When his Ogilvy days ended in 2011, Stuart O’Brien wanted to switch to the opposite end of the advertising agency scale. Now, 18 months after setting up Houston, he tells Lucy Clark why sometimes smaller is better
From dispatch boy to agency CEO – or, as he puts it, “Westie made good” – Stuart O’Brien didn’t reach the Ogilvy hot seat and go on to run his own brand strategy agency via a conventional route.
Arriving at Grey Advertising wet behind the ears and straight out of school after growing up in Mount Druitt in Sydney’s West, that role as dispatch boy set O’Brien on a long – not to mention eventful and impressive – journey in advertising.
Since then he has been involved in setting up Moon Communications, held down the role of CEO of Ogilvy Sydney and, since October 2011, he has run his own business, Houston, which was launched as a partnership with STW.
Winning big pitches for big clients and doubling in size in the last six months, Houston is on a roll. Moving to Surry Hills last year, it’s now 18 people strong. O’Brien doesn’t want it to grow much bigger.
“If we can’t all fit on a minibus, we’re too big,” he says. “Clients buy people, they don’t buy agencies. People think I’m not ambitious enough. But after the GFC, I questioned whether big is better. I set this business up so I can deal with clients directly.”
It was at Moon where he learnt what he says was his biggest lesson. In 2004, Moon suddenly lost long-term client Qantas to Hulsbosch.
“We were removed from the roster, not on anything other than a lack of senior relationships. That was a real shock and a lesson. I know small isn’t always great, that’s why I have the relationship with STW. Sadly elephants fuck elephants – you need to know how to play that game.”
The global financial crisis saw O’Brien confronted with having to fire 80 people in one day at Ogilvy. It also quashed his big plans. “My grand plan of creating the agency of the future turned to survival,” he says, adding: “What annoys me about this town is stereotypes around agencies.
"There were some of the greatest, smartest, nicest people there but Ogilvy never got a good run in the media. It was a target to bash up. Everyone wants a baddie, everyone likes to throw sticks, that’s how industries work.”
Harking back to his Moon days, heading up a small agency was O’Brien’s dream in his later days at Ogilvy. “I was always drawn back to what I love doing – dealing with clients,” he recalls. “Moon, for me, is like fond memories of school. It was such a special time. We built a big, dominant agency and I loved doing that.”
And on why he left Moon: “I realised if I got out of the way, a lot of people could have career advancements. It was done, I wanted my next step.”
Three years later, starting Houston was a project O’Brien relished. “I wasn’t daunted,” he says. “I found it refreshing and energising. There is a massive weight that sits on your shoulders when you’re in those big agency roles, and sometimes the world is operating around you and you can’t control it. But in an environment like Houston, it’s smaller to navigate through the out-of-control situations.”
The decision to move was perhaps easier than the decision on a name for his new venture. “Because I do brand and design, the name was always one of my greatest challenges,” explains O’Brien. “Houston came from “we have a problem”. It’s pretty clich√©d and cheesy, but what we do is solve business problems with brand solutions.”
Houston had a smooth start, thanks to O’Brien being able to bring across some of his Ogilvy clients. Lend Lease was a foundation client, and Qantas, Jetstar and Vodafone are long-term clients.
“A lot of what we work on is secret projects,” explains O’Brien. “In their infancy, they are delivered at board level and it’s a step-change for the business, with a small group of people involved.”
Houston has put together winning pitches for Lend Lease for the Barangaroo development in Sydney, and the redevelopment of Darling Harbour. It is currently working on a pitch for Singapore’s Changi Airport. “We act as advisors and consultants on brand place setting and positioning, and shape our clients’ sales pitch for why they should be chosen,” outlines O’Brien. “They are really cool jobs.”
Houston has also been appointed to the agency roster for brand design for Qantas – a big win that happened six months ago, but O’Brien kept it quiet. It’s a habit he has long adopted.
“I have always floated under the radar, it’s a great spot to sit,” he says. “If you poke your head above the radar too much, people that don’t know you will try to bring you down. It’s such a waste of time. We operate in a B2B space, therefore word-of-mouth and building relationships is more important than self promotion.”
When he’s not working, the dad-of-three savours his new-found holiday time. “My life a year ago was only about work, there was no time for hobbies,” he says. “I didn’t have time to read a book, let alone have an interest. That’s wrong, that’s bad. So now holidays and spending time with my family are important to me.”
Please login with linkedin to comment
Verizon Media’s talent program has come to an end for the third year, closing with a hybrid pitch-off event for Musicians Making A Difference (MMAD). The Verizon Media Academy class of 2021, made up of 44 emerging leaders from across Australia and New Zealand media, advertising and marketing industry, were given just one hour to […]
Social purpose organisation UnLtd’s Big Games competition has raised a combined $85,000 for children and young people at risk. Running over five weeks, the competition involved 32 teams from across the advertising, marketing and media industries battling it out virtually for a chance to qualify for the Rocket League final. The tournament culminated in a […]
Stan has announced that the Stan Original Film Transfusion commenced filming in Sydney earlier this week and will premiere on Stan in 2022. Transfusion is a taut, muscular thriller starring Sam Worthington (Avatar) as Ryan Logan, a former Special Forces operative, who is battling to cope with life after the loss of his wife and is thrust […]
According to a decade of data collected by iStock, Australian brands turned to imagery depicting outdated gender stereotypes during the pandemic. Tracking the keyword ‘women’, iStock by Getty Images found that in 2020, ANZ brands and businesses reverted to gender stereotypes. Images of mothers home-schooling were used at almost twice the rate of images of […]
Schwartz Media is congratulating Maddison Connaughton on her three years as editor of The Saturday Paper. Connaughton has decided to finish up her editorship this month. “It’s been an honour to edit the paper,” Connaughton said. “The Saturday Paper is one of the brightest voices in Australian media and I have been happy to see […]
Research from EdBbirdie using Spotify data has identified the most popular songs to study to. After analysing thousands of studying and homework playlists on Spotify, American singer Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’ came out as top song to study to. It featured on 48 study playlists, while other top songs included ‘Ophelia’ by The Lumineers, ‘Falling’ […]
Dayna Stewart is the Business Director – Digital Marketing, Media & Creative Services at The Nudge Group. Here, she discusses the challenges that come with building a successful marketing team when working remotely. Before COVID-19 changed the way businesses work, most marketing teams spent their days together in a meeting room collaborating on the next […]
The line-up for the 2021 iHeartRadio Music Festival has been announced as the legendary event returns live in Las Vegas in September. This year, the epic two-day lineup for the iHeartRadio Music Festival main stage will feature performances by Billie Eilish, Cheap Trick, Coldplay, Dua Lipa, Florida Georgia Line, Journey, Khalid, Lil Baby, Maroon 5, Nelly, […]
Shop! ANZ is calling on shopper and retail marketing professionals from all retail related disciplines to participate in the first ANZ Shopper and Retail Marketing Industry Survey in four years. This important research provides a guide of where the retail marketing industry in Australia and New Zealand has come from and what is anticipated to […]