Barry and Damien O’Brien on finding Atomic 212’s ‘Territory flair’ in Darwin

Atomic 212's Darwin office is 18-months-old, and Damien O'Brien is just six months into leading it. Here, he and his father, Barry, speak to Mumbrella's Brittney Rigby about finding talent in the NT, injecting the agency's eclectic personality into a new office, and being told 'Mate, lose the coat, or we're gonna kill ya'.

As soon as Barry O’Brien confirms I’ve started recording and we’re on the record, he turns to his son Damien and says, deadpan: “You’re out of the will.”

This dry humour – Barry quips he’s “still in counselling” when I ask how it’s been working with his son – punctuates our conversation. We’re in Atomic 212’s Walsh Bay office, the wharf levitating us above Sydney Harbour, talking about the agency’s presence in Darwin. And the Northern Territory feels, in every sense, very far away.

Damien (L) and Barry O’Brien in the foyer of Atomic 212’s Sydney office

The older O’Brien founded media agency D212 in 2014, which merged with Atomic Search (founded in 2009) in 2016, creating Atomic 212. Late last year, Barry’s son joined him, moving to Darwin to become general manager of an 18-month-old office that looks after accounts including the Northern Territory Government (NTG), Tourism NT, Charles Darwin University (CDU) and Northern Territory Major Events Company.

“So part of the contract and dealing with the NT [government] was we needed to have a local office … probably 18 months ago, we got a phone call to say ‘Can you help us with the NTG?'” Barry recounts.

“And we went okay, what does that all look like? A lady by the name of Ashley Hall, who was running Tourism [NT] at the time for us, and myself, and Ben Carroll jumped on a plane and went up there. And went through the whole process in terms of what the NTG looked like.

“We quickly realised, but also with their involvement, that we needed to have a local operation, employing local people, and also build up the facility and the quality of our offering for not only the government but also for other businesses up in NT. So that’s how it came about.”

Carroll became general manager of the outpost and was faced with the groundwork of getting it up and running. A year in, he departed, making way for the younger O’Brien, who now manages a team of five out of a co-working space with 180-degree views over Darwin Harbour.

As Barry explains, “The government are all in the same building so it takes Damien three minutes to get from home to work. It takes Damien a minute and a half to go down the lift to the next meeting”. But they’re looking to inject the Atomic personality into a space of their own, especially since Damien knows “there’s a really decent opportunity for Atomic to continue to grow up in Darwin”.

Atomic 212’s current Darwin office, with views over the harbour

“We put some decent plans together to mix what Atomic is in Sydney and Melbourne and what Atomic is as a business, but with that Territory kick and Territory flair so we have some pretty eclectic ideas around how to mix those together, but the Territory’s a beast of its own up there,” Damien says.

“You’ve got to become one with the Territory as such, so I think that would be the office vibe.”

The Sydney office is, to put it bluntly, weird. Emerging from the lift, Vespa scooters frame the entrance on one side, rickshaws on the other. Inside, a taxidermy bear and peacock are given pride of place.

There’s a Zoltar, the fortune-telling arcade machine made famous thanks to a cameo in the Tom Hanks movie Big. And outside of the bathrooms lurks a life-sized mannequin, complete with a terrifying mask pulled over its head, a red hat resting on messy, realistic hair.

The mannequin in Atomic 212’s Sydney office

Barry says the Darwin office “won’t look like this. But it’ll be pretty cool”.

“Just so you know, we spent five hours in smash repairers, in wreckers, looking for the front of the car that was gonna hang off the front of the wall, which was a four-wheel drive. And that said the NT,” he says.

“We had all the colours and we had everything organised. We had the space organised. But, unfortunately, the bloke that we were dealing with, he thought we were in Sydney or Melbourne, as opposed to the NT. It’s got to be commercially right.”

And it also has to be close enough to Atomic’s NT clients to minimise the time spent in the sweaty, heavy humidity.

Up there, you walk,” Barry adds. “And shit it’s hot.”

I ask Damien what he means by the “Territory flair”. He tells me there’s “your Kakadus, and your Litchfield Parks, and your Ayers Rocks [Uluru] and these amazing gorges and scenes that you can go out and see”. But there’s also something less discernible, more nuanced, bigger: a feeling. It’s “the existence of local connections”. 

“There’s a sense of Territory to the entire place. It’s a feeling, it’s the humidity, it’s a connection,” Damien explains.

“There’s a certain dress. I mean, everybody knows you’re from Sydney when you’ve got your top button done up.”

Here, Barry interjects with more of that sharp wit: “I stand out like a sore thumb. I’m eventually learning, three years in. In fact, a cab driver picked me up the other day and he said ‘Mate, lose the coat, or we’re gonna kill ya.'”

Darwin has “got an amazing history,” he adds. “The Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbour. You look at the NT, most of Australians haven’t been there. You look at the Indigenous culture. We’re just starting to really learn about that. And that is a failure in terms of us as a nation.

“So it’s just an amazing story. It’s very spiritual. But we also just don’t want to do red rocks and crocs and whatever else. There’s fabulous restaurants, amazing holidays, a wonderful place to live. So yeah, pretty lucky to be part of it and and try and help it grow.”

The office’s growth marks a turnaround for the agency. In late 2017, Atomic 212 became known for all the wrong reasons. Mumbrella revealed that the agency had misled and exaggerated in award entries, which ultimately led to the departure of then-CEO Jason Dooris (last year, the agency began legal proceedings against him).  Just a year later, towards the end of 2018, Atomic 212 Darwin was born. I ask Barry whether the Northern Territory office was a fresh start, in a way.

“There was a few chapters,” he says. The first was a client event Atomic held in Alice Springs.

“It was an amazing experience, not only for us, but also for the clients, both in terms of who we were as a business, but also what our offering was, but also the beauty of it the NT. That was one of the steps.

“We hunkered down for two years, had a good look at where we’ve been, what had been done, and the changes that had to be made. You don’t get to win Bupa, you don’t get to win Spirit of Tasmania or Greater Bank, who were an ex client who came back. You don’t get to have the growth that we’ve had if you haven’t got your offering starting to look right, and your people and your culture. So it’s not just one thing. There’s been many, many things that have come together.

“We look at it as though it’s not amazing. It’s what we had to do and what had to be achieved.”

For now, what has to be achieved is continued growth, of the talent pipeline, existing staff, and client roster. Damien’s focus is on finding young people in the NT who are eager to get a start in the industry – “We don’t have 20 media agencies readily available up there and sort of switching talent” – and training them.

Damien in the Darwin office

Barry adds that hiring new people starts with winning new business.

We made the concerted effort to lock in the government, Major Events, Tourism, CDU. But now that will broaden out into other parts, not only working with other clients, also working with local media operators and working with local creative operators,” he says.

“So that base will now grow, which will mean that more jobs will be created out of that.”

It’s Damien’s job to drive that growth, and he couldn’t be happier about it. For him, “it’s sort of turned from what was essentially part of a contract to ‘I’m loving it’, and it’s now becoming a very important part of the Atomic business”.

“I haven’t experienced feeling anything other than being a local,” he adds.

“When I moved up there, I also moved up there with the thought of diving headfirst into it, as opposed to being a bloke from Sydney who was just living up there for a period of time.”

Then, a joke, like one his father would make: “So we’d like to consider ourselves Territorians but apparently there is a long list of rules that you’ve got to adhere to before you can become one, and even then, I don’t know if they’ll sign off on it.”

Barry is proud of his son. And he’s proud of the agency’s revival since 2017, including multiple wins on top of those in the NT: Spirit of Tasmania, Beyond Blue, Greater Bank, and then “Bupa just prior to Christmas“.  The next step is settling in those accounts, “grow[ing] the brand” and “grow[ing] the offering in each of those offices”.

Being independent has got a bit of a flavour at the moment. So that’s good. That probably gets you invited to the dance. But then all of a sudden you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that you can do the job,” the agency’s chair says.

“We’ve got a good culture. We’ve got good people. We’ve got people outside that want to join. We’ve got media owners speaking positively about us. We’ve got great connections with clients and we’ve got good results coming through.

“The business will grow. The business has grown over the last couple of years. So we’re in a nice place at the moment.”


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