Mediacom alumni Mike Deane and Tim Russell start consultancy to fill ‘strategic void’ between creative and media agencies

Two of Mediacom's former strategists - including chief strategy officer Mike Deane - have teamed up to launch a consultancy, Mumbrella can reveal. Here, the duo chats with Brittney Rigby about flightless birds, being 'smithies', and why launching during a pandemic has strangely suited their proposition.

When old colleagues Mike Deane and Tim Russell – Mediacom’s former chief strategy officer and group director of digital strategy and innovation, respectively – came together last November to start a consultancy, they didn’t envision it launching on the precipice of a global pandemic.

COVID-19 still seemed like a far-off threat, but soon enough it would become very proximate, both personally – Deane’s sister contracted the virus in the UK; “she was [in the] hospital, on a ventilator, so it was very real” – and professionally.  But, the timing has suited them, in a way.

The pandemic has forced people to reckon with the world, to reconsider what they count as important, which includes what they want and need to buy. It’s pushed brands to question what works, and whether spend is actually translating into results (as Deane and Russell explain, most isn’t). And, while businesses in certain categories have been struggling to keep up with demand, others are flailing, desperately attempting to cling onto liquidity and relevancy.

Russell and Deane say they’ve been inundated with client enquiries; the likes of Lion and Nestle have already engaged them. And they knew the need for their offering was there, that brands would want it. So Russell wouldn’t say syncing the launch with a global health crisis is “fortuitous, but it’s certainly reinforced some thinking”.

Russell (left) and Deane

Coining Saintsmiths

Deane left Group M’s Mediacom in October to team up with Russell, who worked as a freelance consultant for two years after leaving the same agency in 2017. By February, they had a market-ready offering: Saintsmiths.

The pair immediately start talking over each other, laughing, when I ask about the consultancy’s interesting name. And they’re quick to point out it’s multi-layered and “slightly tongue in cheek”.

To be a ‘saint’ “is to offer a bit of guiding light to marketers at this point, but with humility and empathy and a helpfulness,” Deane explains. And to be a ‘smith’ is to be a maker, a crafter, which importantly means being invested in the entire process (and not just doing a “strategic mic drop”, as Russell says).

“That’s one of the biggest learnings we’ve had over the years,” Deane admits.

“Working in strategy, we don’t like a handover point, the point at which strategy stops and then you just put your hands up and walk away. We really like staying with clients’ brands and seeing it through to fruition.”

But where’s the tongue in cheek? Deane quickly explains. A “smithy is somebody with a first name and a surname that can both be a first name”. Mike Deane. Tim Russell. Ah – there it is.

Fixing the ‘messiness of marketing’

While the consultancy is new, the central premise underpinning it isn’t, the pair tells me; they have “always been keen to address the disparities and messiness that exists within marketing”.

“That’s what we do,” Deane explains, “we try and stitch things together as effectively as possible.”

That ‘messiness’ involves contradictory philosophies that pull marketers in different directions, Deane and Russell explain, leading to a sense of befuddlement, and ineffective spend – “You might as well set it [the money you’re wasting] on fire” – rather than much-needed clarity.

“What the pandemic has done is it’s sort of opened up the flaws within marketing even further. So the call for our services almost has never been greater,” Deane says.

Aimee Buchanan came out and said something the other day that now is actually a really good time for strategists because they almost relish this sort of uncertainty and chaos and can lean into that, can create some simplicity from it.

“Whilst vendors may be quiet and certain agencies may be quiet, if you’re offering a strategic product, right now, it’s as relevant as ever.”

The Saintsmiths website

And that strategy, ultimately, is differentiating ‘could’ versus ‘should’.

“There’s a a number of things you could do [when] marketing, but there’s actually only a certain number of things you should be doing to set the foundations before embarking on broader, more imaginative challenges,” Deane says.

The ‘no man’s land’ between creative and media agencies

Saintsmiths’ proposition is to bring a sense of simplicity and unity to a process that is, more often than not, complex and disparate. A marketer needs one strategy, and, importantly, a strategy that’s neutral and agenda-free, the duo proposes.

“You do end up with this sort of strategic void,” Russell says of the gap between creative and media agencies.

“There’s a client frustration around the fact that, in answering a specific brief, you might get two strategic responses, one from each agency for example, and that leads to two sets of insights, two sets of developments. And it starts to pull you in different directions.

“And what we really believe is actually, it really needs to come back together at the strategic level. And that’s where we think we can play.”

I don’t expect to hear the phrase ‘flightless birds’ in this interview, but that’s the analogy Russell draws upon to explain what he means further. Let’s pretend the client’s brief is centred around flightless birds.

“One agency goes off and it’s all about penguins, and another agency goes off and it’s all about emus,” Russell hypothesises.

“And you can see how these almost divergent or derivative strategies end up magnifying out and taking you further and further from that real central point of where you want to be. We’ve seen that play out time and time again.”

The Saintsmiths model

It may seem counterintuitive to engage yet another business to achieve more simplicity. But Deane explains that Saintsmiths acts as a curator of sorts, building a network of specialists to draw upon if a client needs them – “they may need creative services, they may need some data analytics” – and working with agencies to mould an idea into something better than it would be otherwise, to find the ‘spark’ that would usually fall into the crevasse separating agencies.

As Deane puts it: “We’ll work with creative partners, where to pull ideas more effectively into channels. We’ll work with media partners to bring them that greater effectiveness lens, [and] also ramp up that creativity, and we’ll work with clients direct on something we’re calling the ‘single spark’ strategy, which essentially is looking at media, creative, and data right upfront, all together, to create one universal strategy that can then go on and inform the direction of your teams in different disciplines.”

Russell acknowledges that “it would be remiss of us to say we can solve this whole messiness of marketing as just two heads”, which is why, from the outset, a network of specialists orbits Saintsmiths, ready to be called upon.

From big brands to scale ups

Already, Saintsmiths has done work for impressive accounts. It produced a mid- to long-term recovery plan for drinks company Lion Nathan New Zealand, which involved digging into sales data. That process revealed that, in New Zealand, customers were going back to local brands they knew and trusted, which demanded a recalibration of Lion’s local versus international brand spend.

“That’s been the sweet spot, really, that sense of recovery planning,” Russell says.

“It really is just good strategy or better planning. Fundamentally, there’s not anything that different.”

The work was “exceptional”, according to Lion Nathan New Zealand’s national marketing director, Rachel Ellerm, who said: “At a time when most businesses, including our own, were focused on short-term stability and reactive work, the Saintsmiths team provided exceptional mid to long-term strategic, analytical and creative guidance, ensuring we never lost sight of what might come next.

“Their ability to conduct fast, yet insightful primary research also proved vital in shaping our next wave of communications.”

And for Nestle, the focus was on portfolio planning, and determining the strategic importance of each brand.

“I also did some work with Milo on them, which was about brand repositioning,” Deane adds.

“Milo was kind of losing traction with a very traditional young audience. It wasn’t contemporary or cool anymore. So we looked at stuff like partnerships with Twitch and YouTube to modernise the next phase of the Milo brand.”

Saintsmiths is also working with smaller clients, largely scale ups, who need guidance on when to spend, rather than how to spend.

“I think the proposition very much is when is the right time for them to invest in building that brand above the line? What’s the tipping point?” Deane says, explaining that, for large companies, the job is different, and trickier.

“Blue chip clients are the ones that are probably presented with the greatest complexity because they’ve got budget and they can afford to do a hell of a lot of different types of things,” he notes.

“And choosing the right path for that is probably more difficult than when you’re starting up or scaling up and just venturing into your first foray of above the line advertising.”

Ultimately, explaining a business like Saintsmiths in more than 1,000 words feels a little ironic; they’re selling simplicity, so the pitch should be simple, right?

Perhaps Deane’s snappy descriptions of the pair – “We’re proudly strategic” – and Saintsmiths’ role – bringing “disparate disciplines together with cohesion and simplicity” – sum it up best.

But, maybe long-form is okay too, for now. After all, marketing is messy, and Deane and Russell have more than a few knots to untangle if they’re to clean it up.


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