Inside: Ocean Design

Wellington’s Ocean Design has been around for 26 years, but it’s been content to float under the radar. Now, after adding some new business to its list of very longstanding clients and bringing a few new staff onboard, managing director Blair Mainwaring pipes up. 

At 26 years old, Ocean Design’s managing director Blair Mainwaring says the previously media-shy Wellington-based agency is sick of being quiet about its achievements. 

“With maturity comes the realisation that there’s no harm in talking about what you do,” Mainwaring says. “Not many agencies our age are still going in New Zealand, so we’ve probably got a role to play in promoting good design and brand thinking and that sort of stuff.”

The hiring of new staff, such as Pete Montgomery (formerly creative director of design at Clemenger BBDO) and Fay Nie (formerly of Interbrand Beijing), has also prompted a change of philosophy from the anti-media policy of yore.

“It [was]a very deliberate policy … not ‘cause we don’t like the media, but we’ve liked to fly under the radar, and my personality is a bit unassuming so I’ve tended to do that rather than shout from the rooftops,” Mainwaring says.

But the agency has to plenty to shout about. This year it’s won three big new accounts: Flybuys, Synlait and ANZCO Foods.

Ocean was appointed the set brand agency for Flybuys, and is currently midway through the job.

“[It] is really exciting because the Flybuys brand is one of the most recognisable brands in the country, and it probably needs a bit of re-energising in some ways,” Mainwaring says.

ANZCO Foods is a major New Zealand food producer and exporter, and one of the country’s top four meat companies. With meat being one of New Zealand’s biggest exports, the company has a huge range of different brands and sub brands, Mainwaring says.

“We have been working with them to kind of simplify that a bit. With an organisation like theirs, they’ve ended up with markets all over the world with different labels. It’s just time to review that and see if there can be any consolidation and that kind of thing – it’s a reorganisation of their brand portfolio I suppose.”

Over the years Ocean has done a lot of work with large New Zealand exporters including New Zealand Merino wool, New Zealand Cervena venison, wineries and technology companies. And Synlait is another example of the agency strengthening a brand for a global market.

Synlait is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing companies and a competitor of Fonterra, and Ocean has been working with it to strengthen its internal brand.

“If the people who work for you don’t understand [the brand], what chance will the customer have of understanding it, and what sort of experience will they get?” Mainwaring asks.

It’s especially important for companies that are growing rapidly, like Synlait, which Mainwaring says was just a paddock not long ago and now has a manufacturing plant with the capacity to produce 2,000 metric tonnes per annum of milk products.

“They’re quite incredible, really. But when you grow really fast it can be challenging for the people who work for you. When you’re going so fast you need to keep on reminding and bringing the purpose of your business to life for [employees].”

Mainwaring says the secret to keeping a brand strong over different countries and cultures is keeping a strong, simple core idea alive.

“The best brands, if you think about the massive global brands, are the ones that no matter what country you go in to they mean the same thing. They might not look the same or communicate the same but they stand for an idea.”

He uses Harley Davidson as an example, with its brand having the idea of freedom at its heart.

“As one Harley Davidson executive once said: ‘We sell a 43-year-old accountant the ability to dress in leather, drive down a street in a small town, and make everybody afraid of him,” he laughs.

But he warns New Zealand companies not to use a cookie cutter approach to telling a story in overseas markets.

Mainwaring thinks a lot of New Zealand companies make the mistake of writing their story from a New Zealand perspective, and thinking it’s going to resonate in the same way with different cultures, when it needs to be tailored to their visual and cultural language.

Bringing on Fay Nie has also strengthened the agency’s global outlook. Because there are so many New Zealand businesses doing work in China, having someone on board who is both native Chinese and a brand specialist is a strong point of difference for the agency, Mainwaring says.

There are still lots of opportunities in Europe and America, but the markets on our doorstep can’t be ignored, he says.

“Those Asian markets are massive, they’re growing and they’ve got a thirst for brands and there’s lots of opportunities. But the challenge is: You’ve got to get the basics right and be sorted before you go there, and I think a lot of New Zealand businesses go there too soon.”

Closer to home Ocean continues to work on local accounts they’ve had for decades. Two of its longest serving clients are Toast Martinborough, and the New Zealand Film Festival, which it’s looked after for 26 years.

“It’s probably one of the longest client relationships in the country,” Mainwaring says.

Over the years the company has grown from one employee (Mainwaring himself) to 15 staff. And Ocean’s latest recruit, Montgomery, is a “feather in their hat” and a testament to the culture, Mainwaring says.

Asking him how he got Montgomery, he jokes, “I know all about his addictions”.

But Ocean’s director is serious when he talks about the culture of his company.

“I’ve always had this idea of the rocking chair – you know, when you sit in your rocking chair and look back at your life and look at what you did. I’d love to have created a business where people wanted to come and work here, and when they did, they really grew and enjoyed it.”

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