chance to recruit new people. We don’t play it safe.”

Having a growth mindset has defined Plato’s approach to the agency. While they experienced a steady, organic growth in the years before the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, in more recent years that pace of growth has accelerated to the point where they now boast 60 employees in their ranks.

“It was always our intention to have an agency here and put Christchurch on the map in the agency world. There have been great agencies down here over the years but they haven’t had the same exposure as Auckland and Wellington agencies and we’re trying to change that. That’s our mission.”

Plato Creative has no plans to slow down that pace. In February 2022, the agency launched a national recruiting campaign – particularly targeting creatives in Auckland, hoping to entice talent with an opportunity on the ‘mainland’.

“We’re promoting Christchurch as a great place to live and work. There are so many obvious plusses here like the cost of living, lifestyle and travel opportunities,” Plato says. “Primarily we want to entice people with the opportunity to work for an ambitious agency and accelerate what we’re doing down here in the South Island.”

The team are currently advertising more than 10 senior roles and are aiming to take more of a national view from a Christchurch base. In Christchurch, Plato Creative is the largest agency by some margin, which Plato says can create a challenge when hiring locally.

“The opportunity to recruit in Christchurch is more limited. In Auckland there is the traditional agency sector and there are a lot more people floating around. We don’t want senior creatives thinking that in order to have a world-class career they need to be in Auckland, we don’t believe that is true.”

The growth mindset Plato Creative embraces internally extends to many of the clients they work with. The team likes to work with briefs that help clients build and grow their brands. For example, Plato worked with Giesen Wines to name and create a new brand after the success of their 0% alcohol-removed sauvignon blanc. The result is Strange Nature, the world’s first and only grape-based gin, with its distinctive green tinted, ribbed bottle the result of the Plato team’s extensive research.

Part of Plato Creative’s offering is to play not just a creative role for their clients but a commercial one as well. Plato Creative is represented on some clients’ boards, a situation which is unique in the Christchurch market. Plato says the team likes to give their clients’ leadership a chance to integrate with the agency.

“Every agency is going to talk about collaboration and the buzzwords we all use. For us, having that commercial level of connection is critical,” Plato says. “We always talk about understanding the commercial and operational sides of the business before we work with them.”

Working with Mike Pero Real Estate on a national television commercial campaign was an opportunity for the Plato team to work closely with a client who wanted to refresh their brand. Using the brief to focus on people, the team created two TVCs – the first featuring Mike Pero himself on a scenic motorcycle road trip through New Zealand, and the second showcasing the emotion and support customers experience through the sales journey.

Cultivating a good office culture and work-life balance is important to Plato, who says it is a big draw-card when hiring from out-of-town. Annual internal awards see their high performing employees recognised with overseas trips (a reward that has been hampered by Covid-19), and their ethos of lifestyle, culture and balance is at the centre of the workplace.

“We believe we have the best culture in the industry, and we believe we can prove that,” Plato says.

Plato Creative also prides itself on getting as many different voices as possible around the table. Currently, more than 70 percent of the senior management are women, and they’ve hired people from all around the world and the team celebrates their multicultural values. There’s always room for more progress though, and Plato hopes this latest recruitment drive only continues this trend.

“Whether you’re in the brand, strategy or commercial teams, everyone is a creative. To be able to offer a broad skill set with the agency, we need a diverse workforce. We’ve also got younger people in leadership as well, so it’s not just all grey heads. We want that diversity of thought.”

The proof may well be in the retention pudding. There are about 20 employees who have been with the agency for at least seven years, and a number who have flown the flag since Plato Creative’s inception. Not bad for an industry where people tend to move around a lot, Plato says. 

That growth doesn’t come without its complications though. After the earthquakes, they built their new office space in Manchester Street, central Christchurch, as their ‘forever home’. With more than 800sqm of studio space, it is the largest of its kind in the city. However, just a few years down the track, they’re looking to rebuild and find a new space to support their growing team.

“Continued growth is not a bad problem to have but it is a bummer to have to move again,” Plato says.

Since Plato Creative opened its doors in 2007, the industry has changed massively, so they’ve had to remain agile to adapt. What started out as primarily a design offering is now a fully integrated service, with content teams, digital design teams, as well as keeping strategy and technical skills in house.

At a recent board meeting, Plato Creative’s senior leaders discussed the current trend of networks collecting agencies and whether that would ever be on the table for them. Plato says a step in that direction is unlikely.

“We’ve got an ambition to become New Zealand’s leading independent agency,” he says. “Our desire is to become a network, rather than selling to one. We want to build that and build a national footprint. It is exciting and we’re pumped.

“Christchurch has experienced some difficult times. But we don’t dwell on it. We’re passed all that now, so come and have a look.”

About Author

Caitlin Salter is a freelance writer who contributes to various publications at ICG Media.

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