SoloUnion South Africa offers creative, strategy brains for hire
by Herman Manson (@marklives) SoloUnion, a talent collaborative founded by adman Matthew Bull, recently launched locally as SoloUnion South Africa under the leadership of Rob McLennan (creative founder) and Gillian Rightford (business and strategy lead). It’s been taking briefs and wrapping up its first projects already.
In New York City in late 2017, Bull launched SoloUnion, a collection of 15 senior, award-winning strategists and creatives doing project work for clients. Members are all freelance but participate in a profit-share scheme depending on the amount of days they work for SoloUnion — on top of their fees. They promise to deliver the core brand strategy and idea to clients, which are then given over to agencies to develop campaign executions.
Worked with Bull
Both McLennan and Rightford worked together with Bull at Lowe Bull in the early noughties (2000s). McLennan is a veteran adman and was the creative founding partner of agency King James the Second (KJII — now King James Group JHB) alongside Graeme Jenner, where he worked on Allan Gray and PnP, among other brands. A former group MD of Lowe Bull, since 2017 Rightford has been running Adtherapy, a management, skills development and communication consultancy aimed at marketers and agencies, and with which her work with SoloUnion dovetails.
After leaving KJII in September 2018, McLennan says he set out exploring how he might continue working as a creative in the industry without the constrains of a traditional agency model. His complaint is that, as a senior creative, he had spent 90% of his time working on things he wasn’t very good with, mostly to do with running and managing an agency. He would rather spend his time at what he feels he does best: offer big strategic solutions to brand problems.
According to Rightford, she’s always been fascinated in exploring what gets in the way of good creative work, and how agencies and clients can work better together to get better quality creative. She already advises agencies and clients on creative and marketing strategy, and SoloUnion allows her to further access a strategic platform for big strategic ideas. With a network of senior creative, media and strategic brains, it becomes relatively easy to get to big ideas quite quickly, she says. A curated freelance network also helps the industry stem its talent drain as creatives in particular look beyond agencies to make a living.
Access to senior team
McLennan says another advantage of the SoloUnion format is that the client retains access to the senior team it met during the pitch; they’re the same people who will work on the client’s strategy. As more than 80% of agency costs doesn’t directly relate to the creative and strategy solution, there will be cost savings for clients, too.
SoloUnion isn’t only targeting a corporate client base but also makes itself available to both in-house agencies needing to access top talent and digital agencies looking for broader creative and strategic insights. As SoloUnion focuses on solutions-based creative strategy outside the regular day-to-day client requirements that most agencies fulfil, it’s not positioned as a threat to incumbents.
Rightford adds that working with SoloUnion holds definite advantages for clients with existing agency partners, noting that sometimes, especially during long-term client relationships, things can get or feel stuck. A strong relationship is not necessarily without frustrations, she notes, which is when the team could be parachuted in to help things get back on track and then back out. Because the SoloUnion team works on a project basis, it can afford to be brutally honest and offer an independent view without the baggage of having to protect retainer work. It also doesn’t take credit for work, allowing executing agencies to claim any kudos.
SoloUnion SA is also able to tap the US group’s talent pool if required, and vice versa; clients pay for the talent, rather than hours. A lot of talent has come in for conversation, and McLennan and Rightford have put a number (as yet unnamed) strategic and (creative, digital, marketing) creative partners in place as they work hard to create a team.
SoloUnion, says Rightford, taps into the sharing economy — like Uber and Airbnb, it offers a direct path to its offering — but its biggest challenge remains explaining to clients how its model differs from what agencies offer and that it doesn’t limit itself to solving advertising/communication projects.
Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of MarkLives.com.