by Shannon Manuel

Branded!

The young entrepreneur who is changing the way we see advertising

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Sometimes young people—very young people—can achieve at a high level in the entrepreneurial sphere and set an example for others to follow. The examples are boundless.

Established in 2001 by business partners Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved, the Creative Counsel is one such case in point.

From humble beginnings as an in-store promotion company, over the years it has expanded to become one of the biggest marketing and advertising agencies in South Arica, with 69 offices around the country and a Head Office based in Johannesburg.

“I founded the company because my previous business went insolvent,” explains Neu-Ner. “Before the agency, I had an Internet company, and after it went insolvent I started looking for something to do. I was looking for anything, any venture that I could make money from. One day I went to visit my girlfriend who was doing an in-store promotion, and when I arrived at the store I couldn’t find her. Instead I saw about fifty other people doing in-store promotions in the same store. I decided that there had to be a better way to do this and that’s when I started looking at running a promotions company, and about three or four months later we founded the agency,” he says.

The core objective of the agency is to modify the way consumers act or transact – to look at where they shop, what they buy, how often they buy and to determine if these patterns and trends can be changed and improved upon.

“In advertising and marketing there’s a thing called traditional advertising, which involves things like TV, radio, print and billboard,” says Neu-Ner. “We don’t do traditional advertising. What we try to do is change the way consumers buy things, through branded experiences; we solve the problem with a marketing solution. And more often than not our solution does not include TV, radio, print or billboards.

Media-agnostic solutions

He explains that the agency is not for everyone, due to the fact that it is not a traditional agency but, rather, is best described as a “return on investment generation agency”. It creates media-agnostic brand solutions based on real market insights, and adds the labels later. Driven by a passion to make ideas that actually happen, the business is obsessed with delivering to clients and changing the way consumers act or transact.

Every idea, he says, is guided across their specialised group of companies, all driven to make it happen. “We crack it, we strategically drive it through social media, connect it to the mass market, find the right partners to support it, launch it internally and externally, activate it and manage it end-to-end with our field marketing specialists, and everything in-between,” says Neu-Ner.

“One of our campaigns was for Unilever. They came to us and said ‘look, we want to introduce our customers to our product, Comfort Fabric Conditioner, a fabric conditioner that works while consumers move. It has a unique technology which means that the more you move the more fragrance it releases’. We needed to highlight this quality properly to Comfort consumers and to non-Comfort consumers. And so we found an amazing and impactful way to market, and one that everyone loves and finds comfort in—a hug. We found that when you hug someone, you move around and the little capsules explode and create the most amazing fragrance,” explains Neu-Ner.

“So we created a campaign called “Comfort the World’s best Hugs” and what we’re doing now is going around the country and giving away one million samples of Comfort. But at the same time we’re hugging one million people. So by the end of the campaign we would have shown people the benefit of Comfort by giving one million hugs to one million South Africans. It’s unfortunate, but if you think about South Africa, we’re such a negative country and we’re all at each other’s throats and here we are just randomly going around and giving out samples and giving out hugs. And that’s really an amazing campaign, and it’s just one example of a campaign that Creative Counsel is doing,” he says.

The agency started off as one company but over its 16 year journey it has either created or bought other companies and today it has grown into a group that comprises around ten parts, all focused in different areas of brand and product activation. Neu-Ner describes activation as a branded experience that changes the way consumers act or transact.

“The consumer landscape has changed tremendously. In the old days consumers didn’t really have much choice to change the media that they consumed, so you could run TV ads and consumers would almost be forced to watch them. Today it is completely different. The biggest consumption of media is done through mobile phones and the mobile phone really gives the consumer all the power, as it offers you direct access at your fingertips, anywhere, anytime,” he explains.

“Unlike back in the day where viewers were forced to watch adverts, now you can PVR and fast forward. You can watch contents on your phone, whatever you want and when you want, on demand, which means that essentially the days of brands spending money to get consumers to watch their ads are over. The reality is that brands will now need to create content or conversations that are actually really relevant to consumers and which consumers essentially want to watch or participate in, because if they don’t then the consumer will just move on.”

Social media

In this day and age, with the heavy influence of social media in branding, Neu-Ner explains that the fastest growing company in the Group is Popeye Media, a social media company.

He describes it as the only preferred marketing developer in Africa, and probably the biggest faceless media buyer on the continent. “ We’re very, very focused on incorporating social media as part of our mix. Having said that people don’t make decisions on one platform, and what you’ve got to do is to meet consumers at multiple points, with the same message, and make sure that the message is relevant,” he says.

When it comes to finding out about the world-class infrastructure, custom developed campaign management solutions and gathering the latest trends and insights from around the world, he explains that the number one thing to remember is that each location being advertised to is different from another. Inspiration is drawn from international companies and trends, which are transformed by the agency into a South African application.

“We look at what mediums are growing internationally; we research why the mediums are growing internationally and how people in first world countries are utilising mediums. Then we translate that into a methodology that we can use in the local environment, given all our local challenges.”

Outcomes have been successful and have been positively received by consumers thus far. “When we started the agency we had no staff and operated from 12 square metre office. Today we have over a thousand staff and we have most of the brands in South Africa working with us or wanting to work with us. The outcome must be that our approach, the non-traditional advertising approach, really is working.”

The agency has gathered some of the country’s finest minds to make up its over 1500 strong staff complement, which runs over 300 campaigns nationally, every year.

The company’s client base boasts a number of international giants, as well as proudly South African brands from just about every category and industry.

NeuNer says he is a firm believer in culture, and culture is very hard to teach. When hiring, the agency looks for people that are like-minded in their culture, people who have a “championship mentality,” people that believe in brilliance or nothing. “We look for those who believe that you can never taint your reputation by delivering anything less than the best. People that want to deliver, people who have leadership qualities. And these are all things that are part of our culture.”

Leadership crisis

Commenting on leadership in South Africa, he says it is no big secret that there is a leadership crisis in the country and that in a scenario where the masses are untrusting and not behind their leaders, people tend to search for other leaders, which can result in a very fragmented society.

“What is encouraging, though, is that in light of this situation, more young people are finding their voice and becoming more active in their quest to be future leaders. Without getting into the politics of it all, if you look at the Fees Must Fall movement, there were some young people who took leadership and believed in a cause, and it was encouraging to see South Africans uniting behind it. When it comes to leadership roles, I believe that there will always be the right people to fill them, if given the chance and support.”

He says a conscious effort is made to involve young people in the company. “The average age of our creative team is around 26 to 27, and we have always been a very young company. Our culture and our spirit are very young and we’re very much behind this. We operate in a way where we give young people a lot of responsibility, we give them all the tools and we encourage them to become young leaders.”

Indeed, he believes it is leadership that sets the agency apart from its competitors. “Leadership is not something that can be passed down through rules – it’s just something that is there. People follow leaders.

“If you look at the two leaders of the agency, myself and my business partner Gil, we have a unique personal culture which has become the culture of the company. We have a culture where we always want to be better than everybody else, always want to deliver more and never deliver anything less than brilliance. And when that happens people follow that and people believe that these leaders will take them places, and they follow us.

“If you ask me what is unique about the agency, I would say that the leadership and culture created by the two leaders in the business separates this company from any other company because we don’t have any unique trade-mark. We’re a creative business and we rely on the brainpower of the people that work with us. That’s our product”.

Shannon Manuel

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