Behind the doors of Host

Behind the doors of Host
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A commitment to gender diversity at a senior level, an ethos centred on adventure, and super-charged sabbaticals make Host a desirable agency to work for. Madeleine Ross drops in to chat with the team

Walking into Host at lunch hour is like turning up at a cool Surry Hills caf√©. Its street front is hidden in an unassuming narrow laneway, but once you make it inside it's an oasis of green vines, soft lighting, funky sculptures with bicycles lining the entrance. 

On the lunch table next to reception cluster seven 20-something women discussing work and life as they make tea and eat toast. Suzie Shaw, Sydney CEO, comes to greet me. 

If you've been reading Shaw's commentary on gender diversity in B&T in recent weeks you'd also know the agency boasts a female managing director, head of account management, director of operations and head of digital.

Its founder and group CEO is indeed a man – Anthony Freedman – as is its new ECD and chief strategy officer. But Host embraces its femininity – something rarely cultivated in Australian creative agencies, which have almost no women at their helms. 

Luring the best people often means making compromises, and accommodating women with family commitments is a natural part of keeping top talent, says Freedman.

"We have focused on hiring the best candidate for the job irrespective of gender," he says. "If that meant that at some point we'd have to contemplate them taking time out to have a family then that was something we were prepared to do." 

Shaw adds: "There is too much discussion about the issue and not enough commitment to solve it."

The history

Freedman founded Host in 2000 and took Shaw on in January 2011 after her 14 years at TBWA in London. Host was established with a unique structure. It recently appointed its first ever ECD in Sydney but doesn't hire creative talent full time. It employs creatives on a project basis, giving it an "almost customisable creative department".

Within months of launching, Host pitched for Virgin Mobile and won the business, launching the brand into the Australian market. In 2003 the agency was responsible for the much-loved 'Warren' campaign, which starred a loveable loser trying to find a soul mate. The work won a Grand Prix at Cannes and put Host on the map.

The agency held the Virgin Mobile account for nearly 10 years. In 2011, Host came to the attention of Havas which acquired a 51% stake in the business.

After Virgin left, Vodafone came along. But that piece of business left last year, with news that it would be consolidated within Ogilvy. It left a big void, but spurred a proactive approach to winning new business. "It certainly wasn't something that left the agency without anyone really noticing," says Freedman. "It was a big piece of business and that meant we needed to re-focus our efforts on making sure we won new business in 2012."

Last year, Host won Berlei, Lion, Ella Bache, Campari and One Shift and their Coca-Cola portfolio grew to include Coke Zero. 

The work

The agency has produced plenty well-known work in the last 12 months. It created the 'Kiwi sceptics' content campaign for Air New Zealand which drove up visitation to the region by 14%. It launched BankWest on the east coast of Australia with the 'Happy banking' campaign. And it created Lego's 'Festival of play' campaign in partnership with One Green Bean, which saw an 18% sales increase for the plastic bricks. 

But it's the agency's work for Coca-Cola which may be its best known. Of Coke's three rostered above the line agencies, Host is the newest (the other two being McCann and Ogilvy). Last year, Host took forward Ogilvy's successful names on packs campaign by introducing 'Share a Coke and a song'. The campaign saw volume consumed increase by 11%. 

The culture

"We put a lot of effort into attracting and retaining people," says Shaw. Central to this is the agency's training program and a strong rewards program. 

Every three years employees get an additional three weeks' leave and $2000 to do something adventurous and ambitious, then come back and present their experiences. The concept aligns with the agency's ethos: "ambitious ideas for adventurous clients".

The values to which employees are hired are accountability, resourcefulness, ambition and entrepreneurialism. "We want people to treat clients' money as if it were theirs," says Freedman. 

In January the agency expanded to Singapore, and offices in Shanghai and San Francisco are also on the cards. "The Asia Pacific is much more complex than it was some years ago," explains Freedman.

"Greater China needs to be looked at in and of itself. The next stepping stone for us would be greater China and Shanghai is the most obvious city in which to base an ad agency."  

With eyes on global expansion, and the weight of Havas behind it, Host is one to watch.   

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