Philip Ireland’s advice for ad agency entrepreneurs
by Herman Manson (@marklives) Philip Ireland, a founding partner and chief creative officer at ad agency Ireland/Davenport, recently announced that he was leaving the business. While he wouldn’t be drawn on his reasons for leaving, or his plans for the future except that he expects to stay in advertising in some way or form, he did share some lessons he’s learnt as a creative entrepreneur and in helping run one of the country’s more-iconic agencies.
Ireland has had an illustrious career in South African advertising. He won South Africa’s first award for digital creative at the One Show Digital New York in 1999, SA’s first people’s choice Webby award for Best Social Media Campaign in 2016, and was voted Most Admired Agency Leader 2014 in Financial Mail. In the past, he worked at Ogilvy Johannesburg, TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, Leo Burnett Singapore and Net#work BBDO.
On launching an agency
“Launching an agency has profound personal costs. It’s not easy, although there are easier ways to do it, like when you have a pre-existing relationship in place with a client. Either way, it has definite and life-changing implications and requires huge personal investment. It’s worthwhile remembering that the agency is only as good as the people inside it. It’s not like an engineering firm that can scale. The quality of the people is what differentiates it and makes it competitive — this is why small shops can punch above their size and compete with the big networks.”
On defining success
“Success depends on the quality of your work and the quality of your relationships. These are mutually connected, in that better work results in greater trust, allowing for greater faith by client in your judgement, which circles back to allowing the agency team more space to produce better quality work.”
On being different
“Have a point of differentiation. Make sure you have a distinct identity. Make sure clients can’t buy what you are offering elsewhere.
“Although Ireland/Davenport has evolved significantly over the years, its initial differentiator was in offering medium-sized clients access to global skills and expertise while retaining a small agency feel.”
On your team
“The agency is the average of the people inside it.”
On surviving tough times
“The quality of your work and your relationships again comes into play. There is less new work available because times are tough. Jobs must come to you — because you are known for the quality work you produce. The jobs you’ve got cannot leave — because you’ve ensured quality relationships with your clients. Lay the groundwork for both of these while times are good.”
On what agencies should look like
“One size does not fit all. The market has different demands and requires different kinds of agencies to fulfil these. There is currently a disconnect between what agencies and clients need and want an agency to look like. Build agencies that fit client needs; it’s an opportunity. Eventually, all agencies reflect their clients.”
On finding mentors
Ireland was surprised by the strong and positive influence that the late Robyn Putter, then WPP’s worldwide creative director, had upon the early days of Ireland/Davenport. Putter served as an inspiration and mentor to the agency. More recently, John Hunt, creative founding partner of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, offered advice to the agency partners on “a purely human level (he has no interest in the agency) through calm knowledge and generosity”.
Lessons ranked in no particular order.
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.