Battle of the cultural codes: in the face of new competition, FCB promotes the work that has resonated with New Zealanders

Open the latest issue of NZ Marketing, or last Wednesday’s Dominion Post or New Zealand Herald and you’ll see FCB tapping into New Zealand’s traditional modesty with a display of some “okay-ish ads”.

Among them are the Mitre 10 sandpit kids, the SPCA’s driving dogs, Vodafone’s Piggy Sue and Pak’nSave’s Stickman.

The insight that New Zealanders don’t like to brag comes from the agency’s Cultural Codes, which were created over ten years ago. The Codes are a set of values helping to define Kiwi culture and as FCB’s chief brand officer David Thomason explains, what started as an interesting thought-piece has become “a huge advantage for creating campaigns and building brands”.

“The nuances and context evolve, but it’s fascinating to see how slowly the fundamental insights change. Whether or not it’s FCB’s work, and whether or not it’s a conscious strategy, the advertising most loved by Kiwis today still reflects the Cultural Codes.”

And while he says it seems obvious that an ad agency would believe in brand advertising and long-term thinking, often agencies don’t practice what they preach to clients. 

With these latest ads, Thomason says it is not only promoting FCB’s Cultural Codes, it’s also continuing to promote its brand. And, while the timing isn’t the best, given some recent and well-publicised client and staff losses, building brands is all about playing the long game and, as evidenced by its client wins, regular agency of the year awards and the reverence in which it is held in the wider FCB network, it’s done pretty well to move from middle of the road to a top-tier agency. 

“There’s a small audience we want to influence now, but a large audience of future agency talent, marketers and partners.”

He adds that it’s using print because print still works, but you’ll also see more from FCB in other media.

“We’re reaching you in a well-targeted digital channel right now.” 

The ad follows last year’s full-pager in the Herald on Sunday and the Dominion Post. Featuring a photo of the agency’s clients, the ad proclaimed in large FCB-themed typeface that the best marketers do not work at FCB.

At the time, Thomason also explained the rationale was to practice what it preaches when it comes to the power of brand-building. 

FCB also ran a clever campaign in last year’s NZ Marketing magazine that co-opted the page numbers to explain some of the agency’s achievements over the years. It also swapped Driving Dogs for singing sheep back in 2014 in a campaign that purported to be “an irreverent take on embracing change” and, in 2009, sponsored the early seasons of Mad Men when it screened on Prime. 

FCB’s ad lays claim to the original ‘New Zealand Cultural Codes’ and says “a lot of agencies are banging on about culture these days”. But it’s an impossible area to own. A few years back, JWT conducted its own research around culture and in the recent NZ Marketing, just a few pages down from FCB’s ad, True is the latest agency to take a look at what it means to be a New Zealander, working with TRA to create its own set of Cultural Codes. 

“The study is designed to inform strategy, not just ads, and takes a longitudinal view by looking at data over the past 27 years,” reads the article by Janisa Parag. 

Of course, these things don’t change much. But the methodology is different. And, similar to the FCB insight that New Zealanders don’t like to brag, one of the cultural codes that TRA and True looked at is “tall poppy syndrome”. It found we’ve moved on from chopping down those who succeed against the odds and instead we celebrate those who achieve success – like Peter Beck or Lorde – if they’ve shown intellectual prowess and meticulous planning. 

Alongside its Cultural Codes, more insights are set to come out of FCB from FCB Open. The offering, which launched late last year, is a response to the increasing diversity of New Zealanders and the significant growth opportunity it presents the agency’s clients and New Zealand business in general.

In January, NZ Marketing spoke to CEO Dan Martin who said it will keep the agency and clients relevant and up to date with what makes Kiwis, new and old, tick.

New Aucklanders are an example and, at the time, Martin said the Chinese, Indian and Korean markets are among those the agency would be researching.

“The point of it is not ‘let’s take the existing campaign and translate it’,” he said. “It’s about truly understanding those audiences and connecting with them.”

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