CB Q&A with Special Wellington: “How to get clients, Effies and 3 Pointers from a car park”

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CB Q&A with Special Wellington: “How to get clients, Effies and 3 Pointers from a car park”

Campaign Brief recently caught up with the leaders of Special’s Wellington office, Mark Forgan (centre), executive creative director,  Bethany (Bo) Omeri (far right), head of strategy and Matt Barnes (left), lead business partner on their first year in the capital going from car park to contributing to Special being named Campaign Brief 2022 ‘Agency of the Year’.


Special Wellington has been open around 18 months now — how’s it been going?

Mark Forgan: Just like a tasty 18 month Comté, we’ve started to finally get the good balance of nuttiness & maturity. A lot has happened, personally coming back home after 16 years in Paris, it was an exciting prospect to join Special and particularly exciting to start an agency from scratch (or a car park to be precise). The team has worked like dogs to attract clients, talent and produce some work that’s already put us on the world stage.

Last year we managed to be recognised at D&AD, The One Show, AWARD, AXIS and the big highlight was scoring two golds at APAC Effies and significantly contributing to the Agency of the Year at the NZ Effies. A great year for any agency in NZ, let alone one that’s just turned one.

We’re settling into our new physical home too. Special have a history of transforming buildings for the better, so what started as an empty carpark space has now become a 500m2 office, event, and collaboration space, split across two levels connected by bleachers that act as both stairs and seating. When we’re not hosting, the extra space converts into a basketball court (swish). We are surrounded by windows, so we get beautiful natural light all day, and it’s a great viewing spot into Mt. Vic, or more commonly, the wildly changing Wellington weather. The storms look particularly epic in here. It’s been great to be able to host events such as Semi Permanent, Social Marketing Forum, Unltd. Creativity for Good, as well as many of our clients’ full teams for their own private events.

CB Q&A with Special Wellington: “How to get clients, Effies and 3 Pointers from a car park”

Special opened a few new offices last year — London, New York seem like natural choices, but why Wellington?

Matt Barnes: I’ll be honest, I asked Tony (Bradbourne) the same question when we were first in talks about opening Wellington. It seems crazy at first. Some would say, and many did, that it doesn’t make sense to come here when so many others have left over the years.

Before anyone had joined the Wellington office, the partners ran the press ad in The Post as a call to arms for clients and talent, the headline read “Anyone else feel like changing the world today?”. That captures well the intention and potential for the office. We want to do work that makes NZ a better, safer, healthier, wealthier place.

The businesses and organisations here are doing some of the most exciting and important work. The creative culture in Wellington, and talent are unique and world class. This office allows us to be part of all of that. Wellington may never be the biggest office in the network, but it can be the office that creates the most significant change and some of the most exciting work.

What have been the highlights?

Bo Omeri: The biggest highlight has been the incredible pace things have taken off.

The three of us joined with big ambitions, but also a healthy recognition that finding like-minded partners, making great work, and getting the right talent takes time.

Such a great thing to be wrong about.

Before our first birthday, we’d won seven new clients including Trade Me, Sport NZ, University of Otago, EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority), Family Planning, CERT NZ (Government’s cyber security body), Farrah’s, and had work winning at local and global shows for both effectiveness and creativity. Alongside this growth, we’ve welcomed in a great gang of talent. All those things came before the kitchen walls though, so that has kept us humble.

We are super proud of the work that we’ve been able to produce in our first year.

To-Meat-o sauce for Hell Pizza. A carnivorous accompaniment to a plant-based pizza.

Silent Night for Wellington City Mission. The largest fundraising event, at the biggest venue in the capital, without a single attendee or agenda item.

Rebranding Family Planning, an almost 100-year-old organisation responsible for much of the progress we have seen in sexual and reproductive health in Aotearoa, to Sexual Wellbeing Aotearoa.

CB Q&A with Special Wellington: “How to get clients, Effies and 3 Pointers from a car park”

Exposed — A photography exhibition through the lens of a hacker to raise awareness of the cost of cybersecurity for CERT NZ.

And a significant evolution to New Zealand’s iconic marketplace, Trade Me.

And to launch our first year of the Special Aotea scholarship package that supports Māori students at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) on a pathway to a creative industry (advertising, design, creative).

There’s still one piece of work we’d most like to get out this year — our first birthday invites.

What do you credit this early success to?

BO: The work that Special does combines strategic rigour with unexpected and non-traditional creative solutions. This way of approaching problems means we can help on briefs of all shapes and sizes. There’s always a way to do something brilliant that delivers results. At Special, every brief is an opportunity, and I think we showed that in practice last year. Despite being the newest agency in town last year, we also won the most awards for effectiveness.

We’ve felt that this is an ethos that connects with many clients in Wellington and is much easier to access now that we have a door here.

CB Q&A with Special Wellington: “How to get clients, Effies and 3 Pointers from a car park”

Even though this will never be the biggest office Special has, it was important to us it wasn’t too small. From the get-go we set out to bring a genuine offering to Wellington by investing in strategic and creative brains on the ground. This approach is a testament to the vision of the partners. It would have been much easier and less risky to put a couple of people in Wellington, as a satellite office, but Special isn’t really built on doing it the usual way. What’s resulted is a really unique offer for Wellington, world-class creative, strategy and business on the ground, fully connected into an independent global network.

I think clients have really appreciated how valuable it is to easily get in the same room and nut through whatever’s on their mind. The proximity has been a real benefit both for the relationship and the planet.

It’s a tough time for the industry, not the easiest time to be starting a new one. What’s been hardest?

MB: I won’t beat around the bush, it’s been a really humbling year. We’ve all come from well-known, established shops. There’s a confidence that you carry when you have a track record, existing clients on the books, and a big team. While we have the significant might of the Special brand behind us, the Wellington office was still a new proposition, unproven, and lesser known in this market. We are so grateful to the ambitious and brave clients that have trusted us in these early days to make great work for them, and given us incredible problems to solve.

Anyone in this industry knows it’s been a challenging year — loads of uncertainty, tightening budgets, and an exodus of great talent overseas. Here in Wellington, the election and change of government have added a degree of pressure for our public sector clients. When it’s tough for our clients it’s tough for us too. It’s key to realise we’re in the same waka when everything is in flux. We have to walk that path hand in hand with our clients.

How have you been doing that?

MB: One thing we’ve been really trying to do, is lean into the changing nature of the last year with a curious spirit — when things change, how do we make the most of that, and importantly how do we make sure the work changes but not to the detriment of its impact.

It’s so easy for times like these to be the downfall of good work, eroding piece by piece, so coming to change with curiosity means openness to making hard calls like parking an idea you love, to go in search of another that works better for the context at the time. Less pushing back, more pushing forward.

Looking ahead to 2024, what are you focused on?

MF: Turning all that hard work from last year’s pitch wins into making impactful, effective work for them. The most creative work is the most effective — the two go hand in hand and our clients expect us to help them solve their problems, whatever the size, with creativity.

Wellington used to be known as the most creative city in New Zealand, and there was a really strong community and culture for that here. People would move here for creative roles. We want to help foster that culture back. We have been hosting events in our space, and we plan to do more of that this coming year.

We’re also doubling down on supporting our clients. Being in the government town we know there’s always going to be changes — like our weather you can’t predict what’s going to happen in the afternoon, so we have to be nimble, reactive and lean-in to make sure they’re making the best work possible whatever their current situation.

The 3 of us have been through multiple changes of government here and a pandemic (for Bo & Matt) where the work was at such a high scrutiny — again being here was everything — next to our clients, taking the stress with them was what mattered most. There’s only so far a Teams meeting can get you doing Aotearoa’s most important work.

So, do you guys actually play basketball?

We do and we’re doing our best to not encroach onto the court as we expand our team. However, the latest member of the team is an MMA fighter so we might look to add a cage — might not be as social with clients after meetings however. Depends on the outcome of the meeting I guess.

CB Q&A with Special Wellington: “How to get clients, Effies and 3 Pointers from a car park”