5 Minutes with… Rob Belgiovane
He’s got big ideas and a big personality, holds no truck with ‘adspeak’ and the Adland Bubble and reckons he’s a better boss than an employee; Rob Belgiovane is the ‘B’ from BWM Dentsu, an Australian agency that’s had a huge 18 months. The creative shop, which Rob co-founded with partners Paul Williams and Jamie Mackay, has just marked its 20th anniversary – and it’s also joined forces with the Dentsu Aegis Network, becoming the network’s ‘creative engine’ down under. The offices in Sydney and Melbourne have swollen in number as talent from some of the existing Dentsu companies have moved in. And now that the upheaval is over with, BWM Dentsu is putting creativity front and centre.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Rob to pick his brains…
LBB> How did you get into the ad industry in the first place? Were you always kind of intrigued by advertising, or was it a bit more accidental?
RB> When I was in my last year of high school, all my subjects were art based. English, art music. I think one of my teachers said, ‘you know what, you should look at advertising…’ Until that point I had been thinking about maybe working at a TV station, maybe I could be a cameraman. I just wanted to be in the arts.
Coincidentally I started dating a girl who worked in an advertising agency. I was still at school and she was a secretary or something. She invited me to the agency one Friday night. This was in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s… It was like a party! Everyone was having the best time ever and I thought, ‘hang on is this a job?’
LBB> So what happened next?
RB> I wrote to every advertising agency in Adelaide and of those I got four replies. I sniffed around and got a job as a gopher. I then landed a job as a copywriter at a radio station. Once I’d done that for a while I went back to advertising and I got a job at McCann Erickson and then another at Ogilvy & Mather. It was a pretty good place to be as a trainee as they had all these principles and books that David Ogilvy had written, rules that made creative thinking easier to some degree.
After Ogilvy I got a job offer at George Patterson Bates, who offered to transfer me to Sydney. I thought I would go and have a look at MoJo – when it was being run by Mo [Alan Morris] and Jo [Allan Johnston] it was probably one of the best agencies in the country. They offered me a job on half the salary of what George Patts was offering me… and I said yes. It was a very exciting time.
That was the beginning of it. I feel fortunate for working with Mo and Jo because it was a great learning ground, even though they were ruthless dictators, which was the model for agencies in those days. They were good hearted ruthless dictators.
Then I went to work at Bryce Courtenay’s agency and as you know he went on to become one of the best writers in the world, so there was lots of learning there. I was very lucky to have some very good teachers back in the day.
LBB> Correct me if I’m wrong but it looks like you’ve spent more time in your career in agencies you’ve founded than agencies owned by other people! Why does that way of working appeal to you?
RB> I started BAM when I was 28. It’s a really good age to start an agency because you’re not worried about the consequences. A lot of people think you have to wait until you’ve got enough experience but the reality is, when you do it younger you’re prepared to take more risks. You know you can always go back and get a job. You’re more prepared to jump into things and that gives you the freedom to break new ground. If you do your own business you get a taste for it.
It’s a different sort of stress to working for a network. I prefer to be at the top of the food chain rather than being in the middle. I think some people are inherently better at running their own agency than being employees… you wouldn’t get much argument from people who knew me when I was young that I was a terrible employee!
LBB> Does running your own agency help you understand your clients’ problems a bit better too?
RB> The best work I’ve ever done in my career came from direct collaboration with the most senior client, and that came from running my own agency. Before that I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the senior client! When you get your own business you’re working with the CEO and CMO and that collaboration leads to the best work. We still try and focus on that today – we focus on ‘what is the actual business problem’ and out of that what is the marketing issue?
LBB> In Australia you’re a bit of a TV personality, popping up on news and chat shows to talk about ads. How did you get involved with that?
RB> It came about accidentally. I started going on a midday show by a guy called Ray Martin, and I’d go on with my partner and instead of just talking about ads, Ray would have these funny skits written. We became the token ad guys – and I think I had a ponytail back then, so it was every cliché you could imagine. We got into the spirit of it and had a good laugh and it got good ratings, so I think people started to think of us as people who knew what they were talking about.
To be honest I don’t do it as regularly as I used to. The Today Show was a breakfast show that I would go on once a fortnight and I would show international work. But ultimately, while it’s a lot of fun, does it really drive the business?
LBB> It must be kind of fun talking about ads with non-ad folk (fewer buzzwords!) – but what sort of topics did you find yourself discussing on TV?
RB> People love great ideas. The segments were showcasing some of the best work in the world. People were just blown away by some of the work that’s happening internationally, especially when you compared our budgets with some of the bigger budgets in the US and Europe a few years ago.
You’re not talking about the work from the perspective of metrics or data, it’s a much more emotional take on it. That’s fun for me because that’s how I talked about ads at home with my Italian Mum and Dad. My parents are very working class, regular folk. If they liked something I’ve done and I hadn’t told them it was me, I’d know I was onto something. They used to ring me and ask ‘I’ve just seen the funniest thing – did you do it?’
…But by the same token when my mum saw the Tooheys Tongue ad that BMF did, she said, ‘please don’t tell me you did that, it’s revolting, it made me feel sick!’
LBB> Well… the BWM Dentsu mantra is ‘ideas that get Australians talking’ – what does get Australians talking?
RB> So many brands talk to people from a place called ‘Adland’. And it’s a funny place, ‘Adland’; it’s not the real world but lots of advertisers and agencies live in it. They think something will resonate but it doesn’t because it’s written in brandspeak and adspeak. People don’t talk like that. You don’t go to the pub and talk about brands the way clients and data analytics do. You say ‘I like it’, ‘I love it’ or ‘that ad’s shit’.
If you can run ads that people find charming and that they can see themselves in and gives them an emotional reaction, then it’s going to resonate and it’s going to get people talking at barbecues and sharing on social networks.
LBB> There’s been some great work over the past 12 months – I really enjoyed the pixelated family in the National Broadband Network campaign and the Taika Waititi-directed Crazy Domains spots with Rhys Darby. And there’s been the recent Rav4 too. Which recent pieces of work from BWM are you proudest of and why?
RB> For me and my partners Paul and Jamie, we really are pushing the creative agenda hard at the moment. There was a time maybe five or six years ago that I think we were a higher rated creative agency than perhaps we are today, but when you’re in the middle of a merger there are so many things to focus on. Now we’re so much more able to focus on the calibre of the work. I think we’ve done some great work and I think there’s even better work to come.
Dentsu is leading the way by being at the top of every award show and we want to be part of that. Dentsu is very driven in terms of creativity and creative awards. We have always been very driven by results. And I think if you bring these two things together you end up in a sweet spot.
We’ve got a new ECD starting in Melbourne, Simon Bagnasco. Part of the criteria for choosing Simon was his award track record and some of the outstanding work he’s done. What’s kind of exciting is when you’re working with Isobar and Soap they’ve got a really strong creative culture too. I think it will really come to bear over the next few months.
I think it’s really important these days for an agency to be seen to be providing the best creative solutions. There’s obviously been some highlights in the work to date, like Selleys Tradies two or three years ago. There’s some good work this year but the best is yet to come.
LBB> It was about 18 months ago that BWM joined forces with Dentsu Aegis Network. Why were they the right network to go with and why was it the right time to do that?
RB> In Australia, the Dentsu Aegis Network is media agencies like Carat, Vizeum and digital experience agencies like Isobar and Soap and iProspect. What they didn’t have in that massive group was a creative agency. When you’re talking to potential buyers of a creative agency there are the obvious ones like WPP or Publicis, but we didn’t want to be the 10th creative agency brand within a major group in a market as small as Australia.
The advantage with Dentsu Aegis Network was that we were the only creative agency amongst the raft of media agencies and digital specialist agencies. We saw that as a huge opportunity to be the creative engine of the entire group, which is a bit different to being another creative agency going after the crumbs in a given pitch.
The other thing is that I sold my first agency BAM to Dentsu in the early ‘90s. I know Dentsu is such an untapped monster and a lot of people, because of the culture and language barrier, don’t really understand what Dentsu are as a brand. When you look at Dentsu properly, they have a film production arm producing A-List movies, they have a sports marketing arm running the Olympics in Japan. They have a department of 100 people whose sole reason for coming in in the morning is to come up with an award-winning idea or an unusual idea in new channels.
We thought, if we can tap into that even just a tiny bit we’d be the best agency in the world in this region. We figured we could globalise what Dentsu already deliver so superbly in Japan. That for us is part of the fun of it.
LBB> It’s also a big year for you because BWM has just turned 20! What are your plans to celebrate?
RB> We talked about having a 20th anniversary party but next year we turn 21, so we’re celebrating that instead. We’re going to combine everyone in our offices in Sydney and Melbourne and there have been a lot of people who have come on since we joined Dentsu Aegis Network. 21st birthdays are more fun anyway!
LBB> And where do you see the agency in another 20 years’ time?
RB> I don’t know if I can tell you about 20 years’ time but by 2020 we expect the agency to be a creative powerhouse in the Australian market. We’re all striving to be the agency of the year across the region by 2020.
I think 20 years’ time is hard to predict, I wouldn’t know if we’re going to have social media in the way we have today, if we’re going to consume television in the way we do today. All I know is this: the key to having an agency be at the forefront of the business for as long as we have is all about being flexible and adaptable. Agility, for me, is the key to being a long term player in this industry. Whether that means we’re going to move into content development or whether that means we’re going to evolve into some weird form that I don’t yet know about, what I do know is that we have a culture of being flexible and adaptable. Our staff is getting younger and hipper and hopefully that will help us to keep moving along with our clients.
LBB> What’s the most frustrating thing about the Australian ad industry right now?
RB> I think there’s a lot of change going on in the industry and a lot of clients are at a different level of understanding when it comes to what’s going on. Some are right across it, some are not. Some have been to Cannes many times, some have not. You’ve got a very disparate perspective out in the marketplace about what constitutes great work, beyond results. It can be frustrating when you’re developing ideas based on a very contemporary model of what’s going on in the world to people who have never been to Cannes or who don’t know what’s going on.
And then there’s the other side of it where people say, ‘I want you to develop me an Uber, here’s 50 grand’. Well, Uber cost 20 million to develop. You don’t brief digital because you haven’t got any money.
LBB> And the most exciting?
RB> We will always try to take our best clients to Cannes and what I think is exciting is when you all get on the same page about what constitutes great work and great strategy and you’re all aligned. When you work with those sorts of clients is the best fun ever and the sky’s the limit.