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Opinion and Insight

“We Want to Be the Best Creative Company on the Planet”

Innovation, ‘problem designing’ and creativity are at the core of Colenso BBDO’s future-facing framework, finds LBB’s Laura Swinton

“We Want to Be the Best Creative Company on the Planet”

Colenso BBDO is an agency that has never been shy in its creative ambitions but recently it has been tapping into a deeper well. 

Back in 2011, it was a fairly standard-looking shop. Fifty people. A creative department. An accounts department. Planning. Production. A very recognisable advertising agency. These days, says MD Scott Coldham, while advertising and brand communications will always be a part of Colenso’s DNA the descriptor ‘advertising agency’ doesn’t sit so well. 

“We actually debate this all the time,” laughs Scott, who says the agency would ‘jump through the window’ to work on the big creative comms projects but that it’s now set up to deal with more complex, solution-agnostic client challenges. They’ve landed on ‘creative company’ for now. It does the job and is pleasingly unpretentious – and while other agencies seeking to transform have been ironing creases into their slacks in a McKinsey-esque makeover or have been pushing their art directors into the broom cupboard to make room for armies of data analysts, Colenso’s belief is that creativity will always be at the core of what they do. 

That’s something that Edwin Rozells, Head of Transformation at Colenso BBDO is keenly aware of – having joined three months ago from Accenture Singapore. “Clients are all investing in the same areas. They’re investing in capabilities around data and technology, in customer understanding and so on - but a lot of them are working off the same playbook. They follow the same recipe: how much can you invest and how fast can you reach the same destination that everyone is rushing to,” he says. “I think the proposition of Colenso is that the creativity that we own and have always owned is a big, big differentiator of ours and a strength. It allows us to navigate the client to a different space. That was most interesting to me.”

The creative industry is not short of shops talking up their ambitions to move upstream with clients and innovate beyond the traditional marketing brief, but the Colenso team have been more interested in just getting stuck in and getting on with making real, practical changes to the agency. Perhaps it’s part of the Kiwi no-bullshit culture – though several of the substantive changes are thanks to the arrival of a North American – Head of Innovation & Ventures, Gavin Becker.

Gavin joined as Head of Digital over three years ago – but it soon became clear that the role wasn’t quite right. Gavin’s history, which involved setting up design consultancy Made By Many’s New York Office, working at Twitter and nurturing his fair share of start-ups meant that he was experienced in developing products and services and taking them to market.

“We wanted Gav to bring us an innovation mindset but also challenge the way we work. It gives clients the confidence to move into spaces that they’re not currently working in,” says Scott.

Almost immediately, Gavin could sense opportunities, not only to help clients think and behave differently but to help the agency in that regard too. “Could I, in my role start to redefine an agency that is world renowned for creativity? Could I help the agency itself innovate like a start up and, as a result, help our clients get to solutions faster? Interestingly that took on a bigger role than I thought because we found that clients were really interested in those solutions directly as well,” says Gavin. 

The timing, it turned out, was magic. Just as Colenso started to explore new ways of doing things, marketers were being challenged by their own executive boards to explore new avenues and go beyond the status quo. And, by and large, they didn’t know where to begin, explains Gavin.   “That’s where the methods that I brought to the agency gained a foothold and started to gain momentum.”

Methods like bringing the client into the team and engaging them in scrums and sprints. It may sound sacrilege to pull back the wizard’s curtain in such a way, but in an age of ROI-obsession and impact reports it’s an approach that also shows clients what they actually do. “They [clients] have been really receptive because they feel part of the solution and it helps them see the value of the agency to their business,” says Edwin. “Everybody just feels a bit more involved.”

Another key element to their approach is what Scott calls ‘problem designing’. Working together with the client to really probe and test what it that the team is trying to achieve helps keep the Colenso team agnostic about output. It also helps marketers communicate internally why they’re doing what they’re doing and the potential financial impact.

The way talent is organised internally has also evolved into something more fluid – rather than an overly complex Matryoshka doll architecture of ‘teams within teams’, it’s all about responding to the particular shape that a client’s problem takes.

Implementing all of this change hasn’t been easy; Scott is upfront about the challenges of getting clients used to a new way of working. But the groundwork of the past couple of years is paying off. “It was new, and it was unusual. We had a job to do to get clients over the line and onboard with this way of working and the value it could bring them. But we back it and we believe in it and - what do you know? - it’s working.”

Perhaps the most celebrated example of this innovation-centric approach really working well has been in Colenso BBDO’s relationship with Pedigree. It’s a partnership that has fostered trophy-winning, doggo-pleasing work like SelfieSTIX, which is currently working its way round the awards circuit, most recently picking up a Grand Prix at Ad Stars. There’s last year’s Child Replacement Programme. Or, to pick a random favourite, K9FM, a radio station for dogs. 

With a parent company that is innately wedded to creativity (Mars), and with its own very clear sense of purpose (‘to make the world a better place for dogs’), the local Pedigree team took to Colenso’s approach naturally. The SelfieSTIX is an interesting example of a to-market product – apparently a quarter of Kiwi dog owners got their paws on the clever plastic clip that attaches a Dentastix to their phones in order to take the perfect canine selfie.

But rolling around with puppies is one thing, what about the really intricate, complex problems? Gavin uses the example of Fonterra, which owns Anchor. The dairy company has an ambitious global expansion goal, taking in markets as diverse as milk-shy China and cheese-loving North America.

“Those are really heady, complex problems that you can’t play armchair creative on,” says Gavin. “You can’t solve a brief on a page. It’s about getting stuck in and co-designing with consumers around the world and understanding the unique needs of each market that Anchor is trying to expand into and finding those commonalities or dotted lines that you can harness from a global perspective. That becomes both daunting and extremely exciting. It comes from getting stuck in and working with clients to get under the hood.”

Client-by-client, the team are finding that this framework is making a big difference both for brands and internally. When it comes to business transformation and innovation – finding new ways to work – the team know they can’t just pass judgement from the sidelines. “We need to eat our own dog food!” jokes Gavin.

The challenge for Scott in his role as managing director is to create a framework that will help the agency meet clients’ evolving needs without being so rigid that it locks off new opportunities and ways of working. It’s a balancing act for sure, and a tricky one – but it’s all driven by Colenso BBDO’s inbuilt creative hunger.

“It begins with that healthy paranoia that we want to be creatively brilliant, we want to be the best creative company on the planet and we’re certainly not going to get there by just selling telly scripts,” says Scott. “It’s the only way really.”

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