by Herman Manson (@marklives) In 2012, Graham Warsop launched a new ad agency. Except he didn’t realise that that was what he was doing.

Utopia logoWarsop had set up Utopia as a “creative development centre” to uncover and mentor new talent within the ad industry, trained upon pro-bono work. But the kids kicked ass. Their work won at the Loeries, The Bookmarks, D&AD, Clios, One Show, New York Festivals and Midas.

It soon became clear that Utopia is more than a pro-bono shop kick-starting new careers. It has evolved into a fully fledged agency, with a team of account executives, strategists, writers, art directors and designers, and its work has been drawing a global client base and developing a unique culture of its own under managing and creative partner, Carl Cardinelli.

Utopia has just kicked up another gear by moving out from under the shadow of The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town)’s shadow in Observatory, Cape Town, to settle in De Waterkant, taking over the offices of MetropolitanRepublic Cape Town (which shuttered it doors in September 2014). It’s managed to sign up a client base spanning the UK, US, Zimbabwe, Sweden, Australia and South Africa.

It’s a pretty impressive ride for the group of 20- and 30-somethings. Fifteen-people strong, the agency falls under The Lionheart Brand Holding Company, owners of The Jupiter Drawing Room brand, which is minority-owned by WPP.

Carl CardinelliPenguin Run

Utopia is also the agency behind the much-publicised Penguin Run campaign done for pro-bono client, BirdLife South Africa.

Tasked with creating a newspaper ad to educate people about the African Penguin, which has lost 99% of its population since the turn of the 20th century, the agency instead came up with a campaign which tracked five penguins via satellite-tracking data in a race to see which one travelled furthest during a seven-day period (see video case study).

The agency has also rebranded and repositioned SME investor, Business Partners. It created the packaging and in-store poster,s as well as the brand story, in support of Seldon Water’s launch in Zimbabwe, and the logo for WPP’s 2014 Stream Africa 2014 (un)conference. It’s worked on Le Tan, Australia’s no. 1 tanning brand, and Blueair, a Swedish-based air-purifier company.

Initially, Warsop wanted to create a place where young talent could be mentored and allowed to hone their skills after tertiary education. He picked the best and brightest  — the agency interviews 90 of SA’s top ad-school graduates every year — to work on large, pro-bono briefs, as a way of launching them into their careers. Warsop felt that young talent was supremely undervalued, says Cardinelli, and believed that, given the chance, they could create world-class communications.

But it’s expensive running an agency that doesn’t generate any revenue.

And, as Cardinelli points out, why train top talent and let them go to competitors when they might be perfectly happy where they are? So Cardinelli has set out to build a super-team and an agency culture defined by the people who work there.

The agency structure is relatively flat, with Cardinelli acting as managing and creative partner and Warsop as a consulting ECD (his official title is “Le Patron”).

Seldon Water
Seldon Water’s launch in Zimbabwe.

Warsop, of course, needs no introduction. He co-founded The Jupiter Drawing Room and is the most-awarded creative director in the 20-year history of the London International Awards. He received New York Festivals’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 and was conducted into the Loeries Hall of Fame in 2013.

Cardinelli studied advertising and marketing at Varsity College before spending six years in London, where he worked in media, fashion and marketing. Upon his return, he headed to the AAA School of Advertising for a diploma in copywriting, where he took top honours in his class. He joined Utopia four years ago and was quickly picked by Warsop to build it out into a fully fledged agency.

With Utopia (named after Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book “Utopia”) Cardinelli says he and Warsop want to build an agency where people grow and don’t have to be ‘bought’. It’s a place where people should want to stay.

Now that the agency has built up a body of work, it’s taking steps to establishing its own brand in the marketplace. Cardinelli wants Utopia to be an agency with a global positioning, as its client base already indicates.

The agency is also willing to trade time and expertise for an equity stake in startups, says Cardinelli. Utopia created a brand story for an international mainstream product based in the US, and has subsequently been contracted as its global communications agency. An equity deal has been negotiated, ensuring a win-win partnership for the foreseeable future of both the brand and the agency.

As the agency grows up, so too will its team, with Cardinelli promising a more-diverse grouping as the agency continues to evolve (nobody stays 20 forever!). It partners with organisations, agencies and freelancers, where necessary, in a bid to keep down overheads, and, says Cardinelli, to maximise effectiveness.

Utopia enjoys the mentorship of one of SA’s advertising legends, but also gets to set its own path. It mixes experience with youthful self-discovery. It competes globally — both for clients and awards. It’s probably the quintessential Millennial agency. If it didn’t exist, people would call it utopian — as mythical as that imaginary island.  They just call it Utopia.

Case study: Business Partners

Challenge: Despite being one of the leading investors in SMEs in South Africa, Business Partners’ branding was undistinctive and lacked identity. The challenge was to rebrand and reposition Business Partners as the home of the entrepreneur.

Solution: The new logo serves to show the rarity of people who possess the qualities of an entrepreneur and that they are special. They are square pegs. The rebrand includes everything from an above-the-line and digital campaigns, complete office redesign, signage, employee training and design collateral.

The new branding was launched with the Square Peg campaign, which served to both celebrate and motivate the entrepreneur. The idea was to use a piece of literature from the 18th century, Thomas Paine’s “Entrepreneur’s Credo”, and champion entrepreneurs, as opposed to products and services. The campaign ran across TV, radio, print, and online, including a poignant TVC featuring six top South African entrepreneurs reciting the Entrepreneur’s Credo.


Case study: WPP Stream (Un)conferende

WPP Stream (Un)conferende postcardChallenge: Dubbed the ‘(un)conference’, Stream is one of the world’s leading digital events taking place year-round across the globe. Headed to African soil for the first time, Utopia was selected as the WPP Steam African Design Agency, and was tasked with designing the inaugural Stream Africa logo.

Solution: How do you capture a continent as diverse as Africa in one logo? The solution was found in Africa’s most-precious resource — water.

The idea was to find rivers naturally occurring across the continent to form the word Stream. After days of trawling Google Earth, the letters S-T-R-E-A-M carved into Africa’s diverse landscapes by her mighty rivers  were found (co-ordinates provided, lest any doubters think image manipulation was at play).

WPP Stream (Un)conferendeWhile capturing the majesty of Africa, the rivers also represent the free flow of ideas at the Stream (Un)conference.


Case study: South African Antique, Art and Design Association (SAADA)

SAADA #amazeballs chandelierSAADA dope ass chesterfieldChallenge: Since 1963, SAADA has been authenticating antiques and ensuring a high standard of industry ethics. In 2014, following a name change and rebrand, it was time to shake off the dust and attract a new generation of antique buyers: the selfie-taking yuppies. The brief? Challenge the perception that antiques (and the people who buy them) are outdated.

Solution: The trend among the target audience, of using both local and international slang, led to the project solution: talk their talk. A series of ballsy print adverts and posters were created that contrast popular slang terms with one of the classic antique, art or design pieces that SAADA authenticates.

The results? The campaign was featured in The Antique Trade Gazette, BestAds on TV, Lürzer’s Archive and MarkLives — where legendary adman Andy Rice exclaimed “Amazeballs!” on air.


Case study: Utopia identity

Challenge: Communications agency Utopia required a new identity that symbolises what the term Utopia means. In short, it required a logo that represents perfection, an unobtainable ideal, which is different for everyone — every employee, brand and client.

Solution: Why settle on a logo when an entire world could be created? The flexi-logo represents a window into the ever-evolving world of Utopia, whereby all employees and clients are represented by their very own piece of real estate: their own unique logo.

Case studies supplied by Utopia.

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