by Herman Manson (@marklives) What are the odds of building a reputable, national agency out of the Eastern Cape? If you’re Boomtown, very good, apparently. Coupling creativity, possibility and positivity — all part and parcel of the ethos of the agency — has helped create a successful business in an unlikely environment. And don’t ever diss owning livestock.
Neil Hart is a farmer’s son. With two cows sold for startup cash, he launched Boomtown in 1994, alongside his then business partner, Giovanni Pio, from his flat in central Port Elizabeth. Hart and Pio studied together, both graduating as graphic designers; they were soon joined by another, Glen Meier.
The Johannesburg office opened a decade ago. It’s added credibility and allowed the agency to showcase itself on a national stage, says Boomtown MD, Andrew MacKenzie. Today the agency employs 60 members of staff and is sitting in the R50–70m revenue band.
The agency is positioned as a FMCG specialist, having built up experience upon national and international brands such as SAB, Unilever and The Lion Match Company. Recent account wins include Eveready batteries and First Choice Diary.
All creative runs through the PE office. According to MacKenzie, distance isn’t a barrier to creativity. Attracting talent isn’t really an issue either: there has been a move away from the major centres of Cape Town and Johannesburg as creatives look to build lives outside the bigger cities.
Active graduate programme
The agency has an active graduate programme which fast-tracks trained talent inside the agency and broader marketing industry. It takes in five students every year and has had a 100% success rate over the last four years.
“Boomtown is incredibly proud of PE and the Eastern Cape area,” says MacKenzie. “The agency works closely with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and, in particular, the Faculty of Art. We take on interns every university holiday for work practicals, as well as supporting the institution through bursaries. Agency experts are also regular contributors at the university in the form of guest lecturers, and I also moderate graphic design portfolios annually.
“The agency is also engaged with the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber and a regular contributor to workshops for SMMEs and articles. Port Elizabeth has a thriving art community, yet the advertising industry is still small. I hope that, as Boomtown makes inroads at a national level on leading brands, it will serve as a catalyst and inspire other local agencies to do the same. There is a lot of talent locally; the notion that you can “make it” from Port Elizabeth should not be scoffed at.”
In terms of digital strategy, the agency has up-skilled staff internally rather than attempting to buy a digital shop, ensuring it doesn’t get siloed outside the main agency. “The whole agency mindset needs to include digital,” says MacKenzie, “we don’t want it to sit as separate department inside the agency.”
The agency works around client teams (dealing with 5–6 clients each), headed up jointly by a client and creative group head. It ensures a common goal between client service and creative, and ensures it’s not solely about either chasing numbers or creative only.
Boomtown also encourages team members to explore different aspects of themselves. It runs a programme offering financial support to staff wanting to push back their own boundaries: in one instance, it helped one staff member take an illustration course so she can create the illustrated kids’ book she has always wanted to work on.
Cultural insights and expertise
Having cut its teeth in the Eastern Cape means it’s both nimble and able to multitask. It also has access to cultural insights and expertise that’s harder to find in the big-city agencies, says MacKenzie, meaning it’s well-positioned to take on more national clients.
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com. He was the founding editor of media.toolbox (1998–2006) and Mobile.Works, and the co-founder of Brand magazine. He has served on the editorial boards of The Journal for Convergence, as well as of Fast Company South Africa. Winner of the 2011 Vodacom Social Media Journalist of the Year award, he was also a finalist twice in the Highway Africa Award for the Innovative Use of New Media in Africa (2003 and 2004). Over his 20-year-plus career, Herman has contributed to numerous journals and websites in South Africa and abroad, including the Mail & Guardian, .net, Intelligence, AdVantage, Men’s Health, Computer World and African Communications. He has consulted on web architecture to several financial institutions.