Get your own Little Black Book.

Build your own personal news stream. Discover the latest work created that interests you, share your favourite stories and follow your favourite people and companies

Already have an account?

Opinion and Insight

The Exponential Power of Independence in South Africa, 3 years ago

Joe Public CCO Pepe Marais on escaping the clutches of a global holding company

The Exponential Power of Independence in South Africa

There have been a few recent shifts in the South African advertising industry.

Shifts that have retired agency legends to ‘greener’ pastures, network acquisitions have opened and closed doors and massive account moves have seen timeless relationships ending.

Change seems to be the only constant in global advertising. 

In this bigger picture, smaller Independents are few and far between. In fact, we might be considered a dying breed. But the more we’ve grown independently, the more exponentially we’ve grown.

Here is our short story on why we will always fly solo, as well as a few key insights gained along the way.

Joe Public Take-Away Advertising was launched in March 1998, in the world’s creative capital, Cape Town South Africa.

Patrons could walk off the street into this diner style advertising agency and order Rare, Medium and Well-done ideas and ads straight off a menu.

The idea was outrageously appealing and soon Joe Public was the talk of the town.

Word spread fast and less than two years later international interests came knocking on our little diner’s door, under the pretence of taking our revolutionary Take-Away model global.

We sold.

But over time it became apparent that they were actually buying our bottom line and soon we were working for new bosses in New York City, chasing numbers and targets rather than great ideas for clients in our local market.

For eight years we lived within this Twilight Zone called a ‘Global Holding Company’, flying a daily holding pattern of cost savings and number monitoring.

But after a relentless three-year battle we managed to win our independence back by buying Joe Public lock, stock and with two smoking barrels, on 26 February, 2009.

A short five years later, Joe Public is ranked the number one Agency Group in South Africa, with a sister agency, Joe Public Take-Away in Amsterdam, Holland.

Here are the 5 key insights learned through this chapter in Joe Public’s book of growth:


Let's face it. No matter how you try to back rationalise it, if you are employed by

a global holding company, you have two bosses to please. Which means your focus is split. As an independent, your focus is clear: you are here to serve

the growth of your client.

You are also acutely aware of the importance of your client to the growth of your people and your business. Which is why you treat your clients with a far, far deeper level of respect. And as it tends to work in life, you more often than not, get back what you give.


When Joe Public was part of an international network, we were bound by international rules and regulations.

When there was a global salary freeze, it meant no local increases. When we wanted to reward people on performance, boy did we have to put on a performance. And when we wanted to upgrade a Mac in our studio, we had to get CAPEX approval from New York, irrespective of the loss of income because of a machine operating on African time.

In the end it became about numbers, and in a business where you are selling your thinking, it pays to treat people as people rather than numbers.


When you are independently owned, it means that all your money remains within your business.

You don't have to be part of a pyramid scheme that feeds the pockets of one individual at the top. You don't have to see your bottom line leaving your country when the majority of people in your country don't have food to eat.

When you are independently owned you can truly contribute to the growth of your country. You have the freedom to use part of your spoils to contribute to your society.

And what's better than that in a country that fought for freedom for years. Freedom we can today call our very own. 


In an industry where all of the top 20 agencies have ample creative fire power,

I can't help but wonder how it is possible for an agency group of 180 people to frequently be placed within the top five among players five times its size.

But when I think about it, it makes sense. When you don't have two bosses to serve you have 100% more time to focus on your product.

When you are not chasing the numbers, you enjoy a number of fringe benefits.

You can invest more heavily into your creative output. You can send more people on inspirational trips. You can join forces across your entire agency - from Creative, to Strategy to Account Management with your collective eye on one goal: creativity.

Because you don’t have a guy you have to call Sir breathing down your neck.


As an independent you are always hungry. Because you know that you do not have the deep pockets of a global network to carry you through the tough times.

So you learn to dig deeper. You start to focus more on the 10% that makes 90% of the difference. You begin to intimately understand that keeping yourself busy with busyness is not sound business. Soon your clients start feeling your relentless energy and begin to feed off it too.

We live on a world that cannot move forward when we continue to do things the way we used to do them. It is time for change.

And although another 11 independent agencies in South Africa have fallen to the massive cheque books of the global giants this year alone, this David is standing firm pointing his slingshot.

Because we are only about to start hitting creativity out of the ballpark.