Tenures in the world of advertising can be short. Agency employees stick around with one employer for just two-and-a-half years on average, per data from the Media Federation of Australia (MFA). But, with Spark Foundry being set to turn eight years old soon, it has some remarkably long-serving staff members. Why?
Lead image L-R: Sasha Nathan, client partner; Peter Butler, managing director; Keily Brown, client director; Rhonda Dunlop, group partnerships director.
“We have a no jerks policy at Spark,” Keily Brown, a client director who joined the team in 2016 just before Mediavest | Spark became the Spark Foundry we know today.
“Everyone we work with is a genuine, good human.”
During Brown’s time at the Publicis-owned shop, it has undergone a dramatic transformation – something which has helped keep her, and colleagues Sasha Nathan, client partner, and Rhonda Dunlop, group partnerships director, around.
“At the time it was a small agency in a period of growth and it was very appealing to be involved in the direction of the business and the development of the team,” explained Dunlop.
Dunlop and Brown both jumped ship from UM to the then-nascent Spark Foundry in June 2017. Nathan came to Spark in December 2018 after leaving UM in June 2016 with a two-year stop-off at fellow Publicis media shop, Starcom.
“Quite a few people that I respect, both personally and professionally, had moved to Spark so I wanted to be surrounded by those people again,” said Nathan.
For Brown, the appeal was being able to help the agency build from the ground up.
“I knew it would be hard work but getting to do it with amazing people that I had worked with previously made it really exciting.”
Peter Butler, Spark’s Melbourne managing director, also joined from UM.
“UM was a large agency, but when I joined Spark (then Mediavest) it was small – almost boutique I like to think – and that style of leadership didn’t quite cut it,” he explained.
“So I took the ‘we’re all in this together’ approach where these guys worked with me, not for me. I’m a great fan of collective responsibility.”
The question remains, however, how long do people actually stay at Spark? Butler explained that it’s not that easy.
“Pre- and post-Toyota makes it a bit tricky to have an average, as some have only been here since then. Keily, Rhonda and Sasha are all coming up to long service leave, which is not bad since we have only been going for seven-and-a-half years.
“Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome!”
Spark won the $100 million media account for Toyota in March 2021 after an extensive 12-month pitch process – a transformative step for the agency.
“We’ve also been fortunate enough to have a lot of client growth over the last seven years, and with that comes new opportunities and challenges to keep things exciting and keep us motivated,” said Nathan.
Of course, a few long-tenured staff do not make for, or indicative of, a well-functioning agency.
“To be honest, I don’t get that hung up on tenure. Churn I do, but not tenure,” said Butler.
“Churn (regrettable churn) is another issue. How do we stop people from walking out the door? It comes down to agency culture and understanding what people want from us both on a personal and professional level.”
That culture has seen people move up the agency’s food chain – with Nathan and Brown chief amongst them.
“I started as a junior director working on some smaller clients to now being a core part of the Melbourne leadership team, working on one of the largest clients in the country,” said Nathan.
Brown, meanwhile started as a trader then followed her “love for planning” into an implementation role. She then became a client manager before hopping into her current role as a client director.
Dunlop, meanwhile, joined as the group partnerships director and has not looked back.
In her mind, “the people, the leadership and the opportunity for growth” kept her around.
That all four are based out of the agency’s Melbourne office is coincidental but perhaps not surprising. The fact that all four have chosen to stick around, even after Victoria’s long lockdowns, might be to some who saw COVID as a chance for a career reset.
“We already had a flexible work environment, so when it came to returning to work post-pandemic it was an easier transition than some other agencies. After Melbourne’s lockdowns, we came back slowly, ensuring it was a smooth transition back with no forced days in the office,” said Brown.
“We were all vulnerable together, from the top,” added Dunlop.
“The communication from Imogen [Hewitt, Spark Foundry CEO] and Pete was always the priority. Sometimes they had to be incredibly honest, but I think that helped everyone to be in it together. Flexibility was a way of working for us long before COVID. It’s not about logging endless hours at your desk, but about getting the job done.”
Getting the job done, however, is one thing. Getting the job done well and with fresh ideas are two very separate things. In the fast-paced world of advertising, new hires, reshuffles and career changes are ostensibly celebrated for the fresh ideas and lack of baggage that they can bring to the table.
“Tenure doesn’t mean tired,” said Butler.
“[It] means that you have the knowledge of your client’s business and their trust. Once you have this experience and knowledge, then you have the confidence to take an idea to a client. You know the business (not just the marketing department), so that allows you to navigate any challenges that could prevent this idea ever seeing the light of day, such as distribution etc.”
The other important side of the trio’s long tenure is that regrettably and women are all too often denied the chance to move up the career ladder in advertising.
MFA data showed that while the proportion of women leaders has risen to 46 per cent this year (compared to 43 per cent in 2022), women still make up 62 per cent of the overall media sector workforce.
“I can only go from my personal experience, but I have always had women as partners at work and I am not sure I would not have it any other way,” said Butler.
“Women are passionate about their jobs, but tend to have a life outside it and, therefore, a good perspective on things, which I think is important. We have a lot of impressive young women coming through this agency, and I think there are some exciting times ahead for both them and us.”