How the West was one: Perth proves its worth, as WA agencies lead the charge

A trip to Perth will tell you, the marketing and advertising agencies are thriving out west - and it is no longer a state seeking validation. It's already put in the hard yards to become an important part of the landscape. Andrew Banks talks with some of Western Australia's key industry players to see if anything is done differently in the nation's largest state.

The thing about Perth is, the people there follow the rules. They believe in law and order. They’re sensible, measured, considered. And while they do have views and opinions, they simply choose not to voice them as much as those on the east coast.

I was born in the UK, but moved to Perth in the early 80s, doing my OG Degrassi high school years there.

A friend once said, it’s really easy to make friends in Sydney, but you may never see them again (like the friend who told me this), whereas in Perth and Melbourne, it’s much harder to make friends – but once you do, they are friends for life.

Coming back to old stomping grounds, Perth has grown over the years. It has its own style and vibe now. It’s not quite Melbourne, but it definitely could give Sydney a serious run for its money with its bars, clubs and nightlife.

Geographically Perth is often labelled “remote” because of its distance from other capital cities.

But I have a plan for that: if Clive Palmer put less of his money into his Titanic reboot and election tilts, he could use it to boost Shark Bay, an 8-hour drive north of Perth and further improve it as a tourist and population hub. Instant WA Gold Coast. That’s if the locals would even allow it.

In reality, Perth is more central than you realise: sitting on the same time zone as China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Singapore – in fact, only a sub 6-hour flight to that very capital, plus an 11-hour flight to South Africa – and with a two-hour jump on the east coast, it becomes handy for work to be done in Perth to easily make any Sydney/Melbourne COB deadline.

Natalie Jenkins, CEO of Block Branding

Natalie Jenkins, CEO of Block Branding, explains: “Being on the western side of the country, Western Australia not only represents a big geographical slice of the country, it also provides an important gateway through the South East Asian markets, with the big advantage of operating in the same time zone and being major suppliers to some of Australia’s key trading countries. WA is an economic powerhouse that is often flourishing when other states are not, so it’s a key business market for the country. That, coupled with the unique perspective that West Australians have on the world, due largely to our isolation, sheer size and vastness, makes for a pretty interesting contribution to creative communications.”

Block Branding produced this video for a national client

When it comes to industry land in Perth, the minds and expertise representing Australia’s largest state will impress you.

What struck me about the agencies visited was the great facilities in place to encourage creative collaboration. Open-plan working and meeting areas, and everyone seemed to have ridden out the Covid wave that hit when Premier Mark McGowan opened the borders.

Guy Patrick and Amber Martin, Hypnosis Creative Agency

Amber Martin, managing director and co-founder of Hypnosis Creative Agency says: “There is a positivity, a can-do attitude and a hustle that comes from being perceived as an underdog. And I think that can mean less pressure, more creative freedom and room for expression. Perth has always punched above its weight when it comes to creativity & the arts – think Tame Impala or Kodie Bedford.

“And I don’t think the advertising industry is any different. Perth is rich in talent and we have an appetite for good work and pushing the boundaries. And I think we have enough interesting clients here to deliver on that.

“I also think the community here is incredibly supportive, as soon as we announced the launch of Hypnosis, we’ve had all sorts of people from the industry reach out offering advice, help and well wishes. Plus there is a keen interest in nurturing new talent, which means the talent pool will continue to grow with diverse people.”

Jim Groves, MD of Carat Perth

Jim Groves, managing director of Carat Perth, counters WA’s perceived “underdog” tag: “The state of WA punches above its weight economically. Many mining giants are headquartered here as are their array of ancillary vendor partners, plus, of course, a very high-profile State Premier and his Government. This level of macro and micro business success flows through into WA’s advertising and media industry; our state is home to several network local offices plus a myriad of smaller independent shops, particularly for creative and digital services.”

Alison Balch, CMO at Pentanet

Indeed, Alison Balch, CMO at Pentanet says: “The talent coming out of Perth is phenomenal. Not only are we seeing world-class ideas and production coming out of the experienced strategy and creative teams, but also the next-generation of marketers who are starting to shine. Our remote location was once considered a downside of the city, but our isolation over the past few years has allowed Perth to flourish into our own self-reliant creative hub. As a ‘big small town’ there is also a strong focus on collaboration, so it’s pretty common to have multiple independent agencies working with one client to bring diversity of thought and expertise to a brand.”

David Burger, MD of Initiative Perth

David Burger, managing director of Initiative Perth believes the WA capital is well-serviced by the local industry: “On an individual level, the talent we have in Perth is second to none. We can easily compete on a global stage and I would love to see us to do more to create a platform for that to happen.

“Perth and the West Coast continues to evolve at a rapid rate and I feel we could be doing more with the east coast. So, I don’t see us as a “hub” on a business level, although I acknowledge we are currently heavily focused on the local market.”

Nick Bayes MD of The Brand Agency

Nick Bayes, managing director of The Brand Agency – part of WPP – agrees: “It’s important that (Perth and WA) has a vibrant industry that continues to grow and innovate, whilst employing people in our state. If a WA-based organisation wants to market its product or service to a WA market, I would argue that a WA agency would be able to do this best, because they have a better understanding of the local market.

“It’s also a great training ground, with a disproportionate number of people from WA going on to leadership roles in global agencies. I think the key reason for this is that our young people get exposure to a far wider range of skills and expertise working at agencies in WA. So when they move overseas they are more experienced and as a result more employable than their peers from other states.

René Migliore, joint MD of 303 Mullenlowe Perth

René Migliore, joint managing director of 303 Mullenlowe Perth, puts Perth’s success down to it being “an engine room for the Australian economy”.

And importantly, he adds: “For any client with a national presence, they need a national perspective and ability to tap into the business and consumer needs of multiple markets. You can’t be truly national by tapping into only one side of the country.

“What that means for Perth as a ‘hub’ is that if brands and marketers get to work with Perth agencies or talent, they’ll experience people that work smart, efficiently and bring a real ability to overcome challenges with creative solutions. There have always been national clients working with Perth agencies and production companies, but I get a sense it’s growing as more clients experience the ‘make it happen’ attitude over here.”

AlphaLab director Dan Bradley | Principals

AlphaLab director Dan Bradley says Covid has allowed Perth to bridge most of its remoteness: “Post-Covid there’s been a lot of returning talent, not just from the eastern states (I moved to Melbourne then back during 2019-2021) …but places like NY and London too – talent density here has gone through the roof. Add to that the fact that (due to zoom and teams) right now, we no longer suffer from the tyranny of distance….it’s actually working in our favour as talent gets to do world class work on global brands, from here – for example we’re doing projects in the US right now, that will roll out globally – once our day is over, we get to walk outside into the beautiful WA environment.

And some of Australia’s national brands started life in WA: Wesfarmers (including Bunnings), Seven West Media, BankWest, HBF, Canva, Health Engine and Cash Converters to name a few.

Is there an East/West divide in Australian agency land?

Jenkins: “Division isn’t quite the right word, but the differences are definitely there. The smaller size of our current population/market, being on a different time zone to the rest of the country, the huge diversity both in community (First Nations and other cultural backgrounds) and geography from one end of the state to the other, means that we are not the same and you can’t really speak to us / treat us the same from a communications perspective.  Every state in fact has its uniqueness and so it’s really about recognising, respecting and embracing difference and not assuming that what lands in NSW, Victoria or indeed Queensland, will land here in the same way.  The fact that the ‘west coast’ is just one state and that the ‘east coast’ is made up of four different states and a territory (obviously not including SA and NT), really makes the East vs West coast thing a bit of a red herring.  How does Victoria, NSW, Tasmania, Queensland and the ACT feel about being lumped into the one generic bucket…? I’d be interested to hear what those outside of Western Australia say to this question too!”

Bayes: “Not as far as I am concerned. I think the WA industry is strong and doing great work for WA based businesses. If anything, WA agencies often see themselves as secondary to those on the east coast, which is simply wrong. The quality of work from WA is definitely on a par with anything from the east coast. WA agencies need to stop thinking about what’s happening in the eastern states and just concentrate on their own work.”

Burger: “I don’t feel like there are negative tribal differences between the east and west coast, however there are obvious differences due to geography and scale. The reality is that business priorities and budgets are defined by where organisations can deliver the best results. That means bigger markets are a priority for investment. That’s a reality of business whether it is interstate in Australia or on an international level with the APAC region. Due to its geographical location, I do believe Perth fights harder as a result for investment.”

Migliore: “In decades past, the sheer geographic distance between east and west did lead to some division simply because of location. There was a misplaced belief that clients had to have only the most local of agencies servicing them. But as the industry – and the wider market – became less focused on location, and more focused on effectiveness and capability, these divisions started to disappear. And the reality is there are plenty of ‘east coasters’ working in this market and vice-versa. I believe there is a healthy, mutual respect between the markets. The pandemic and various travel restrictions only highlighted people’s ability to create work from anywhere in Australia, or the world, again removing any division. There will always be some market-specific understanding required for some clients, depending on the service or product they are trying to promote. But for the most part, clients want great agencies who understand their business and their objectives – and can help achieve them through smart thinking. Location has little to do with that.”

Martin: “Yes, 4000-odd kilometres. But seriously, no I don’t think there is a divide. I think the industry has always been fairly introspective, so different agencies and states look to each other for inspiration. Finding ways to learn, improve and being motivated by the best of the best. And that inspiration can, and does, come from anywhere – Amsterdam to Adelaide it doesn’t matter. Good creative is good creative.”

Balch: “I don’t personally believe there’s a division between east and west coast. I’d say it’s more north of the (Swan) River and south of the River! We are generally inspired by the work coming out of the east coast agencies and brands, and I would hope they feel the same about what’s being produced here in the west.”

Groves: “Every state comes with a side dish of parochialism and WA is no exception. We sure do love to highlight our minute differences. However, from a macro POV all participants face the same issues and headwinds – whether in Australia or abroad.”

Bradley: “Not any more. Our consultancy worked hard pre-Covid on building bonds as we had offices in MEL/SYD and AUK, all of which made opening our office in PER last month, much easier. Culture done well should flex and grow (…we have a Culture Design team) and every ‘employee value proposition’ has to be designed as a promise that is clearly defined and differentiated – but has to be delivered upon continuously to meet and exceed talent expectations today.”

The disadvantages/obstacles/challenges Perth agencies have to overcome

Initiative Perth’s Burger breaks down the key challenges Perth agencies face in the industry:

1. Defining our value proposition – “We have less growth opportunities in the market than our east coast partners have. Our challenge is to carve out a stronger value proposition to client partners. It’s also a great challenge and means we need to be extremely entrepreneurial in our approach.”
2. Mindset – “I think we need to continually challenge ourselves to push the boundaries of our work – strategy, ideas and execution that are more provocative. Many of the brands in Perth are historically successful but very conservative. That’s partly the nature of the brand ecosystem in Perth. I feel like there is an opportunity for brands to be brave and be more cutting edge. We need to avoid the pitfall of thinking we are isolated and deliver good, solid, safe work and that is good enough. We can do more remarkable work. We have the talent and capability. We need that vision driving us forward to stay relevant in the future.”
3. Talent – “We need to put more effort into talent development and inspiring ‘young guns’ to stay in the industry. It is a free-for-all in the current market. Some agencies are happy to give promotions to people regardless of their experience, and capability together with unsustainable salary increases. Youngsters’ lack of experience is then exposed leading to mental health issues and the business suffers when they are not able to deliver at the level expected of them. We need to make this industry appealing to the smartest and brightest to build a long-term career.”

The Brand Agency’s Bayes agrees with Burger’s third point: “The biggest and most serious issue is talent. And undoubtably this is an issue for all businesses not just in WA, but nationally. In WA we have a small population and a resulting small talent pool to choose from. There has also been a slowing of overseas talent coming to our state, mainly due to COVID. So it’s become increasingly hard to staff up properly as your business grows. To combat the decrease in external talent we are investing more in our up and coming stars, providing them with opportunities that they might not have received as quickly in a normal employment market. This has worked for our business and is great for them.”

Hypnosis’ Martin says Perth agencies are at no more a disadvantage than with the rest of Australia.

“Yes it’s a smaller market, with different types of clients but that doesn’t mean we have any different challenges or obstacles. I think the industry as a whole tackles the same issues across the board. From nervousness to buy bold ideas, to more work being done in-house, to short term relationships, I feel the challenges remain the same,” she says.

303 Mullenlowe’s Migliore believes “the sheer size of WA means that undertaking work, particularly production, in some of our more remote areas can be challenging.”

He adds: “But working through those challenges early with a client and building them into any decision making certainly helps. We also need just a few hours extra notice to attend meetings in Melbourne or Sydney. There’s still no fast-jet service between east and west. However, in these days of teams and zoom, it’s less of a disadvantage than it used to be. And then there’s self-created challenges. We’re often so busy doing great work, we forget to stop and share the great work. As an industry we all need to do our part to share the good work and good new coming out of Perth, to the rest of the country. Out of sight out of mind…that’s a challenge for us to keep tackling.”

Pentanet’s Balch also brings up another issue: “There is also a frustration on the lack of support when it comes to industry events and conferences. Events like WA’s own 2-day marketing event, State of Social, prove there’s a market for top-tier in-person content to be delivered, but we often find Perth being excluded from national touring. It’s been the same for touring bands and the Arts for years, so sadly, we’re used to it!”

What next for the Wildflower State?

The near future does look good for Perth.

Migliore captures the vision in one word: “Thriving!”

“And a place where great creatives, strategists and business leaders opt to stay live and work (not just come home to) because it produces work equal to – and in many cases – better than anywhere else in the country. North, East, South or West. We’ll continue to challenge and innovate, and as long as clients are keen to take on their business challenges with creative thinking and unexpected solutions, this market will deliver,” he adds.

“The State Government’s commitment to developing WA in the areas of creative technology innovation makes this an exciting time for WA. I think Perth’s digital future is set to thrive, putting us at intersection of where marketing meets the Metaverse, technology and digital entertainment,” says Balch. “Investment into the community is going to be a vital part of our ability to continue delivering world-class work. Organisations like WAMA (WA Marketing Association) are incredibly valuable for the market here, advocating for the retention of local talent and collaboration across media, creative, strategy and the wide marketing community.”

Bayes believes there will be more talent in the state: “As someone who’s not originally from Perth and having recently returned from a trip to the UK, I can honestly say I believe Perth and WA to be the best place to live in the world, and I don’t see this changing any time soon. Quality of life has become more and more important to people as we (hopefully) emerge from COVID and I believe that we will see more people within the wider industry seriously consider Perth and WA as a destination to both live and work. This will help combat our small talent pool and help grow the industry in WA.”

He also thinks there will be fewer agencies.

“When I first moved to WA I was surprised at how many agencies survived in a relatively small city. That was 17 years ago and thanks to the relatively strong economy here the number has grown again recently with lots of small independent agencies opening their doors. This is a sign of a healthy industry, but it’s also unsustainable. In reality these agencies only compete against other agencies of the same size and as the economy slows you will see many close their doors as a result of decreasing client spends or the client start-ups many of them have as clients failing to secure capital,” Bayes adds.

Bayes reckons true integration of services will become even more important to agency clients.

“Perth is a small market. To grow and continue to grow as an agency you need to provide more to your clients than simply advertising. We have in WA a number of ‘specialist’ agencies offering a specific service, be it search, design, media or just creative. The best of them will continue to operate and run profitable businesses. But WA has only a finite number of substantial clients and if you work with one you often can’t work with other clients from the same sector. This can stymie growth if you only offer one area of specialisation. Clients want and need expertise from agencies to influence behaviour at every step of the customer journey. And if agencies can’t do this clients will move to an agency that can.”

Martin is thinking big: “Think of Auckland and Amsterdam and how even as smaller cities, they built themselves up as beacons for creativity. I think we can collectively do the same for Perth.”

Jenkins says Perth is forecast to become the third largest city in Australia by 2050 and by 2031, WA’s population is expected to be between 3.1 and 3.4 million. “Regionalism is another edge we have in WA – since COVID, the regions across Australia have had a resurgence and many are booming. WA understands regional like no other. COVID also brought a lot of very talented people back to WA, who have decided to stay and things are changing in the industry as we speak – the independent agency sector is thriving and growing and we’ll see more of that over the next 5-10 years, as we grow to meet demand.”

Burger is more typically Perth-minded when it comes to predicting the future of the industry in WA.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but what I firmly believe is it’s entirely up to the industry at a local level to build a bigger and better vision for itself. The macro challenges for all agencies around the world are not new – revenue challenges, shrinking margins and talent shortages. We need to redefine what success looks like for Perth. We have to decide what our big growth and investment areas? We have to focus on value generation in areas like strategy and technology. It seems obvious but it needs to happen,” he says.

“We also need to start challenging brand leaders in Western Australia to renew and re-energise their brands for the future. What are our brands going to be doing to be relevant in 10 years’ time to a new demographic? All brands face this challenge at some point. We have the talent in the market to make this city a lot more cutting edge in its thinking and setting standards in the way we deliver brands to market.

“We have the talent in the market to make this city a lot more cutting edge in its thinking and setting standards in the way we deliver brands to market.”

If there was one negative thing I spotted, it was this: Many Perth people really do struggle merging in traffic.


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