by Herman Manson (@marklivesOpenco — The Open Collaboration — caused a significant upset this year when it won the BMW advertising account from long-time agency, Ireland/Davenport. It’s subsequently been crowned Small Agency of the Year at the 2015 Annual AdFocus Awards, beating FoxP2 Johannesburg, House of Brave and King James The Second.

The agency was set up in 2008 by four partners with a focus on serving telcos; its first client was Virgin Mobile. Managing director, Sean Donovan, and chief creative officer, Louis Gavin, are both co-founders. After the other two partners left (Sam Michel and Vusi Vuma), Monde Africa stepped in as head of strategy, as well as a shareholder.

Openco logo 2015Initial focus

Initially, Openco focused upon the telco vertical, both inside and outside of South Africa, winning business in Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Kenya. Early on, SA only represented 40% of the agencies business (today, it’s 90%, thanks to rapid growth in its home market). The agency worked around a core team that outsourced production but, by 2010, it had flipped its model and started employing its own in-house team. For Donovan, this heralds the birth of OpenCo proper. Today, the agency employs 57 people.

Donovan notes that the change came about because it had become prohibitively expensive pitching for new business but relying upon freelancers to pull these together. By the end of 2010, TBWA\South Africa took a 30% stake in the agency. By the end of 2013, it increased that stake to 50.1%. Since then, the agency — which used to operate at arm’s length from TBWA — has become more integrated into the group, and works more closely with group companies (Donovan also serves as MD of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris operations in Durban and Cape Town).

Major clients include Hollard and SABC (SABC 1 and several radio stations), Standard Bank (its direct marketing portfolio) and JD Group (Brandlows, Joshua Doore, Russels and Incredible Connection). Jameson recently transitioned from TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris to Openco. Last year it won Tanzania Telecommunications Company Limited, UNISA, GSK and Austell Laboratories.

Openco Facebook cover imageRevenue growth

Openco has grown revenue by more than 25% over the past year. Donovan is overseeing that growth carefully, managing risk and head count. Key appointments are interviewed by both the client and the agency. One such appointment was that of Rob Rutherford as executive creative director. Rutherford, who built up experience at TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, MetropolitanRepublic and Net#work BBDO, joined Openco in January 2014.

The BMW win came about through strong chemistry between the agency and client teams, as well as BMW liking its open philosophy. Donovan reckons it also wanted a lead agency that isn’t TV-centric and that speaks the same language as BMW’s specialist agencies. Marketing strategy consultancy, Yellowwood, which Openco had brought on board as a strategic partner during the pitch process as part of its open collaborative philosophy, remains a partner in the account.

“The primary focus is now to establish ourselves as a significant player in the medium-agency space and, personally, my goal would be to see us as a finalist in the AdFocus Medium Agency category in 2016,” says Donovan. “In doing so, we will continue to implement the focus on the five pillars we have to date: consciously driving the Openco culture; continually driving the creative product; pursuing new business opportunities [while] maintaining the levels of service with current clients; [and] seeking the best talent and continuing to drive our transformation initiatives.”

Correction 2015/12/07: A previous version of this story reported Total as a client of OpenCo. This is incorrect.

Herman Manson 2105Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of 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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