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Drunk Monkeys chart a sober course to success

They began as Three Drunk Monkeys - three mates with $10,000 each and a vision that advertising was about to change. A decade later they are one of Australia's most lauded agencies and still proudly independent.

A decade ago a trio of ambitious young agency creatives were throwing around an idea for a TV show. They needed a name for their collective to go in the credits and thus was born Three Drunk Monkeys.

The Monkeys enjoyed another successful year

The Monkeys enjoyed another successful year

The three have grown to more than 130 and they are no longer drunk, but the brave experiment launched on the back of a view that the future of advertising was content that engaged. Ads, sometimes, but TV shows and even products were what Justin Drape, Scott Nowell and Mark Green believed would shape their business.

Encouraged by Andrew Denton, radio host, producer, interviewer and founder of Zapruder’s Other Films who became an early mentor for the agency, the team forged a fresh model that embraced a new way thinking.

“It’s been a great journey really – we started with three and and now there’s over 130 people here across The Monkeys and more, and I guess we’ve just been foot to the floor the entire time,” co-founder Mark Green told Mumbrella.

“Over that time you just have a blind faith. You have to when you start in a crumbly old warehouse trying to take on the big guy’s agency.”

They each threw in $10,000 to bankroll the startup and began their first project – something close to their hearts – the sitcom :30 Seconds which went to air on Foxtel’s The Comedy Channel in 2009.

There were ads as well – Foxtel joined as one of the agency’s foundation clients which led to the creation of the award winning Glove ad – the first of what would become a winning run of commercials as marketers sought out their fresh approach.

“That blurring of advertising, technology and entertainment is something we have really had a crack at,” Green said.

“In more traditional structures there really wasn’t that drive and I guess in some ways trying to get ahead of what an agency could deliver for its clients and unless you do it, clients are never going to believe you. That’s why we went out and did :30 Seconds and My Family Feast. That turns into a Telstra documentary, a UBank documentary. It keeps giving people confidence that ‘these guys know how to do it’, it’s not a hypothesis.”

The faith of foundation clients in the early days was crucial because in the embryonic era of content becoming a genuine platform for brands there was little evidence that it would genuinely work.

Added to that was the three partners learning on the fly about longer-form content.

“We learned from some of the best, including Andrew Denton, and I think that gave us a point of difference, but also created a pretty exciting place to work for people coming into the industry.”

Denton’s production company proved a gold-mine for the Monkeys in the early days, handing them job of helping to market the ground-breaking ABC show, The Gruen Transfer.

The Monkeys created a series of Gruen-branded products including a Gruen beer to help promote the show and the ensuing debate left the ABC having to defend itself against charges it had opened itself up to the forces of advertising.

Green says the rise of technology and the influence of social has also played a fundamental role in how the agency has evolved.

The agency has seen many defining moments – Foxtel having played a role in two of them when it first put the agency on a retainer that guaranteed the future of the business in 2007 – a moment presaged by the partners downing a beer in a pub in Artarmon as they pondered what would happen if the deal didn’t come off. And then again in late 2010 when they parted ways with the brand having help to deliver a record year of subscriptions.

“When Foxtel went it was also quite a defining moment and we had to get on our bike and get some business in and we did with Ikea and Parmalat,” he said.

“You have a lot of those moments where you have to dig deep and make it happen.”

Another defining moment was in 2011 when Three Drunk Monkeys won Diageo’s Smirnoff business.

The win highlighted what has become a significant but unspoken hurdle for the agency. Not everybody wants to work with a drunk.

Justin Drape said the juncture was interesting as the agency got together with the new clients and questioned if a change was due.

“I came up with the name, essentially on a lark one night because Andrew Denton had asked us to come up with a name that was going to be a production business that we could work on the shows with,” he said.

“I thought this was just an honest name that would possibly end up on the back of a television show in credits and that’s about it. And we just continued to start using that.”

He said when the agency changed to The Monkeys, new clients, previously uncomfortable with the name, came out of the woodwork wanting to use them.

“That was the point where it was probably hindering us from a whole bunch of things we didn’t know about,”he said.

The client list has grown incrementally – many of them with award winning campaigns including Meat & Livestock Australia, Yahoo7, Blackmores, IGA, Bingle and Ubet.

Drape says the philosophy of the agency remains simple

“We have a little book here called Once in a Lifetime is Now, it’s an induction book. There is a great quote in there: ‘People don’t read ads, they read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad’, and we always just remember that. If you are going to make something on behalf of a brand, it sounds simple, but just make it interesting,” Drape said.

“We will continue to look at ways to acquire and build our own products. Homer Hudson has been a really interesting experience and we will continue to look at entrepreneurial partnerships in the area of product development and services and things like that.

“That is something that allows us to get under the bonnet of businesses and learn.”

In 2015 The Monkeys put their money where their mouth was, taking a 50% stake in Homer Hudson Ice Cream and working to revitalise the brand.

“Homer Hudson is a good example, I was going to ranging meetings at Woolworths and Coles and things like that as essentially a marketing director/manager and then coming back here and presenting to clients like Ikea. I think that gives you a lot of empathy and understanding with clients, and also credibility,” he said.

Throughout, independence in the face the agencies owned by the big six holding companies has been an important differentiator for The Monkeys and Green struggles to see how that might change.

The phone rings regularly and the promises of reward grow, but he and his partners feel they have grown the monkey from birth and selling out now would be like giving away their child.

“I think you want to provide opportunities for the business to be successful and we have found, to date, that that has been us driving it and going independent,” he said.

“As long as we keep finding new ways to make it interesting and different … being in control helps us do that.”

He sees the next 10 years as just as exciting as the past 10.

“Now we are in place where we can actually achieve a lot of the things that we set out to achieve. We have the talent, we have the clients, we have the confidence in what we can do and clients coming to us for that,” Green said.

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