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Behind the scenes: A few memories from the first 5 years of a remarkable journey.

January 30, 2015

On 1 February 2010 we opened M&C SAATCHI ABEL

Our new home was an unfurnished open space on the fourth floor of The Hudson Building in De Waterkant, Cape Town. Thirteen people. Six of us had worked together in previous lives but all had gone our separate ways. The other seven were newbies excited by the possibility of starting a brand new company.

Funnily enough, the building that housed the M&C SAATCHI Group in Sydney, Australia (which I led prior to returning) was also called The Hudson. So it felt like a good omen.

We unfortunately had no clients.

Downstairs from the agency was a trendy coffee shop called Loading Bay that also sold high-end clothing brands like Scotch & Soda and Acne. Both appropriate names for any start-up to be associated with.

We spent a lot of time at Loading Bay while the office was literally being bashed together around us. We ate many goat’s cheese and rocket omelets, burgers with truffle-oil flavoured French fries and drank copious cups of flat whites as we plotted and planned what success may look like – and where it might come from.

We then got into the lift and sat on the floor of what would become our meeting room – until some chairs arrived.

Although we soon began seeing enthusiastic coverage in the media, there were quite a few comments written below these articles (some from “friends”) predicting our demise.

Fortunately, there were many wonderful comments from others cheering us on and saying they hoped it would work.

At such times, you learn a lot about friendships and human nature.

The economy was certainly not on our side and we knew we’d face heavy headwinds. The global financial crisis was still biting (in fairness, the local economy has been under constant pressure for some time) but we knew if we could survive and build during tough times we would have a robust and sustainable business.

As we worked our many relationships spanning decades in the industry, hoping someone would give us a chance, we got a call from The Rezidor Group who were interested in talking to us about possibly doing some project work to launch their new hotels, The Radisson and Park Inn.

Fortunately we landed the business and now had one client.

Every week we would travel to Joburg to meet with potential clients, the media and pitch consultants. The Radisson gave us the penthouse suite at very low cost to trial their product offering – so for an agency with literally no income, our visitors were speechless as they looked around this triple-volume palace in the sky as we hosted them. The supposed largesse must have seemed insane.

It’s a funny thing how people judge a new agency – most want “to see how it goes” before giving you even a small job. I’ll give you an example. I called someone whom I considered an old friend and whom I had worked with very successfully previously – she was now the Marketing Director of a large group spanning many companies and divisions. I asked her for a little project to test us out.

She said, pretty much verbatim, “Mike, I know you’re good, and I rate some of your partners – but how good is the agency?”

I said, “An agency is obviously only as good as the people that work in it. An agency itself is an inanimate object, so if good people work there and with great track records, then it should be a good agency”.

She responded, “I really want you guys to succeed, but I don’t know how good the work is. Let me watch your progress and see.”

I said, “Well, if everyone has that attitude, we’ll never get any work”.

It was a scary time.

Fortunately, not everyone felt that way and many smaller companies gave us great little projects to keep us busy. There were those who had wanted to work with us previously but felt they couldn’t afford a big agency and were happy to work with us whilst we built our new company.

I think it’s important to state that not for a second did we actually believe that we would be anything other than successful. No matter how cold it got, we were sustained by our complete and utter belief in our offering, our sheer determination and our many friendships. We simply knew it would work.

In May, four months after opening, I was in London meeting with Maurice (The Lord Saatchi) giving him and our Global CEO, Moray MacLennan, an update. It’s very daunting telling the world’s most famous adman about how you will succeed and how their investment in you will pay off, without having any clue where the business will come from.

It was a tough meeting. I recall walking across Golden Square with Moray afterwards on our way to lunch and we agreed we had only two years within which to win a large account otherwise we’d always be positioned as a small to medium agency.

What helped enormously was that Moray had the original idea to start M&C SAATCHI in South Africa, which he had broached whilst I was leading the Australia company. He and I agreed that we needed to build an agency of scale from the very start in order to win big accounts. A costly but confident model that Moray never hesitated to support and believe in, despite what we considered a slow start, given our massive ambitions.

I’ve never believed in “Build it and they’ll come”. I do believe in “Build it – and then we can go and fetch them”.

We also knew that in order to have a successful large agency in South Africa, we needed to be in Johannesburg. So we found terrific premises in Sandton, signed a lease, kitted it out and locked the door. We opened it for pitches and potential client meetings whenever we flew up from Cape Town. When I think back now on how brave we were I actually think it bordered on madness. But it was typically Saatchi – and nothing that Maurice and his partners hadn’t done when they left Saatchi & Saatchi to start M&C SAATCHI.

I guess when your ethos is “Nothing is impossible” you give yourself permission to believe exactly that.

And so we persuaded Gordon Ray to join as ECD as he’d just returned from Kenya. We persuaded Jacques Burger to leave running the Campaign Palace, Australia to start our Johannesburg agency, Robert Grace to leave the UK consulting company he helped start in South Africa, Martin MacGregor to leave the running of Nota Bene to start our media company – and many others such as Mark Winkler and Mick & Nick who were at the time running their own companies – to become a part of something special.

When we originally started I persuaded Denise van der Westhuizen, my former colleague and friend whom I had previously worked with for 15 years, to come out of far-too-early retirement and to have another great adventure.
I guess our simple hiring model of whether we know., like and trust the person has served us remarkably well. We have to answer these three things in the positive before we get to “are they brilliant?”

Another interesting story is that we knew we wanted Jason Harrison to head our Cape Town agency. He was working in London at the time. I had a board meeting in Berlin and had no time to get to London. So we arranged for him to meet me at Heathrow whilst I was in transit, and had him pre-seated next to me on the connecting flight from London to Berlin. We discussed the opportunity on the plane and by the time we landed he had shaken my hand and signed the contract. We celebrated that night with possibly the worst meal we’ve had at a former chef from the famed El Bulli’s restaurant.

Just before Jason returned to Cape Town, we were invited to pitch for Heineken by John Little of The Observatory. It was the first major pitch we had been invited to since our start – and we were 18 months old.

Winning Heineken was without doubt the turning point for our agency and I must thank Gavin Krenski, Jan-Willem van Wensem and the whole client team for entrusting their brand to our young agency.

We also received a call from Kim Reid, a former client and friend who had bought a small e-tailer called Take2 which he and his global partners wanted to reposition, rebrand and relaunch. Today it’s the phenomenon called – a remarkable journey we’ve taken with them from inception.

There were many others who trusted us in the early days, such as MWEB (thank you, Carolyn Holgate) and AVI Group (thank you, Catherine Makin).

When we turned two we were invited to pitch for the below-the-line account across the Nedbank Group. This was another fantastic win for us and the first major win for our Johannesburg agency (thank you Thulani Sibeko, Sydney Mbele , Vanessa Singh, Greg Garden and your teams).

Shortly after winning Nedbank BTL the biggest pitch of 2012 came up. South Africa’s largest clothing retailer (and largest non-food retailer), Edgars.

IAS invited us to pitch. They were a new pitch consultancy in SA at the time (UK company head-office) led by Johanna McDowell. We were shortlisted against the 3 biggest agencies in South Africa – and we were tiny in Johannesburg.

It was a real David versus Goliath story – and we won the account. A huge thank you to Jurgen Schreiber, Belinda Godfrey and their team for a massive leap of faith in awarding us the business.

I’d also like to thank all the other remarkable clients that have entrusted us with their brands: Hollard, Simba/PepsiCo, 10X, Mr Delivery, Deloitte, Monash University, BASF, brandhouse, Heineken Global (including Africa brands such as Mützig, Amstel, Primus & Gulder), Indigo Cosmetics, Entyce Beverages, Snackworks and Virgin Active projects.

Our clients’ trust is by far our most important asset.

2014 was an incredible year for our agency. We became a Top Five agency in both size and creative ranking. We won Gold at all the major award shows we entered, from Cannes, to Clios, Apex and Loeries. We gave birth to The Street Store with client, The Haven Night Shelter – which has gone on to become a global movement (153 events so far) helping to clothe the homeless around the world. On average a Street Store happens somewhere on the planet every two days.

So, today we turn five.

I would like to especially thank my incredible business partners and close friends who have collaborated in this astonishing story. For us, it really is just the beginning.

Thank you to our 190 people working across our Johannesburg, Cape Town, Connect and Africa companies.

We have big plans. They are, of course, Brutally Simple.

We remain united in our romantic belief that Nothing is Impossible. That we can indeed make what may seem highly improbable, happen.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Whelan permalink
    January 30, 2015 8:05 pm

    Congratulations, Mike!

    Would love to retain you as members…this city – & ACT – needs you.



  2. January 31, 2015 5:10 am

    Well done to you Mike and team!

    After reflecting on your journey, I believe you have become as successful as you’ve demonstrated because you got one very important thing right:

    You (and you leadership team at the start) had a vision which was predicated on ‘Why’ you exist as opposed to ‘What’ you do.
    i.e.: something like: ‘M&C SAATCHI and Abel (simply) make the seemingly improbable possible’ – as opposed to something like ‘We have a great team that makes workd-class ads’).

    As a result, you got people ’emotionally hooked’ into ‘believing in what you believe’ – and were thus compelled to be with you (whether staff or clients) – as opposed to just trying get people to ‘buy what you sell’.

    Simply put: you started with your ‘Why’ as opposed to your ‘What’ and ‘How’ (a la Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle). This is the most powerful communication tool a leader or a brand can use – and it works because it taps into the magical power of people’s limbic brains as opposed to the rational power of their analysing neo-cortex.

    I wonder if you were doing this consciously or subconciously?

    All the best for the next 5 years!

    Best wishes

  3. January 31, 2015 10:54 am

    Hey Mike – well done on your agency’s 5 th Birthday – your well-deserved success is not unexpected – may I call you a great admensch vs adman?
    A cup of tea will be great, I’ll bring the biscuits.
    Warm regards

  4. February 2, 2015 6:20 am

    Well done Mike & Team,
    We to have enjoyed the exciting journey with you…… We fondly remember those first discussions way back on the 19th Dec 2009 @ the Hudson We share in your proud moment, may the next five be just as successful
    Best Wishes
    Bruce & Claire

  5. Belinda Godfrey permalink
    February 5, 2015 6:30 am

    Hello Mike & Jacques (and our wonderful M&C Saatchi Abel JHB team)

    Turning 5 is an auspicious occasion.

    Are you familiar with the Law of Fives?

    All things happen in Fives, or are divisible by or are multiples of Five, or are somehow directly or indirectly appropriate to Five across culture, maths, science and religion.

    1. Five is the only prime number to end in the digit 5

    2. Almost all mammals, amphibians and reptiles have 5 fingers and/or toes on each extremity. (We are most grateful for the mammals that work on our account and do such beautiful work :-))

    3. In East Asian tradition, there are 5 elements:Water, Fire, Earth, Wood, and Metal

    4. In radio communication, the term “Five by five” is used to indicate perfect signal strength and clarity (that’s a hint… can we have some more creative radio ads…?)

    … and my favourite:

    5. “To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness”. Confucius.
    (This is what we have had the pleasure of experiencing in working with M&C Saatchi.)

    Happy birthday fine people
    Belinda Godfrey, Edgars

  6. Nicki Bompani permalink
    February 11, 2015 10:25 am

    Congratulations on this special anniversary. Your story is remarkable but your success is no suprise. To you all, a massive well done! You remain an inspiration to many, and to those who doubted you…well where are they now?

  7. Deanne permalink
    February 21, 2015 12:22 pm

    Hey Jacques & Mike

    A belated but still HUGE congratulations on this milestone and 5 years of living your dream. None of this is by accident or just plain luck. Love the stories and wish you even bigger & better things as all success richly deserved to those who ‘dare greatly’. D x

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