From Spark PR & Activate to Drum: How the OMG agency gave itself a new identity

In a display that made everyone stop and watch, a group of drummers marched into Shed 10 last night, announcing a new era for Spark PR & Activate.

“Spark PR & Activate is no longer,” said managing director Dallas Gurney on the stage with his team. “Don’t worry, it’s not bad thing.”

He proceeded to take a trip down memory lane, going back 19 years to when the agency was formed with foundation clients Unilever and DB.

Now, its client roster has grown to 40 brands and with it has come a raft of different client needs that have worn down the relevance of the name Spark PR & Activate.

Gurney says when looking at what the agency does, PR makes up 15 percent, as does activation, so its scope of work is no longer summed up in the name.

“You’ve got a lot of traditional PR agencies who still think PR is about pitching stories to media. If that is what you do as a PR agency, that is really hard in terms of your longevity because everyone else has changed.

“Now we are not just a PR and Activate agency — we do PR, activation, social, content and influencers.

“We say yes to anything.”

What’s in a name

Take a look over the agency’s recent work, including a storybook and podcast, and it’s clear the name no longer accurately describes the agency. But beyond capabilities, the name ‘Spark’ is also a hangover from the agency’s origins.

Spark, the media agency, was founded when Louise Bond, Richard Fenner and Derek Lindsay came together in 1999 and it was joined by Spark PR & Activate shortly after and later PHDiQ in 2007.

It was also about 2007 that Spark, which came to be Spark PHD, was sold to Omnicom Media Group (OMG) and joined the PHD global network.

Since then, PHD Media has dropped the ‘Spark’, while Spark PR & Activate has held onto it.

And PHD Media was smart to let go, as Spark PR & Activate was left to be mistaken for the telco and face questions about bill payments and complaints from those with issues with Spark.

“There’s been times when we’ve answered a phone call from an old woman who couldn’t pay her bill thinking we were Spark the telco. You can’t hang up on that – you have to help,” Gurney says.

That complication only grew when Spark became a client. Since then, Spark PR & Activate has been making calls “from Spark, on behalf of Spark”.

So where to start when changing a name that’s nearly two decades old?

Gurney says the team started observing the market to see names already in use and the motivations behind them.

Some reasons were easy to identify, as many agencies go by the names of founders, while others have gone down a more abstract path.

From there, Gurney says attention returned to the agency itself see if there was something from its own philosophy that would make a suitable name.

“We tried to break down our DNA and see if there was anything in that that would bubble to the surface and show itself as an appropriate name.”

The massive brainstorming sessions turned into researching trademarks, the availability of URLs and all other factors that may inhibit the use of a name.

That process unearthed a shortlist of seven names, one of which was Drum.

Gurney explains its definition, to ‘give someone reliable information or warning’, was found to be fitting to the agency’s strategic thought process.

Given the team had created the shortlist themselves, pros were easier to come by than cons when cutting down the list. To help, an outside perspective was brought in, in the form of an experienced brand creator.

Group account director Cassidy Meredith says the expert knew when to push back and challenged the team’s thinking to unearth cons as well as pros.

Drum was always a favourite and a tipping point for its use was discovering the brand as already existed in OMG Group.

Joining a global

Drum, a branded content/creative and communications business in London, Copenhagen and Stockholm, and was born out of the PHD media network about 20 years ago.

Its role in the market complements Spark PR & Activate’s role and has the added bonus of being named a word with a number of uses — one of those being to call the staff ‘drummers’.

“We liked the idea of having our own language and way of describing what we did that can be quite unique,” Gurney says.

Luke Southern, managing director of Drum in the UK, is excited for the Auckland team to become bona fide drummers and so they can work together “to unlock future creative opportunities for clients in New Zealand and around the world”.

London and New Zealand

Not only has Spark PR & Activate found a new name, it has also found a new home in the existing Drum network. But has that partnership with an international agency impacted how the once standalone agency operates? Talking to Gurney about it, it doesn’t appear to have impacted the agency’s spirit.

“We are an anomaly in the world currently and we are ok with being an anomaly.”

He points out its capabilities are more diverse than those of the UK arm but at the end of the day, both are still about storytelling — “we just tell ours through different mediums”.

“While the Drum flavour in the UK is heavy content and a bit of creative as well, we are doing more and more content so they are strong in an area where we are going which is also of benefit.”

One concern he did point out, however, was how it would “New Zealandify” Drum.

“We still need to reflect the fact we are a Kiwi agency with this amazing heritage all the way back to 1999.”

Drum UK shared that thinking and gave the local team all brand assets and an invitation to do whatever was needed to make it relevant and applicable to the market.

“They have been clear that we can make Drum the flavour we want it in this market.”

For Southern looking from the UK, he shares the New Zealand team’s enthusiasm for joining Drum and says while it’s been working to make sure there is consistency to the brand across markets it’s also taken into account local nuances.

In the case of New Zealand, Southern says it will continue to offer some products and services that don’t exist in the UK.

“As much as a logo and brand, it is about the way drummers across markets think about client’s problems and the backgrounds they come from. With an agency like Spark PR & Activate it was immediately obvious that they place as much value as we do in London and the other Drum markets on hiring cultural mavens with diverse backgrounds and skills in order to offer clients breadth of thinking in how we approach their communications challenges.”

Having that shared approach to communication challenges will aid the UK and New Zealand agencies as they work together on client work.

Gurney says there are already common clients between the two and the local team has been invited to work on pitches with the UK team.

“We work with PHD all the time, but never with a global PR agency partner.”

Being your own client

There was a lot of excitement from the new Drum team when talking about the rebrand, and while it was smiles all round at the unveiling event, there’s no ignoring the significance of changing a name and what could go wrong.

“It’s high stakes and you’ve only got one opportunity to get it right,” Gurney says.

His career has seen him work on one other brand launch and he admits it was a failure.

This time, he wasn’t going to let that happen and when more than one hundred clients, media and friends crowded into Shed 10 on Wednesday night for the unveiling of Drum, there may have been champagne and beer on tap for a toast but Gurney says it’s far from a “piss up”.

“This is a moment where one thing stops and another thing starts. It has to be memorable, it has to be something people talk about for a long time and hopefully thing about for years.”

To make it all happen, the team started work months ago, treating Spark PR & Activate’s transition to Drum as a client alongside others.

The agency’s staff were divided into four teams—branding, digital, communication and process—with individuals choosing where they wanted to work.

Meredith lead the branding team and says everyone enjoyed the opportunity to be the client as well as the agency and know the ideas they were presenting could come to life.

“It’s nice saying ‘yes’ to yourself,” Meredith says.

However, he does describe the opportunity as both a blessing and a curse because having the ability to call the shots means you are always questioning yourself.

“You become a lot more critical of yourself.

“You operate the same way but you become a lot more competitive with yourself to try improve it.”

With the team working on the rebrand internally, plans would have to be presented to the senior management team and Meredith says there’s one person in particular, who loved to question things.

While having your boss question your choices may sound a daunting prospect, for him, having to talk through his rationale was helpful to confirm he was doing the right thing.

For Sophie Pollard, who has been with the agency for one and a half years, wearing both client and agency hats to present ideas and sign them off has given her a different view to what she gets with normal clients. But, in saying that, she’s treated the rebrand as she would any other client project.

“We’re all treating it with as much effort and consideration as we would with a client project.”

Having a few months to get the project over the line gave the team time to reflect on things and Aimee Nicholls, leader of the communications team, gives an example of how it changed the plan to announce the new name.

She explains there was an idea to have a Drum branded media wall on entry to the event, however, that clashed with the want for a big reveal.

With that reveal moment in mind, the branded media walls idea was swapped out for an announcement of the new brand once everyone was inside.

Also on the communications team with Nicholls was Julianna Permitin, who has been with the agency for two and a half years.

Reflecting on the experience, she says it’s been eye-opening how much effort has gone into the rebrand.

“…it’s more than just swapping out a logo on your signature, you’re essentially changing the entire persona of a company but ensuring you’re keeping to all those ethics you work towards to every day.”

Permitin adds showcasing the new brand with clients is proud moment because it’s been such a long work in progress.

“I don’t think it will change our approach as such, but it will definitely give off a new flavour within our day-to-day.”

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