The Works' Kevin Macmillan Talks the Birth of 'Creatives On The Forefront'
A bold agency structure is cutting out the hierarchy with a no nonsense approach to creativity. Devised by creative partners Kevin Macmillan and Damian Pincus, the founders of Sydney-based independent agency The Works, the model is fast gaining traction down under attracting ambitious creatives and clients alike.
LBB Online catches up with Kevin to uncover how ‘Creatives On The Forefront’ was born, what it represents and how it is influencing the culture of Australian adland.
LBB> How did the Creatives on The Forefront model come about?
Kevin> The Creative On The Forefront (COTF) model came to life due to necessity. Whilst we were working in traditional agencies, (DraftFCB and TBWA respectively), Damian and I happened to bump into each other in the company lift. Working as creatives, we were both frustrated by the archaic and linear process that the traditional agencies were following, in terms of delivering work for clients. It felt like as creative people, the more we could get in front of the client the more we had a chance of improving the work – both for the agency and for the client. And so, we thought we’d start our own agency that eliminated the layered process, which we knew, held the work back and the way in which it was delivered.
LBB> What are the main benefits of this model?
Kevin> The two main benefits of the model are very simple. Firstly, when creative people are talking directly to clients and understanding their business problems, they become very accountable and far more efficient in delivering the work because they can get to the solution quickly. This means the actual quality of the work improves because the client has managed to express their business issues clearly and concisely and they feel confident the creative people have understood their business needs. Therefore, the quality, the results and the response to the work increase dramatically.
LBB> How have clients reacted to the model?
Kevin> It’s now 2014 and we’ve grown up to 70 people and we have a dozen fantastic clients with real pedigree (not just great brands but great clients) working with us. We have found that our clients are very positive.
Most clients are probably aware that the traditional model isn’t always the perfect streamlined process that it’s thought to be and I think often they are worrying about their competitive budget being spent in the right place and at the right time. We have a very robust project management area. We task our project managers to do two very simple things (although they’re not that simple) – keeping things on time and keeping things on budget; we really value those two skills.
We hire fantastic project managers that can deliver on both those points and I think that was always part of our equation. Many of our project managers come from production backgrounds and only some have experienced the more traditional account service way of doing things. People who truly value the importance of delivering on time and budget are worth their weight in gold.
As we’ve grown, we’ve never thought that an agency is about having a room full of creative people; it’s actually about having creatives on the forefront managing the relationship with the client and the project managers are the engine room, which was always the plan.
LBB> How have you educated your staff to live and breathe this model?
Kevin> Like with any model, it’s an ongoing process. It’s never 110 per cent perfect but if you can get to 90pc perfect then you are delivering on the model extremely well.
We celebrate examples. We award an Ambitious Person of the Month where we celebrate someone’s achievements in terms of how they are behaving as a COTF. We have posters in and around the agency that talk about the behaviours that we like our people at The Works to embody and every person’s job description and review process has the behaviours of COTF inbuilt.
We have a very flat structure, we don’t have a Chairman, President, CEOs, Managing Directors, Executive Creative Directors or Creative Directors – we have a flat structure with a non-hierarchical titles model.
We promote creative events. For example, last year we had Johnny Cupcakes over from the U.S. who is a fantastic creative entrepreneur on the forefront who started his own business.
Over 250 people came along to understand his story and what COTF meant to him.
LBB> How do the agency’s five creative partners work together to be the guardians of this model?
Kevin> The main way to lead any model of any kind is to lead from the top and our creative partners are expected to act like ambitious entrepreneurial creative people but with a very sleeves-rolled-up approach, directly talking to clients and being upfront and transparent when asking about clients’ business issues. At the same time, they are expected to draw solutions and apply them to paper; theory is good, but there’s nothing like actually writing it down... then it exists and that’s an important part of the creative partner’s role.
LBB> What creative results have you achieved thus far due to the model in action?
Kevin> We have a big list of awards. Some of the highlights are creative but also results driven awards. For instance, when we won the Australian Tourism Award for Destination Marketing for our Visit Canberra Human Brochure campaign. This was a real proud moment for us because it was a proactive idea for a client that we didn’t work with at the time. However, a creative partner had a great piece of entrepreneurial thinking so we took it to this client, the client bought it and 12 months later we win Best Tourism initiative in the country.
Other awards include two of the Top 6 Best Ads in the Country at the B&T Awards. We have taken home a Global Effie, Australian Effie, AdNews Direct Agency of the Year finalist award and accolades from industry associations including ADMA and APMA. This year we were highly commended for Employer of the Year at B&T’s Women in Media Awards and just recently we made BRW’s Top 50 Best Places to Work in Australia.
About five years ago we started an office in Singapore and ran for three-and-a-half years a very successful digital program for Tiger Beer, which won many different awards, both for creativity and effectiveness.
LBB> What kind of ambitious talent or partnership collaborators has the agency attracted as a result of the creative model?
Kevin> On many different levels the model has attracted quite unique people that fit our model. From a creative partner level, we have a real hybrid of creative entrepreneurial thinkers to represent the agency. Paul Swann is a media guy from Naked who had the role of ‘Head of Ideas’. He’s a gold mix of creative, strategy and media channel thinking. He now leads some of our biggest accounts and the clients get 24-hour access to his brain.
Another recent hire is Andy Pilkington, who has not only been a top creative; he is also a fantastic designer, art director and ran a very successful creative business of his own – a natural entrepreneur. More recently, Mark Harricks also joined as a creative partner this year. Mark has led many different creative organisations around New Zealand and Australia and is seen as one of the top creative thinkers – so just those three hires alone are great testament that we attract fantastic talent with this model.
Interestingly we have an affiliation with two overseas and very well regarded agencies in Jung von Matt based in Hamburg, Germany, and StrawberryFrog, based out of New York.
We collaborate with those guys on running a global client and I think because of our model, it has allowed us to be more flexible when it comes to partnering with other likeminded global creative partners.
LBB> What are your thoughts on competitors claiming to have a similar model?
Kevin> There aren’t many but when they do it right it’s actually a really good thing as healthy competition is always positive for business. The best example I can think of is Special Group in New Zealand, which a friend of mine started many years ago. They have a great model that is similar to ours: they too believe that creatives dealing directly with clients is the way to go. I think in a market of New Zealand’s size it makes even more sense.
Special has recently launched in Sydney with some fantastic people running the show and I’m really keen to see how they go and I wish them all the luck. If they become famous for what they are trying to achieve then it’s only going to rub off on other models of the same ilk and do us all a favour. I think it’s also proof that a unique model with COTF is a good one – when other very talented people are setting up similar shops.
LBB> Do you see the model as a benchmark for the future success of independent agencies?
Kevin> I see it as the future of agencies full stop, not just independent ones. I think nobody would disagree that the market is getting faster, the media landscape is so fragmented and it can’t rely on linear processes to arrive at the best results. Undoubtedly the COFT nimble model is the future for all creative companies, not just independent agencies.