Turning an agency around is no mean feat. Lucy Clark meets the team at the top of Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney and finds out that nothing is impossible.
Two years ago, Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney was floundering. It lost four major clients – David Jones, Toohey’s New, Hahn and Toyota Yaris – in a matter of months.
It was time for a managerial reshuffle. Former CEO John Foley moved to a regional role with Saatchi & Saatchi in Singapore and Melburnian Michael Rebelo was welcomed back Down Under from the agency’s London office.
Rebelo spent no time looking back and embarked on a mission to bring in new talent – and new clients.He was quick to recruit a top-level team, importing Damon Stapleton as executive creative director and Jason Lonsdale as executive planning director.
“I wanted to bring some new people in with me,” he explains. “Damon was at TBWA South Africa and we knew each other – and everyone knew of him for the awards he was winning for the ‘Trillion Dollar Campaign’. And Jason and I had worked together at Saatchis in London, where he was the European planning director on the T-Mobile account.”
Lonsdale had since left London and joined Taxi in Toronto – but jumped at the chance to work with Rebelo at Saatchis.
Rebelo says:“The most important thing was getting a management team around me that was aligned in what we wanted to.”
The first thing the new leadership trio did was lay down their purpose and values for the agency.
Rebelo outlines: “It was like we were working in a start-up, but with a strong legacy. Day one was a big day. We took the whole agency to Cockatoo Island and spent two days camping and talking.”
The agency’s ‘nothing is impossible’ legacy has remained at the core of the business. “That attitude has been part of the company for 40 years,” says Rebelo. But the new team at the top devised a new mission, purpose and values.
The mission: to be a world class advertising company that creates game changing work and that does not accept the status quo.
“We have all had international careers and operated in some of the most competitive markets in the world,” says Rebelo. “We want to make sure we can compete with the best agencies.”
Stapleton adds: “At the end of the day, you’re judged by the work you put out. Creativity cannot be turned on and off – it has to be part of your DNA. It needs time to establish itself, but we’ve already done some work that’s moving us in the right direction.”
The values: Freedom, Bravery, Imagination and &.
Rebelo explains: “Bravery is critical. When you have a big gold sign by the front door that says ‘nothing is impossible’, you’ve got to have some big doses of bravery.”
And on the value “&”, he explains: “There is a big red ‘&’ sat in our reception for a reason. The culture isn’t about the individual, it’s about the team.”
After establishing the direction for the agency, it was time to get down to the serious business: the work. First up, the trio built a social media capability within the agency, bringing in Suz Koch, from Yahoo7, as social media strategist. “Social is becoming advertising,” says Rebelo. “We haven’t built a social media agency or department – we have built a social media ability.”
The new team took on Saatchi & Saatchi’s existing clients – Toyota, Cadbury, OPSM, P&G and Lexus. But, within a month, started winning more, with Big W quickly added to the roster.
Rebelo recalls: “Big W was a spiritual win. Up until then, the agency had not won much business for two years. For us, it’s all about winning – winning new business, winning awards, winning for our clients and winning staff.”
Stapleton adds: “Winning for an agency is like gravity for the planet – it holds everything together. Winning Big W gave us a bit of momentum and was a great springboard.”
Soon after, Saatchi & Saatchi launched Joyville for Cadbury. Along with the agency’s London office, the Sydney team was behind the launch.
Next up was ‘Cha-Ching’ for Big W, and a string of business wins and big pieces of work followed. They won Carnival Cruises, arranged for the Joyville Steam Train to travel through Sydney, produced an eight-episode series for Toyota Landcruiser with Seven, won Capi, and then continued the Joyville campaign by turning people’s interpretations of ‘joy’ into chocolate sculptures.
St George Bank was another big win, as Saatchi & Saatchi saw off Cummins Ross, BMF, Ogilvy and DDB for the account. The TVC that they made on a Saturday afternoon in Centennial Park for the pitch was used as the launch TVC, playing on the idea that ‘there’s a little dragon inside all of us’.
To cope with the swelling workload, the agency has more than doubled since Rebelo arrived, growing from 50 people to 120. “We have doubled the agency in a year – our revenue has doubled, our margins have more than doubled, and our people have more than doubled,” he says.
Now that the foundations are in place, the focus is on the work. “We have gone through a stage of fixing and rebuilding,” says Rebelo. “The next 18 months needs to be about dreaming and innovating. That’s the really exciting part.
“And we need to have a lot more fun. There are a lot of clients out there we want to work with, and there are a lot of ideas that Damon wants to do. We are just scratching the surface of the potential of the team we’ve got here now.”
“We have given our people a promise that when they look back they had the best time in their careers working for Saatchi Sydney and did the best work of their careers,” concludes Rebelo. “If we can deliver that, then our job is done.”
1970: The global Saatchi & Saatchi agency was founded in London by brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi
2000: The Saatchi & Saatchi group was acquired by Publicis
December 2011: Michael Rebelo joins Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney as CEO
January 2012: Damon Stapleton joins as ECD, and Jason Lonsdale as executive planning director
February 2012: The agency wins Big W as a new client
May 2012: Saatchi & Saatchi picks up Carnival Cruises’ creative account
November 2012: Soft drink brand Capi awards Saatchi & Saatchi the job of launching it in Australia