Interview: Grolsch awards SA agency for excellence in digital
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Earlier this year, a small couture content-marketing, ideation and creative agency, SoulProviders, was awarded Excellence in Digital Execution for its work on the global beer brand, Grolsch. MarkLives caught up with Sarah-Jane Boden (@sisiwami), founder and ECD of SoulProviders, to find out more about the agency, its work for Grolsch, and the rise of independent smaller agencies.
Sarah-Jane Boden: As a small agency, we’re obviously delighted — we don’t base our confidence levels on receiving awards and we actually enter very few; however, this was a true unsolicited ‘nod’ for SoulProviders from a corporation that in the past has mostly worked with established, ‘household-name’ agencies. I believe this is indicative of a general shift in the marketing and advertising world, where brands are working with smaller more boutique independent agencies and loving it.
SJB: Last year, Grolsch went through an intensive interrogation of the brand to determine where they should be playing in the beer space. Being fully imported and available at a premium price, they were clearly not going for the more traditional music-loving or braai-guy segment, and being an SABMiller brand, they’re seen as perhaps too “commercial” to qualify as a craft beer.
What emerged was the idea to bring beer into the world of art, and art into the world of beer, within the context of “Urban Creative Expression”. With a 400-year history of craftsmanship and pay-off line of “Choose Interesting”, the idea of Art + Grolsch seemed a perfect fit, and we worked on a strategy to bring the alignment to life in the digital sphere.
SJB: Not only were we tasked to find off-beat galleries and interesting events to sponsor with stock throughout the year, we also had to create a lively digital ecosystem that told the story of this brand shift.
With no blog in place we proposed a space where we could write about urban expression in the forms of art, design, architecture, photography, film and live events, to which the global team responded, “Let’s build a platform for all markets to contribute similarly.”
The result is the blog site, www.canvas.grolsch.com/za, which we populate daily with localised content, along with a couple of other markets and the Amsterdam hub, who are under the guidance of writers from Vice.
While there have been some challenges with the site and having to deal with an overseas support team, we are pleased with the uptake we’ve seen so far. In the month of August, South African traffic actually outnumbered visitors from the other territories, including The Netherlands.
In terms of events and sponsorship opportunities for the brand, we’re proud to say we’ve organised partnerships with Muti Gallery (CT), Kalashnikov (JHB), StopSign Gallery (JHB) and Living Arts Emporium (JHB), as well as the premieres of Four Corners and iNumber Number. We’ve also picked up on smaller events like Sofar Sounds, exhibitions at Coast Studios and David Tshabalala’s recent “instabition”. You will have noticed bigger sponsorships too, like FNB and Turbine Art Fairs, Open Design in Cape Town and the year-long exclusive sponsorship of MOAD [Museum of Arts and Design] in Maboneng.
What has been a major part of our always-on digital strategy is to be present at all these events, gathering content, tweeting live and reporting back to our audience. On average we are attending five events a month, which has been instrumental to the brand’s growth on social media and to brand awareness.
You manage the social media presence of Grolsch — there has been some debate on whether outside agencies are best suited for such a task or if this is something that should be handled by brands internally.
SJB: We do work with brands that manage the social spaces internally themselves; in this case, we will work closely with the brand team and are given the creative freedom to ideate, design, write and produce branded content — we then simply deliver this to the client and they upload it.
On the other hand, our feeling is that with the brands where we do all of the above, including the uploading of content and management of spaces and communities, our technical knowledge as well as our team’s agility and ability to stay ahead of trends means that the content gets the best reach and engagement possible, at the right time.
But obviously we need a lot more trust and in some cases processes for this to happen — we do prefer the comprehensive model but are open to both scenarios.
Give us a quick background on SoulProviders as an agency: where does it come from, what services do you offer and who are your key clients?
SJB: We’ve been in content for ages as I started the urban culture blog Represent.co.za in about 2004 — I first kicked off SoulProviders version 1 as an idea-generation and creative shop but then caught the travel bug and went abroad for a while, and produced creative intelligence and trend reports for my clients here in SA during some of my stay there.
Round two saw SoulProviders being revived as a creative content and social-media service provider in 2011 when I returned, as I knew what I really wanted the business to be; what I didn’t know was that it would grow so quickly and adeptly into the cool geeky teenager it is now.
SJB: Well, the “couture” part has two meanings: one day we were chatting to our Grolsch client, Vika Shipalana, about our desire to stay small and to do really crafted, thought-through work [that changes lives] and she said, “Ok, I get it; you guys want to be more couture.”
We’ll be forever grateful as we’d been searching for a fresh way to describe ourselves and Vika just nailed it in a moment. But, then again, she understood who we were at our core. So couture for us is as much about our desire to stay small as it is about our need to do thoughtful, tailor-made and unique work.
SJB: We have had an interesting time working in some new markets already. Two years ago already, we set up a small business called ACOCO — the All African Content Collective — as part of the SoulProviders collective as a partnership with legendary all-African content producer, Phiona Okumu. The idea was to set up some content teams in Kenya and Nigeria; we learnt so much from that.
The biggest learning was that we never want to call anywhere north/east/west of SA a blanket ‘Africa’ anymore but rather to deal with each country and its exceptional uniqueness by calling them by their country names.
Our second learning was that the territories we went into don’t really need SA digital agencies to come through and service clients — it’s even viewed as a kind of imperialism and gets them really annoyed in some cases. Luckily, we had just tried to build partnerships. But my own insight behind all of this is that, if we can’t tell you where to go on a Friday night in Durban, a mere 500km away, how do we tell you about the nightlife in Dar es Salaam? It was also really difficult to pull off.
These insights have meant we’re innovating our ACOCO model and have a very exciting new model up our sleeve; funders, please give us a shout! We also have a second baby branch of SoulProviders in Swaziland already; it’s kind of an innovation arm for us that we do some fun, more experimental creative, retail and product work in. This business is called SoulProviders East and we’re very excited about what it will do.
Lastly, I’ve just launched a business with my super designer/partner extraordinaire, David Tshabalala, called Suketchi (Japanese for “sketch”). This is a “collaborative design agency and shop”, as David likes to describe it, and I’m super-excited to see what products we’ll be coming up with.
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