There are many things that are legendary about The Jupiter Drawing Room. For one, there are the awards – a whole cabinet of them. The company is the only South African agency to be listed among the top five most creative agencies in the world by US trade publication Advertising Age, based on creative performance. The recent partnership deal with WPP – in which Jupiter retained a 51% stake and therefore its independence – is being hailed as an industry first. The founders are industry legends in their own right. Powerhouse CEO Renee Silverstone is a leading light among South African businesspeople of both genders and is respected by clients, employees and competitors as a woman who makes things happen. Group chairman Graham Warsop is the most awarded creative director in the history of South African advertising and in 2005 was recognised by the London International Advertising Awards as the top creative director in the world.
And then there’s the chesterfield – an antique leather sofa that’s legendary not only because of the history attached to it, but because it sums up everything that The Jupiter Drawing Room stands for. “Renee and I had been in business for about three weeks and we were operating out of an old run-down house on Oxford Road. I was given the task of buying the boardroom furniture, for which we had an allocated budget,” explains Warsop. Silverstone interjects. “The delivery vehicle arrived on the Monday morning with this gorgeous chesterfield and I said, ‘Oh that’s lovely! It will go so beautifully with the rest of the boardroom furniture.’ At which point, Graham informed me that there was no other boardroom furniture. He’d blown the entire budget on a sofa.” In spite of the blow-up that followed and Silverstone’s threats to walk out on the partnership, the chesterfield was permitted to stay. “It’s synonymous with beautiful craftsmanship and quality – things that I’ve always wanted our work to be associated with. The chesterfield and what it stands for are the things we started with and have tried to retain. It represents the power inherent in skill and ingenuity applied with care,” says Warsop.
Following the dream
Its single antique furniture item aside, The Jupiter Drawing Room had humble beginnings. In the early start-up months in 1989, Warsop and Silverstone initially employed only a PA and occupied modest premises. “We didn’t want to be the biggest agency. Right from the outset we wanted to be recognised for the quality of the work, not the quantity. We wanted to create an agency where doing brave work was everything,” says Warsop. It was this vision that clinched the deal for Silverstone. “When I first met Graham I had about ten years’ worth of good industry experience behind me and I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to partner with this person who hadn’t been around all that long. I thought I was a bit above it all,” she says, but adds, “What struck me right from the start though, was the fact that Graham’s work was outstanding. I was frankly mesmerised by his creative ability and passion. I wanted to be part of a journey that was about being the best in the industry.”
Establishing a growing reputation
The pair formed a partnership that, up until the company’s empowerment deal in 2005, was based on nothing more formal than a shared vision and a handshake. Growth in the early days was organic but steady. “With Hewlett Packard disinvesting in South Africa, we landed the High Performance Systems account, which was a big one,” recalls Silverstone. By the end of 1989, the company had 12 staff members and had turned a profit of R600 000, not an inconsiderable sum at the time.
“All of this was ploughed back into the business. We weren’t interested in being able to take dividends,” says Silverstone, “Instead we were trying to build something.”While it landed some big accounts like FNB and SAA, the team continued to invest in creative work for smaller, less well-paying clients. It’s a move Warsop believes helped build the company’s reputation for distinctive work. “We did work for smaller clients who bought into what we were trying to sell them and gave us the kind of creative freedom that isn’t easily found with multinational brands,” he explains. Team photographs, taken at the end of every year, show slow steady organic growth. In 1995, the Cape Town office of The Jupiter Drawing Room opened, with Kevan Aspoas, Ross Chowles and Joanne Thomas as founding shareholders. “By that stage, we had established a growing reputation in Johannesburg and wanted to expand. The Cape Town operation played a pivotal role in helping us to grow The Jupiter Drawing Room brand,” says Warsop. By the end of 2005 it was billing in excess of R300 million a year. And then came an event that was to change everything.
The tipping point
“We dubbed it the perfect storm,” says Silverstone. At the end of 2006 three major accounts – MTN, Sasol and Absa – all went out to tender and The Jupiter Drawing Room was shortlisted to pitch for all three. “The pitch days were scheduled on three consecutive days in December 2006, so we got our staff together and had a discussion about how to handle it. We didn’t know if it was possible,” adds Warsop. Overwhelmingly, staff voted in favour of pitching for all three accounts. “It was a risky move because when you pitch for one account, you can give it your all, but when you pitch for three at the same time your creative resources are stretched. Our people indicated however that they wanted to do it, so we went ahead. We were the only agency that was daft enough to do it,” he explains. The eight weeks that followed involved some of the hardest work Silverstone and Warsop say they’ve ever asked of their team. “It was one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced,” Silverstone says.
But the work – and the risk – paid off. Incredibly the company scored a hat trick. It was the biggest new business win in the history of the South African advertising industry. But if pitching for three accounts was risky, landing them was more even more so. The pressure to gear up in order to deliver could make or break the company. “It’s the kind of business everyone always dreams of winning, but when it’s awarded to you, you’d better make sure you can deliver otherwise it can sink you,” says Warsop. Fortunately, the board had been considering how to gear up before they even submitted their pitches. “When the decision was taken to pitch for all three accounts, we called our management team together and looked at what would be required if we were to land all of them. We then sent each person out to headhunt the best people in the industry, so we had already interviewed people before we’d been awarded the work. In December of that year, before I went on leave, I signed 40 appointment letters in the space of two days,” says Silverstone.
The company took on a billion rands’ worth of business overnight and the team more than doubled in size, going from 120 people to 250 in just three months. “I think it’s testament to our sustainability, gear-up strategy and ability to deliver that all our clients from those days renewed their contracts,” she adds.
The work is everything
The growth precipitated by that “perfect storm” brought with it other challenges however, not least of which was how to retain the unique and distinctive stamp that had secured The Jupiter Drawing Room its legendary status. Warsop admits, “It does get harder the bigger you get. In the early days we could focus purely on the work, but later you have the challenges of management, administration and growth. I try to remember why it is that we are in business and when I’m driving home at night I ask myself if we are doing the kind of work that we set out to do. If not, what are we going to do about it?
Industry legend John Hegarty says that if you take care of the work, everything else will take care of itself and I believe that. The work is what you have to drive every day. It’s central.”He continues, “The only way you can show staff how to deliver distinctive, compelling work, is to deliver distinctive, compelling work. You need to lead by example. And you need to hold everyone accountable for the work, not just the creative department. The performance of every team member needs to contribute to making the work distinctive, so this is the bar against which every team member is measured. If you’re not there to make the work better, you shouldn’t be there.” As CEO, Silverstone leads the charge with a highly interactive approach. “We hold staff away days every quarter where we communicate what’s going on in the business and the industry, but mostly where we assess the work of the last three months. Is it sexy or is it flat, and if so, why? Where can we improve? Asking these questions in both cases is important because it pushes you to be better,” she says.
The dream deal
With such single-minded dedication to excellence, it’s unsurprising that The Jupiter Drawing Room has been courted by almost every agency group, but the company has always valued its independence. “The history of advertising in this country involves a large multinational agency network acquiring a local agency and absorbing it into its network. We never wanted to do that but we did realise, particularly as we landed big global brands, that at some point we would need an international link if we wanted to grow with our clients,” says Warsop.
In watching his icon, John Hegarty, Warsop saw the blueprint for any future partnership deal The Jupiter Drawing might enter into. “He’d always been staunchly independent so when he did a partnership deal with Leo Burnett I phoned him to ask him why, and he pointed out to me the fact that you can’t grow beyond a certain point without a multinational partner. However, he made it clear that he would only sell 49% of his shares and I realised if we ever got the chance we would do the same,” he explains. In January this year the perfect deal came along. WPP, headed up by Sir Martin Sorrell, acquired a 49% stake in The Jupiter Drawing Room & Partners, leaving 51% in the hands of the Jupiter agencies. This is unique in an industry where the traditional international networks’ investment policy is to acquire majority equity.
But in the end, as Warsop points out, it wasn’t the 49/51 split that secured the deal. “It was rather the fact that we agreed with Sir Martin that our brand wouldn’t be part of something else, but rather that it would stand on its own as The Jupiter Drawing Room within WPP’s stable of ad agencies,” he says. This is significant not least because it allows the possibility for the brand to grow into other countries. “If your brand is part of a multinational network, you can’t open an office in a place they already occupy. But as The Jupiter Drawing Room we can open anywhere in the world,” says Warsop.
From Kilimanjaro to Everest
This is precisely where he and Silverstone have set their sights. “We want to open offices in other parts of the world but we also want to see if we can get international work here,” says Silverstone. Warsop adds, “South Africa has a wealth of creative talent. For a country that represents only 0,5% of global advertising spend we are easily in the top ten countries in the world when it comes to creative ability, so it makes sense to get our local creative talent to offshore briefs here at home.” Silverstone will continue to oversee the Johannesburg operation while Warsop will investigate the international opportunities at a group level. They know the challenge that lies ahead of them. “For one thing, we need to stay abreast of the global digital environment. In South Africa, digital spend accounts for only 1,5% of the market, but year-on-year it’s showing the biggest growth. This is where the opportunity and the future lies, and this is where we need to be,” says Silverstone. Charting new territory should come naturally by now. As Warsop says, “If the last 20 years – getting to the point where we are the largest independent agency on the second biggest continent in the world – was Kilimanjaro, then the next 20 years is about Everest. We want to build the most successful independent agency group in the world. We’re up for it.”
Surviving – and thriving – in the perfect storm
In 2006 The Jupiter Drawing Room rode high on the wave of “the perfect storm”, pitching for three major accounts on three consecutive days. It was the kind of opportunity businesses dream of, but it’s also the kind that can quickly sink an enterprise if not managed carefully. For The Jupiter Drawing Room, taking the risk paid off – the company took on a billion rands’ worth of business overnight. Here’s what Warsop and Silverstone did right:
- Consulting their team, who overwhelmingly voted in favour of pitching for all three accounts at once. A team who was invested in tackling the challenge and getting behind the project was an important success factor.
- Having the foresight to gear up for the potential new business before it had even been awarded. This meant that the company was well down the recruitment road and could quickly increase its headcount when the new business came in.
- Delegating headhunting to team managers who were personally tasked with going out and finding the best people in the business, should the company need to employ them.
- Being nimble enough to do all of the above while pulling off the most important pitches in the company’s history.