Ten years of True

We talk to True CEO Matt Dickinson as he looks back on the agency’s development over the past decade, through its growing then shrinking to become the perfect size.

After years toiling away in the safety net of global advertising agency networks, Craig Pethybridge wanted a change and an opportunity to flex his own convictions. And so it was that in 2011, True was born as an independent disruptor agency designed to put people and creative over revenue and growth. 

With a bottom drawer overflowing with ideas for products, apps and businesses, Craig set to work. Matt Dickinson came on board six months in, and together with Conan Gorbey and Steve Kane, they set about building a brand-experience agency that could effect positive change by going beyond ad-shaped solutions. 

Craig and Matt were in talks for about six months before Matt made the leap from network agency life, but the decision was actually in his blood. “My old man had small businesses and was a bit of an entrepreneur, so I always thought I’d do the same,” he says. “I just didn’t know when I was younger that it’d be in advertising.”

From the get-go, True has set itself apart by offering a diverse set of skills within its team. Within a year of launching, it had capabilities not offered by other agencies, including innovation, spatial design, content creation and internal culture.

In the past 10 years, True has worn many hats. At first, the agency purposely flew under the radar, but then the wins started rolling in – and they didn’t stop. In time, the brands drawn to True’s fresh spirit got bigger and bigger, and the team had to acquire a more traditional structure to serve demand. Before long, True had become the beast it was originally designed to slay.

For two years now, True’s leadership team has been re-evaluating the agency’s reason for being. “Through Covid-19 and a couple of account losses, we’ve had a rethink, which has been very cathartic,” says Matt. “When I think about the early years, we’ve come full circle, and we’re excited to be back where we were originally. We’ve got some fantastic clients.”

Matt Dickinson.

As True grew and took on relationships with ever-larger clients (including the likes of Air New Zealand, ANZ and Vodafone), Matt says they forgot to plan ahead in terms of who they were as an agency and where they wanted to go.

“We had businesses coming in the door, which meant we grew quite big, and it took us away from being the disrupter we wanted to be. We stopped thinking about who we’re for and who we’re not for – but we’re clear on that now. We’re not looking to land-grab because we’re never going to be a DDB and we’re really clear about that.”

In the beginning, True had a mission: to create results by applying insight-driven creativity to all of their clients’ businesses. The team decided to approach each client’s business as their own. 

The original True manifesto included being accountable, sharing ideas and staying true to their convictions. Even when the team lost sight of their valuable position as a disruptor in the industry, they managed to adhere to their manifesto in terms of their most cherished asset – the culture of the agency.

“Culturally and with our values, we’ve stayed consistent over the years,” says Matt. “[Our workplace] is inclusive and there’s not a lot of hierarchy here. Even when we got big, the structure was still flat.”

True’s various leaders during the past decade have continually recognised that work is a big part of people’s lives, and that the agency was created as an antidote to the grind of some network agencies. “Our leaders have always been empathetic,” says Matt. “It’s simple: look after people and they’ll generally be productive and willing to work for you. All you need is empathy and understanding.”

The other thing about being a disruptor agency is the desire to expand the idea of what success looks like, which involves recognising that people matter as much as profit, if not more. In recent years, True has walked away from lucrative client relationships when their team was put in harm’s way.

Its approach to hiring has also changed in the reshape of the business. True is now mostly hiring senior practitioners who’re both best-in-class and genuine people who possess an entrepreneurial spirit. The team of strategists, creatives, creative technologists, content creators, designers and business partners deeply understands the fine line between interesting and self-interested. 

In a team of 25, with a few new hires to come, three people are in the strategy department, showing True’s renewed commitment to that area. “We love to have that senior interaction, and we have that with our clients too,” says Matt. “It means we can be strategic partners, which is what we want to do to demonstrate value.”

True has benefited from having a range of client partners, some from the very beginning, who see the benefit of a collaborative relationship. These clients provide access to their own senior leadership, which is crucial for accountability. 

Matt says everyone in the team is proud of the work they do and enjoys celebrating the jobs big and small. “Some [of the work]is not going to be making award shows, but that doesn’t matter. If it works well for the client and the relationships, and the processes are strong, that’s what counts. There has been work we’ve done that’s been awarded creatively, but we don’t single it out because it discredits all the other work we do.”

True’s work is guided by three principles:

  1. Fall in love with the problem not the solution.
  2. Stand for things that matter to New Zealand.
  3. Build brands from the inside out.

For the True team, standing for things that matter to New Zealand has many facets. One of those is taking a stand against things that threaten the spirit of the creative community: unreasonable time frames, hyper-fuelled competition between agencies, global organisations soaking up the shelf space, short-term thinking and profits over all else. Going back to their disruptor roots gives the team a chance to be back in control.

“Of course we need to grow, but we can put the controls around that,” says Matt. “We’re not chasing huge revenue targets every month. It means we can look after our people in the right way and go after businesses we want, rather than chasing everything around town.”

Another priority for True is looking after the environment and reducing their footprint. The agency is Toitu– enviromark gold-certified as part of their environmental management system journey. It all adds up to a triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

Could they do more? Absolutely, says Matt, and working in the community and not-for-profit space is something they want to expand on.

As True approaches its latest milestone – the big 1-0 – Matt’s proud of where they are, and most importantly, looking forward to what the future holds. “It’s been a fantastic journey,” he says. “We’ve learnt a lot and I feel like from where we were two years ago to where we are now, we’re in a really exciting place. We’re fit for what I think is going to be necessary for the next decade of marketing and communications agencies.”

Bring it on. 

For more info, visit theTrue website.

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Caitlin Salter is a freelance writer who contributes to various publications at ICG Media.

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