‘Acquiring businesses, not being acquired’: Matt Nunn on $40m of new business and holding companies ‘trying to steal our staff’

It's been a very big year for independent agencies, including Nunn Media. Speaking to Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby, founder and managing director Matt Nunn explains how "there's little or no training that's provided at all in the holding companies", why his agency is looking to acquire, not be acquired, and the reason "media agencies should look at how creative agencies operate a little bit more".

“We grew from very humble beginnings, in that there was basically myself and my wife was the accountant and one or two employees initially. That’s how we started.”

Matt Nunn’s independent media agency, Nunn Media, was a very small business when he founded it in 2002, roughly four years after getting into advertising in a funny way.

Playing basketball for the Ballarat Miners, Nunn and his team regularly appeared on the local news. When he finished university, WIN’s general manager asked if he’d join the business to sell ads, “given that you know everybody in the whole town”.

“At the time, I thought ‘Well, okay. I’ll give it a go’,” he recalls. 

“I remember they gave me a car key, a car, a client list with about 150 clients on it. And they said, here’s your budget. That’s how my career in advertising started.”

Nunn started the agency in 2002

Eighteen years after launching Nunn Media, he has around 100 employees split across Sydney and Melbourne, and says that, on account of its $300m in billings per year, it’s the biggest independent agency in the country.

“We’ve probably tried to fly under the radar a whole lot as well. And so we haven’t forcefully tried to push ourselves from a PR standpoint,” he says. “The problem is in a business, if you go from zero to a hundred people in a year, you’re going to have some sort of significant growing pains.

“We’ve really steadily grown year on year on year on year.”

He likes to operate ‘under the radar’ because “we work in an industry where a lot of people have big egos”.

“What we’ve worked hard on is making our clients be ambassadors for our business in that if we do good work, they talk to people, they move on to different places, and potentially they recommend us. So we’ve seen it more by doing the work rather than shouting your name out, saying, ‘look at us, look at us’.”

It’s been a big year for indies, with deals and launches cropping up amidst, and despite, a global pandemic. It kicked off in February, before the local onset of COVID-19, when Ben Lilley bought McCann from Interpublic. Another agency moved out of the Interpublic stable and became independent in July, when Rich Curtis acquired FutureBrand.

That same month, former WPP executive Aden Hepburn launched his own brand experience agency, Akcelo, and Simon Ryan launched Ryancap. In August, holding group Havas Media acquired Virginia Hyland’s eponymous independent for an undisclosed amount (Hyland was quickly promoted from managing director of the Hyland Division to CEO of the entirety of Havas Media, replacing Matt Houltham). 

And the exclamation point came on the last day of November, when Chris Howatson and Ant White’s plans were revealed – CHE Proximity’s CEO and chief creative officer are leaving to also set up their own shop, Howatson + White.

While Nunn isn’t interested in the ‘independents versus holding companies’ proposition – “I think it’s more about good businesses” – he’s watched the pool of indies expand and contract over the years.

“There’s not too much that has happened in this industry that I haven’t seen over the 18 years,” he says.

“There’s been a lot of independents come and go. Some sell out, people come back and all of a sudden there’s people in holding companies that leave the holding companies and start up their own independents and some work, some don’t work.”

There’s a big difference between those that work and those that don’t, according to Nunn: scale. He acknowledges that “getting scale in the media agency scene in Australia [as an independent] is extremely difficult”.

There have been big moves in indie land this year, which have involved (clockwise from top left) Ben Lilley, Virginia Hyland, Aden Hepburn, Chris Howatson, Rich Curtis, and Simon Ryan

“There’s a lot of independent agencies out there that have five or 10 people or three or four people,” Nunn notes.

“And I’ve lived that life. I understand where they’re at and where they’re coming from. And you have to be very relationship-based, because you can’t simply compete with the bigger, larger companies, particularly the holding companies, with all the research and tools and proprietary based items that they have.

“Where we are today with nearly a hundred people, we’re in a position where we have scale. As an independent, if you haven’t got scale, it’s very hard to compete, because, put simply, you can’t afford all the proprietary systems and research tools and planning tools that you’re up and competing against.”

When Hyland sold her agency, she was relieved. After COVID-19 caused every one of her clients to cancel all of their advertising, she felt like she was “looking down the barrel of the gun”.  The sale “should give hope to a lot of indies out there to keep on doing what they’re doing, because they can realise their potential and have some financial success along the way,” she told Mumbrella at the time.

Hyland and Nunn founded their agencies just a few years apart. Is Nunn interested in also being acquired?

The short answer is: No.

The longer answer is that Nunn is “in a market to make good acquisitions. We’re not in market to be acquired”.

“We’re not for everybody. We’ve got a defined group of clients. We get a lot of enquiries. The COVID situation… we’ve picked up about $40m worth of new business. So we see it that, when we talk about acquisitions, we’re actually looking at acquiring businesses, not being acquired.

“We’ve got numerous people that we’re talking to at the moment, nothing to announce, but we hope to probably potentially announce something in the not too distant future, but nothing’s signed off on at this particular time.”

The $40m of new business to which he refers includes the additions of Bendigo Bank and Amart to Nunn’s roster (after the loss of Spotlight in the first half of the year). Mumbrella understands the agency is still in the running for the protracted $100m Victorian Government pitch first revealed back in March. And there are more wins in the pipeline.

“What we are suited to is that mid-sized account that’s probably at a holding company, that’s an Australian business, that perhaps has had a churn of an industry average across the whole company which is about 30 to 40%,” Nunn explains. 

“They’ve had two or three people work across it in 12 months. They’re a little bit frustrated that they’ve got more junior people on it. All the tools that they have aren’t being used, they’re not getting the attention. 

“At our business, we have more senior people, we have a churn rate of 5% across the last five years, from a turnover point. We are very stable. We’re a safe set of hands. We’ve got everything and more in relation to technical skills. Of our nearly 100 people, 44 of them are digital specialists.”

The Nunn Media team

At multiple points in the interview, the founder and managing director stresses the importance of his employees. He thinks “there’s little or no training that’s provided at all in the holding companies to these kids”, and knew he wanted training to be baked into Nunn’s culture.

“We created our own academy within Nunn Media. So we have lectures and training. We have a whole curriculum, we have exams, we have weekly workbooks. So we’re investing in our people from that point. And we think that’s a big difference also with where we sit in the market.

“That’s why everybody, every other agency, is ringing up trying to steal our staff, because we actually train our staff.”

Media agencies need to think not only about how to better value their services – they “should look at how creative agencies operate a little bit more and how they go about valuing what they deliver to a client” – but how to value their staff, Nunn, who made only one redundancy during the pandemic, proposes. 

“We’re probably like a family as well. So every person is somebody we’ve grown from the bottom or has been with the business for a long time.

“We’re not feeding back profits to France or New York, or what have you. We’ve got our people and we try to look after our people and keep them all in employment during what has been a really tough time for the advertising and media industry.

“If that means that we’re not going to make as much money … so be it, but we’ll come out of this pandemic and I think we’re going to be better equipped than anybody to take on the market when things turn around.”


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