by MarkLives (@marklives) For 2019, Atmosphere Communications (@atmospherecomms) has been voted as most-admired PR agency in South Africa, with Clockwork (formerly Clockwork Media) (@Clockwork_Media) and DNA Brand Architects (@dnabrandsa) as joint runners-up, by South African agency executives. This is the second year of this new category.
Every year since 2012, MarkLives has been polling South Africa’s top ad agency leaders to find out what they think of their competitors, whom they see as effective managers and great creative leaders, and where they believe their future competition is likely to come from. These are the results for 2019 and this week we are running the following categories.
The most-admired PR agency
Growth in staff and revenue remain a challenge for the advertising and PR industry, but for the award-winning Atmosphere Communications, it’s a matter of innovation and ambition. “Our industry is rapidly changing and we have to stay ahead of the curve,” says Nicola Nel, Atmosphere MD.
Atmosphere grew from 32 staff members to 40 in 2019, and top-line revenue by 24%, 72% of which was from retained clients. Despite this, the agency remains tentative for 2020, particularly when it comes to staffing. “There is dire need for senior, strategic and creative thinkers and the pool is getting smaller as the corporate lure gets bigger,” she says.
Agencies across the board are facing the challenge of relevance in a volatile economy. Acording to Nel, repeatedly refreshing product offerings and an involved approach to working with clients is what sets Atmosphere apart. “We give each one of our clients a senior team leader [who] focuses on the ROI for their clients. We also keep on innovating our product offering,” she says. “Atmosphere was one of the first companies to start a social media team and one of the first to build our influencer expertise.”
Atmosphere has retained its big-name clients, including Cell-C, Capitec, Sanlam, Takealot, Spotify, and Nestle, but the agency has goals to expand further in 2020. Says Nel, “In the year ahead, we are looking to build our African footprint through our PROI network. We currently work with great owner-run businesses in Egypt, Kenya and Ghana, and need representation in French-speaking Africa. We are also expanding our digital content capabilities and further growing our influencer expertise.”
In 2019, Atmosphere won the SABRE Platinum Best in Show and the PRISA PRISM Mid-Size PR Agency of the Year. The PR agency is part of the King James Group South Africa.
— Profile by Jessica Evans.
Previously: In 2018, our inaugural most-admired PR agency was also Atmosphere Communications.
The joint runners-up
|“It [was] a good year from a growth perspective,” says Tom Manners, Clockwork CEO, reflecting on 2019. It grew from 74 employees at its smallest point to 105 at year-end, and Manners doesn’t think it will stop there. “I reckon we’ll probably be around 115 by March/April [this] year.”
Not only has Clockwork grown in staff numbers, it has grown in revenue, too. “We’ll start to scratch on the R80m/R90m mark [this] year, which is big considering two or three years ago we were under R50m. 2019 brought some of the agency’s biggest acquisitions yet, with Sunday Times most-loved brand and largest corporate in Africa, Standard Bank, signing on after a competitive pitching process. To me, it was one of the top three highlights in the lifetime of the agency,” he says.
Client retention was also a high point for Clockwork in 2019. Its key clients for last year included Microsoft Global and Standard Bank, with Hyundai, Netflix, LG, and Exxaro also bringing life to Clockwork.
For Manners, Clockwork’s growth in a questionable economic climate is down to its age-old outlook: “Our ability to come at creative ATL/TTL briefs from a comms perspective, from a reputational perspective, has been quite powerful. I think we look at things slightly differently.”
While 2019 initially brought Clockwork some attrition due to political and economic uncertainty, Manners is confident that this was an opportunity, rather than a threat. “Budgets have been reduced, clients are being forced to be more frugal and smart about how they spend money,” he says, adding that producing budget-friendly work, and doing so efficiently, is what keeps Clockwork standing out.
Manners is optimistic for Clockwork’s future in 2020. Other than a brand revamp and moving into a new building this year, he is expecting another year of growth, adding that “our agency is probably in the best place it’s ever been”.
— Profile by Jessica Evans.
|“The obvious thing is value for money,” says Sylvester Chauke, DNA Brand Architects founder. According to him, this is what sets DNA apart in a battling industry.
And it’s DNA’s dynamic model that gives it an edge, he continues: “Most agencies, they’ve got very set structures of supporting their businesses and, I think for us, our model allows us to play quite broadly with the resources we have in the team to allow for effectiveness.”
This effectiveness is what he argues brings talent to DNA. “The impact that we’ve created for the client point-of-view has helped us to be able to really get some really good-quality staff members into our business,” he says. DNA started 2019 with 30 employees and ended with 41.
Staff isn’t the only aspect of the business that grew last year; DNA started 2019 with about R41m in revenue, and ended close to R54.5m, with a new branch opening in Cape Town. DNA’s vision for 2020 is all about investing in the training and personal growth of staff, sustainable business growth and diversifying sources of income.
DNA’s big acquisitions for 2019 fit the bill for diversity with Telkom, Barloworld, and Bridgestone signing on but the highlights didn’t stop there. DNA boasts five IABC Gold Quills in Canada and the PRISA PRISM Campaign of the Year for 2019 for its 2018 online video series for the relaunch of Lion Lager.
With highlights come challenges. Along with most other agencies in the industry, DNA Brand Architects is facing clients holding back on spending money, and hopping from agency to agency. “There is a lot of movement, and the movement is very often nowadays. So the challenge is, for a brand to really grow, an agency can’t really do an effective job in a year,” says Chauke, adding that capturing the essence of a brand is a long-term project. “It’s not really just about an ad at the end of the day.”
— Profile by Jessica Evans.
Previously: In 2018, our inaugural runner-up was Clockwork Media (now Clockwork).
How the poll works
In late October 2019, we invited a panel of handpicked agency executives — in creative and management, and ranging over a wide spectrum from small- and medium-sized to network agencies — to nominate their most-admired companies and company leaders of various types of agencies. This year we conducted only a national poll, doing away with the two regional polls for Johannesburg and Cape Town. Execs couldn’t nominate their own agencies or staff members. All the nominations were then tallied up for the final result. The editors of MarkLives held two votes in the final poll and could choose not to apply these in tight races.
Note: Runner-up(s) are only named if they achieved a good nomination tally, relative to the winner’s position. Contenders are named if they stood out significantly above other nominees but weren’t able to close in on the winner’s tally. The Most Admired Agency of the Year is disqualified from the One to Watch category; votes cast in its favour in this category are discarded.