#AgencyFocus: andPeople wants you to get the youth market
by Sabrina Forbes. Youth engagement agency, andPeople, was born out of frustration when co-founder, Michael Leslie, found himself disenamoured by the youth marketing work done by South Africa’s big agencies. “While the agencies were really good at what they were doing, what they were doing wasn’t relevant to the audience,” he says. “I had concerns about whether advertising was actually the best way to connect with this audience.”
With a career that started first with Levi’s and then Red Bull, Leslie got first-hand experience in what it was like being a youth-focused marketer, although he’ll admit he was an unusual one and too creative for his own good. His frustration was towards no specific agency but rather the industry as a whole, which he felt were lacking an understanding and connection to the youth and what they find relevant.
“I felt like there needed to be a different kind of agency,” he says. “We wanted to be the antithesis of a traditional agency and believed that there is a need for a category within our industry that is consumer-first. And, when it comes to young people, we continue to believe that.”
Another frustration that was the catalyst to Leslie starting his own agency was how much attention has been given to other parts of our industry but not the youth space. You can’t work in the digital space unless you’re in that space daily, and exposed to all the nuances and continuous changes in order to keep up. He believes we don’t pay that same respect to youth culture, even though it evolves and morphs just as quickly as the digital world in terms of attitudes, behaviours, trends, and languages. And so, again, he mentions how often the people who create communications focused at the youth don’t work in that space every day, and so often “just don’t get it”. “Our thesis is simple. If you want to connect with the youth in a meaningful way, you first have to understand them intimately,” he says.
Leslie (then 31), along with co-founder Ricky Lee Gordon (now a well-known street artist), launched andPeople eight years ago. Neither had ever run an agency before and lessons were quickly learnt but successes were quick to come by, too. Within the first two months, the agency had picked up Red Bull Mobile, Levi’s, Adidas, and RVCA as retainer clients. Gordon left the agency after 10 short months and that was when Leslie began having conversations with then London-based ad-man and old friend, Duncan MacLennan. MacLennan joined the agency shortly afterwards, bringing with him more than a decade of experience working with some of the world’s most-established brands.
Passionate about staying small
The leadership at andPeople is passionate about staying small and has no plans to be the biggest, only the best. It focuses on doing meaningful work that creates value for young people, while partnering with brands to deliver it to market. By doing so, it believes it’s able to build its clients’ brands in a sustainable way.
“Sustainability is the key. Instead of slapping a logo onto something to capitalise on an opportunity, it’s actually saying and asking what role does the brand have in this space? And what assets and leverage can we use to add value to it beyond just a paycheck?” says Leslie. andPeople runs a decentralised model, working with best-in-class partners around the country to deliver the best possible solution to each project.
According to Leslie, its strength lies in translating the brand problem through solutions or audiences that are most appropriate: “We don’t do advertising but we have done advertising. We don’t like to do it as a single aspect; we prefer when it’s supporting a broader programme. We’ve done everything from build[ing] furniture to design[ing] and manag[ing] spaces to mobile apps and every form of content you can imagine, from magazines to films. For a small agency, we’re able to do a lot of different things,” he says, adding that this is possible because of structure and how the agency is able to understand what the problem is, leverage what the brand wants to do to solve it, and add value to the audience.
MacLennan refers to ‘intelligence’ when asked what he believes the agency’s core USP is. A combination of market, business, and culture is where they unlock whatever the potential solution would be. andPeople’s steadfast dedication to understanding youth culture, and its many ebbs and flows, has, in the agency’s opinion, made its partners look to it as thought leaders in the space.
Bringing clients closer to audiences
“We work very hard at bringing our clients closer to who their audience is. A large portion of our client base is based in Cape Town; a large proportion of their marketing function is suburban whites; their target audience or their commercial prize is emerging black middle-class based in Johannesburg. There’s a fundamental issue here. A lot of these people don’t travel; their idea of who they are selling to is very different to the reality,” says MacLennan.
It’s been an ongoing battle to educate clients on what value actually means and every brief that lands is thoroughly questioned. This has meant that briefs for a launch event have turned into music videos, a fashion line, or even a product — far removed from the original.
According to Leslie, his agency’s job is to toe the line between the brand and its people’s understanding of the audience. “We interpret what their problem is and what they’re trying to do, and understand what role they can play in culture. We’re helping them recode the value equation because value today in the lives of young people is not about volume or price. Those days are gone,” he says.
“We ask why a lot and that’s probably one of our best attributes. We don’t often take what we’re given or receive what we learn and take that as the answer. We try to get as far beneath the surface as we can to actually understand,” says MacLennan, adding that there’s a system setup in this industry which is based on commercial gain and, as much as you try to fight that fight, it’s inherently difficult. He recalls moments when the smartest people in the room have agreed that changing an approach was a good idea but then finish with “we’re still not going to do it”.
“Not here to prescribe youth culture”
“We’re not here to prescribe youth culture or say what it is, which is a mistake a lot of people who don’t work in this space do. We’re here to help translate a role a brand can play by translating what the brand can understand. The reality is that youth defines culture and this is why it is currently evolving. Every generation is evolving that definition,” says Leslie.
Leslie questions the role of marketing and advertising as the industry moves forward and as Africa gets younger and digital advances continue. Trusting a brand to tell you everything about it is well-documented in history but, unfortunately, no longer the case.
As an example, MacLennan mentions Nike spending a couple million dollars in creating an ad to sell a new shoe but then an unboxing YouTube video shot on an iPhone gets twice as many views. According to him, it’s because of what people are interested in. “It begs the question of what is the role of our industry as look forward. We believe the opportunity is brands need to evolve to actually create value for the audience that they’re in business to serve,” he adds.
There’s no avoiding that an agency positioning itself as a South African youth engagement specialist is run by two 30-something white men in Cape Town. Neither Leslie nor MacLennan tries to hide it, understanding that their age and demographics comes with its own limits. When asked how they personally understand the culture they’re playing in, both respond without hesitation that it’s intrinsically part of who they are. “We haven’t had this epiphanous thing and [it]s not we’re like ‘trying to do it’. It’s a part of who we are. Our value system is curiosity and understanding people and behaviour. So that appetite for understanding already exists from a consumer/marketing perspective. From a culture perspective, we’ve always been active in this space,” says MacLennan.
Bespoke research unit
To further fight the age and demographic limits of the duo, they have a function in the business called Intelligence: a workstream which involves a bespoke research unit that is continually looking at culture and what is happening. They have also built a solid external network they interact with often and, with a lot of travel between the two, have found success in actually speaking to people and listening to what they have to say.
“This is what we do; we actually don’t do anything else. Our single-minded focus is what makes two late 30-year-old white people not all created equal. The reality is that somebody sitting in an agency that is not specialising or looking at this every single day is not going to have the same respect for it as we would, as well as the same basic principle of recognising that we don’t know,” says Leslie.
For the duo, the burgeoning youth population is an opportunity for not only lifestyle brands but also automotive, retail and financial, to name a few. But there is a still a lot of work brands and agencies need to do in order to understand, at a deep level, the nuances of the audience they are there to serve. “There is so much surface level insight around us. Driving through Johannesburg is like driving through a terrible magazine,” adds MacLennan.
Playing the role of translator between brands and the youth, andPeople believes and continuously works towards pushing the boundaries when it comes to adding value. By creating more value than you capture, brands of all types and sizes may benefit from the opportunities the youth market is making more readily available. But it’s not just up to them. It’s a collective journey and both Leslie and MacKennan believe that, although the public sector may not be the driving force behind change right now, there’s an important role the private sector can and should play in creating value for our youth. They are, for all intents and purposes, our future.
“#Agency/BrandFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on ad agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.
Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced 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.
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