Moving upstream: ICG invests in creativity, welcomes Mike O’Sullivan’s The Collective to the crew

Originally established as a pre-press company in 1990, Image Centre Group (ICG) has gradually moved into other areas like design, web development, full service printing, publishing, digital signage and advertising in an effort to bring the idea of an independent, marketing communications group to life. Now it’s added a crucial—and up until now missing—cog to that wheel: the creative heft of Mike O’Sullivan and his business The Collective.

O’Sullivan, who cut the ribbon on The Collective in late 2012 after the Auckland office of Droga5 he set up with Andrew Stone and Jose Alomajan closed down, is one of the country’s most-awarded creatives. So why did he decide to sign on with ICG? And does working with a big beast that claims to offer the whole kit and caboodle go against The Collective’s lean, largely project-based model? 

“First of all, I’d never had my own business and when I set it up I wasn’t sure if it would work. It did work and I’ve enjoyed it and I can keep doing it, but I’m really keen to learn some more stuff, specifically branded content … If this was an agency gig, I probably wouldn’t do it. But there are so many fronts to the business.”

He says ICG’s publishing arm Tangible Media is of particular interest as there is so much client potential. And, in an age of disintermediation, he believes branded content is the future, something evidenced by media companies like TVNZ, MediaWorks, NZME and many others now offering production and creating campaigns; sites like Buzzfeed and Vice that use their editorial skills to help brands reach audiences; and video production companies like Augusto that are creating a whole heap of good quality, short-form branded content. 

“You need people who tell brands what to say, you need people who can write and you need people who can make it,” he says. 

Seth Godin was asked recently what a brand should do if it was trying to build a media property and he said: “I think the most important thing is to have an office that’s not in your building. I think what kills brands who try to be interesting is to have meetings where they’re not saying to senior management, ‘How can we be more interesting?’ Instead, they’re saying, ‘How can we play this more safely?’ That’s not what happens when you want to make a hit TV show or a website that people care about. You need editors, not brand managers, who will push the envelope to make the thing go forward.” And that’s what he says is appealing about ICG’s model.

O’Sullivan says The Collective works with a number of different shops in Auckland and Australia and the relationship with ICG started around a year ago. Since then it has worked with a number of ICG clients, largely through retail agency arm Hotfoot. But he is also good friends and fishing buddies with ICG director and Colenso co-founder Roger MacDonnell, who he says gave him a job as an executive creative director at Colenso when he was 31. 

“If ICG clients need The Collective’s services then we will work with them. If they don’t, we won’t. We will still be geographically independent [in its office in Grey Lynn]. And our client relationships won’t be affected by this.”

He says ICG is largely an unknown quantity for his existing clients, as it’s something of an under the radar business. But he says if it is to become more successful, it needs to raise its profile—and its creative game.

“The group offering is unique to an extent. But clients want IP. We are in the IP business. We create strategies and we create content that connects audiences with advertisers.”

O’Sullivan says his agency started off doing lots of tactical work, small digital projects and a little bit of internal comms. But that has expanded rapidly and most of the work it does is now brand strategy and brand creative.

“I’d done all the awards, I’d done all that stuff. [Droga5] was brilliant fun and it ended at the right time. I had a couple of job offers but I just started my own business. And I love it. It’s like fishing. You just go out and see what happens. Sometimes you have a bad day, sometimes you have an awesome day.”

In a similar fashion to Assignment Group, he says it prefers not to pitch and keeps a low profile. 

“We haven’t got a website. We’re not in the media, so we don’t actively seek attention.” And just as people like to portray a certain image of themselves on social media, agencies often need to be seen to be doing well. As The Collective has never talked about its clients, its campaigns or entered awards, he says a lot of people seem to think that’s an indication it’s struggling.

“They ask ‘are you okay?’ [Awards and PR] is part of the business and I did it for years. But there comes a point in time when you ask, do I need to do it? If you’re running a larger agency, there are so many KPIs and demands, self-imposed and from overseas. The Collective was a new chapter in my career, so when we set up the business we asked ‘what do clients want?’ And everything else is surplus to requirements.”  

He didn’t want to name any current clients, but The Collective has done work for Skinny, Qantas, Goodman Fielder and many others.

“A lot of our business has come through existing relationships. It would not be possible to do what we’re doing if I was 26. You need a track record and a network of people who can deliver great products, and have a system that works.” 

ICG director, fellow Colenso co-founder and ex-Saatchi managing director Mike Hutcheson says the strategy behind ICG is based on the “upside down triangle”: eight best in class operators under one roof that can offer clients everything they need. And he says the integrity of an organisation that’s not wedded to one distribution channel for revenue is becoming more appealing to clients that need to spread their messages far and wide. But he admits high-quality creative resource was one of the gaps.

“We’ve been contracting that in, trying to partner and collaborate, and we intend to continue doing that, but we need stronger inhouse creative leadership as our business grows,” he says. “The whole strategy is predicated on having the best talent across the board, rather than just having ad hoc resource available.”

He says you probably only get to work with half a dozen, or maybe ten key clients, in a traditional agency role. But ICG has a long tail of hundreds of clients, so there’s a bigger sandpit for O’Sullivan play in. 

“If you have one major client, you get stale. And it’s dangerous. Saatchi Wellington’s reliance on Telecom in the early 00’s was a good example.”

At this stage, most of ICG’s clients are involved from a production point of view. And Hutcheson admits that’s a double-edged sword.

“It’s more stable having a production base, but it isn’t relevant to demand creation. What clients want from us is smarter, faster, better. It’s the new mantra. And in a world of blur, rather than having six different creative resources and briefing them all, you’ve got a one stop shop.”

You’ve also got one shop to blame, which some might argue is a similarly powerful motivator for some businesses.

ICG chief executive Dave Atkins says it’s not spoiling for a fight with larger agencies by “moving upstream” and it has no desire to pitch against them.

“We’ve got a really strong client base who need a much improved creative output from us. But it does signal a major investment into creativity. Strategically we’ve been very sound, but we needed to improve the product.”

And as it was working with O’Sullivan so much already, it made sense—both strategically and financially—to bring his team in. When asked how much cash changed hands in the deal, both parties said it was commercially sensitive.  

In the last six years, Atkins says ICG’s revenue has trebled in size from $18 million to the mid $50 millions; it has acquired a number of businesses, such as Dpod and digital signage company Ngage; and staff numbers have increased from 70 to over 220. 

“The strategy is working,” says Hutcheson. “It could work better. But it’s pretty close to what we’ve planned. For years we’ve had the idea of a cluster of creative companies,” he says. And after the separation of media from creative and now the changes being wrought by companies like Google and Facebook, he says “agencies are having to huddle together for warmth”.

Inside ICG, he says there is now much more collaboration between divisions. And while its work is unlikely to be troubling the judges at Cannes any time soon, he says that’s because the company is more focused on business solutions than top level creative.

Atkins says it has always looked at middle New Zealand businesses and what they need across their multi-channel communications.

“It’s the people running their business out of Rosebank Rd; practical solutions for the backbone of New Zealand business.”

And when asked for an example of that model in action, Hutcheson points to the rebrand of Green Acres

“We did the whole lot. In this case it was as much graphic design and using their 685 franchisees as moving billboards as it was creating an online presence.”

Something that’s not widely known is that ICG only got into printing in 1998. Having started off in prepress in 1990, it moved into design in 1994, and then to digital development and web services in 1995. So the idea of a “communications continuum” that offered its clients creative services as well as quality production was evident early on.

“Sheet fed printing was the last thing we went into but it became dominant in our culture because our founders and key influencers went downstream into that,” says Atkins.

He says print now makes up less than half of the company’s revenues (that’s split across the different disciplines of sheet-fed, digital, large format and wrapping), and the rest of the business has grown around it. “Commercial storytelling” is seen as a big area of growth and, as the name Image Centre Group doesn’t really reflect the breadth or changing focus of the business (and, to some, sounds a bit too much like a photocopy shop), it will soon officially rebrand as ICG.

Atkins says he always understood the importance of content—and how difficult it is to create it—in part because he spent a few years editing Yamaha News while living in Japan. But having a production background allowed him to see major inefficiencies in workflow. Those two worlds are increasingly coming together at ICG. And he admits there is some tension between the two areas. As he says, when you’ve got reps giving away creative services for free in order to secure print revenue, moving into the world of IP and creativity is a difficult evolution, not least because, unlike something tangible like printing one million brochures or booking media, it’s so hard to put a price on an idea.

But as of April 7 when The Collective officially comes on board, that’s the game it will be playing. 

  • StopPress is owned by Image Centre Group. Awkward.

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