#AgencyFocus: Family-run agency plays by own rules
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Joburg-based design and branding agency, Xfacta, isn’t trying to be the biggest name in adland. MD Nick Schilperoort says that the small(ish) company is happy to be the little ankle-biters who have fun while showing the industry what they can do within the design space.
While the agency has made only an occasional blip on the industry news radar, it has an extensive portfolio of clients. Among these are King Price Insurance, for which Xfacta has served as branding agency for five years (it did the strategic overseeing of that tractor ad), Accenture, Bigen Group, South Point, Interwaste and Vumatel.
The relative silence is a result of CEO Kees Schilperoort’s focus on making his clients famous, rather than the agency itself, he says. He believes that recognition and awards ought to go to the brands, and urges his employees not to get too distracted by the prospect of accolades. “It’s a thin veneer that exists in our industry,” he says. “I judge on whether we’ve done our best, and at the end of the year the numbers talk for themselves. The fact that we keep on getting clients who want to work with us is our reward.” He cites the agency’s recent work with luxury resort, Miavana, as a particular talking point.
Kees is Schilperoort senior, and Xfacta is his second venture in life; he was a creative partner in Pentagraph (which became Brand Union and then Superunion) and, after a long career in large agencies, was eager to make a fresh start. “You gravitate back to your roots, and it’s a lot of fun to do the things you weren’t able to,” he explains, describing parts of his history as people buying bakeries without any interest in their recipes. “My job was to create the recipes and sprinkles.”
Schilperoort says that he found it frustrating, as a creative, to come up against limitations in the corporate environment, something he sought to remedy with the launching of Xfacta in 2006. “I decided to start a bespoke company and flip it around so I could choose the clients — it was an operation filled with idealistic aspirations.” His plan seems to have worked, with the agency rapidly gaining traction. “We were easily accepted by a client base and, quite frankly, at the beginning it wasn’t even about growth — it was about doing what we loved,” he says.
Nick, whose studies were in commerce, came onboard in 2012, after cutting his teeth at TBWA\Hunt Lascaris. His interest in the industry was seeded much earlier, however; he found himself immersed in the creative field ‘from day dot’, spending a lot of time in agencies with his father while growing up. “It formed a big part of my life, and this is a passion that we as a family share,” he says, adding that the idea of a family-run business doesn’t stop at the two of them. “The agency operates like a design family, which sees us not only eating lunch together each day but tackling every brief as a consolidated unit.”
When Nick joined the ranks at Xfacta, the team was five-strong; it’s since grown to 20 — and the Schilperoorts say that’s where they’d like to keep it for now. The average age (minus his father, quips Nick) is in the mid-20, a factor that the pair say helps the studio thrive.
They prefer “seedlings to old dogs who don’t learn new tricks and are not flexible,” explains Kees, and all of the talent is multiskilled. “People come in thinking they’re graphic designers but before they know it they’re interior designers, then they’re doing product design and directing a TVC — and that’s simply the nature of the business,” he says. This applies to their account executives and those in other roles, too. “The person who meets you at the door has to understand how the whole business works,” he says. “I believe that we are running a team of 20 entrepreneurs here.”
The variety of skills expected of the team reflects the wide scope of work Xfacta undertakes. “We can go from working on a blue-chip company to a school bookfair,” says Nick.
“We have some of the very best talent in the world,” adds Kees. “We can go from super-luxury to technology, specialist services and then the casino business all in one day. The cross-pollination of thinking is very important.”
Without wanting to come across as arrogant, however, the agency is selective about its clients, says Kees. “The fit has to be right,” he says. “A lot of people say it, but we try and walk it here — we ask do we like the client and does the client like us? We need to be happy on a two-way street, and we find that it works. The phone rings.”
Nick reports year-on-year financial growth of 50% over the last three years. Being a designand branding studio, Xfacta works differently to many in the world of advertising, where massive retainers or accounts might be sought after, he says. “But we do buck the [project-based] trend, because a lot of our revenue seems to be retainer-based income, purely on the fact that we are brand custodians for the majority of our clients.”
Going forward into 2019, Xfacta is focused on two major goals: continued collaboration with industry experts, something the agency already does “unashamedly” to deliver to its clients, and continued integration and positioning of creative digital technologies in its offerings. “What we’re seeing as a global movement in the design space, particularly in branding, is this idea of bringing digital seamlessly into the idea of building brands, without it being a separate entity,” says Nick. This is something being focused on internally, while leaving the social and community management side of digital to others.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her new column “#AgencyFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.
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