#AgencyFocus: O’Brian — when David competes with Goliath
by Sabrina Forbes. From two men and a phone, using a table bought on the side of the road and huddled in a small room working on a dream, to a 21-year-old 100% black-owned business that has remained totally independent through the industry’s avalanche acquisition trend the past two decades, this is the O’Brian story.
In July 1997, after 11 years at Unilever and a two-year stint at both the Nedvor Group and Sonnenburg Murphy Leo Burnett, Mxolisi Evan Tyawa co-founded O’Brian Communications Group with Danish ex-colleague, Brian Nielsson. It’s a story of enterprise in a time of political and economic transformation, and highlights how good, solid, quality work far outreaches a fancy name or group title.
A number of years before 1994, the ANC was a government in waiting and countries from around the world were keeping a keen eye on South Africa and its opportunities. The Danish government began a B2B programme to jumpstart black-owned agencies and it was then that Tyawa took the proverbial bull by the horns and created what has become one of SA’s longest-standing, independent, black-owned agencies.
For Tyawa, the existing agency model, of massive overheads with a large, slow-moving staff complement, was outdated and cumbersome. It felt too laboured and heavy for a small agency just finding its feet. Happily for Tyawa, Nielsson came with global experience and introduced him to the networking/freelance model. The agency still uses this model today, hiring only a handful of project managers who are tasked with outsourcing and liaising with freelancers while providing effective client services. They’re the ones who get things done in-house while professional freelancers do what they do best, off-site.
There was a point in time where O’Brian Group needed to relook at its structure and felt it needed to look more like a “real agency”, according to Tyawa. It was during this time (2000–2009) that the agency enjoyed 10-15% growth year-on-year while the country was politically, environmentally, and economically in line. But, post-2009, he made the decision to go back to the freelancer model.
The idea of using freelancers to deliver all sorts of work has become a popular focus in this industry, especially as more and more creatives go out on their own. Twenty-one years ago, according to Tyawa, “the marketing industry was intolerant of this model and only the really brave and talented ones went out on their own” but, over the past two decades, the freelance model/gig economy has grown, not only in its popularity but also in its innovation, with all sorts of apps and websites offering the services of vetted, highly skilled freelancers.
When asked what Tyawa’s biggest fear and disappointment is, it’s that all small-to-medium black-owned agencies that started around the time O’Brian opened its doors have either reach a glass ceiling in the industry or closed their business. “It’s hard to find a 100% black-owned agency that exists, never mind one that’s 21 years old,” he says, reminding himself of the numerous times he had the opportunity to go into a BEE partnership with an existing, monolithic white firm. But he didn’t, and the O’Brian Group currently employs 10 people at its core who work with big brands such as Sasfin, Old Mutual, Tiger Brands and, its most-recent win, the IDC.
Even though the agency already has an impressive client list, building up new business has sometimes been a challenge. “We are still battling to make the pitch lists or invites, especially from the private sector,” he says.
The USP of the O’Brian Communications Group, according to Tyawa, is its ability to create solutions through logic. This is something it pursues with every existing and new client. For him, “solutions without logic are not sustainable. Logic drives everything we do; we’re an agency that is a stickler for outputs and don’t just do things because they look nice.”
It seems the entire team follows this mindset and the culture created allows for freedom, teamwork, and collaboration. The process for Tyawa, his team, and the greater group of freelancers the agency employs looks at solutions over work that’s just purely creative. “We put prominence on the process of thinking through a problem and what we’re trying to solve,” he says, sharing that “the sense of performance of the campaigns we have done is what I love the most.”
Driven by creating relevant, invaluable work that’s sharp on strategy with a solid logical backbone, he is proud to say that his small, independent agency has given some of the big boys in the industry a run for their money: “We’ve punched above our weight for [so] long, and we’ll carry on doing it.”
|www.obriangroup.com • Ramify
Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced and published writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to moonwrench.com. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.
“#AgencyFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on ad agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.
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