by Sabrina Forbes. It all began in a garage: a couple of students building websites and offering social media services to make a little extra money. Admittedly, it was less of a business and more a means to fund a lifestyle but all stories need to start somewhere. Six years down the line, we find MADE, an agency with a mission to grow the next big South African business.
James Gilmour, CEO, explains the humble beginnings of his now 22-staffed, Cape Town-based agency. It started offering digital and social media services as a plugin to bigger traditional agencies when the world of digital was still new in South Africa. While it was a great platform for the agency to launch and have access to big brands, he found himself frustrated at not having a seat at the proverbial table and soon got tired of being paid simply to execute other people’s strategies, as much as he will admit it felt good to be able to add top brand logos to his little agency’s website.
An evolution was needed and, about two years ago, Gilmour and his team decided to make the move away from being digital-only to positioning themselves as a lead agency. This began with their withdrawing from agency partnerships and pursuing their own client base. They won their first pitch and added BMW Motorrad to their list of clients, and admit that they’ve been fortunate enough to win additional clients by word of mouth and have not had to pitch aggressively, giving them a selective choice of who they work with. The relationship with BMW is still strong and has been the leg up needed to practice what they were preaching.
“Even though a lot of our work is still digitally focused, we own the strategy; we own the client relationship. A big part of why we started this agency is that a bunch of us had problems with how the agency model was operating and how the agency/supplier relationship worked. Our idealistic view at that point was we wanted to be the ones that do something different,” says Gilmour.
It was within the last year that he realised the work his agency was doing and the clients it was working with were not completely aligned with the agency’s core beliefs about the role of creativity in business, and so he decided to pivot. A breakaway strategy session birthed MADE 3.0 after a long reflection on what it’d become and what it actually wanted to be.
“It was a really important moment for us because we hadn’t stopped to reflect and look at what we were doing. You just go. You blink your eyes and another year is gone and you ask was that a good year or a bad year?
“We fell into the trap that I believe most agencies fall into. It’s kind of this like small pond with 400 fishermen going after a handful of fish. And one day someone says we’re ‘culture specialists’ and then tomorrow everyone has updated their website to say ‘culture specialist’. It’s very difficult to actually differentiate yourself in that kind of environment,” says Gilmour, realising that, while the agency enjoyed that part of the game and planned to continue to win top-tier brand accounts, it saw a bigger opportunity for itself.
This pivot meant that MADE would start to work more with small, startup businesses. It was work it did with Yoco, a fintech startup, about three years ago that kept nagging at Gilmour while he was strategising his agency’s shift. The year-long Yoco project was different and, as he recalls, was really an anything-goes type of client engagement. The company was in its first or second round of funding and had targets to reach. This meant that the four founders, staff, and team at MADE did whatever they needed to hit those targets. There were much shorter turnaround times, which meant a more-agile operating framework was needed. There was no traditional trafficking process and everything was done using a weekly sprint methodology, more commonly use in the tech/development space.
The opportunity for MADE soon became crystal-clear. No one was focusing on the incredible wave of African businesses like Yoco which were creating a customer-centric product to deliver tangible value. There’s logic in believing that bigger agencies might not be suitable for these type of clients as their methodologies are not agile and quick enough but, for a smaller agency like MADE, it seemed the perfect fit. The traditional long turnaround times for approvals was never a good place for MADE, and not a place it believes it would be valuable.
Focus on SMME & startup
Gilmour has completely restructured his business after deciding to focus on this SMME and startup market at the end of 2018. The agency doesn’t have typical departments. The creative teams are made up of four people instead of two; a copywriter, art director, strategist and an account manager. They work as one team, handling three or four clients, and have more proximity to the clients and their actual business problems than previously. The sweet spot for him? A seat at the table.
The reasoning behind this shift is simple. Gilmour believes these are the four resources that are really valuable to a startup business, a team of people with a good variation of skills, and a group a startup might not be able to afford internally or get access to with bigger agencies. There’s also the very real truth that a founder of a startup is typically a specialist in a field or an industry and doesn’t have that jack-of-all-trades knowledge.
Since January 2019, MADE has brought on board one new client a month, not limited by industry or market but more by the fit of the startup in line with the type of agency Gilmour is set on building. Startups which are already at the growth/client acquisition point are where he believes MADE’s services and experience could add the most value. Two of the first clients to join the MADE stable are ShopStar, a local ecommerce platform, and Mami Wata, a South African surf brand with global ecommerce plans. “If we’re going to give a portion of our lives to building businesses, let’s make sure it’s businesses we believe in,” he says.
While the agency’s pricing model is still a work in progress, it aims to move more towards a value-based model than a time-based on. It’s been a difficult shift to undertake, especially with changing the mindset of clients which are comfortable paying for hours of work done. It currently has a couple of pricing models that suit the variety of type and size of business it is attracting. For very small businesses which can’t afford agency rates, there’s a performance-based remuneration package with discounted retainer fees; As the client grows, it grows. For clients like ShopStar, MADE will invest in the business, converting a portion of the project fee into creative capital and taking a stake in the business. Taking responsibility for the platform and recoding the majority of the functionality, it reports immediately seeing great results.
It’s this agency/VC combination that ties into what it cares about. Everyone at MADE understands the entrepreneur’s dilemma as they each have their own side hustle or business they’re working to grow.
The freedom to think with ownership and autonomy is the culture Gilmour aims to create at MADE. His staff members all have an insatiable hunger to learn and a passion to use creativity to make some form of change. A couple of years of bad hiring decisions has helped him structure his own way of finding out whether a new recruit is going to be a good or bad fit: He won’t hire someone off a CV but looks for signs of an entrepreneurial spirit. If they’ve tried to build a business, even if it failed, this is the type of brain and mentality he’s looking for. For him, to understand the struggles a startup founder goes through every day is something you can’t learn from reading; it’s something you can only learn from doing and, having never worked for ‘the man’ in his life, he’s experienced every up and down.
Bringing his and his staff’s experience to help grow MADE’s clients’ businesses is what he believes is their undeniable USP. “We’re on a mission to build the next big South African business,’ he adds.
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Sabrina Forbes (IG) is an experienced writer covering the food, health, lifestyle, beverage, marketing and media industries. She runs her own full-stack web/app development and digital-first content creation company. For more, go to moonwrench.com. She is a contributing writer to MarkLives.com.