OwenKessel: do the right thing, kill those silos
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Own what you choose to be and be good at it. And do the right thing. With these two simple rules, Felix Kessel and Vaughan Owen set out five years ago to a build small but successful agency that tends to punch well above its weight. The Johannesburg based OwenKessel currently employs 40 people with revenue of R20 million and billings of R50 million. It holds the Business Day account as well as Amstel Lager, LG South Africa Consumer Electronics and Diageo Reserve amongst others.
The business launched after Kessel and Owen both left Ogilvy Johannesburg to go on their own. Kessel had been ECD at Ogilvy Brand Activation and Owen a Creative Director. Both were looking for something more entrepreneurial and wanted to shape a more honest agency environment.
They were tired of the continued perseverance of silos within the agency structure, in spite of most agencies preaching 360 vision, and a lack of media agnosticism that they believed held back effective communication. Kessel believes the people that write the TV ad should be involved in writing the Facebook campaign and insists they do at his agency.
Kessel says he often looks at the work that is produced for clients in adland and feels embarrassed. “Many brands have audiences of hundreds of thousands of people over which they exert some influence. They owe those audiences great communication – less than that is theft (of people’s time),” says Kessel.
In another analogy Kessel says, if you as a parent want to get your kid into the best school possible, surely, when you sit down for the entrance interview you would sell your kids abilities at 200% rather than at 30%. He feels the same about brands and agencies – if you are not selling that brand at 200% you should not be taking money from its owners.
Kessel says OwenKessel isn’t positioned as a service provider but as a product business – their product being great communication. Vaughan adds that OwenKessel agrees that marketers know their markets – but it takes a step back to interrogate whether they operate in the correct market, and what others are available to them.
The agency recently set up an office in Cape Town (where it employs a team of 5) with Ben Wren, ex 60 layers of cake, as MD. Wren ran the office for about three months before accepting his current position as Group Managing Director at Trigger Isobar. Today the Cape Town presence operates as a satellite rather than a fully-fledged office, but Kessel says this will change should they find another dynamic MD partner.
On the reasons for Wren leaving, Kessel admits errors on the side of OwenKessel, saying if you put people in charge you should allow them the freedom to manage the business. “We understood why he left,” says Kessel. It wasn’t a fun time, he adds, but he believes they have learned that they needed to relax their own management style as the business expands. It’s one of the harder parts of being entrepreneurs – but essential past a certain point in the growth of a business.
Kessel says it’s important for agencies “not to believe your own BS.” “We’ve become so good at selling BS that we are now selling ourselves that way,” says Kessel. Pin who you are to the mast and you will find people who identify with your message. It attracts the right talent and clients, keeps you grounded, and most importantly for Owen and Kessel – it’s the right thing to do.
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