Remaking Clems Melbourne

Mumbrella's Simon Canning talks to the senior staff of Clemenger BBDO Melbourne about their plans for the venerable agency brand

More than 18 months after taking control of Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne, Nick Garrett has run a broom through the agency in a radical restructure aimed at breaking down internal silos and resetting the agency for its next stage of growth.

Garrett has completely retooled Clemenger Melbourne since joining from Colenso

Garrett’s reinvention with the help of creative chairman James McGrath and head of CRM Gayle While, hired from Lavender, is positioning the business to become, in his own words, a world creative leader, not just the best agency on Australia.

While Garrett’s work is about setting a course, it could also be a harbinger for the future of the broader group and its leadership with Rob Morgan, the man who has steered the Clemenger ship in Australia and New Zealand, poised to celebrate 20 years at the helm next year.

Robert Morgan not going anywhere soon.

Morgan was anointed as the successor to Peter Clemenger in 1998, the first person outside the the family bloodline to hold the role.

Now Morgan’s decision to give Garrett a free hand in resetting the group’s flagship agency could be interpreted as a signal about the future.

Morgan, under whose stewardship Clemenger Group eclipsed the once unassailable George Patterson as Australia’s biggest agency, says his 20th year at the helm will not be the trigger for a handover, but admits the moves in Melbourne and elsewhere have been about setting a leadership structure for the future.

“I have never been more confident,” Morgan tells Mumbrella. “We have brilliant new leadership in place.”

But he admits, never say never. “At some point when I do go, there will be many good options,” he says of an eventual successor.

Garrett made his reputation in Auckland, where his partnership with ECD Nick Worthington, saw Colenso BBDO recognised as one of the world’s great agencies, regularly beating Aussie siblings to be recognised as Mumbrella’s agency of the year.

Garrett also doesn’t see Morgan going anywhere soon and he remains focused on continuing the transformation of the agency – a work he says remains incomplete.

“I can remember the brief when I joined Colenso was ‘don’t fuck it up’ and I think it was the same one with Clemenger,” Garrett tells Mumbrella of the challenges he faced when arriving at the agency.

“(These include) can we make the work better, and that will never end.”

He also alludes to the challenges the agency faces in making sure that the quality of its integrated digital thinking catches up with its creative reputation. “Can we future-proof the agency so that we feel like we keeping up or ahead of pace with the competition,” he asks.

The key to the future structure of the group is greater collaboration across all of Clemenger’s agencies – a discipline he discovered at Colenso, and Garrett sees enormous similarities between Auckland and Melbourne.

“While agencies are more worried there is less marketing strategy coming from the client side then there has been before, client are also worried there is less business acumen coming from the agencies then there has ever been before and we have got to dial that out.”

James McGrath has led the agency’s creative direction for more than a decade

While Garrett is the relative newcomer, creative chairman James McGrath has been with the agency now for more than a decade, honing its creative output to become one of a very small number that might be able to claim to be Australia’s best.

McGrath says it is clients’ expectations that are driving the business.

“I think we are pretty lucky because we have got a series of clients who are different stages of our own development. In many ways the reinvention had to occur for us to A: be able to control the conversations, we needed to be in control of the dialogue and what the subject was all about,” McGrath says.

“We have clients who have expectation about the ideas. We just try and live up to their requirements.”

McGrath says there is a clear difference in the approach of the agency after the Garrett joined.

“I think that there is that spirit of collaboration really and we are still going through that to be honest,” he says.

“You can’t have a creative agency with a degree of pedigree. There is that spirit of collaboration. We all find it hard to say and hard to live up to but creativity coming from the entire agency. That’s the big difference that Nick has really fostered and reminded us of.”

He says Garrett had put a lot of systems in place to correct behaviours that the pair believed had become entrenched

At the same time he said a blip in creativity was a signal that change was necessary.

“There is a real reason to change gears and have a wake up call and I think that’s the sobering nature of the latter past pre-Nick and I guess the emerging new agency post Nick’s arrival,” McGrath says.

“There is definitely that attitude shift. Obviously there is a lot more to it than that but the idea that the spirit of everybody being disproportionately valuable to the creative output is the thing we’re really being acutely aware of.”

McGrath says the agency was not yet at the point where everyone was singing from the same hymn book, but there have already been some significant moments to show progress was being made, and the hires over the past 18-months had helped shift the business.

“The quality of person across the agency is stronger and stronger,” he says.

Gayle While sees data playing a greater role.

Gayle While says that the attitude of clients has also been important, particularly when it came to the more engaged role consumers were playing with their brands.

“Whilst Nick’s arrival and future-proofing the agency was definitely a driver, clients played a big role in that as well and as our clients have more data, they have far more touch-points,” While said.

“I guess they realise the importance of their brand and their purpose is tangible across those touch-points.”

Garrett notes that the agency had always been collaborative in a way when creative is the number one agenda point or the output.

“Great people will beg, borrow and steal and connect with anyone that can make the work better,” he says.

“Where we probably have just had a slightly one dimensional view – and this is going back many, many years and this is no different to lots of agencies of a certain size – we were dealing with communication in a compartmentalised way and had a slightly more limited view of the communications spectrum or breadth of our ability to influence big organisations.

“We work with NAB, we work with a department store, we work with really complicated businesses  who themselves are a myriad of opportunities and touch-points and are creating brand experiences beyond comms, and that’s made our life more interesting and more complex in equal measure. Even if we were collaborative three or four years ago how we collaborate internally has to change and how we collaborate externally has to change.”

This extends to technology platforms such as Google and Adobe with the agency seeking to find better ways to collaborate with the tech giants.

Looking to Melbourne as a city and Clemenger’s position as part of a national network, Garrett sees similarities with New Zealand and his time with Colenso.

“Sydney is a big over populated city in terms of the number of agencies and the transient nature of the city in terms of the short-termism whereas Melbourne – and you can go back five, six seven or eight generations – I think relationships and rigour are more important and have a deeper cultural influence here,” he reflects.

“I felt an amazing difference going from Sydney to Auckland. I felt in New Zealand there was a culture business wise and in the population where they cared about creativity more and I feel the same about Melbourne. I think it’s noticeable and dramatic compared to Sydney so that’s a massive cultural thing. That’s not because we work at Clemenger BBDO, I think that’s a city thing.”

He says the “smaller” environment of Melbourne protects the agency in a way, allowing it to be “more brilliant” and grow the thinking. He cited smaller cities in the US such as Portland, Minneapolis and Miami which gave birth to some of America’s most lauded agencies.

“They weren’t caught in the rat race and the BS – throw a chunk of meat on the table and 20 agencies are pitching for it – they are able to create their own rhythm and actually grow from a small base to a big one and I think that’s true for some of the environments that aren’t Sydney. I think its true for Auckland and I think its true for Melbourne.”

McGrath admits there has been a slump in quality of Australian creative, but believes it is about to turn.

“In a cultural intelligent sense actual pure communication creativity is really suffering, McGrath says.
‘But I think it’s suffering because we haven’t come to grips potentially with true significance and complexity of our clients, but also because we haven’t taken the time  always to understand.”

“The quality of work that we’re doing, the quality of work that the industry at large is doing – and I think if you look around all the networks, there are very few examples of work that moves us forward in new and interesting ways.

“Having said that, it feels to us we are making some progress. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves but I think we are starting see some of the signs that some agencies are making sense of the new model. We are beginning to see the clues to what our future looks like. But I think we are all preoccupied, we are all self-obsessed. We are trying to work out how to do a whole lot more with a whole lot less.”

McGrath says the agency has talked over the past year about “creating no pollution” but admits it is harder done than said.

“The best work in the past has often come from the elastic edge where you almost break the system,” he says.

Graham became the face of the World Health Organisation globally while Bonds The Boys brought life to a traditionally dull and difficult category – men’s underwear.

“We don’t want to be the only Australian agency playing in the champions league, we think it would be great have two or three others with us because its good for the whole Australian industry,” McGrath says

Garrett says the agency evolution will never be finished.

“There is no end game, change is constant,” he says.

“You have three levers, people, process and structure, we were clear we wanted a different structure to the organisation that in theory is intuitively innovative and able to do different types of work at different speeds with different inputs and different and different costs. Haven’t finished, we are in significant transition and with the last piece thankfully we have got bigger, not smaller and we need to bring in people who cover some of our blind spots.

“We want Australia to be as exciting and dynamic creative country for the the advertising industry as if we are importing the best minds in the world here and keeping the best minds and we want to be part of that story,” Garrett said.

“We are proud, we want to live in Australia and there is no reason why it can’t have a great agency or multiple great agencies. That leads to just constantly wanting to be stimulated by keeping the best minds here. and hiring new people that freshen us up and reminding us why we are in the industry and inspire us.”


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