So is this evidence of the classic Trojan Horse strategy in action? Get a small piece of an account (in True’s case, as the sponsorship or experiential agency, that might be outside the scope of the procurement department or an alignment), prove their worth and eventually get given some of the bigger briefs?
“I’m not sure I particularly like the Trojan Horse analogy,” says Pethybridge. “It’s not really our style.”
Dickinson: “We’re not the slippery, you've got to get down there and work the floors to work your way in. We’ve been approached. And with the airline, it grew from doing work [both Dickinson and Pethybridge had worked with Air New Zealand during their time at .99 and have done a number of the safety videos].”
Quite a few independent agencies seem to get to the level of around 40 and find it hard to take the leap to the next stage. But it can be done, often by diversifying or moving into a different market. Special Group has around 40 staff in Auckland, it has added design to its mix and it has expanded into the Australian market, where it expects to have more staff in Australia by the end of the year; Barnes Catmur brought media in-house and recently sold a stake to Dentsu Aegis; and Shine used its skills to expand into areas outside of advertising and now has a thriving hospitality arm.
So does True want to take that leap? Are they, ahem, ‘Dreaming Big’?
“Not necessarily, no,” says Dickinson. “We’re happy around this size, give or take a few people, depending on what business comes through your door."
"Personally, I didn’t think we’d be at this size at this point. I don’t think I looked that far. But I’m delighted that we are,” says Pethybridge.
But it is certainly looking to diversify and use its skills to create its own products, something ad agencies generally aren't very good at, for a variety of reasons.
“That’s definitely happening,” says Pethybridge. “There are quite a few projects that we’re going to take to market that will come out in various stages this year.”
Among them is a flexible, modular “domestic horticultural product that will change the way your average gardener approaches gardening”.
“It complements both your backyard gardener and your high density apartment dweller,” says Pethybridge.
And the ability to check in via your phone—or, as he says, "smart gardening"—will come in the future.
“It means you will be able to go on holiday and not just water your plants but keep them on nutrients.”
Another really simple idea that’s pretty close to manufacturing is a product called Barkitecture, a screwless, flatpack designer dog kennel that was created by Craig and Fernandez.
While it is technically transportable and easy to assemble, the most important attribute is that it looks good.
“The big thing is dog kennels look like shit,” says Craig. “So many of them are these horrible big brown and green plastic things.”
So it’s aimed at the aesthetically-minded Grey Lynn dog-owning community then?
“And Ponsonby,” Craig laughs.
Designer dog kennels aside, the core of its business is still good old fashioned advertising and strategy. And while it didn’t want to divulge any specific numbers, Dickinson says it has increased revenue and profit significantly in the last year. The growth has been steady and the phone is still ringing.
Recently, a big client that it can’t name yet came to the agency and said it had received some fairly traditional responses to a brief.
Dickinson: “They said ‘we know what you guys can do, have a crack at it yourselves.’ So we went back with 5 or 6 ideas, we had hardly any time to spend on it, and they were suitably scared and impressed and one of those got over the line. That all happened in the last year, and we have about four others on the table as well.”
At a time when many of the bigger agencies are under pressure from global tech players, nimble specialists and continuing convergence, True has faith in its model and its talent, although Pethybridge say it’s not better than the big agencies, it’s just different.
“I feel like we’re all in the same boat. Advertising feels like it’s being done at a different pace these days,” says Pethybridge. “As I’m going round talking to different people, agencies big and small, and everyone is feeling the same things.”
He says being independent helps you tackle those problems in your own way, rather than toe the group line. And, as it doesn’t need to ask anyone for permission, it can tackle them quite quickly and be more responsiveness.
“We’ve deliberately diversified our offering, and we’ve got a lot of people in specialist roles and that helps a lot,” says Pethybridge. “You don’t always get the same revenue streams presented to you.”
While the agency does pitch, “we’ll pitch in our own way”. And while it does enter awards, Pethybridge has some reservations about the industry’s unhealthy focus on them.
“There’s been a lot of chat around awards recently. It finally seems like the industry has woken up to itself. We’re not anti-awards, we’re just anti the way they’re seen as everything in our business when they’re not. They’re a really nice outcome and it’s nice to be rewarded for good work. But they shouldn’t be the absolute objective and the reason why work is made.”
Pethybridge judged the AWARD and AXIS shows recently and he says he was “really encouraged and inspired”.
“There were a couple of pieces that may have been a little self-serving. There used to be some really obvious scammy stuff out there and I’d even hesitate to call it scam now. But there’s some fantastic work and it all looked like it was genuinely there to do a job for the client, which is fantastic. I’ve been guilty of thinking awards were a lot more the other way in the past and I’d quite happily can confirm that it doesn’t seem to be the case.
“I like celebrating creativity as much as the next guy but I keep reminding the people here that we’re here for the client, we’re here to do a job for them, we’re here to meet their targets and if we can do bloody awesome work along the way, all good.”
And it’s taking steps to ensure that work will be slightly different to what it does now by investing in production and digital.
“We’ve got three guys who can shoot, and edit and do motion graphics and we just got a new producer on board who can also direct,” says Dickinson. “He’s brilliant. So we’re just rounding out that content piece. We’ve also just hired a planner who has a background in data so we can have those conversations with the Googles and Facebooks.”
As the marketing world continues in this digital direction, Dickinson says it’s important that the agency understands that realm well. But could it go too far? Do they see a time when those discussions with the Googles and Facebooks will be led by clients, potentially negating the need for a creative or media agency?
“I think media agencies are the ones who are getting cut out, because clients are going direct to those guys,” says Dickinson. “But you’re always going to need creativity—and creativity that is independent of those third party media organisations—to help clients get the best independent advice. At the end of the day, our success is based on their success.”
And by landing a couple of the opportunities it’s currently got on the table, formalising its content offer and improving its creative product even further, it’s confident that mutual success will continue.