The pipe dream that became a reality: Ex-Ogilvy and Special NZ leaders launch new agency

Former Ogilvy chief strategist, Ryan O’Connell, and Special NZ general manager, John Marshall, have teamed up to launch a new “simple, but smart” agency, jnr.

Speaking exclusively to Mumbrella, the duo said it was a natural next step in their careers, from both a personal and professional point of view.

“This was a pipe dream 11 years ago when we started working with each other and became good mates,” O’Connell, who will be jnr.’s chief strategy officer, explained.

(L-R): John Marshall and Ryan O’Connell

“When you have a shared passion that also happens to be your work like we do, your conversations outside of work are often still about it. And our conversations turned into opening our own agency one day.

“We have fairly similar approaches and philosophies on advertising and communications, and in the last six months, the dream started becoming more of a reality,” he said.

The pair met at Ogilvy, where O’Connell started as a senior strategist, and Marshall, an account manager. While O’Connell stayed at Ogilvy, moving up the ranks to eventually become chief strategy officer, Marshall moved back to New Zealand to work at WiTH Collective for four and a half years, before moving to Special NZ in 2021.

Marshall, who will be managing director of the new agency, said 2024 felt like the right time.

“We’re excited, but we’re terrified at the same time – but that’s the point. This felt like the right time for both of us to do something scary and give it a crack,” he told Mumbrella.

“11 years ago, that was probably some of the best work we’ve done in our careers together,” Marshall continued. “We see the industry the same way, our leadership styles are quite similar, so it felt like a natural progression to take this leap together.”

The agency name, jnr., is two-fold.

O’Connell explained that the pair have always had a passion for mentoring and empowering junior employees, because “they’re somewhat of an untapped resource in the industry”.

“I think some people look down their noses at juniors, and think they don’t have much to offer, but we look at it in a different way. We love their energy, passion, and curiosity,” he said.

According to the pair, juniors are always asking ‘why’, because they’re always trying to learn. But, more importantly, they are also always asking ‘why not’.

“They’re not encumbered by being jaded or thinking things have to be done a certain way,” O’Connell continued.

“And that’s such a good perspective and attitude to have, no matter where you are in your career, and that’s inspiring to us, and it inspired the agency name.”

‘Jnr’, inspired by agencyland’s junior employees

Marshall also explained that the name is a nuanced nod to the founding duo.

“From a branding point of view, it’s ‘J’ and ‘R’ for John and Ryan. It means that every piece of work will have our names stamped on it as a promise to our clients that the work is credible, effective and will drive commercial outcomes for them.”

Described as an independent, Trans-Tasman, effectiveness-led, full-service creative agency, jnr. has two main focuses.

The first – effectiveness – is more than just about soft metrics and winning awards, according to O’Connell (although, it is important to note that Marshall and O’Connell have amassed 50+ Effies for their clients, among many other awards).

“Effectiveness via creativity is going to drive everything that we do. And that’s our main focus,” he said.

The agency’s approach will be through the creativeffectiveness (yes, one word, trademarked) guide – which is described to not take the magic out of creativity, nor the brains out of complex theory, science and technology.

The second focus is the pair’s personalities and way of working, and how that will differentiate jnr. from the many other independent creatives in adland.

“That’s where our mantra of ‘smart, but simple’ comes in,” O’Connell told Mumbrella.

“We fundamentally believe that harnessing creativity and not hurting it is the best way to be effective, but it needs to be done in a very smart and simple way.”

Differentiation is so important as more independent agencies enter the market, and O’Connell said the pair are incredibly conscious of not just being “yet another agency”.

“Something that definitely does differentiate us is we’re the only indie agency that has a dog on the payroll… Hemi, who is our chief vibe officer, always makes sure that we’re having fun.”

Jnr.’s chief vibe officer, Hemi the dog

He continued: “But, truthfully, we’re going to have a ruthless focus on effectiveness by creativity, and that will guide every decision that we make. And same goes for our focus on being smart but simple. And I think that gives us a point of difference.”

Marshall explained that the creativeffectiveness is at the heart of the business.

“We’ll actually have a percentage of our agency fee attributed to it, so if the work isn’t working, then we won’t get paid. So we’re also putting our money on the line,” he said.

“I really believe, because of that, our offering is differentiated.”

He concluded: “So overall, we’re excited about competing with other indies, rather than being worried.”

Jnr. officially opens its door today as a full-service creative agency across Australia and New Zealand. Mumbrella understands client announcements can be expected soon.


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