When it comes to creativity, Matthew Bull’sphilosophy is simple: don’t be boring. Pretty obvious for someone working inthe advertising field, except that it’s advice that few creative people reallytake to heart. Borrowed from UK advertising guru, David Abbott, it’s aphilosophy that speaks of continually pushing the boundaries, doing thingsdifferently, changing the status quo. It means creating excitement – in bothclients and consumers. And for Lowe Bull, the advertising agency founded byMatthew Bull, it has also meant success. Lots of it. It’s meant signing clientslike Nike, Nandos, Axe, Coca Cola and, most recently, Hansa. And it’s meantawards. Having recently returned from the Cannes International AdvertisingFestival (where he was selected to be the South African judge in 2000), MatthewBull is in proud possession of two gold Lion awards (for the company’s pressand radio adverts for Axe deodorant) and two bronze awards (for the Axe pressand Anti-smoking outdoor adverts).
“This is a tough business and it’s easy tobe ordinary. You have to constantly remind yourself to be exceptional,” saysthe 43-year-old, who started the company with partners John Pace and IanCalvert, as Bull Calvert Pace in Cape Town in 1996, with founding client, theCape Times. Bull approached the global Lowe & Partners network, looking forfinancial backing, but was turned down. “Initially they told me they investedin going concerns, not start-ups, but my partners persuaded me to go back tothem. So I gave it one more go and sent a business plan over,” Bull relates. AUK meeting with Sir Frank Lowe turned out to be auspicious in two respects:firstly, Bull and his partners received R800 000 in return for Lowe &Partners taking a 26% stake in the business and secondly, the meeting was heldin the offices that Bull himself would later occupy as worldwide chief creativeofficer for the Lowe group in London.
Looking back on those early days, Bullsays: “We were fanatical believers in ideas and we were incredibly andwonderfully naïve. The beautiful thing about naïvety is that it means you don’tknow what you can’t do. We weren’t afraid to try new things.” This earlyculture is something he and his management team have fought hard to retain asthe company has grown and expanded, but, as Bull points out, this hasn’t alwaysbeen easy. When the agency lost the Smirnoff account, which made up 40% of thecompany’s revenue, a retrenchment of a third of its staff presented a seriousthreat to morale. But as Bull points out: “I realised that how you let peoplego is vitally important to the people who stay behind, because it shows themthat you care. We tried to treat people in accordance with our principles.” Andwhen the agency took over Johannesburg-based Lintas, Bull recalls a meetingwith staff during which he put across a clear but uncompromising message:Either fit in with what we stand for or leave.
“When you start a business it’s like acultural impersonation of yourself but as it grows, the culture becomes dilutedand you don’t really articulate these things until you are in danger of losingthem,” he explains. What Lowe Bull stands for is something he’s given a gooddeal of thought to lately, especially in light of recent partnerships that thecompany has entered into. And what he’s come up with is ‘liberation’. “My dutyand the duty of my leadership team is to liberate the people within the companyso that they can be themselves and express themselves – because that’s when youget the best creativity,” he says. Again, this might seem obvious but theimportant thing is that he’s onto something, because the net effect is anaward-winning team that delivers exceptional work. And that’s anything butboring.