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Catching Up with Red Engine Founder & CEO Julian Townley

Townley discusses what it takes to be a hands-on entrepreneur in ad land today

Catching Up with Red Engine Founder & CEO Julian Townley

As the founder and CEO of independent creative content agency Red Engine SCC, owner of video production house Engine Room Productions, and partner in music company Red Note Visionary Sounds, Julian Townley is one of Australia’s only entrepreneurs who has staked a claim across all three industry verticals. Here, he sits in to discuss what it takes to be a hands-on entrepreneur in ad land today.

Q> What enticed you to get into advertising?

JT> My father was in advertising, he was one of the senior executives at USP Needham before DDB bought them out and I remember having fond memories of walking around the agency as a young kid. I also love creativity, I love brands, and I love the psychology behind advertising.

I started out in the film industry in Vancouver. The first movie I worked on, as a grip was Jumanji. I went on a journey of 10 years in the film and television industry, which was great. Prior to working in film, I had a position at The Manly Daily, selling feature advertising. I loved it and sold it with conviction – because I felt a part of the creative process. When I finally got involved with media sales and advertising, those two worlds collided for me. I was suddenly exposed to digital and creative content.

Q> What was your first big break?

JT> When I was getting closer to ticking over the big 4-0, I thought "if I’m going to do this properly it’s now or never. I’ll get it right more times than I’ll get it wrong, so what have I got to loose?" I felt my knowledge base was strong and that it was the right time to jump off the edge and create something I could hang my hat on.

Red Engine SCC kicked off about five years ago. At first, I contemplated going out on my own, then I considered the benefits of partnering with an already established entity. I had a relationship with Tony Paykel from Paykel Media, after selling him ads as the sales manager at Australian Creative Magazine. He had long standing relationships with clients and I figured they must ask him for creative support recommendations. This led me to set up a creative service division around content.

Tony essentially funded the start of things whilst I went hammer and tong opening up those existing relationships by bringing additional value above and beyond the media component, and at the same time, taking the proposition out to the market. Fairly early on we were lucky to secure work with the Commonwealth Bank, which was the big game changer. After 12 months a key person to join was the former strategic head at Network 10, Kate Richardson – now agency director and head of strategy at Red Engine SCC. Together we ended up doing some great content driven work for the Com Bank. It was an exciting turning point for the agency and gave us a real sense that we had arrived. In fact, the business started in my living room and since then, we have had five different offices in five years, including that living room!

Q> What keeps you excited about working in advertising?

JT> I just love the people, they fascinate me. I’m really fond of our team and I’m excited to build out alongside them. People constantly intrigue me – I mean advertising is the business of psychology. We have to think about how we can best connect with people to get a commercial outcome. For me, I’m playing in the right sandpit: it’s the people, it’s the creativity, it’s that excitement that comes with cracking that big idea, and then being able to bring a client on that journey.

Two and a half years ago, we started a video production company called Engine Room Productions guided by EP Adrian Hyde, and with my background in film and TV, launching the business was a very natural move for me. Red Engine SCC has also always created a lot of video content so it made sense to start a new division that serviced our internal needs and created more scale with the service we provide to our clients.

I’ve been a songwriter and recording/performing artist for as long as I can remember, playing in bands across Canada and Australia, and so my background in music and partnership with my brother Greg Townley (pictured below, right) and long-time music mate Steve Peach also enabled us to launch Red Note Visionary Sounds. Music is the ultimate emotive connector and we love crafting music for the digital age, hence the old baby grand in the reception. It gets a fairly regular tinkling of the ivories and can change the mood on the agency floor in an instant.

Q> What do you think is intrinsic to being an entrepreneur in this industry?

JT> I’ve long been excited by entrepreneurial spirit. I’ve always blazed my own trail; I wasn’t much for schoolwork and jumped that ship pretty early on to go out working. More often than not, I took the high road and that comes with its own challenges because it’s usually normally a much harder road, but the benefit is you learn a lot.

I’ve been on the job for a long time in one form or another.

What motivated me to be an entrepreneur was the desire to be the master of my own destiny. I also love creating partnerships and getting the opportunity to spend time with people that have vision, passion and drive. People who are leading change and innovating. When I can harness that spirit and passion, and then bring it into a more controlled environment – on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis, that’s when I’m enjoying myself the most.  

When you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you also take a different view of the world and you usually have a strong, independent opinion on things. One of my mottos is, work in a business like you own the business because the value an individual gets from this mindset is so much more than they would receive otherwise, plus the value the business gets is trifold.

Q> Why is it important to surround yourself with like-minded people with opposing skill sets?

JT> When we started, traditional agencies weren’t keeping pace with the way people were consuming media and that gap was widening and digital was driving that pace faster and faster and of course still is. That gap is what we seized on with content and the model of agency we created with Red Engine SCC, strategically lead creativity executed at pace is challenging that traditional agency structure.

Yet one of the hardest things to do is find people who have a similar view of the world. If they have digital experience, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will understand content. The first thing they need to understand is why we exist as an agency – the model we employ, our pillars of strategy, content and creative. Our staff has to have a strong view on the ‘why’ and we really look for that in people: a more progressive vision of the industry.

It all comes down to values. We are passionate, proud and humble but fierce when we need to be. We love to compete and that pride and passion drives us forward.

Q> What are some of the major shifts in advertising you’ve seen in your decade plus in the game?

JT> The key shifts are the ones we all know but I think the rapid rise of data and the opportunity it presents to inform personalised creative content is very exciting. Strategy, Content and Creative has been our logo since day one because we knew back then that those pillars were going to see the modern marketer through. It’s about delivering what clients need today and tomorrow. We are not caught up in the past and are not prisoners of our heritage.

Integrating digital took a long time and as predicted, digital has evolved rapidly, fuelled on by social. I think brands have to have a relationship with their consumers in a very, very different way. They need to build value for their consumers and that’s where content is a very powerful tool in doing so — how do we play a role and add value in that consumer’s life? When do we talk to them? How do we talk to them? And, how do we enable them to talk to us? We are experiencing absolute content overload – there’s a massive glut of content, so we work with our clients to focus on the opportunities around premium content and achieving cut through, and that’s quite exciting.

Q> What’s your favourite piece of work/achievement with Red Engine SCC?

JT> One of the earlier projects we did for the Comm Bank, ‘What Kind of Entrepreneur Are You’, was a highlight. It was a project we completed for their SME audience, where we commissioned an organisational psychologist to work with us to create an app that entrepreneurs could engage with. It was a test that would define their predominant trait amongst the seven core traits that make up an entrepreneur. We went around the country interviewing people from all different kinds of businesses, including aviation, finance, real estate, health, and the not for profit sector.

Other work I’m really proud of is our team’s recent project, ‘Telstra Imaginarium’. It’s a piece of work focused on the youth audience and co-creation that demonstrates our capability as an agency in end-to-end content marketing. It was great to be recognised with this piece of work at recent award shows.

Our foray into VR and 360 with ‘Telstra 360’ was a huge suite of work that challenged us greatly. The work scored us a finalist position in the DigiDay Awards for ‘Collaboration With Client’ amongst others. As a client, Telstra is very innovative and truly understood how to partner with our agency. I think in many respects, some of the work we’ve done for Telstra has really helped to shape us as an agency.