A fusion of design and creativity: how Special Group is forging a path forward, taking challenges in its stride

“Last year was the most challenging year in our history by a long shot,” says executive creative director and founder Tony Bradbourne when taking a seat alongside creative director and founder Heath Lowe and managing partner and founder Michael Redwood to talk business – and one reason is clear to see.

Creative partner and founder Rob Jack has been missing from the table since July last year when he bid farewell to the agency to become an independent consultant.

At the same time, the agency lost 2degrees as a client.

After three years as 2degrees’ agency partner, the telco put its account up for pitch and Special joined Saatchi & Saatchi and the Dentsu Aegis Network in the battle. Bradbourne says they were three very fine agencies, all of which went through two rounds before the final two went through a third.

And despite the odds being stacked against Special, with most estimates suggesting that accounts only stay with the incumbent five to 10 percent of the time, it won the pitch to hold onto the business.

“We pitch for our crew, we love who we work with and we did everything we could even though there were low odds we wanted to fight,” says Bradbourne.

However, he says the six months it took to get to the decision was lengthy and left a bad impression with a number of agencies around town.

And it was only six months later, the agency found itself in conversation with the client and parted company.

“Sometimes you realise through that process that your people are more important and how you work, and the work you do, is more important than that. It’s a short life and you have to do great work with great people and you have to hold yourself to certain standards.”

At the time, 2degrees chief marketing officer Roy Ong explained the decision to end the partnership with Special was because it was reassessing its creative/brand needs.

“We’d like to thank Special – they’ve done some great work for us, but we now need to take a different approach to continue to accelerate the success of our fast-growing business,” Ong said in a statement.

That decision had a bigger impact on the agency than just a loss of work and as these scenarios go in adland, Special lost some of its staff as a result.

Redwood says it tried on to hold onto how many as it could but five were lost overall.

But, fast-forward to 2018 and it would appear the agency has taken the loss in its stride, as it’s on-boarded new clients to replace the revenue, started to hire new staff and picked up Campaign Brief New Zealand Agency of the Year.

The business and project wins include Uber, Tourism New Zealand, Fonterra, Tip Top, Delmaine Fine Foods, The Alternative Meat Co, Taylor Pass Honey Co and Johnnie Walker.

And just this week, NZTE has announced Special will be part of the design team that will lead the design and visitor experience of the New Zealand Pavillion at Expo 2020 in Dubai.

The design team is a multi-disciplinary consortium, according to the announcement, led by Jasmax, one of New Zealand’s leading architecture firms, along with Special (creative story-telling) and Mott MacDonald (engineering). 

Beyond new clients, it’s welcomed two new faced to the team while stepping up some of the existing team.

Those hires include group business director Marcelle Baker, who joined from Assignment Group, and head of strategy Rory Gallery, who joined from McGarry Bowen London.

Marcelle Baker, Rory Gallery

Meanwhile, Katie Knight stepped up to senior producer, Laura MacPherson to finance manager and Jules Packenham to creative services manager. Packenham was one of the first full-time hires for the agency and has transitioned with it to where it is today.

A unique identity

Taking a look back at what Special was 10 years ago, three chairs around a table in Kingsland, is a far cry from the 30-odd team in Drake Street, Auckland. 

It was born from the coming together of Lowe’s design background and Bradbourne’s creative background as the pair found themselves challenged by the same question: why are design companies and advertising agencies siloed?

“Heath has done brand architecture for companies and then seen it destroyed by an agency and likewise I’ve had to work on some campaigns that were hamstrung by bad design thinking,” says Bradbourne.

And looking at the wider landscape of adland, Special sees the benefit in clients working with one company with an array of disciplines under one roof, rather than asking ‘who is my design company?’, ‘who is my communications partner?’ and ‘who is my specialist agency’?”.

“You can look at it from a consumers point of view and have a consistency that goes from the packaging on the shelf to a mass-mobile digital engagement piece with that brand,” says Bradbourne.

And having skills across a range of disciplines, Special works with a range of clients from start-up entrepreneurs looking for a partner when establishing products, through to well-established brands like Holden and TSB.

Bradbourne adds it also has the flexibility in what it provides to clients and gives the example of 2degrees’ ‘Play the Bridge’ and ‘Data Hunt’ because the agency wasn’t briefed on those. Instead, it took an innovative look at the brand and realised that’s what was necessary.

And it was a move that paid off. The two campaigns won 24 Axis awards between them and ‘Data Hunt’ in particular drove huge levels of engagement, with more than 200,000 app downloads and five million plays. 

But with design and innovation at the heart of a number of projects, one could see a potential tension between design thinking and the thinking required to amplify an idea.

However, when questioned about it, Lowe is quick to offer Ecostore’s rebrand as an example of how it can see a project through from start to finish.

“We did a whole rebrand with them from packaging to the labels and then onto shelves, then it turned into ‘how do we launch this thing?’. And they talked to us and launched it through a digital innovation.”

That innovation was a mass-personalisation campaign that allowed parents to make their child into a cover star on Little Treasures magazine.

Gong collectors

Along with a growing roster of clients and roll of staff, the agency has picked up its fair share of awards along the way.  The Best Design Awards Pins, including multiple Golds and a Purple—best in show for its Karma Cola packaging—are a raised as a particular achievement.

Special considers those wins as a sign of its identity, which is more in the design world than the classic ad agency world.

“So much of our business is coming into clever thinking around innovation, brand building or experience design – how digital can enhance people’s experiences,” explains Redwood.

In saying that, the pins sit on the shelf alongside awards for ad agencies, including Caanes, Axis, Effies, One Show and D&AD, Campaign Awards and B&T Awards.

Last year, one of those included being named Australia/New Zealand Mobile Marketing Agency of the Year, which was a pleasing result as mobile is an important part of what Special does.

“The majority of everything we do – from online purchases to social media interactions – now all happen on your mobile” says Bradbourne, adding a reference to a presentation by its head of strategy, Rory Gallery.

“He puts a television and a mobile up and says ‘if you could lose one of those things from your life what would it be?’ And it’s a no-brainer.”

With mobile an integral part of connecting a brand with consumers, Special talks about ‘mobile thinking’—which is different to ‘digital thinking’. Bradbourne explains it’s about making unique interactions with a brand via a mobile, not little banner ads or pop-ups that happen to appear on a mobile.

The latter is mobile pollution and instead Special works to give value, be it entertainment or information.

“I think you need to go above and beyond to truly harness the power of mobile,” says Bradbourne.

And again, ‘Data Hunt’ and ‘Play the Bridge’ are brought up as examples, this time as a result of its mobile thinking.

Despite an impressive haul of awards, when looking across all the awards shows in New Zealand and around the world it could enter, Special has only a small, stringent list of those it does and an even bigger list of those it doesn’t.

In New Zealand, it’s the Effies, Axis and the Best Awards while internationally, it’s Cannes, D&AD and One Show.

Bradbourne refers to awards “shiny dangerous things” because if agencies enter awards for awards-sake, it warps what they’re supposed to be doing for clients.

“We don’t create pieces of work to win awards, we create campaigns for clients and then at the end of the year when it comes to award time, we’ll say: ‘what do we think is worth entering?’”

He also points out that as business owners without financial support from an international holding company, the cost of awards calls for Special to do a strict evaluation of their worth.

“As owners of the business – do you spend $100,000 on awards or do you spend it on something brilliant for all the staff or do you hire someone else?”

However, In saying that, Redwood points out that a mantelpiece of awards does help to attract that talent as well as clients.

“It boils down to profile,” he says, explaining that for an agency, awards are its marketing. They can raise profile to attract new business and show potential recruits the calibre of the work within an agency.

Its speed of success

While Bradbourne says he wouldn’t have predicted the three chairs and one table would have been joined by 30 more, he started Special with the ambition to do work that would perform well at Axis and Cannes.

It’s clearly achieved that, but what wasn’t anticipated was the speed at which it would all happen. It was in 2010 the agency stole multiple shows for its Orcon ‘Together Incredible’ campaign featuring Iggy Pop and New Zealand musicians. First came Axis where it picked up eight golds and the Grand Axis before heading to Cannes and winning a Gold Lion, two Bronze and a Grand Prix.

“Within 18 months we won a Grand Prix and we were well and truly on the world map,” says Bradbourne, so the company has been on a journey of re-evaluating its goals every year in terms of where it wants to go, and the type of business it wants to be.

“You have to continuously reset what the challenge is every single year and I think you have to have a bigger vision beyond just a week-by-week thing,”

Within this, comes assessment about the types of work it creates and Lowe says making the same thing isn’t going to cut it. Because of this, he says the move into the digital space from its origins of design and advertising wasn’t a massive leap, rather it was a natural progression as it thought about what to do next.

The same can be said about its vision to open up Australia. It was the result of the team thinking about tackling briefs beyond the geography of New Zealand, and creating a global network of smart thinking people with the potential to pick up global work for the likes of Adidas or Nike.

“We think New Zealand thinking is unique and the best in the world.”

Taking the reins to get the idea off the ground with the Sydney agency in 2014 was founding partner and chief executive Lindsey Evans and managing partner Cade Heyde, who remain at the helm today. Their start was one of momentum, as the first three months had them land a massive project for Qantas, then rapidly grow from four people to 20 and move office.

But while it was full speed ahead off the mark, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing and, like the local arm, has had its own challenges to overcome.

Within a year of winning the Qantas work, Neil Lawrence, founder of Lawrence Creative, executive creative director for the STW Group and the mind behind Qantas’ ‘Feels like Home’ campaign passed away, with a musical-chairs like scenario with the brand’s agency partners.

As a result, Special lost its Qantas business and spent the following year, its second in operation, replacing that business.

Come year three and its founding creative partners Matty Burton and Dave Bowman were leaving the agency to take over the Google Zoo operation across the Asia Pacific region.

Now, having replaced Burton and Bowman, plus added staff according to account wins, the Sydney arm has become larger than the New Zealand, both in terms of size—with 43 staff—and monthly turnover.

Staying on track

With both the local and Australian arms a different picture when compared to their beginnings, it has to be asked how Special has maintained its culture as the more people there are in the mix, the more process, structures and layers are put in place.

However, Redwood says it’s maintained its philosophy to keep relationships with clients senior and streamlined, without layers to people to cut through.

“I think there’s a philosophy of a partnership, rather than adopting the role of a supplier, so we definitely see ourselves as partners of our clients,” he says. “We are business owners too – business matters to us so we try to engage with them equally.”

And helping to do this, Redwood explains the importance of using hires as an opportunity to strengthen the business.

He says making the transition from a small, hands-on group to a large company requires different skills and recruitment allows for that transition for it to progress into work it wasn’t doing previously.

When asked why the recently-joined Gallery was brought in from London rather than hiring locally Redwood explains that in New Zealand’s overpopulated adland, there aren’t enough people to go around.

For all the agencies there are, he says, there are only a handful of people who can operate at a senior strategic role in this country.

And with an agency that’s all about innovation, injecting some international blood can only help to nourish creativity.

New year, new project

When talking to agencies about the talent under their roofs, the word ‘nimble’ is one frequently used to describe their approach to various client needs. Now, Special has taken the descriptor as the name of its new production company, Nimble.

Tony Bradbourne, Patrick McAteer

Created with the help of executive producer Patrick McAteer, the company creates everything from social content to TV series by bringing onboard the right talent for the project rather than being limited to that under one single production roof.

“Nimble is designed for any agency to use, to be able to create anything, from social posts and right up to streamed TV series,” says Bradbourne. “It’s not to do cheap and cheerful, it’s to do the best in no matter whatever channel.”

While it officially launched last month, it’s been in beta mode since the end of October and has already completed 10 projects of various sizes.

Marching on

Looking back at the past 10 years, and the past year in particular, Special won’t be easily thrown. Bradbourne, Lowe and Redwood exude a confidence that they are ready for the next client problem to come through the door so they can get stuck in and Bradbourne explains, it wouldn’t be here without that certainty in their abilities.   

“I don’t think you start something for yourself unless you’ve got ruthlessly ambitious goals and a belief that of course, you will achieve them,” he says, adding that the agency shares its ambition with its clients.

“It’s our ambition to work with ambitious clients, whether they are the biggest in the country or whether they are just starting out. I think it’s important that in the bottom of the world we have that thinking and smart clients that say: ‘I want to change the world, I want to do something that is highly effective and changes everything.’”

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