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An agency as a brand owner - good or bad?

HaveYouHeard, founded 14 years ago as a word-of-mouth marketing specialist, has grown organically to become a full-service integrated communications agency and the engine room for a group of innovative, specialist creative communications businesses.
Jason Stewart
Jason Stewart

Most recently, it has taken the remarkable step of creating in_Things, a product and service company that exists to identify and define gaps or opportunities in markets that are not being filled by existing brands… and then launch their own.

We asked one of the two founders of HaveYouHeard, Jason Stewart, what impact stepping into the client’s shoes has had on the agency.

Stewart’s first statement was a bold one, as you’d expect from a man who’d taken such a radical step: “Our first learning shifted the paradigm for us,” he said. “Essentially, we experienced first-hand that a brand doesn’t – can’t – live in isolation from the rest of the business.

“Of course, as marketing communication professionals, we had the theoretical knowledge but – in our agency lives – none of us had had to truly integrate with it, let alone lead it.

“Stepping into the client’s shoes really drove home the reality that brand strategies that don’t take into account the regulations that govern the market in which the brand trades (such as pharmaceutical products do), or understand the distribution channels within that market, or acknowledge the ebbs and flows of the manufacturing cycle and the availability of raw materials, simply won’t work.”

Stewart unpacked this lesson further: “The first brand we brought to market is Probitec™, an innovative probiotic product that has been called ‘one of the quickest to gain such traction in the market in the last 15 years’ by a veteran of the pharmaceutical industry.

“At the outset, our team put together a smart brand campaign for mainstream media, thinking about engaging with the target audience who would buy the product. But, we soon realised that we needed to communicate first with the wholesale trade, in a very different way and through completely different channels.

“We learnt our second lesson – that, as an agency, we only had the skills to do 20% of what Probitec™ needed to succeed, but lacked the deep knowledge and understanding of the other 80% we needed to get the brand established.

“In a nutshell, we were moving the product off retailer’s shelves and into people's medicine cabinets, but we didn’t know how to get it from our manufacturing plant to our stockrooms and then onto those shelves. So, we set about getting very good at the ‘unsexy stuff’, the stuff agencies don’t really like to do, which has given us the ability to link all the pieces and to clearly understand what the drivers of success are.

“We use these lessons every day to do a better job for our clients.”

Other benefits brought about by HaveYouHeard’s decision to own its own brands include much-improved financial acumen and discerning decision-making throughout the agency at every level from junior, to mid and senior: “In_Things is self-funding, so the team has learnt to be extremely selective about which tactics we use,” said Stewart.

It also gives the agency the opportunity to experiment and push boundaries: “It’s the freedom and the willingness to be brave and to back ourselves that’s the real spark in this business,” said Stewart.

“And that freedom applies to strategy and to creativity. We are not inhibited by a need to be risk averse or safe. Because we are striving to punch above our weight – and win – we have to push the envelope. With our own brands, we’re the final decision makers and, if we have enough belief in an idea, then we back it, bravely. As a result, the teams are thinking more creatively and are really excited about driving results.”

Asked what clients’ reaction has been to HaveYouHeard dipping its toes in the brand owner pool, Stewart said: “Without fail, they are delighted.”

“They see us putting our money where our mouth is, and that’s powerful proof of the confidence we have in our ability to do the same for them,” he said.

“They can see that the attention to detail we’ve employed working on our own brands and business is being transferred to their brand because we have skin in the game and know how critical it is to get everything right.

“Working to a budget is demotivating, and it’s lazy. The team now think like entrepreneurs, and it’s showing in the results our clients are getting. And, more than that, it’s fostered a stronger working relationship between the agency and our clients.

“Now that the agency has first-hand understanding of just how much our clients have to contribute to ensure a brand’s success – product formulation, development, manufacturing, stock management and dispatch, distribution, logistics, key account management and retailer relationships – the team is more focused, pragmatic and creative in the solutions we propose to business challenges, and our clients respect that. As a result, we’re implementing better strategies and creating better work, together.”

HaveYouHeard has been developing a new brand for the past nine months and will be launching globally at the end of this year.

HaveYouHeard
HaveYouHeard is a communications agency immersed in culture to influence it. With 11 years' trading experience and offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London, it uncovers unique insights to create innovative ideas that influence the audience by bringing the brands it partners with to the center of culture.

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