Graeme Wills is a big name with a high-profile past that is casting a shadow over his current project. He talks to Jessica Kennedy about being blamed for the demise of Publicis Mojo NZ and his plans for Joy
Graeme Wills is a man with a past that won't let him be. Like a former lover that is yet to realise the relationship has ended, the Mojo name still stalks Wills.
The decision to announce his new project, The Joy Agency, in the same week that the doors of Publicis Mojo New Zealand were closed four days before Christmas created a bond between past and present that is yet to weaken.
The link between Wills' name and Mojo is now something he wishes would fade. "It's just you want it linked to something else," he says. "To be fair to Publicis, they want it not linked to myself. It will probably take another year and then it'll be associated with someone or something else."
While the decision to shut up shop was not Wills' (he sold his stake in the business in December 2011), comments on industry blogs and press reveal cynicism and animosity towards the adman.
"God, it's just horrendous," says Wills, but he is resigned to the fact that as the former face of Mojo he has been tarred by the blame game.
"I made a lot of money but nothing to do with the New Zealand office. New Zealand was tiny compared to Australia," he explains. "Publicis closed it, not me, I hadn't been involved for a year. It's people who probably think, 'Ah, he's found a way to get a clean balance sheet and set up his own business'. I take all those things – when you've got a reasonable profile, people kick you or love you."
When asked if the Publicis saga could taint attitudes towards fledgling Joy, based in Auckland, Wills says it's hard to say but adds: "It shouldn't have any effect – it's nothing to do with Joy, and the owners of Joy have got nothing to do with Mojo."
Due to his Australian non-compete, Wills opened the first Joy doors in NZ, re-hired key Mojo personnel Kay Boyle and Graham Ritchie and carried over former Mojo client Goodman Fielder as its foundation client. The next step is adding a local creative facility to the operation.
But he says: "Auckland's a shrinking market rather than a growing one. New Zealand is a very tiny market so you've got to be careful. There's a lot of agencies in Auckland, but there's not a lot of clients and there's certainly not a lot of big clients."
But the Kiwi is pushing ahead due to his "soft spot for New Zealand" and because the "creative opportunities have been fantastic".
Wills is nothing if not resilient and ambitious, with big plans for Joy. Wills, whose desire to create a "mini network" is no secret, is close to announcing a European base. "It'll either be London or, oddly, somewhere like Berlin," he says. "We've got to tread carefully because infrastructure costs are high and it's a big step."
Bolstering Joy is its merger with independent media and creative agency Razor. Wills is now an equal shareholder with Razor's co-founders Simon Rush and Andrew Wynne.
Clients are bamboozled with different answers from digital, media and ad agencies when all they want is advice which is free from channel-bias, according to Wills who believes agencies have not done enough to "intellectually advise clients".
"The market's too tight," he says. "Agencies are trying to protect where they are from and what they are about, and in doing that, I don't think they are exploring enough."
In order to answer those big questions and form Joy's positioning a lot of research was completed. Insights from that work included the "enormous" influence a person's community holds on their purchasing behaviour and consumers' desire to understand what a brand believes in.
Wills jokes that 'Joy' "came from one too many Pinots", but says it is based on the above insights and the joy people get out of human connections.
In addition to growing the agency's footprint, Wills is out to grow the team from its current level (there are about 60 in Joy's resource hub in Sydney). But he says they need to be "seriously good" and he is not looking locally. "There's a lot of people that just drift through the business and we don't want those people," he asserts.
After the Publicis Mojo NZ fallout, Wills has voiced his views on holding companies.
About Mojo NZ he says: "Without me in it, it was never going to really survive" and, "I can't think of too many that have shone or become more creative under that holding company stewardship."
But if all goes to plan and Joy does become a successful mini network with offices that draw on the Sydney hub, would Wills consider selling to a holding company again?
"Yeah, definitely. No. I don't know. I'm only joking," he laughs.
With grand plans on the cards it may not be long before the shadow Mojo NZ has cast becomes detached from the name Graeme Wills and Joy is recognised as its own separate entity.