#AgencyLeaders2019: Most-admired ad agency
by MarkLives (@marklives) For 2019, Joe Public United (@joepublicunited) has been voted as most-admired ad agency in South Africa, with King James Group SA (@KJGroupSA) as runner-up, by South African agency executives.
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 ad agency
Joe Public United has broken King James Group’s three-year winning streak in a tight poll to emerge as 2019’s most-admired South African communications agency.
Revenue growth stood at 10% YOY (according to the MarkLives Agency Revenue Rankings 2019, Joe Public United’s revenue band sits between R200m–R250m) and the group currently employs around 300 people. New client wins over the course of 2019 included Nestlé, Revlon, Expedia, Bonitas and UberEats. Its largest clients include Anglo American, Chicken Licken, Clover, Jet, Nedbank and South African Breweries (SAB).
Joe Public United had a stellar-awards year in 2019, being named Loeries Agency of the Year (for the second year running), New Generation Awards Agency of the Year (third year running) and D&AD’s most-awarded SA agency. It was also Pendoring Agency of the Year (second year running). The agency has built a solid creative foundation with client Chicken Licken, and its ads for this fast-food retailer remain both popular with the public and creative award shows.
“As we all know, 2019 proved to be a tough economic year but, despite these challenges, we are proud to have continued to play a key role in helping grow our clients’ business and, in so doing, our own, with Joe Public growing by 10%,” says Gareth Leck, Joe Public United GCEO. “This was achieved by retaining all of our key clients, winning new business, creating value-added services and generating new revenue streams. This business growth has in turn allowed us to increase our investment in upskilling and growing our people. The agency also managed to have our best year in terms of creative recognition, including winning Agency of the Year at the 2019 Loeries for the second year in a row.
“During , the agency put a lot of effort into streamlining its ways of working. One of the ways we did this was to create dedicated integrated teams specifically built around our clients’ individual needs, providing them with all of the required services they need to deliver on their strategy in the most-efficient way. We have also spent  investing in developing more-robust and -scientific processes that will allow us to manage and measure all of the key areas within Joe Public to ensure systematic and continuous improvement is achieved in the future.”
Joe Public Maximise, the media-planning and -buying division within Joe Public United, grew by 9% compared to the previous year. The group’s proprietary brand-planning process, Growth Compass, gained steady traction with a number of new clients during the period. The Joe Public School of Growth, (through which it delivers SETA-accredited programmes) increased its training investment by 58% during the period. The group also launched Joe Motion, a motion graphics, animation, 3D, digital assets production studio to service existing and new clients.
Finally, it solidified its partnership with Ethno Afrika (previously part of its enterprise development programme), making it a specialist division providing clients with rich ikasi township market-research data and insights.
The year ahead
In terms of the year ahead, Leck says that Joe Public United invested much effort and energy in 2019 into building a number of key foundational structures, new systems and offerings “that will all help deliver on this growth for our people and our clients, and we look forward to 2020 being a great year for the group”.
“We firmly believe that, when times are tough, great creativity is the most-effective way to assist clients in their business growth and, in this regard, we believe that Joe Public is well-positioned to deliver on that requirement in the coming years, given our current creative standing and the quality of work that we are producing for our clients,” he says. “We say this without wanting to sound arrogant or complacent, knowing we still have massive room for growth in this area. We believe that digital advertising will continue to be a strong growth area for clients and we will be very focused on ensuring we are well-equipped to meet this demand by continuing to add value for our clients in the broader digital space.”
According to Leck, the group will be focusing on the following for 2020:
- Transformation: “We are firmly committed to the growth of our people and country and, based on this, we looking to further build on our current transformation strategy. We look forward to becoming an authentically transformed, independently owned, South African agency and we are aiming to begin 2020 with some exciting news in this regard.” Around 60% of its staff complement consists of black talent, and 40% of that is black female talent.
- Creative product: “We will be pushing even harder in 2020 to improve the calibre of our creative product within the group. As mentioned, we firmly believe that the most-effective way to achieve growth for our clients is by delivering creative excellence and, given the fact that the economy will not be much easier in 2020, we will keep our eyes firmly on upping the level of our creative product in service of our clients’ growth.”
- New services and offerings: “As the advertising landscape and our client’s needs evolve, so must our offering; in that regard, we have a number of new services and offerings we are working on that we plan to take to market in 2020.”
— Profile by Herman Manson.
Previously: King James Group won three years in a row in 2018, 2017 and 2016, while Joe Public United took top honours in 2015. From 2012 (our inaugural poll) up to and including 2014, it was Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town.
In 2019, King James Group SA saw YOY revenue growth coming in at 2% (according to the MarkLives Agency Revenue Rankings 2019, its revenue band sits between R200m–R250m), while its staff count also grew by 2% to 224. New client wins included Nederburg, Anglo American, Siemens AG, Kaap Agri, Bata, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s and the BBC. Its major clients included Pick n Pay, Sanlam, TymeBank, Santam and AB InBev.
In August 2019, the agency acquired a majority stake in retail and shopper marketing agency, 34°, and later in October it concluded a deal with Cedar Communications in the UK to take over the southern Africa licensing agreement by acquiring a majority stake in privately owned content marketing agency, Cedar South Africa. Alistair King, King James Group SA co-founder and chief creative officer, was inducted into the Loeries Hall of Fame.
“The biggest opportunity from 2019 was the need to find ways of doing things differently — smarter and more effectively,” says Lesego Kotane, King James Group JHB MD. “It was not an easy challenge in an environment that is already moving so fast by its nature, needing to also deal with the ongoing pressure from clients to provide greater levels of work with fewer people, and the increased pressure on cost savings – which may not feel unique to 2019 but the pressure around the conversation seemed to be bigger. We are confident the hard yards put in to address it [last] year will hopefully stand us in good stead as  looks set to be a really tough year.
“2020 is going to be a challenging year for the industry but one that presents a real opportunity for those agencies eager to embrace a step change and reimagining; it will be a year to do things more creatively than ever, to elevate performance and effectiveness front-and-centre in all our conversations, and to find operational solutions that match a world that needs nimble, agile and responsive. It needs to be the year of dramatic innovation — we talk about it as an industry but need to put tangible solutions to clients that relieve very real pressure and also provide very real return, and in this shrinking economy it’s not going to come from doing the same things the same way.”
In terms of growth plans in 2020, Taryn Walker, King James Group CT MD, says, “For us as the King James Group, 2019 was a year of focusing on growth from within our existing clients. By leveraging the strength of our integrated model, we [were] able to help deliver holistic solutions to our existing clients that help[ed] solve their challenges of the year and [made] the process of solving them a bit more seamless. Through the acquisition of both Cedar Communications and 34 Degrees, [we] also broadened our specialist offerings to match those client needs. Our work in the social communication space [was] an important growth point in 2019, giving us the opportunity to bring our creative tone to always-on communication and brand-building in digital.
“2020 will be all about focused new business in categories and on brands where we know we can add real, demonstrable value to their bottom lines. Coupled with that is finding growth opportunity in really unexpected places and ways, focusing on our core strength of problem solving through ideas – be it communication, digital services, analytics or data needs to take us beyond an expected ‘advertising’ conversation. Our specialist capabilities give us a greater scope to deliver a wide array of solutions for business, and that conversation doesn’t always sit with the same individual on client side. Our expansion into East Africa will also be an important part of this growth plan.”
— alistair king (@ALsparkles) February 3, 2020
On the creative output at the agency, “our work on Sanlam for [its] funeral cover proposition still continues to remain a source of pride for me,” says Walker. “Continuing the momentum started by Uk’shona Kwe Langa a few years ago, our ‘Gogo 4 Hour’ campaign for 2019 delivered outstanding results for the Sanlam business and generated significant positive engagement amongst the audience.”
Says Kotane, “Our latest piece for AB InBev, ‘Corona Street Surfers’, [was] a really standout piece of branded content; in an age of fast, it [stayed] true to the fundamentals of great emotional storytelling and shed light on a part of society that is often ignored yet is making a massive difference to a conversation that is globally relevant at the moment (ocean plastic and recycling). What has been exciting for us is that it is being recognised in forums such as London film festivals, which [have] nothing to do with advertising — validating the kind of work we want to do.”
— Profile by Herman Manson.
Previously: In 2018, it was Joe Public United. In 2017, Joe Public United tied with Ogilvy South Africa. In 2016, FCB Africa was the runner-up and, in 2015, it was King James Group. In 2014, results replicated 2013 exactly — with Joe Public Group as runner-up and joint second runners-up being FoxP2 and King James. In 2012, our inaugural poll, the runner-up was King James Group.
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.