Durban-based Conversation LAB eyes national expansion
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Durban-based agency, Conversation LAB, has grown from a four-person shop to a 40-person agency in little over three-and-a-half years. It was launched on 1 August 2012, when three TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris staffers broke away from that agency.
Founders Kevin Power, Tamerin Borland and Jonathan Oliff brought on board UK-based creative director, Christian Anstice, to launch the startup, positioned as a full-service digital agency with a focus upon social, SEO and paid media. It got its first big break three months into trading, when safety footwear manufacturer, Bova, moved from TBWA, allowing Power and his team to hire an additional four staff members. Bova has since merged with Wayne Safety, and the account has tripled in size since a year ago.
According to Power, the agency has been winning business through word-of-mouth. The digital-agency marketplace isn’t as crowded in Durban as it is elsewhere and it’s a tough market to break into, he says, a gap the agency founders spotted early. Using their own extensive networks has resulted in the agency only having had to compete in two pitches. Mostly, it manages to win business upon credential presentations.
It has also built relationships with larger agencies such as The Hardy Boys and Y&R Durban, which use it on digital projects where required. Doing both this and building relationships directly with its own clients has been key to its success.
Recently, Conversation LAB picked up accounts from Laager Rooibos Tea and Varsity College. Winning business from household names is giving it additional credibility in the market, and Power hopes this will open even more doors for the agency.
Its full retainer client list now includes Dunlop, ADvTech Group (Varsity College, The Business School, 2 x Recruitment brands (The Working Earth and Tech Pro), Miladys, Godrej Group SA (Renew, Inecto, Kinky Hair), Environ Skin Care (Global and SA local Market), Compendium Bidvest Insurance, Chubb, Laager Rooibos Tea, Sunfoil and Sunfoil Test Series (Willowton Group), BBF Safety Group, Carrier and Toshiba Air conditioners.
Agency culture remains entrepreneurial — his teams gets things done. Flexibility and agility are important differentiators in the agency world, he says, and the agency knows how to keep overheads low and its offering competitively priced.
According to Power, Conversation LAB has managed to attract top talent from Cape Town and (especially) Johannesburg to Durban, but admits there is a limit to the number of senior people willing to move to Durbs. This is in spite of increased investment in the province and a lifestyle most Jozi residents only experience over school breaks.
Since January 2015 head-count has grown from 25 people to 40, thanks to new business wins and a shift in marketing spend to digital. The agency is looking to expand simultaneously into Cape Town, where it already has a client; London, where its ECD is based; and Joburg, from where it hopes to have easier access to talent. Durban will remain its SEO and technology hub, with business unit heads and account directors in Cape Town and Jozi. This will gradually be built up to include creative and strategic offerings in the other offices.
Image: Conversation Lab founders MD Kevin Power, ECD Christian Anstice and head of technology Jon Oliff
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com. He was the inaugural Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year in 2011 and has, over his 20-year-plus career, contributed to numerous journals and websites in South Africa and abroad, including AdVantage magazine, Men’s Health, Computer World and African Communications.
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