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.”