Back in 1996, Daniel Barnes started up his own agency. In 2008, he was joined by Paul Catmur, who moved down the road from his role as ECD at DDB to fight the independent fight. And seven years on, Barnes Catmur & Friends has established a solid reputation for pumping out effective work, its in-house media model is catching a bit of attention and some big clients have come knocking recently.
When it comes to the most over-used quotes in adland, 'our model is different' is right up there with the best. But Barnes Catmur & Friends is one of the few agencies that could legitimately claim that. And the model was based around making life easier for clients who were struggling to cope with media fragmentation and the demands of multiple partners.
"We basically looked at what the market was like and it was very fragmented," says Daniel Barnes. "The one big difference between 10-15 years ago and now was that marketing was relatively linear. You developed a product, found your target market, did an ad, got into supermarkets and people bought it and if you were really advanced you did CRM. So we thought 'what is the main problem clients are facing?' and it was how to be effective in a time of fragmentation."
Barnes says the industry responded to that by embracing specialisation, so clients started to sign up with a DM agency, a digital agency, a creative agency, a media shop, a social agency, and whatever other vertical was being promoted as a necessity.
"That creates a problem for clients who have to manage all these people whose interests aren’t aligned," says Barnes. "To use a rugby analogy, you can't have everyone on the field constantly trying to score a try. So we’re trying to work around that with a model that has got the key bits that you need to get a campaign away in one place."
And, as Paul Catmur says modestly when asked where its main strength lies: "We're best of class in all of them, Ben. You know that."
Larger agencies generally claim that they offer this one-stop shop capability. But Catmur says he went to lots of meetings in his big agency days when media, direct and digital never actually spoke to each other. And there's still plenty of competitive tension between divisions.
"In London I worked at Y&R. It was a big agency when I started but I managed to oversee the decline from about 350 to 100. We had Wunderman, the direct arm, downstairs and I went down there twice in ten years. That was the state of integration in the '90s."
In Barnes Catmur's High St offices, it's employed some architectural manipulation to ensure Catmur is forced to interact with those in other departments: there's only one floor. And he says it's much easier to provide an integrated service in a smaller agency of around 30 than when you’ve got 150 people.
Ever the student, the well-read, multi-talented Barnes alludes to an experiment conducted on chess grand masters to show how the idea of specialisation can limit overall performance.
"It's a well-known phenomenon. They gave chess grand masters a problem and said it had a five move solution. So they work it out in five moves. But the same problem also has a three move solution. So they ask them to find it and they can’t because it’s imprinted in the brain. You can’t see the other angles because one solution blocks the other one, and that’s why it’s important to have different people around you."
And as recently appointed general manager Luke Farmer, who has been with the company for around three years after stints at Saatchi & Saatchi and Mojo says: "If you have integration, it doesn’t matter where it goes. You’re not forced in one direction."
One of Catmur's best-read 'And Another Thing' columns called out the bollocks regularly being spouted by digital evangelists and asked for more focus on the marketing part of digital marketing. And while he admits it's a terrible cliché these days, he says the whole agency is now digital.
"Even me," he says.
Barnes says it's about being a digital realist and he points to the joke about teenage sex to explain what's happening in this area (and others): "Everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it."
To cope with the changes, larger agencies tended to set up a separate digital arm and gave it a new name. But now everyone seems to have figured out that was a bad idea because it was just another channel, so they've been brought back together. Now, however, Barnes believes digital has moved past being just another channel, "it's the glue that holds everything together".
The default position of every indie is to run counter to the big agency model. But Catmur says it's not a case of us and them when it comes to independents and multinationals.
"I like large agencies and a lot of them are very well run and good institutions ... It's a different business model and some of them do very good work. But it’s difficult to make sure if you’re a client on the lower pecking order that you get looked after as well as the foundation clients. You don’t want to get lost in the corridors of a large agency. And often clients won’t have a big agency on a pitch list, possibly because of something that happened in the past."
Once upon a time, media buying was inextricably linked with advertising agencies. When we spoke with Harold Mitchell a few years back, he said he found it strange that the media strategy often tended to get the last five minutes of the meeting with the clients after the creatives had finished talking, despite the fact that clients were spending a huge chunk of their budgets deciding where those ads would be placed. So after his idea for a separate media buying entity was rebuffed by his agency, he set up Australia's first independent media buying company in 1976, following on from Carat in the 1973 and a few other agencies around the world.
As Barnes mentioned, the values of different partners are not always aligned—and there are also the practical issues of dealing with too many cooks in the kitchen—so it decided to bring media back inside, establishing an accredited media team of four, along with its social media team of three. In fact, it picked up its first media award at the recent Beacons for best small budget campaign for Hell Pizza's 'Holding Australia to Ransom'.
"Boundary Road is a good example of the integration," says Barnes. "We do everything from naming the beer and designing the labels through to writing the ads, placing them and managing the database."
And Barnes says this model seems to be proving attractive, with 60-70 percent of its clients now full-service.
Catmur believes a lot of clients want to move in that direction. But it's taken a while for them to notice what it's doing.
"In terms of new business, it's the whole thing of perception lagging behind reality," he says. "Clients have got better things to worry about than which agency is doing what. But then they see it and say ‘those guys are doing alright’."
One of the ways they see it is through awards, something its indie peer Special Group has used well to grow its profile. Barnes Catmur has focused heavily on proving effectiveness since it kicked off and, among a whole swag of awards, it was recently named as the most effective indie agency in Asia this year in the Worldwide Effie Index and took most effective indie agency in New Zealand last year.
As a result of this growing reputation, it won Meridian Energy off Assignment in a pitch late last year (it also won its media account), and it also added Tower Insurance, Tegel and The Collective to its roster, all without a pitch.
Barnes says this business was won with good old fashioned greasing up and saying the right things at the right time ("A few years ago the banks moved around. And doing so saved lots of time and money too"). And Catmur adds they were also impressed because "we are truly wonderful people".
"I think it could be a coming of age tale," says Barnes. "It feels like we’re getting to a point where we’re sustaining our momentum. We've got the effectiveness thing working very well and very consistently."
And while it has done plenty of top quality, award-winning creative work—much of it with relatively small budgets—it says the only question it asks is "will it work?, not 'will it win an award?'"
"Awards can be a big expensive distraction," says Catmur. "The amount of money that an agency requires to make a cohesive and coherent attack on winning international advertising awards is massive, in terms of man hours, pissed off clients because people are arguing from a different direction, or putting together hype tapes."
In fact, they say some clients have come to them because an agency has answered a brief with the obvious goal of winning a creative award.
Of course, advertising is a leap of faith and whether something will work is up in the air until it gets sent into the wild. Catmur admits it's not always right, "but 'will it work?' it’s just a better question to ask".
"Nothing’s guaranteed, but clients go with you on the basis that you have a degree of knowledge and experience in that area and that you'll be right more often than not," says Barnes. "But it’s not just advertising that’s risky. A new product is more likely to fail than succeed. So if you were rational and looked at the history of products, you probably wouldn't do it. Sometimes it’s an entrepreneurial thing. You’ve got to try."
And that attitude has inspired plenty of loyalty, with longtime clients like Subaru (which has been connected to Barnes for over 15 years), Southern Cross, Hell Pizza (which approached the agency four years ago when the founders bought it back and asked it to help launch "Hell 2.0"), and many others.
Barnes wouldn't be drawn on any specific revenue figures, aside from saying that its dastardly long term policy is for steady, sustainable growth.
"This year is shaping up to be another strong one in both billings, revenue and general business expansion amongst both our existing and new clients that's in turn driving our own steady expansion."
As a result of this recent growth, it's recently added a few new humans, with account director Darryl Rogers joining from Ogilvy to bolster up the suit department and Kate Anjoule appointed as account executive. Following a successful placement period, creatives Ren Warner and Kat O’Neill have been rewarded with full-time roles; Oliver Garside has been added to the social media department, and Bram Stevens has been appointed head of digital, replacing Greg Elisara, who was poached by one of Barnes Catmur's clients (now ex-client) Harmoney. Stevens previously worked in European digital agency Emakina before sailing down from Holland with his family (adding to the adventure, his wife found out she was pregnant as they travelled around Cape Horn).
So what's next? Being bought out by a multinational and completely giving up on their principles? An international office, like Special Group? Massive global clients?
Catmur says international expansion isn't on the radar just yet (although, as he points out, it took Wieden + Kennedy a long time to set up it first office in London), and the calendar it made for German brand Crumpler after a client liked the look of its website was an anomaly.
"I think we can still get bigger and better and do what we’ve been doing for small clients for bigger clients," says Barnes. "And I don’t see the market getting less fragmented."
It's also hoping to "indoctrinate successors like Luke" and let some of the other smart young people it's hired move up in the world. It's also a proud inter-species agency, and they single out deputy creative director/chairman/Catmur's dog George as a star performer in terms building client relationships, largely through leg-licking.