Evolution is a word Gareth Leck and Pepe Marais, founders of Joe Public Advertising Agency, understand well. Since the pair started the agency as two twenty-something-year-olds in 1998, they have steered it through a rapidly changing industry and significant growth curve, making whatever changes were necessary along the way to ensure that the business was able to offer superb creative work that was always relevant to clients’ needs. This ability to recognise and react to the need for change has undoubtedly given them an edge in an extremely competitive sector.
Leck and Marais were both working in agencies in Cape Town when they got chatting about an idea for a new and unique advertising model. “It was called Take Away advertising and was quick, slick, no-frills approach to advertising,” says Leck. “Clients would walk in, get a cost off a board, give us a brief, get a quote on the spot and we’d get the job out really quickly,” he continues.
On the strength of this idea alone, and with no capital to speak of, he and Marais both left full-time employment to start the company. “People thought we were mad at the time. We had absolutely no money – I lived on my wife’s salary for the first three months and we didn’t draw any salaries until we could generate enough cash flow in the business to do so,” he says. But Marais adds an important point: “Naiveté was definitely an advantage in those days. We had an idea that we believed in and we went for it – we didn’t look at the thing too hard. What we knew was that the industry had a reputation for having a very ‘ivory tower’ attitude and we were idealistic enough to want to change that. We wanted to create an honest, down-to-earth, transparent agency that could still deliver great creative work, and the Take Away model allowed us to do that.” Working until the small hours of the morning, he and Leck did all the work themselves. “Our first clients were really small with tiny budgets,” says Leck, “But they got a level of work from us that was comparable to anything that a huge corporate with a massive budget could have paid for.”
Growth and challenges
The hard work paid off and as word spread, the business grew. “Our first client was a small retail chain in Cape Town called Full House – we created their name, logo and pay-off line. But I think because we were delivering huge value to clients, our name started to get known and we picked up bigger clients,” says Leck. Cape Union Mart and Kalahari.net were just two of these. After six months, the company hired its first employee and by the end of the first year, the staff complement was up to four, with the business averaging between 20% and 30% growth year-on-year following that.
“Huge challenges come with that kind of growth,” Marais comments, “I think the biggest one was leadership. We were coming off an entrepreneurial base where we hadn’t had the type of mentorship or experience you get working for, and being able to learn from, a leader. We were just two creative guys with a good idea, but all of a sudden we realised that we needed to play not only a creative, but an HR, leadership and business strategy role as well.” Marais adds: “In the early days you learn by making mistakes for the most part, but we worked hard on getting it right, employing business coaches and focusing on our personal development. We also try to give each other constructive criticism and feedback – we have a very open and honest relationship.”
The growth also meant implementing systems and bedding down structure, and as Leck points out, these are things many entrepreneurs battle with. “As things grow, you have to put operating procedures in place, but the trick is to strike a balance between that kind of structure and the need to retain an environment that fosters creativity. It’s a difficult tension – if you are too loose, the business doesn’t run effectively, but if you’re too tight it constrains creativity. It’s also something that you have to work on balancing all the time,” he says. He and Marais agree that the creation of an operations manual, documenting all the business processes for the Take Away model, was immensely helpful in focusing their minds on setting up the right kinds of systems.
But perhaps the greatest challenge precipitated by their growth was the need for change. The industry was starting to shift focus and more and more emphasis was being placed on the need for agencies to add strategic input to their creative work. At the same time, Joe Public was beginning to take on bigger and bigger clients, whose priorities differed from those of the smaller companies. “Bigger clients don’t necessarily want a fast turnaround time and low cost. These things aren’t as important to them as getting things right from a brand strategy perspective,” explains Leck.
He and Marais found themselves at a cross-roads: stick with their existing model and risk not being able to deliver on clients’ evolving needs, or make a fundamental change to the business. Although the writing was clearly on the wall, they agree that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “We had to accept that Take Away advertising had run its course for us. It was a great idea and we made a lot of money out of it but it was clear that we had to shift focus because we were dealing with a different market,” says Leck. Marais adds: “The model wasn’t sustainable for us – we had grown out of it. In addition, from a cost point of view it was no longer working. Our operating costs were unrealistic if we wanted to maintain a certain level of quality and we just weren’t getting the returns that we needed. This forced us to investigate what the issue was and do something about it. But just because you know these things doesn’t make it easy to walk away from something unique that you created.” Fortunately however, the partners made the decision to shift focus to a more strategically driven model that could deliver on the new needs of the market and the bigger clients such as Clover, Tracker and eBucks that they had landed.
So how did a company that’s in the business of brand positioning cope with the shift in its brand focus? Since inception, Take Away advertising had been its key differentiator so what did the change mean for Joe Public’s identity?
“It’s an interesting question, but I think it’s true to say that even though we changed our model, we didn’t change who we were,” answers Leck. Marais explains further: “As our name suggests, when we created Joe Public our ethos was about being down-to-earth, being in touch with consumers and customers. It was based on the principle of advertising for people, by people. Yes, the Take Away model was a key differentiator for us but at the end of the day, it was simply a vehicle for the delivery of these values. We outgrew it as our clients grew but our values are the same today as they were when we started out. We’re still about delivering down-to-earth advertising that reflects the fact that we understand clients’ needs and are in touch with the market out there.”
The shift in focus meant that the company almost had to prove itself all over again – this time without the key differentiator of the Take Away model. Leck and Marais approached this challenge by ensuring that the agency embraced strategically-driven creativity wholeheartedly. “What’s kept us in business all these years – and what will continue to keep us profitable – extends beyond mere creativity. Yes, creativity is vitally important but you need to combine it with a real understanding of a client’s business. Too many creatives don’t place enough emphasis on this. They’re out of touch with what clients need and what the clients’ market is – and this means that the advertising, no matter how creative it is, doesn’t deliver results for clients and is therefore not relevant. And if the ad doesn’t work for clients, you can’t pay your bills. It’s as simple as that,” says Marais.
Leck points out that the business goes to extra lengths to conduct consumer research and bases its work on sound consumer insights. “There are two clients you need to understand – your own client and then their customers, which is the market that your work is targeted at. The starting point is having good relationships with your clients and treating them as business partners,” he says, adding, “We’ve also structured our team in such a way as to reflect the diversity of the different markets out there. If you have a team that’s diverse in terms of age, race and skills, you’ll always have someone who has insight into a particular market segment. But if your team is homogenous, you’re never going to be able to speak to the diverse markets South Africa has.”
Performance measurement also plays a key role in keeping Joe Public’s work relevant. Leck explains: “We score our own work, which can be pretty tough sometimes because it exposes where your weaknesses lie, but it’s the only thing that really keeps you in touch with a client’s needs and expectations.” But when clients talk, you really have to listen, he adds. “It’s not enough to just be enthusiastic about getting feedback from clients – when you get it you really have to listen to it and act on it, implementing the changes suggested,” he says. Just as their industry is constantly evolving, Marais and Leck look forward to taking on the challenges of new growth and changes in the future. “We now know that we can adapt and we’re not afraid of change. In fact, we embrace it. We’re excited about the possibilities that wait for us on the horizon,” they say.
What it takes to make it in advertising
- Tenacity: this is not an easy business and you’re only as good as your last ad so there’s a huge amount of pressure. To be able to take it you need to be passionate about advertising and creativity
- Your first objective should be to understand your client’s business – great creativity is just the vehicle through which you achieve business objectives for your client
- All advertising work has to be results-driven
- Listen to what comes out of client assessments and make changes accordingly. The point of getting feedback is so that you can take action
- Personal development is very important if you want to run an effective business – be open to the fact that you don’t know everything and that you will make mistakes. Take criticism and learn from it. Draw on the resources of other people, whether they are professional business coaches, your partners, staff or friends
- Don’t be afraid to put systems in place – procedures and structure are necessary to help you manage the changes that come with growth
Timeline & Achievements
- 1998: Launched the company with no clients, no money, armed only with big dreams. Staff complement was 3 at this point.
- 1999: Did major campaigns for MWeb and Investec. Won a D&AD and Loerie Gold for corporate identity as well as a host of other creative awards.
- 2000: Secured the Kalahari.net account. Rated by Financial Mail as “The Emerging Ad Agency of the Year 2000”.
- 2001: Had by this time grown to 20 people with annualised billings of R30 million. Secured Ocean Basket, Spier and Robertson as new accounts.
- 2003: Was voted as one of “South Africa’s Most Promising Companies 2003”, by an annual publication produced by the Corporate Research Foundation. Also added the Mahindra car account to our books.
- 2004: Merged and re-branded an existing agency in Johannesburg. New clients gained for the year included Clover, Italtile and Tracker.
- 2005: Gained the eBucks account. At this stage, staff had more than doubled to roughly 50 people.
- 2007: Secured new accounts Nintendo, Planet Fitness and the Legacy Hotels group and won 14 local and international creative awards.