Global Growth During a Time of Lockdown

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Let’s preface this piece with a key disclaimer: regardless of the positive spillover that events of the last 6 months have had for our business, we would trade it all…in a heartbeat…for a world in which NO ONE was negatively affected by COVID-19.


Ok, our business…

Kind of difficult to classify – not in any ‘rage against the machine’ type of way; but, rather, by virtue of the fact that we’re a happy mix of a few things that straddle traditionally established industries.

A timeline is probably the best way to explain…

Started in 2015 as a traditional Advertising Agency, but really we were just a glorified freelance shop of 4 heavy hitters that the big boys brought in to solve tricky campaigns or win pitches. What made us special was that we were able to integrate our diverse skills and experience to build solutions that not only looked ‘Advertising Smart’ but actually solved actual business problems – something that many agencies, both big and small, weren’t really doing that well.

Did that for a while until it stopped being fun and we realised that for every Rand in value we were creating for our ‘big agency’ partners, they were making R10 from clients…which threw our noses a bit out of joint.  Be that as it may, we decided to take things seriously, double-down on our vision and invest in building a sustainable business. Dropped some deadweight along the journey, but emerged as a stronger business with a legitimate runway, a client roster that included some of the country’s most recognised brands and a portfolio of work that spanned the full range of media platforms.

Can you imagine that, 2 Cape Town boys, up in Jo-hustle-burg, battling it out in the boardrooms of these massive corporates…and winning!

So, where to from there? Ah, the classic ad industry cautionary tale – significant ramping up of staff and overhead to meet the perceived need of a large client full of promises of rainbows and golden (mac?)nuggets. Client deciding that they loved the work but hated the invoice. Client keeping the concept, launching it globally and jettisoning the agency responsible – accompanied, of course, by a legal letter from a suitably large and scary law firm dissolving said client from any legal ramifications – with the thinly veiled sub-text that they had way more money than us to fight a protracted legal battle. You know, the usual…

We won’t mention any names of course, but let’s just say that we skip right over the Big Mac section on Uber Eats these days.

Cue 2018, and here we were with a staff compliment of 40, an 800sqm building in the Melrose area with 3 BIG boardrooms (baller, right) and no anchor client to help offset our monthly overhead. So, what did we do? We had to make the hard calls to survive – retrenchments to right-size our workforce, exited our massively overpriced lease and re-focused our energies and efforts on what had made us great in the 1st place – conceptualizing and producing incredible creative work that solved business needs for the clients that we still had.

We mentioned producing on purpose there – we used what funds we had available during this time to invest in the equipment and talent necessary to allow us to produce all our own work, without having to rely on 3rd party suppliers; having taken the view that market forces were pushing clients to start making more commercially informed decisions when it came to work commissioned, approved and actually produced. Everyone was going to be seeking better value-for-money…screw ‘the ways things have always been done’.

Turns out we were right. About the time we had pivoted our business into the leanest, meanest version of itself – one of our ad-hoc campaign clients, The eMedia Group, one of the largest integrated media groups in South Africa, came calling with an opportunity that changed the game for us…a full brand re-positioning to help them take their business to a new level.

It started as a promo brief, morphed into an integrated multimedia campaign with a big-budget TVC, and after weeks of negotiations, turned into a 3yr strategic brand re-alignment plan, accompanied with a retainer agreement and the opportunity to produce ALL the content – from TV to radio to digital and social, whatever – necessary to turn that strategy into business results. And turn into results they most certainly have – in the space of around 18 months, our anchor client has managed to grow their Openview satellite network from 1.3m to just over 2m TV households…and we’ve been there along with them for every step of that journey.

By every step, we really mean every single step – we’ve even produced a live-studio game show with this client! Talk about jumping into the deep-end.

This organic diversification also served to attract new clients to the SRL way, without us having to follow the traditional ‘pitch for new business’ route – which is a bunch of bullsh!t anyway. Enter stage left, Tarsus on Demand and Microsoft…yes, that Microsoft. Without getting into the nitty gritty, we’ve ended up working intimately with the Tarsus & MS Product teams to not only further their business interests in SA, but to assist them with growing their brand and portfolio of services across the African continent.

Again, full service support – from creative concept development, social and digital media planning, buying and management to video production and performance marketing…everything. Hell, we even got the chance to produce a piece of video work detailing how Microsoft products are assisting the fight against HIV & AIDS in Africa…that made it all the way to the Bill & Melinda Gates annual year-end Gala Event! 

So, early 2020, a team of 20 highly competent, multi-skilled millennials – our average staff age is around 25 – with a few large anchor client brands, a service portfolio spanning the traditional marketing, advertising and production industries and ‘Upwards’ as the only direction to travel and then…boom…COVID-19…

Lockdown…the end of the ‘normal’ work-day as we knew it.

But…this is where I get to the actual point of this story…it turns out ‘Lockdown’ was not the death-knell it was purported to be…

A few simple changes to the way we ran our business:

  1. Team Captains to look after increased collaboration of smaller, more focused teams,
  2. Daily video conference check-ins with the full crew to dipstick where we were and how everyone was doing,
  3. A firm finger on the pulse of our clients, their businesses and the world at large to ensure we kept our horizons expanded and, lastly,
  4. A little investment in technology to ensure that we kept communication and the delivery of work as professional as when we did so in person.

Wouldn’t you know it…the world kept on turning…

In fact, it started to spin faster and faster. Remember I mentioned earlier that clients were becoming more active value-seekers? Lockdown was the petrol that turned that from a slow-burning ember to a raging bonfire!

After the 1st week or so of lockdown our business development function exploded into overdrive. In fact, we didn’t really develop business in so much as we tried to manage the massive inflow of opportunity without dropping any balls.

In the space of 8 weeks, we were briefed on and delivered Microsoft campaigns for 2 of their premium products – MS Teams and Microsoft 365 Business Premium. Fully integrated, digitally focused campaigns – video, interactive websites, social and digital display…the works.

Alongside that, we produced a new brand positioning TVC for eTV, as well as the final episode of the Openview SuperFans game-show…handing over 2 brand new houses to 2 lucky South Africans. This all while managing the monthly services we are retained to deliver – no mess, no fuss. 

Straight after that, we sold Openview an integrated multimedia campaign, featuring a series of 4 TVCs; supported the eNCA initiative to raise more than R30m in food relief for communities severely marginalised by COVID-19; rallied South African’s to wear a mask as their #ShieldOfHonour and landed Cipla as a new client win.

And none of our team went crazy or burnt out…in fact, each success just seemed to breed a growing desire to deliver more and do better. Nuts, right!?

At this point, I should also mention that since the turn of the year, we had started delivering work internationally as well – a side benefit of having multinational clients with regional offices in sexy places like Dubai, New York or Ireland. We had always planned to investigate growing our business internationally, it was just something we ‘were going to get too’.

A happy accident of the lockdown situation – for us at least – was the effect that it had on the Rand. All of a sudden, the depreciation of our local currency meant that having a cost-base in Rands and a revenue stream in Dollars, Euros or Dirhams represented a fantastic value proposition to clients and a healthy boost to the bottom line profitability of our business! Global work proudly ‘Made in South Africa’.

Fast-forward to today and here we stand with a new office just launched in Dubai and a rapidly growing ME regional client base – including a multinational financial services group that does incredibly cool things like facilitate the sale of Premier League Football Clubs…and yachts…and hotel groups, alongside the run-of-the-mill things like multi-generational estate planning, global company registration, multi-passport investment programs etc.

So, there you have it, a 5yr growth plan accelerated into the space of 6 short months…with the thing that was meant to kill us, ironically, proving to be the catalyst that no one could have predicted. I swear, even as an ad agency, we couldn’t have even come up with this stuff!

What have we learnt from this crash-course? Simple, really:

  1. Have faith in your team, regardless of age or experience. A little bit of freedom can result in a huge return in efficacy and efficiency
  2. Make sure your business is able to make quick decisions and smart pivots to respond to market opportunities – they do not stay opportunities for very long
  3. Leverage technology – even it feels a bit glitchy in the beginning. The world has changed, you need to change with it
  4. Be willing to take risks, calculated risks. If you’re not willing to fail, you’re probably not ready to succeed

This story is really not intended as an insensitive flex, nor a glib attempt to secure a bit of free press using COVID-19 as an unwitting vehicle. Quite simply; the world pivoted for the worse and most of us were faced with a never before countenanced scenario of isolation, uncertainty and, let’s be candid, fear.

Not only has the pandemic resulted in massive loss of life; it has caused unprecedented economic collapse with huge swathes of small and medium enterprises, globally, wiped out in the space of, literally, a quarter.

However, like all things…it, too, shall pass.

Life is, slowly but surely, starting to right itself – adjusting to ‘the new normal’ – and if history has taught us anything, it is that opportunity follows disaster as surely as day follows night.

This story is merely our attempt to inspire our industry peers, colleagues, friends, families, clients…anyone interested for that matter…with our approach to turning lemons into lemonade…or, rather, a lemonade factory ready for global export

Fingers crossed that we don’t f#@k it up…

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