Boomtown’s ‘collect (insights), connect (brand strategies), create (compelling communication), convert’ (into sales) way of working has seen the agency grow from its roots in PE (Port Elizabeth) to opening offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The fully integrated agency launched in 1994 and now has 51% black ownership, a programme, called Bayeza, to incubate and nurture young black graduates, and over 40 employees around South Africa.
Founder Neil Hart charts the agency’s business journey, that began with him selling his two cows for start-up funding. True story!
Why did you decide to branch out with your own business/venture, rather than work for other companies or corporates?
I grew up as a farmer’s son, from four generations of farmers. As was tradition in our family, my father gave me a cow when I turned 13. The deal was that the female calves would be mine while the male calves would go to him to pay for grazing. While watching my elder brother gather a mini herd by the time he was 21, I had bull calf, after bull calf. At 21 I owned the original, old cow and one other!
I visited several ‘heritage’ advertising agencies in Cape Town after finishing studying, and I was inspired to create something great from scratch. It was a mixture of ignorance and youthful boldness. I just thought we could do it, less aware of the pitfalls of business start-ups (farmer’s don’t know about such things!). In the beginning years we wanted to revolutionise the creative scene, then as we matured we simply wanted to help other businesses grow and be better and more profitable.
I started my business straight out of varsity and had those two cows as potential start-up funding. After selling them I bought a computer just strong enough to do the graphics required to run a small advertising agency, together with a work station for my business partner and I. Of course we needed a bank to give us backing in the form of overdraft facilities to be safe and I knocked on the door of every bank available. Finally one took a risk and said yes, and we got going, and we have remained loyal to them for 25 years.
Give us a brief history of your media venture? What gave you the idea? How did it begin, and how has your business journey unfolded?
I started the business with a partner in 1994. We were both creatives with not much clue about commerce. As we looked around at the creative offerings coming from other agencies, we simply believed we could do much better. We had an eye for quality service and product and did the basics really well over and over. Now, as I look back over 25 years, I would still choose excellence as the basics over the most innovative strategy. Glen Meier joined us in 1997 after I’d stepped into the client and strategy side. We bought out my original partner soon after he joined. Andrew Mackenzie, our current MD, joined us a few years later.
Today, we are still trying to do the basics well, but we have many innovative offerings that we’ve added around growing our client’s business in the main markets in South Africa and Southern Africa.
What challenges did you face as a media entrepreneur and how did you overcome them?
Our greatest challenge has always been as a result of geography. We always felt that we could have opened a great agency in any city, but chose to do that from Port Elizabeth. Being outside of the pulse has many challenges: staff recruitment, inspiration, proximity to market are just some of them. After opening our Joburg office seven years ago, the challenge of working across cities was something we needed to overcome. Each challenge has created resilience and innovation in the agency. We had to work extra hard to overcome some of these that other agencies probably never had to deal with to the same extent. I think it made us a better business and better leaders.
Has there been a moment of success that has really stood out for you and that is your favourite on your journey? To what do you attribute your success?
Every time we did something for the first time with a great result became a favourite moment. In advertising there are always new challenges, but when a really big challenge comes up and it’s in a sector that you have no experience in, or a communications discipline that you are still learning, it can be daunting. But I have the unwavering belief that we can solve almost any problem, and this is my favourite thing about Boomtown. Actually the real ingredient is creativity … creativity is the best problem solving skill and it delights me every time! No wonder it’s always in the top three traits that leaders of Fortune 500 companies look for in candidates for succession planning.
What characteristics do you think make a successful media entrepreneur?
Beyond creativity and problem solving skills, I would say it is critical to have an uncanny knack to observe and understand the consumer. Its about the psychology of human behaviour. We are not just trying to get people to become aware of brands, we are trying to change behaviour. Advertising is useless unless it results in a behavioural shift in a group of consumers. This is what separates the best businesses from the rest.
Your advice to young media entrepreneurs or those looking to start new media businesses?
Nothing great is achieved without focus. Any good leader will tell you the same thing. The problem is that young people want to do everything. And society tells them the same thing. Take every opportunity and have a finger in many pies. That’s conventional wisdom. Counter-intuitive wisdom will say forget about everything else. Just focus on doing one great thing with excellence, and repeat that over and over again. This is what it takes to start a business. Find a gap in the market and solve a problem in that gap, then focus on being unbelievably great at doing that one thing.
What next from you and your media company/venture? What can people expect? Exciting upcoming projects?
I’ll let Andrew MacKenzie, our MD, comment on that. He says: “We’re focusing on three things at Boomtown: leadership, consumer insights and creativity. Firstly we want our leadership to serve, to share their knowledge and mentor the wider team and make them better than us. Secondly we are diving deeper than ever before into understanding the consumer, this gives every Boomtown client the edge on their competitors. Lastly we will be growing the excellence of our creativity and our offerings in this area. Creativity is our lifeblood.”
What, in your view, needs to happen to encourage more media entrepreneurs, and not just that, help them stay the course?
The media, advertising and communications space comes with a hard business reality. Unlike many other sectors, one needs to fight for your client bases every year over and over again. Contracts are won and lost and the rules of the game are fluid and unpredictable.
Attracting entrepreneurs into the space is easier than keeping them. Many people want to come into a creative, dynamic environment and we are very good at perpetuating this exciting narrative with great stories of success. But the reality is that it is tough and demanding.
What can change this? We have a great need in the industry to develop entrepreneurs with a love for the industry. This may mean developing business degrees that run alongside media degrees, say, a postgrad media degree in entrepreneurship. This will create a more realistic view of what we are getting people into.
How do you ‘pay it forward’?
The main way in which Boomtown ‘pays it forward’ is through Bayeza, a year-long programme which sees several marketing and communications interns in a learnership relationship at Boomtown. They have month by month modules specific to their area of expertise and study, be it digital, media, design etc. In this way, we fast track the interns, and they learn more in one year than most junior employees learn in two. The programme has had great results over five years, to date it has achieved a 100% success rate in employment once the interns graduate. The programme is also differentiated in that it is not a ‘free from pay’ internship. Each intern is salaried over and above the dedicated and specific training they receive.
The agency also pays it forward in many other ways, like initiatives within the city or community such as caring for vulnerable, area clean-up operations in the valley and at local beaches etc
What quote or passage do you think encapsulates you and your approach to business and success?
“Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.” This is a quote from Jesus and it speaks about looking beyond our own interests and seeking something greater and more eternal. It reminds me not to sweat the small stuff and to put greater priorities in place. I believe that business has a huge role to play in creating a better South Africa. We have the resources, the manpower and the skills to do it.
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