by Herman Manson (@marklives) Dale Hefer and her agency, Chillibush, are significant players in the South African ad market, but have maintained a relatively low profile in a space still cluttered with egos and an awards obsession bar none.

Hefer has avoided the awards rush, instead building an agency that isn’t precious about itself. Chillibush employs 35 people and billings recently hit R90 million, without help form a clutter of little statuettes. It is independent, management owned and BEE level 3 accredited.

Building great agencies sans-awards is being replicated by some of the hottest agencies today, think the rise of Machine, or Mike Abel’s M&C Dale - Fav 1Saatchi Abel. Neither of these agencies made the recent Creative Circle agency rankings by the way. Joe Public wins awards, but it’s not why they win business.

Hefer says she has never believed creative awards were relevant to her clients, agency or team members. The work it produces speaks for itself, in results achieved for clients, but she is considering entering awards focussed on results like Assegai (held by the DMASA) or the Apex Awards held annually by the ACA. She has never been to a Loeries event and doesn’t plan to attend one anytime soon.

So Hefer was a front-runner in many ways. She launched her agency to get rid of what had frustrated her in her first agency job – working in silos, precious creative egos and lots of agency politics. She launched the business from her Garage in Parkhurst – a one woman and dog show she calls it. With no staff, initially she built her business with a network of free agents. It’s inspiring stuff and the collaborative model she employed is being replicated by smart new outfits like The Conversation Lab in Durban and Fast & Remarkable and 2WayStreet in Cape Town.

The premises that houses the agency has no office doors – it’s an open plan environment to suit the open mindset needed for integrated work, says Hefer.

The one point Chillibush has lagged in is digital, Hefer admits, but they are rectifying this. An experienced digital creative will be brought into the agency and placed in a senior position. They will build digital capacity at the agency. Late entry into the digital game holds some advantages – Hefer would have seen other agencies struggle to digest mergers and acquisitions and digital teams stuck in silos often with a sense of being outsiders in the bewildering world of agency structures and politics.

Hefer and her agency has seen some tough times. Early on one some of her clients went belly up, leaving her in debt, and with cash flow problems. The first BEE deal she put together didn’t work out either. The agency has seen an armed robbery on its premises. The victim of several robberies when driving around Johannesburg to deliver artwork in the early days of Chillibush, she bought a blow up doll to put in the passenger seat of her car, so it didn’t look like she was driving around alone.

As a woman, she has encountered numerous cases of sexist behaviour from client side – she resigns their accounts if she believes such behaviour won’t be remedied.

Hefer is currently working on updating her book, “From Witblits to Vuvuzelas: Marketing in the New South Africa”, first released in 2010.

Clients include Old Mutual, Deloitte, Vodacom, the IDC, Mutual & Federal, Constitution Hill and iWyze. The agency recently joined thenetworkone, an international network of independent agencies.

Hefer wants the agency to grow organically, she owns the property next door to the current Chillibush premises, and wants to fill that as well. She believes proper digital integration into the agency will assist with this goal.

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2 replies on “Chillibush – no pretensions or clutter”

  1. Frankly, I thought we stopped having the nonsensical ‘awards-vs-business’ argument ten years ago.
    Many great agencies do both pretty well thank you. And using Machine and M&C Saatchi to bolster the argument is illogical – it has more to do with a business model than an anti-award policy. (Awards worked well for Mike Abel at Ogilvy, and they still do for that agency.)

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