Tony Bradbourne, Founder and Creative Director at Special Group in Auckland, selected the digital work on show in this issue of Lürzer’s Archive.
Great ideas and smart people can outpunch anyone and anything.
The native New Zealander worked at agencies in London, Amsterdam, and Auckland, before going on to co-found Special Group late in 2007. Within just three years, Special Group had won National Business Review Agency of the Year, B&T Magazine Australasian Emerging Agency of the Year, and Fairfax/Admedia Independent Agency of the Year, twice. In 2010, the year Special Group was awarded a Cannes Grand Prix for their “Iggy Pop + Orcon” campaign, they were also ranked one of the “Top 10 Independent Agencies in the World.” They have also garnered numerous awards at pretty much every global show and across virtually every discipline: Branded Content, Digital, Integrated, TV, Outdoor, Direct, Radio, Print & Craft. In the following Q&A session conducted by Michael Weinzettl, Tony – who has also judged at D&AD, Cannes, Award, and Adfest – talks about his career and what it’s like to create top-notch advertising in a country “located at the bottom of the world.”
Hi Tony, thank you very much for your selection of digital work for this issue of Archive. What were some of the criteria you applied?
Well, on the whole I was looking for ideas that were useful, that could actually do something to make things better, or easier, or more fun, or more real. And, on top of that, I was looking for simplicity, cleverness, and craft.
Can you tell us a bit about Special Group, the Auckland-based agency you’re partner and creative director of? How long has it been around and what are some of your clients?
Special Group was founded in late 2007 by myself (representing New Zealand), Rob Jack (England) and Heath Lowe (America), and quickly joined by Michael Redwood (Scotland). It kinda sounds like the United Nations but I think it was good fortune that these smart thinkers from around the world were all in the one place at the same time.
I knew Heath from Amsterdam, where he was doing some great design work for both adidas and Nike. We’d both moved to New Zealand to start families, and both thought there was an opportunity to start an independent company based in New Zealand that could deliver world-class thinking. We wanted to break the silos of ad agency and design studio and create a single relationship with a client that could start at NPD and move through every stage – packaging, digital, activation, whatever was necessary. So our work covers basically every area: we’ve done some beautiful packaging that I’m really proud of, some great digital, have made TV shows and documentaries, and everything in between.
The first piece of work that got us really noticed on the global stage was an integrated campaign for broadband company Orcon that featured Iggy Pop. We linked up 9 Kiwis live to Iggy in Miami via Orcon to rerecord his song “The Passenger”. It won a Grand Prix at Cannes but at the time there were only nine of us working in one room. It was a great start. It also hard-wired in a belief that, with a great idea, an ambitious client, and the right smart people on a project, you can outpunch anyone.
Now, seven years later, we have over 30 clients and have just opened our second office in Sydney. The office is co-owned and run by four very talented people there – Lindsey Evans, Cade Heyde, and the brilliant creative pair of Matty Burton and Dave Bowman (D&AD Black Pencil, six Yellow Pencils, Cannes Grand Prix, two Titanium Cannes, 40 Lions, etc. etc.). They have been going for just ten months but already have ten great clients. They have the same ideals and desire as the NZ office and it’s great to see a creatively led network growing like this.
Were you born and raised in New Zealand? How did you get into advertising?
I started studying design but became more and more influenced by advertising with every year of study. So I kind of manipulated the course to facilitate that! There weren’t really any direct ways into an advertising career in New Zealand at the time but I managed to get a job as an art director. A year later I’d launched Burger King in the country and my first TV ad had won a bunch of awards, so I packed a bag and left for London.
Who were some of the advertising people you admired when you first started out in the business?
I was very influenced by English advertising when I started but less by individual people and more by agencies and clients that seemed to produce brilliant campaign after brilliant campaign – BBH & Levi’s, HHCL & Tango, Simons Palmer & Nike.
Before Special you worked at Generator, also in Auckland, and the first campaign of yours that we featured in Archive was a beautiful one for Yamaha. That was about ten years ago. What do you remember about your time at Generator?
Generator was my first job as a creative director. I’d been back in the country about a week after ten years away and thought it would be a great challenge. And it was: Ha! The agency was in a lot worse shape than I thought, but as a result I learned a lot of things very quickly. But we all worked very hard, turned the agency around, won Honda and did some nice work for them, Nokia and, yes, Yamaha. The two years there, immediately before the launch of Special, gave me confidence and self-belief and a really clear idea of the type of company I would like to start.
The Green Party of New Zealand is among Special’s clients, and in the description of work on the agency website the term “ethical” comes up more than once. One of the campaigns done under your creative direction, and one that we featured in Archive, was for All Good Fairtrade Bananas. Does this reflect your agency’s philo-sophy? Or, to put it differently, are there clients you would not want to work with because of the less-than-ethical ways in which they conduct their businesses?
Yes, we work with a lot of ethically minded clients – Ecostore, who do amazing cleaning and body products, All Good, who also do great ethical Colas etc. that are now getting stocked the world over, OOB, who do organic ice-cream, Quina Fina, who make superb tonic, and we’ve done award-winning packaging for all of these products. But we also attract a lot of challenger brands like 2degrees, a really smart mobile phone company that has smashed the existing duopoly and brought a lot of fairness to the market. I think they all believe in Special – the people, the work, the atmosphere. We try incredibly hard on every project, no matter what the size, and their success is our success. We’re in it together.
And, yes, there are clients we won’t work with because we don’t believe in them. We won’t promote tobacco or instant finance companies, for example. We have turned down the New Zealand Pork Board because they still condone the use of crates and cages. But we happily work with alcohol brands and have done some great work for Smirnoff that we are very proud of.
What is the ad scene like in New Zealand? I’m constantly amazed how much great work comes from there when you consider your country’s size. Do you have any explanation for this very high level of creativity going on there? Is it something in the water?
We created an opening film for the local Axis awards here which humorously made the case that New Zealand has the “perfect conditions for creativity.” Ironically, it went on to win two Lions at Cannes. In the absence of big production budgets, media spends, etc., we have to create ideas that really generate attention. The Iggy campaign, for example, created over $1million of PR coverage before the first television commercial even aired.
We have very good production companies. We have direct contact with the most senior people in companies, including the CEOs. We have a lot of talented senior creatives here, and some very good agencies, all of which creates a very competitive environment. So I think we have all of the right conditions to produce great work. And, collectively, I think we like to show that, even though we are located at the bottom of the world, we can actually lead the way.
Can you tell us about some projects you did with Special Group that you are particularly proud of?
There are a lot! Iggy & Orcon for its sheer ambition. Launching a new TV channel, Four, by floating an unbranded 30ft tall yellow rubber duck into Auckland Harbour and letting the news channels explain who it was for. Our first TV series, Smirnoff Night Project, which doubled the channel’s viewership and won our first content Pencil at One Show. Our packaging for All Good, Ecostore, and OOB. The 2degrees mobile Play the Bridge activation where, for the first time ever, we covered Auckland’s Harbour Bridge in 2km of LED lights, synched it up to Google Play’s 30 million tracks, and gave control to anyone with a mobile. And even the little things, like a simple banner we’ve just made for 2degrees mobile that shows how much money and data you could save by switching – so far it’s saved Kiwis $1million. Who said banners don’t work …?
Do you see digital as just another addition to a creative’s toolkit or is there more to it?
Yes and no. It is a part of a toolkit but it also touches everything. Every one of our ideas has a digital part to it. I think large agencies who have a digital division are missing an opportunity to fully integrate digital thinking from the start of any briefing, and I think digital specialist agencies are somewhat blinkered to what the most effective solution for a client could be. All of our teams work seamlessly across all mediums and use everything, and every medium available, to push in the same direction.
How do Special handle digital work? Is it integrated into the agency or do you have digital agencies that you cooperate with on certain projects?
We create, design, plan, and run everything internally wherever possible. And work with a number of production houses globally to help build anything seriously new – like 2degrees Play the Bridge, for example. It was one heck of a digital challenge to get millisecond-perfect audio streaming of the song the Bridge was playing across multiple handsets, tablets, laptops, and via multiple mobile networks…
What were your first experiences with digital media like, and can you, perhaps, tell us of an early experiment in the digital arena you were involved in?
Well, the Iggy project was the first major integrated campaign in this country that drove everything through Facebook instead of a microsite – the first time an app had been created to house that number of auditions and facilitate all of the hundreds of thousands of views they received. So we have always pushed what we think is possible with digital, then found out ways to make it happen.
Another of our first mass digital ideas was for the Green Party election campaign in 2008. We had created this very simple billboard campaign – “Vote for me” – that pushed against the clichés of smiling images of dodgy-looking politicians, etc. It became hugely iconic and talked-about because of how simple and emotionally engaging it was. So we created a simple site where you could create your own digital version of the billboard by uploading an image of your kids, or a landscape, or whatever you value. Thousands and thousands were made and shared and lots of donations poured in. We ended up running full-page newspaper advertisements showcasing these amazing billboards. It was the first time an election campaign had been handed over to “the people” and, for me, a real eye-opener to the power of digital.
What do you forecast for the future? Will print advertising as we know it disappear completely?
Print has been around for hundreds of years and will be around for a hundred more. But it, like every medium, is constantly changing, which is great because change always tosses up new opportunities. A very simple press idea is a simple billboard idea, is a simple banner idea, etc. So I still see press as the basis of a lot of advertising communication.