Behind the rise of Motion Sickness

This indie was founded in a Dunedin flat by three mates with no traditional agency experience – now it’s approaching its 10th year in business. Let’s take a look at its journey from humble beginnings to the forefront of New Zealand’s creative community. 

Like many successful businesses, it all started with a gap in the market. Friends Sam Stuchbury, Alex McManus and Hilary Ngan Kee saw a creative industry niche they wanted to fill.

The upshot of that, Motion Sickness, took root in their quintessential scarfie Dunedin flat. Back then, in 2014, social media marketing was just beginning, and the boost button was still a thing. Their entry into the industry came at a time when they, like the rest of the world, were trying to find their footing in the new world of advertising. 

Ten years down the line, Motion Sickness has branched out even further, social media now becoming a small part of their channel agnostic approach, with a focus on large scale integrated brand campaigns. The agency also recently launched ‘The Motion Sickness Design Office’, a new arm to the agency offering branding and identity services. 

Looking back, social media “was a really great place for us to start”, says Stuchbury.

“[We] honed our craft and got really good at what we did, and from there we were able to grow into wider channels and larger-scale work.”

Motion Sickness’ journey “snowballed” as they moved from Dunedin to Auckland, taking on bigger clients and projects, and eventually growing to become one of the most desired independent agencies in the business. In 2023, they were named Australia/New Zealand Boutique Agency of the Year at Campaign’s Agency of the Year awards in Singapore, at which Stuchbury also walked away with Young Creative Person and Young Business Person of the Year awards. 

“People often ask what to focus on when building an agency,” he says of their early years. “Was there a business plan? But the reality is that as a creative agency, you’re only as good as your work, so we just put all of our effort into making the best work possible, always striving to approach solutions differently.”

The creative industry is chock full of agencies – big, small, local, global – but what Stuchbury says distinguishes Motion Sickness from the rest are their results.

“We’re really confident in our work and our strategy. I hope we’ve proven to other indies in the industry that it’s not about the size of your business or how big your boardroom table is or any of that stuff – it’s about how smart your ideas are and if they have impact.”

He praises the fact that “New Zealand really does punch above its weight”, which makes all the other players in the field competitive.

“When you’re pitching against other Kiwi agencies, you’re pitching against some of the best people in the world, so it makes you better, and when you win those pitches, you grow your ability as well as your business.”

In the field Motion Sickness is playing in, what matters is the quality of the work and the outcome, he says.

For the agency to create work that’s high quality and delivers on its goals, it’s important to choose clients they truly believe in.

The agency has scooped more than 100 local and international awards in the past two years, with highlights including their ‘You’re Cooked’ campaign for Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and ‘Rep Your Suburb’ for Whānau Ora.

“We’re not an agency that always thinks about advertising in that sense,” says Stuchbury. “We’re not competing against the other brands or the other ads or the other people in our category. We’re competing against everything else people are looking at during their day, which is not just advertising, so that comes into our minds around what’s going to have meaningful impact, what’s going to catch [people’s] attention.” 

That’s exactly what Motion Sickness is doing and have become known for, with their signature approach setting them apart.

Audiences seem to immediately connect with a Motion Sickness campaign because it brings a fresh perspective to a brand, ensuring it stands out from the crowd and avoids being bland. Whether through emotionally resonant storytelling or clever, witty insights, they inject a unique edge that captures the imagination and leaves an impression. 

“We’re looking for deeper human insights that people really connect with,” says Stuchbury.

As conventional advertising ages and creative agencies battle the constant stream of content vying for audiences’ eyeballs, Motion Sickness is leaving a lasting imprint for brands by making people fall in love with the ideas and worlds they build for them.

Their ‘Road By Karangahape’ campaign for Auckland’s Karangahape Road Business Association embodied their purpose, creating a fragrance based on the iconic inner-city suburb to encourage people to visit it. 

“That one [was]not conventional advertising – we made a product, a perfume,” says Stuchbury.

“We wanted to create an object of desire that was really unexpected for the brand – an object you could only get if you physically ventured to K’ Road. 

“A core insight was from our perfumer, Nath [Taare, of Of Body],” he continues.

“What makes a good perfume is really good and really bad smells – it’s that contrast that makes it stick. There’s a lot of good and bad on K’ Road, so we thought if we could combine it and hijack the luxury world of perfume, it could be really interesting.”

The runaway success of that campaign cemented Motion Sickness’ ability to forge deep emotional connections between brand and audience. Although the team couldn’t have anticipated the huge viral response it generated, it became a testament to the creation of a loved brand.

Despite the near-constant plaudits Motion Sickness has received since their inception, Stuchbury says it’s not easy being an independent business. Looking back at the 10-year journey, he says the balance between creativity and marketing worked almost instinctively, but it was the business admin he had to wrap his head around.

“I remember Googling invoice templates because I didn’t know how to make an invoice or what a pitch deck should look like.”

Stuchbury says those who work in established agencies have the privilege of learning the “nuts and bolts” of running a business, whereas he and his fellow founders had to learn everything themselves when it came to starting Motion Sickness. This aspect of business may have been a challenge on the road to becoming one of the top creative agencies in the country, but these days Stuchbury sees it as an advantage in the way they approach their clients. 

“In many ways, we’re a completely different agency now, as we’ve evolved and grown, but what we haven’t lost is a culture of creativity and a fresh perspective. Everything down to the structure of the agency feels like a fresh take – building it all from the ground up has created the magic. We’ve built this agency in a way that we believe works – not because it’s the way it’s always been done.” 

As they celebrate their 10-year anniversary, Stuchbury says, “We’re really proud of the work we’ve made, and we’re equally proud of how we go about making it. We’ve built a culture of collaboration that has resulted in our client relationships feeling more like friendships than strained marriages.”

Long may this continue for Motion Sickness, who hope to carry on working for brands they’re passionate about, doing bold work and continuing to grow. 

“Someone said to us recently: ‘You guys are doing amazing work and it kind of seems like you’re having too much fun doing it,’” says Stuchbury.

“Advertising should be fun. It’s the magic and the people you get to work with that make this industry what it is. I think maybe that’s part of the secret – we’re making work we genuinely like, not really caring about what people think, and just having fun while we do it.”

This was first published in the March/April 2024 issue of NZ Marketing magazine

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