We’ll take it from here: Stanley St on going independent

Ian Rodney

For us, it’s about not so much anti-group, or anti-network, or anti-WPP,” Rodney says as we walk through the agency days after it became an independent. “It’s really giving us the opportunity to have full ownership, full independence, bring the brand home and I guess create a brand which more accurately reflects our identity.”

The opportunity opened up when Greg Partington, who previously owned a 15 percent stake in the agency, acquired WPP AUNZ’s 85 percent stake, removing the agency from the holding company’s fold and Ogilvy family. At the same time, Partington, the former managing director, gave the title to Rodney.

Signaling the change, the iconic red building on Stanley Street has a new shop front but while a sign can go up overnight, the new agency is months in the making – even more than anticipated.

Rodney, who has only been with the agency since January, says conversations with WPP started last year and admits the management team hoped it wouldn’t take as long to turn their desire into a reality.

“It’s taken hard work, perseverance and stress to get here but it speaks to the desire to do what we are doing.”

In the announcement of Ogilvy New Zealand becoming Stanley St, WPP’s New Zealand managing director Sven Baker wished Partington and his team “all the very best as they take on this new and exciting challenge”.

And idea of a challenge is reflected in how Rodney now sees his agency – calling it a “challenger brand because it’s doing something quite uniquely different”.

While multinationals are busy building scale with the acquisition of independents, Stanely St has gone against the current.

Notably, Stanley St and MBM are ships passing in the night as the former becomes New Zealand’s largest independent agency while the latter becomes the latest addition to Publicis Groupe’s collection.

In October last year, Australia’s AdNews took a look across the ditch to dissect the local landscape and concluded: “WPP has a smaller presence in the NZ market, in comparison to Australia, with only JWT, Y&R and Ogilvy strong in the region. Publicis and Dentsu have both been growing their footprint through acquisitions, and Omnicom is in a good position with DDB, while Clemenger and Colenso are firing up.”

It’s since been a year of great change for WPP’s presence with JWT merging with Wunderman Thompson and Y&R becoming VMLY&R after merging with VML. Now, with Stanley St breaking away, WPP’s launched Ogilvy International to serve Ogilvy’s international clients.

Alongside the multinationals is a suite of independent agencies, one of which, Special Group, was named the strongest by AdNews.

Its executive creative director and founding partner Tony Bradbourne told AdNews the New Zealand market is better suited to the spirit within independent agencies.

“Generally, in New Zealand, people want to do more innovative work than traditional work. They want to make things happen that have not happened before, whereas multinationals are good at doing the same thing over and over again and monetising that,” he said.

“Who wants to work with Darth Vader when you can work with Luke Skywalker?”

What does it mean for clients?

Though the agency itself feels well prepared to take on its new role as a challenger, not all clients will be joining it.

Sitting down with Rodney there were no account losses to report, however, the agency is working with some in a transitionary manner due to alignments with WPP.

“We understood from day one that some of the clients we work with are globally aligned with WPP so in this move there was always the potential that these clients through their global alignment will need to transition across to another WPP agency.”

WPP has been working with those clients to let them know what their options are.

Eyes will be out to see if WPP’s VMLY&R or Wunderman Thompson benefit from this or if the clients chose to work with the new Ogilvy International offer. Rodney says it’s the reality of the situation, adding Stanley St is focused on ensuring there is no disruption for clients. For those that aren’t affected by the need to remain aligned with WPP, he says the only change they should notice is a different signature at the bottom of emails.

Regan Grafton, Bruce Gourley, Clare Warne, Nathan Chambers, Andrew Reinholds, Siobhan Burke, Ian Rodney, Barbara Andrew.

Coming of age

Taking the reins of an agency during a transition period like Stanley St’s comes with big responsibility and Rodney appears cool, calm and collected as we sit to talk about the activity.

“It’s not something we are taking lightly. We are very passionate about what we do and have backed ourselves to do it.”

South African-born but having lived and worked around the world, he thinks of himself as more a United Nations than South African. However, he admits he cheered for the Springboks last time they went up against the All Blacks – “but was glad it ended in a draw”.

Rodney entered the local marcomms industry as marketing manager at Zeald a website development, design and digital marketing agency.

After 18 months, he was further embedding himself in New Zealand at Fonterra as its digital communications manager. Another role that didn’t make it to the two-year mark, in January of this year he was moving back into agency-side as Ogilvy New Zealand’s group director.

It’s also a move that’s seen him come full circle as he’s no stranger to working with WPP from the perspective of an independent agency. While in Johannesburg, Rodney spent nearly six years at integrated strategic communications agency Cerebra and during that time managed that transition from it being an independent to being owned by WPP and joining the Wunderman group of companies.

He describes Cerebra as a group of entrepreneurs and risk-takers who didn’t have traditional agency experience.

As an independent, it enjoyed the freedom to do what it wanted, but the downside to that was having to learn from making mistakes. In joining a holding company, Rodney says the agency was able to “grow up” as it learned operational insights and tap into WPP’s knowledge.

“We were able to learn by asking, rather than making mistakes.”

Now, as managing director of Stanley St, he is transitioning an agency that’s grown up, ready for a life of its own.

“We have those operational insights, we know how to work at that level but we are now able to become independent and chart our own course,” he says.

“It’s the best of both worlds of having the insight and understanding and now being able to apply that in a way that we want to apply it.”

A Kiwi-centric offer

Having that freedom to apply its insights in its own way has the added benefit of letting it keep up with the market.

Rodney says there’s pressure from clients for new ways to reach ever fragmenting audiences and it can now invest in new ways of doing that. While those pressures are being put on agencies around the world, its independence has also given Stanley St a chance to respond to what local clients need.

“From a practical perspective, about 90 percent of our revenue is from local clients so we are in a really strong position in that regard,” he says, “and even the global brands that we work with have been moving more and more towards localisation.”

This point was raised in Stanley St’s announcement into the market, with Partington saying:

“I’m looking forward to building a company that reflects the New Zealand-centric offer we’ve been developing.”

When asked what that New Zealand-centric offer means, Rodney says it’s about creating local content that resonates with local audiences — to “connect in a Kiwi way with Kiwis”.

“We have seen with clients, the more they localise the more relevant they become and the more their brand flourishes.”

In doing this, the agency has launched a cultural consultancy, Ta-tou, to provide an authentic cultural lens to the work it produces, and is also working with cultural advisors.

“Global content doesn’t work in this market – these audiences and these brands want local content to connect in a Kiwi way with Kiwis.”

But when saying that, he’s quick to point out that doesn’t preclude Stanley St from working internationally. No longer with WPP, it can work with whoever it wants overseas.

“If we want to work globally, we can now work with any agencies we want, which is exciting – we are not precluded from deciding who we work with.”

He gives the example of the BP Thank You Button campaign which it developed in the market for New Zealand and has now been picked up internationally. The campaign is based on the insight that a deficit of gratitude on the road is having a lasting negative effect on drivers in New Zealand.

The BP Thank You Button allows drivers to display a green ‘thumbs up’ light to those behind them.

“It’s proudly for New Zealand by New Zealand but it has global potential and that’s exciting,” Rodney says.

Watch this space

Looking around adland, there are numerous examples of agencies introducing teams, initiatives and studies to create content that resonates with New Zealanders so we put it to Rodney: what makes Stanley St’s offer unique?

“I think that something this opportunity of going independent enables is a very strong ability to focus on mergers and acquisitions.

“From an ownership perspective, that previously would have been quite hard and now it is very much possible.”

He explains while he manages the day-to-day operations, Partington will now focus on mergers and acquisitions to complement the skills the agency already has.

“[Mergers and acquisitions] will provide a wider, deeper offering within the agency,” Rodney says.

“The key areas we are looking at within that regard will be things like data, analytics, CRM and marketing automation.”

While Stanley St already has creative and media offers, with some digital skills, digital disruption and audience fragmentation will see it double down on getting the right message, to the right people, in the right way, at the right time.

Essentially, it’s making sure its solutions answer client needs in today’s always-on environment, Rodney says.

“As it is, we have the media team, we have the creative team, we have massive in-house production capabilities and at, the moment, that’s being used to produce a lot of different content. If we lay some data and marketing automation over that I think that will be quite exciting.”

Stanley St is already versed in acquisitions as the departure from WPP has seen the agency acquire Geometry, a shopper and brand activation agency.

Geometry is a WPP-owned brand so the name will now be dropped as it joins Stanley St. Alongside Geometry, Stanley St has also integrated Alloy, a Wellington-based digital agency, into its business. The two were already working together but with going independent, Rodney says Alloy has become one with Stanley St. The two additions, plus Culture, a social media agency within the agency, gives Stanley St an employee count of 150. But with mergers and acquisitions on the cards, that number is one to watch.

A hands-on approach

So how have the staff taken the move? While they have a newly decorated office to work in and fresh email signatures, like clients they have faced minimal disruption.

They have, however, been tasked with creating the new agency brand. As the adage goes, the shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot, but not at Stanley St. Rodney commends his team for doing a stunning job of the design and says there’s more to come.

On top of investing thought into the brand, going independent has allowed the agency to launch an employee share scheme, which will allow senior agency employees to own shares in Stanley St.

Rodney sells the initiative as one to both attract and retain top talent – something the agency will have to think about as talent in the industry can be attracted by the name of an agency, like Ogilvy. He says that is a serious concern with dropping the Ogilvy name, but adds the transition has been taken well by all and staff are excited.

“They resonate with the new brand and being a challenger brand and like the point of difference of being New Zealand’s largest independent.”

Being the new managing director on the block, Rodney will no doubt spark a change in culture through his own management style – which he describes as “hands-on”.

“For the longer-term culture, there will be a change in Greg stepping away from the day-to-day side and giving me the opportunity to take the MD role,” he says. Now stuck-in and sitting among his team, Rodney hopes to put his belief in mentoring, growth and learning into practice.

“The quote ‘success should be defined as the success you help others to achieve’ has always sat with me quite well,” he explains, going on to share examples of former colleagues he’s helped work up the ranks.

Even when it comes to the fundamentals of running a business, he’s all for the staff – a believer in profitability being a byproduct of happy staff and happy clients.

While we’ll have to wait to see how Stanley St’s financial performance compares to Ogilvy’s, for now there’s no denying the hum inside the agency. But for those who can’t see inside, what does Rodney want people to think when they drive past its building?

“This was an iconic red building for many years with a big Ogilvy logo and Ogilvy is a well-known, global brand,” he says. “I think the main thing we want people to take away is ‘something has changed’.

“Something big has changed so get excited.”

This piece was originally published in the 2019 Awards Issue of NZ Marketing magazine. To get a print copy, subscribe here.

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