Inside: Uno Loco

After around 18 years of fusing art with commerce, events and media company Madant has morphed into Uno Loco. And with clients increasingly looking to create experiences, not just ads, and with events companies increasingly dabbling in other areas, the planets appear to be in alignment for this successful yet relatively under-the-radar business. 

It all started back in 1996 when the company was first incorporated and, according to creative director Troy Sugrue, all the founding fathers of Madant had a performance and art background, so it originally made its name producing events like Vodafone’s Christmas parties and premieres for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“Being an interface between arts and business is a very useful function because they totally need each other but they don’t speak each other’s language,” he says. 

He says the company is still very much about bringing that artistic and musical flair to the corporate world. But over time the company has expanded into other areas, both in terms of the work it does and, with plenty of work in Asia and the Pacific, where it does it (in recent months, it’s produced a banquet on the Great Wall of China, conducted video shoots in Tokyo and Sydney, organised a royal opening in Cambridge with William and Kate and produced Mighty River Power’s corporate video for the IPO). So, after buying out their original business partner, who has lived overseas for ten years, the company felt a rebrand was in order to show everyone—including some of its long-standing clients—that it had changed.

“Events are still the engine room. But we do a lot of video, and digital media, design and experiential are real growth areas for us. And in recent times we’ve also opened a Sydney branch … It’s partly a changing of the guard. But also for years we had been changing as an organisation as what we do and how we work with our clients, so it felt like a great reason to be able to cement that and help a lot of our older clients ‘re-understand’ the breadth of our offering. The ones who have been with us for 15 years, some of them have quite a fixed idea about what we do, so it was a great opportunity to make it really overt and obvious that we are a different organisation.”

Along with the new name, it’s also added a new board, with Dudley Enoka as chair. Blair Glubb, the ex-chief executive of Localist, has assumed the role of chief executive and it has added some new senior staff like senior producers Helen Curzon and Alex Macfarlane. ​Sugrue says the core team has been there for around ten years and all up, Uno Loco, which means “to connect with extreme enthusiasm”, now employs 20 staff across the two offices (it uses another 20 or so trusted freelance specialists and has a big team of events and promo staff). 

​Sugrue says the business has been profitable each and every year since it started and is heading up towards $10 million in revenue. And it hasn’t really gone through the classic agency cycle of boom and bust. 

“The business held its own ground and actually grew through the recession, which isn’t true of all businesses in the creative space. A lot of our competitors disappeared. But we held on to clients and staff and emerged quite strongly,” he says. 

That revenue comes from a list of big-name clients like Coca-Cola, Fonterra, Vodafone, Chorus, Fisher & Paykel, Lion, NZTE, Yellow and a bunch more. And just like its staff, Sugrue says many of its clients have been with the agency for a very long time.

“We’ve produced every Coca-Cola sales conference for the past ten years and we did every Vodafone Christmas party of the first 12 years of Vodafone’s existence, so we’ve got a lot of real long-term repeat business … I’m really proud of the quality of our client list.”

Glubb, who worked with Madant as a client about eight years ago and as a consultant with the business in recent years, interviewed a whole bunch of its clients last year before he was appointed as chief executive and asked them what they loved about the agency and what they thought it could do better.

“They loved the madness, the creative inspiration, the longstanding relationship, and the work, but they were looking for a broader offering and a slightly more grown-up version of Madant, so that’s really what we’ve tried to do.”

Sometimes it’s dangerous for truly creative companies to ‘grow-up’, because the magic can get lost in the quest. But Glubb says the new structure allows the three owners, Sugrue, Craig Muller and Jared Ward—who moved from head of media and took a stake in the business—to do what they do best and work in the business as opposed to on the business. And, as evidenced by the name, it’s still maintained a bit of craziness and given “a little nod to where we’ve come from”.

Back in the day, Glubb says it was seen as agency for “fun ideas and big celebrations and parties”. It can still do that, of course, but he says it’s doing a lot more strategic, long-term work, predominantly B2B or internal comms and programmes, but also in the B2C space.

“The core of it is probably on audience engagement,” he says. 

Internal advocacy is a hugely important aspect of marketing, as Michael Easton wrote recently. And Uno Loco often taps into that (a lot of its events are aimed at staff or important suppliers, so “they’re invested in it”). As an example, Sugrue points to a major piece of work it’s doing to create a digital portal for employee onboarding that “takes an audience on a journey over the course of a few months”.

“That’s a long way away from what we were doing originally,” he says. But because it is working on an integral aspect of a business, rather than on a campaign—and because it has relationships with people across a number of different business units, not just with the director of marketing—“it is hard to get rid of us”. 

Currently, Sugrue says the make-up of the business is probably around 60 percent experiential/events and media would be most of the rest, with digital work growing quickly.

“That has happened organically because most of our clients that started off as event clients, we now have a very involved media relationships … We just get invited in to look at all sorts of things. And recently we have got more intentional about that, pushing our digital and experiential offerings.” 

While there is anecdotal evidence the events scene is growing, Glubb says there’s not a lot of actual data in terms of market size from New Zealand. 

“It’s relatively immature from that perspective. But most other markets that look like us it will show there’s a real lift, particularly as the economy recovers. We’re providing physical experiences and leveraging those experiences using digital media a lot more. In the US, delivering experiences face to face in the B2B market is rated as the most effective tactic you can use, compared to something like social media, which works and is used by a lot of people, but is actually quite highly inefficient in terms of reaching an audience.” 

Perhaps as a result, Sugrue says some of its key clients are “overtly telling us they’re doing less television and more experiences”. That’s particularly true of companies trying to reach younger audiences. But it’s not all fun and games anymore. He says there’s a far greater focus on return on investment and business outcomes from events these days, rather than purely on entertainment as it may have been a few years ago. And the new, more mature, more diverse Uno Loco seems to be happily riding that wave. 

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