by Herman Manson (@marklives) Ten years ago, three friends returned from the US to launch a new agency. They scored an early YouTube hit featuring a local statesman known for preferring showers to condoms and won their first Cannes Lion (a Bronze) six months in. They also nearly went bust; one of the trio once shoplifted a pack of charcoal (as he was broke — the partners only started pulling salaries six months after launch, not because he was bored). Their first office was next to a crack-house in the Bo Kaap.
This year, FoxP2, the agency named after the creativity gene, is celebrating a decade in business.
Launched in 2005
Justin Gomes, Andrew Whitehouse and Noel Cottrell launched the agency in 2005. Gomes and Whitehouse were headhunted by TBWA\Paris and later moved to Lowe New York before returning to Cape Town, while Cottrell had headed up Kirshenbaum Bond in San Francisco. Their first two years in business were tough. But things were about to change for the better.
In 2007, current group MD Charl Thom came on board, having served as business unit director at Grey Cape Town (Cottrell soon moved back to the US where he is currently chief creative officer of Fitzgerald & Company in Atlanta).
Thom was introduced to Gomes by Fred Roed, now CEO of World Wide Creative, and Roed’s recommendation — coupled with a mutual admiration for Bruce Springsteen’s music — saw the deal done.
Thom jokes that, when he looked at FoxP2’s financials while he was considering joining, they didn’t look too bad. It was only two days into his new job that he realised the expenses sheet was incomplete: the agency was running at a loss. Winning the Coronation Fund Managers business — also in 2007 — was a turning point for the agency and put it on the path to financial sustainability.
Strong work that moves product
FoxP2 has built up a reputation for its creatively strong work that also moves product: It helped Coronation Fund Managers climb to fifth place in the 2008 rankings for largest unit trust company in South Africa; its “Butterfly Effect” ad remains an iconic piece of South African advertising. Its “Tastes Like Home” slurp campaign for Frisco assisted that brand in increasing sales by 30%; at the time, the factory even fell behind in supplying retailers, due to consumer demand. It also helped successfully launch financial services company, Frank.net.
Awards shows as advertising
According to Whitehouse, the agency has always targeted award shows as a means to advertise itself to the broader marketing community. The Bronze Lion early in its existence, for National Geographic Kids, helped it win AdReview Newcomer Agency of the Year which, in turn, landed it upon the Coronation pitch list.
In 2014, it withdrew from awards shows to focus its energies upon staff development through its #FoxFlame initiative, but is back at award shows this year. For #FoxFlame, selected staff members were sent to attend the 99u conference (which focuses upon ‘highlighting real-world best practices for making ideas happen’), SxSW (South by Southwest, a set of film, interactive, and music festivals) and Creativity World Forum in Belgium. Locally, the entire agency headed to the annual design conference, Design Indaba.
The agency, says Gomes, was lucky early on in not having one huge client defining its company culture, allowing it to build its own company DNA. It has also survived its fair share of disasters. Thom likes to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. in summing up how he and his partners measure their response when things go wrong; “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
A definite low point came in 2012, when Cell C appointed and then, within two months, decided to drop its new agencies, King James and FoxP2, allowing Ogilvy Johannesburg to retain it instead. FoxP2 had already staffed up for the business and had also resigned one of its larger clients, M-Web. Thom says the agency kept its new employees on-board; a commitment had already been made to them.
Entered into popular culture
Apart from those mentioned above, clients these days include Unilever, Brandhouse, Ster-Kinekor, Cipla, Diageo and Rediscover Dairy (which it won with a board involving a cow in what the surprised client would end up describing as “a very intimate act” — in the final scene she slouches back and takes a sip from her own udder).
Gomes is pleased that the agency’s work has entered into popular culture. Recent examples include the “Papa wag vir jou” campaign it did for Brandhouse’s Drive Dry campaign, the true-life story of Christian the Lion and the Elephant Whisperer (both done for Coronation).
FoxP2 has doubled in size over the past three years. Its sister agency was launched in Johannesburg in 2013 after taking on Grant Jacobson as its creative partner there, with Liberty as its founding client. The Jozi agency also works on FNB and is being invited to more and more pitches, say Thom; it has grown to the same number of people (35) as the group employs in its traditional home base of Cape Town.
Its below-the-line studio, which operated from the Mother City, has been folded into FoxP2 Design, a new design studio set up by Whitehouse, who returned to FoxP2 after a 3 year absence, and Mark van Rooyen (who serves as head of ops). The new studio works alongside the Cape Town agency and sits in the same office. It interprets design as broadly as possible, says Whitehouse, who counts any ‘real-world engagement’ a consumer might have with a brand as falling under design. This could include interface design, experiential design, packaging, etc. Whitehouse is intrigued by the doors that technology and interfaces open to design, and it will become an area of increasing focus for the agency.
Culture of innovation
Gomes says Whitehouse’s return has boosted a culture of innovation within the agency; part of its offices has been converted into a workshop which Whitehouse hopes will stimulate new thinking and creativity within the broader agency. Here, people get to work with their hands, shaping prototypes and finding design solutions to ideas that would otherwise live only on computer screens.
While it seems that with the tough economy many agencies are bunkering down, it remains important to creative a stimulating environment for creatives, says Gomes. He believes that, 10 years in, it’s vitally important to ensure creativity, playfulness and experimentation remain at the heart of FoxP2.
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com. He was the inaugural Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year in 2011 and has, over his 20-year-plus career, contributed to numerous journals and websites in South Africa and abroad, including AdVantage magazine, Men’s Health, Computer World and African Communications.
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