REBUILDING the creative reputation of an advertising agency means doing “big work on big brands” that will resonate and cause significant conversations, not “organising a flash-mob in Braamfontein that no-one ever sees”, say BBDO regional director Gau Narayanan and executive creative director Brad Reilly.
The pair are part of a team spearheading a rejuvenation of the Johannesburg-based Net#work BBDO agency, which until a few years ago was seen by many as the only game in town. It held major accounts such as Cell C and Nedbank.
But the advertising business is cyclical and fickle, and as accounts moved on, many in the industry asked if the shop founded by heavyweights Keith Shipley and Mike Schalit (who re-located to Cape Town some years ago but are still busy in management) had seen its best days.
Narayanan concedes that when big clients leave there is a danger that the culture can soften as talented staff depart. But sitting in the agency’s new Rosebank headquarters, he says Net#work’s creativity has never wavered, and multiple local and international awards were won over the past few years. Revenue has risen over 30% in the past 12 months, with 13 new accounts in SA and in East and West Africa.
Notable wins include the R8m Lotto account, Unisa, Virgin Money and Kenyan beer brand Tusker. The agency is also launching a new content creation division called Flare.
Reilly says his creative department has been forced to take an honest look at its work and says a new focus had to be given to creating advertising “that was spoken about not only by peers but also in popular culture”. With that new philosophy the agency has “started resourcing towards that kind of output.
“People have begun to notice and we’re getting onto more pitch lists,” he says.
The pair also believe many brands dumb down their approach to the rest of Africa to their detriment. Reilly calls this “Kodak advertising” where the application of the product is explained to smiling consumers who are thought to be largely unsophisticated. “We have a different view: it’s a continent that enables the use of distinctive ideas and creativity that hold their own on a world stage.”
One example is a campaign for Tusker that asked customers to text a special code in exchange for a free beer every time the nation had something to celebrate. Reilly says the brand’s sales are at its highest in five years. A local campaign for the national lottery boosted sales by 14% as the brand’s positioning was moved to achievable goals like completing education and starting businesses.