Christchurch agency keeps calm, carries on, wins new business, rebrands to Simpatico

It’s been a tumultuous time for our Christchurch friends of late. But the team from UMC advertising is feeling pretty positive about the future after a surprisingly good year on the business front and a recent rebrand to Simpatico.

Recently appointed managing partner Marian Johnson, who came to New Zealand via New York, Budapest and London and has spent more than 15 years working with international brands such as PlayStation and Coca Cola on behalf of Universal Studios, Discovery Television Networks and various other international media groups, says UMC, which was established 15 years by strategic planning partner Garry Urlwin and creative partner Neil McDonald, had become something of a generic agency name and no-one knew what it meant anymore.

Added to that the fact the earthquake allowed the team to focus on where the agency’s strengths lay, and she says the time was right to take a leaf out of its own book and rebrand the agency to Simpatico, a word that reflects its business philosophy and means to be on the same wavelength.

“We were working in my back bedroom and we were wondering whether we would survive—or whether Christchurch would survive,” she says. “But we came to work every day completely focused and it was about figuring out what was and wasn’t important and just getting on with it.”

While it’s obvious many local businesses in Christchurch have been adversely affected by the earthquake, she says their worst fears about the economic slowdown haven’t been realised.

“We honestly thought we would come into the office and find that everyone had just scrapped the budget. Unlike Strategy or Harvey Cameron, we only have a couple of national clients. Most of them are based in Canterbury, so we thought there would be a real loss of revenue. But we’ve actually had a great year. It’s been quite surprising.”

She says the agency has won three or four new clients this year, including the Christchurch International Airport and Pegasus, which add to the likes of Hellers, The Press (which ran a competition with UMC to raise funds for the new Court Theatre), Smiths City, Tait Communications, K9 Natural, Swann Dri and Ngai Tahu Tourism. And while she says the economic boost of the rebuild is still yet to be felt, they’ve seen their business improve this year, which means the business of its clients is likely to be improving too. Some clients, such as Miles Toyota Group, which was in the middle of the red zone, decided to take a leadership role and spread the message they were open for business and committed to the city.

In keeping with its focus on using consumer insights to drive marketing communications, she says the agency has also beefed up its digital firepower, partnering with social media monitoring company Alterion SM2 and search marketing company Surefire. And she believes these partnerships give it a competitive advantage over its local competitors, as it allows them to tap into an area that’s becoming increasingly important.

“We’re all about delivering strategies that are founded on an understanding of consumer behavior. Too often, creative work begins with an assumption or opinion held by a marketer and/or agency team. The creative that is then produced might win awards but if it does not engage the target consumer it is worth nothing.”

For the past ten years the business operated from the 106 year old heritage-listed building sometimes known as the Children’s Library. That building was recently demolished so Simpatico has swapped its riverside perch for a 7ha horticulture property in north west Christchurch that’s owned by the Wai-Ora Trust.

“Think organic vegetables and the occasional meandering chicken,” says Johnson, something she says does wonders for getting the creative juices flowing.

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