It’s time for another edition in the Pockets of Excellence series, articles that celebrate the successes and achievements of an individual, company, agency, product or service which are succeeding despite the tough operating environment in South African media. So far I have looked at cinema, out of home, a media agency, radio, and a plumbing magazine empire. In this edition I wanted to explore a company that has been in the news a lot recently, The Creative Counsel. Reports suggest that international firm Publicis is lining up a R1 billion offer to acquire the South African agency. I spoke with co-founders and CEOs Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved to find out a bit more about the history of The Creative Counsel and its secrets to success.
Three years before the partners formed The Creative Counsel, Neu-Ner and Oved had already started a business. They created an online portal that was focused on day trading and day traders. Unfortunately their investor went into liquidation and their business had to close. The two walked away with two lessons from the experience: they wanted to be entrepreneurs and they wanted to do things their own way.
With nothing to do and nowhere to go, from there the two spotted a gap in the in-store promotions market, in 2001, thanks to Neu-Ner’s then girlfriend at the time. She was doing in-store promotions, he went to visit her while she was on the job and he was not impressed by the selling, thus spotting a gap in the market. “I realised all of the promoters were pretty bad. I also realised that in-store promotions were not run like a business… there were no business principles. I turned around and said this might be a huge gap in this industry which has not really been run well,” Neu-Ner explained.
The two person in-store promotions agency was born and since then it has greatly expanded its business offerings and now employs around 1 000 people on a permanent basis and 30 000 – 40 000 people in the field on an ad-hoc basis. Neu-Ner believes it was the foundation that the two of them laid with their two person agency. “We had infrastructure and we had access to clients who loved us and trusted us, and if you put those two things together it formed the basis for a very big agency.”
It quickly evolved into an activation agency, as Oved and Neu-Ner were the only business interacting with consumers in stores, at universities, in malls and in townships. Neu-Ner says this gave the business an edge because, “Unlike traditional agencies who were not interacting with consumers, who were interacting with creatives, they didn’t know what worked… Instead of just activating advertising agency creatives, we started to execute our own creative and our own strategy.”
The business’s underlying strategy has led to amazing growth over the years. It can be summarised in one sentence: “Everything we do must change the way consumers act or transact.” Neu-Ner also says the group takes real accountability for its creations as, unlike traditional agency models. “We come up with creative and we activate it.” Oved added, “Sales and marketing are two sides of the same coin. Many people believe that sales and marketing are the enemy and come from completely different sectors, but having them work together is absolutely key… and having an agency fulfilling both really helps a client.” Oved’s own personal philosophy has also led the business to success, “Passion fuels optimism.”
The journey, however, has not all been an easy ride for the two business partners and The Creative Counsel. “It is a journey and often I think one does not realise they are on the journey because they are too busy trying to keep afloat and trying to work things out as they go along,” says Oved.
Neu-Ner says there have been many challenges along the way. “Firstly our business has grown quicker than our systems… our systems continuously lagged behind our business. And it’s frustrating because I think we could have been much bigger than we are today, if our systems could have handled it,” he said. Neu-Ner also cited finding the right staff as major challenge, with their being such high standards in the business. “Our staff have to win 100% of their pitches. To date this year, of the 300 or so pitches they have pitched, I think we have lost five or six. And we are very upset about those five or six. If you can imagine how much pressure that puts our creative and people under, we will lose them.”
Oved added, “Finding the right people, retaining the right people, motivating and mentoring them, people is always the biggest challenge. We didn’t invest in people upfront at the beginning of the business. We should have invested a lot more in systems and processes upfront. At the beginning there was a lot left to be desired and the problem is you are always playing catch up.” While all these challenges have been sorted out, Oved says the new challenge is innovation. “Our industry is changing all the time. Every few months we have to reinvent ourselves. We are always expected to come up with the new form of technology and the way of engaging with consumers.”
The Creative Counsel has won many big accounts during its years of operation including its very first client Danone, who is still with the group. “Getting our first national, major client added to our creativity, added to our confidence and made us think that we might be on to something … I don’t think we realised we were on the verge of a massive, global shift away from traditional advertising towards non-traditional, advertising activations. We had the opportunity to almost pioneer an industry,” Oved said. Other big clients they managed to secure work with include Unilever, and Vodacom field marketing.
But Oved and Neu-Ner are targeting a new territory, Africa. Oved revealed that The Creative Counsel is looking to “take over Africa” and that in the next couple of months a presentation will be given in over 30 African countries to look for business opportunities.
Both Neu-Ner and Oved said they are not able to discuss the possibility of international group Publicis acquiring the business for R1 billion, which has been in media reports lately. But both business partners stated that they will absolutely stay on at the company, no matter what transactions transpire. “I have big plans, big dreams, big vision for the business and I want to be a part of it,” Oved concluded.
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