- Players: Gil Oved and Ran Neu-Ner
- Company: The Creative Counsel
- Group: 8 companies
- Employees: 1 100 permanent, and 1 000s more on a casual basis for activations
- How they started: TCC Activations, the founding business, is the biggest below-the-line marketing agency in South Africa
- What they do: TCC finds ways to help its clients get products into stores and onto shelves, and then get those client brands off shelves and into consumer hearts, minds and homes.
- Turnover: R700+ million
- Visit: www.creativecounsel.co.za
If there are two things Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved are sure of, it’s that an unrelenting focus on brilliance pays off, and that successful businesses are built on great people.
The problem is that they operate a company driven by excellence, and that comes at a cost: High staff turnover and burnouts.
Their interview style is tough, almost combative, because they know that their industry, and particularly their company, is most people’s ‘not’ cup of tea. But those who do suit the culture find a fit in a R700+ million company that actively promotes personal and business development, will give you as much responsibility as you can take on, and will handsomely reward you.
A fly on the wall of a Creative Counsel job interview would think that co-founders Ran Neu-Ner and Gil Oved don’t want to hire new people. It’s a combative environment. The tension is palpable. Zoom in to the candidate in the hot seat. They’re sweating bullets. They gulp. The questions are flying thick and fast, why, why, why.
No answer is good enough. It’s followed quickly by another why. There’s no time to pull up rehearsed answers. The interviewers are getting to the heart of the candidate – who they are, what they value, and what their work ethic really is.
If the candidate makes it through the interview in one piece, and comes back for more, then maybe, just maybe, they have what it takes to thrive at TCC. But Neu-Ner and Oved aren’t going to make it easy. The word ‘easy’ isn’t in their vocabulary.
The Creative Counsel’s exceptional results over the last 15 years have been driven by a relentless focus on six key, non-negotiable pillars, all of which are centred on how well their employees deliver on TCC’s mandate.
Finding the right people is an essential first step to this process, and it starts with the company’s very first engagement with each employee: The interview.
“For years we had issues around high staff turnover. We realised that the problem started in the interview process. We were hiring the wrong people who didn’t suit our culture, and they would quickly burn out, or challenge our expectations. We realised that 80% of the success of a hire is culture. We just needed to find a way to test culture, as most candidates will tell you what they think you want to hear in an interview.
“Natie Kirsh used to recommend going for a drive. He said that if you sit in the passenger seat and just chat, asking any questions that come to mind, the candidate will soon reveal themselves in the simplest ways. You’ll see the person, and you can make a judgement call on whether they suit the requirements of the position and the company.
“For us, we focus on leading questions. For example, you’re driving to an interview and you’re five minutes late. The robot in front of you goes from green, to orange, to red. What do you do? You’ve just missed orange. How they answer this reveals a lot about their personality.
“We also love the questioning method of four-year olds. Whatever the answer to a specific question is, follow it with a ‘why’. At the beginning it’s not even about the answer. Candidates will always arrive at an interview with certain rehearsed answers. If you keep asking why, eventually they have to start giving you completely unrehearsed, unplanned answers, and that’s when you’ll get a real sense of who they are.
“We also believe it’s important to put pressure on the candidate — again, that’s when you see their mettle. We hate the question ‘what’s your worst quality’. The answer is always their best quality disguised as their worst, like ‘I’m a perfectionist’. But if you ask why, they’re suddenly scrambling for an answer.
“We’re known for our tough interviews. In South Africa, we’re too courteous. We take the opposite approach. We love questions they’re not expecting. This business is most people’s ‘not’ cup of tea. We almost try to convince you not to join us. If you come back after that, you’ll handle the pressure, and we can give you the support and environment to really fly.”
“Our culture is immersive, all encompassing. We want to be a part of your life. We’re proud of our business and the brands we promote. Our teams need to feel that way too.”
Building teams to win
TCC’s team is built on a simple analogy. There are 11 football players on the field, but hundreds tried out for those positions. Only the best make the cut, but they’re also the 11 that are willing to do anything to win. They’ll bleed for their team. That’s a winning culture, and it’s vital if you want to be the best.
The six pillars give the team a framework to work within and follow.
“All six of these pillars are natural to our personalities (well, five of them are, one’s just smart business). They’re the result of us articulating why we believe we’ve been a success, and then finding a way to instil those traits and beliefs into the organisation as a whole.”
“Don’t accept anything less than brilliant. This isn’t about hard work. It’s about output. We’re a top agency in a difficult field. If you’re a member of our team, you need to play at your best. It’s a demanding statement because there are no degrees or gradients. It’s either brilliant, or it isn’t. 100 or 0.
“There are consequences to this – cause and effect. It comes at a cost: Burning people out and high staff turnover; it’s not natural for people to perform at this level 24/7/365. We understand that, and if you do, you will be supported and rewarded. But if you don’t, you don’t belong here.”
Win by a mile
“When we present, clients ask for one concept. We give them three. That’s the way we approach everything. We literally want to leave our competitors so far behind we can’t even see them. We always say that if you’re going to go into a fist fight, take a grenade. We’re also proponents of the virtues of constructive paranoia: Never underestimate what your competitors are doing.
“It’s a sign of the times that we’re the number one agency in South Africa in terms of staff size and EBIT, and yet we’re also an unconventional, non-traditional agency. It shows how things are changing, and how quickly.
“Everything’s moving at an incredibly fast pace: New thing, new thing, new thing, and if you want to stay ahead of the curve, you need to be leading those new things, not following. It’s fatiguing, but so important.
“This is so engrained in us though. We, Ran and Gil, are the two biggest competitors here, and that drives us. We’ve always sat next to each other, competing. We were so busy competing against each other that we left our competitors behind.”
Grow those who grow our business
“Suppliers, partners, staff – we proactively assist and find ways to grow people and their businesses. We’ve never done this according to brief.
“We don’t make our staff climb the corporate ladder just because. If they shine, we bounce them, whether they’re 27 years old or 47 years old. This isn’t about experience – it’s about skill, competency and hunger. If you’re a maverick who wants responsibility, we’ll give it to you.
“In an industry notorious for retrenchments based on contracts being won and lost, we’ve also never retrenched staff – not in 14 years. We’ve fired people, but we’ve never retrenched anyone. We’re a large employer, and we’re proud of that. We create employment, and if you give your heart and soul to the business, you’ve got guaranteed employment.
“This same focus on growth extends to our suppliers as well. We pay very quickly. We don’t generally ask for credit terms. We know that if we get them their cash quickly, it makes a huge difference to their business. Guys know we care about their companies. We love that they’re making profits from us as well. That’s what grows their business. As a result they’re fair to us too – they don’t rip us off. And most importantly, when we really need them, when we have to deliver something quickly, they’ll bend over backwards for us.”
“The rule is simple: You can challenge anyone, at any time, but you must play the ball, not the man. It’s not allowed to get personal. So we can say to each other, what you’ve said is idiotic. But we can’t call each other idiots.
“We really believe in a sense of competition, and healthy, heated debate is part of this. It’s bred into our backgrounds. You respect your parents, but if you disagree with something they’ve said or decreed, that’s where the negotiation begins. You need to find the angle to get your way.
“Both of our offices have one glass wall that faces the rest of the floor. We’ve created an egalitarian workspace that strips down hierarchies. We’re completely open plan, and even though we do have offices (and wish we didn’t), we’ve kept them as transparent as possible. Everyone can see what we’re doing, at all times. But this means everyone can see us fight as well. We always laugh at newbies to the company.
“Within their first week, at some point, one of us will be in the other’s office and we’re shouting at each other. What follows is the invariable wide-eyed question to their manager: Is the business closing down? The reply is always, nope, that’s just Ran and Gil. And so their induction to healthy, heated debate begins.
“We really believe that the more and harder you debate something, the better. You chip the block away from all angles, and you’ll find the best answer and a better result.
“As business partners, we might not always agree with each other, but we’ve always had the same intent: What’s best for the business? Logic will prevail. Yes, we also have egos, but we always know that if logic prevails, the best decisions are made for the good of the business — but we also approach each debate with an attitude of ‘you better really convince me I’m wrong.’
“And this filters down to the whole company, from managers to new employees. Anyone can challenge anyone, as long as it’s not personal and logic prevails.
Related: Advice: 2 Minutes with SA’s Top Entrepreneurs
“We end up with juniors who think they have a right to challenge us – and they do. If Ran tells a junior copywriter his idea is bad, he can (and will) fight for it. On one memorable occasion, a junior copywriter actually came back six times to defend his idea, until he finally won the debate. Logic prevailed and he proved to Ran that he was right. In front of everybody – this didn’t happen quietly behind a closed door.
“This is so engrained in the company and our culture, that negativity and personal attacks are nipped in the bud – and we don’t need to do it, the staff do it. They approach someone who is getting personal and call them out on it. That’s not the way things are done here. When a culture is properly engrained and supported, employees themselves will maintain and defend it.”
Colleagues first; everything and everyone comes after
“This is the only one that didn’t come to us naturally. Clients come first, that’s always been our motto. So much so that in our start-up days Gil was called our ‘doctor on call’. It didn’t matter what he was doing, if his phone rang he’d answer the call and see to the client. Nothing was more important.
“As we grew though, we realised that it wasn’t just the two of us anymore, and you can’t deliver to clients without a happy family. That’s why this pillar is so important.
“If you walk out of a meeting and have two calls, and one’s a client and the other’s a colleague, your first instinct is to call the client first. That’s the wrong response. You don’t know why your colleague is calling. It could be to warn you about something related to the client.
It could be because they have three clients waiting on an answer or input only you can provide. Family must come first.
“It’s also important for everyone on the team to know that their managers, colleagues and us have their back. Once you know that you’re supported, you’re more likely to make key decisions on your feet, and those are generally the decisions that drive the business forward.
“Of course we try not to lose clients, but the reality is that there’s no real client loyalty. It’s the nature of the industry. You’re always pitching for your next campaign, and the client will choose what’s right for them, not for you. But your team should be here to stay, so care about them and look after them.”
Partner with integrity
“Do everything with integrity. Creating demand, finding a spin, convincing people to spend their cash: This isn’t an industry known for integrity. But we know that money comes and goes, but reputation is forever. That should always be your focus, and the rest will look after itself.”
It took Neu-Ner and Oved five years to hit their first R100 million in turnover. It’s an impressive number, and yet they believe it should have happened much quicker.
“At the time, we’d been so busy working in the business that we looked up and we’d hit R100 million. If we knew then what we know now though, that point would have been reached much quicker.
“One of the biggest reasons our early growth was slow was because we needed a five year view, but we only had a one year view. We didn’t trust our own growth plans, and as a result we didn’t have proper systems in place, or the guts to hire the right people for the right jobs. We didn’t believe enough in ourselves and our ‘big’ business.
“We started hitting a proper growth curve when we realised this and changed our attitude. Too many entrepreneurs know that they should hire people better and smarter than them, but they’re scared. They don’t want their position as business owner, leader and largest shareholder invalidated.
“The realisation that as the entrepreneur, you’re the one who takes the risk, who recognises the talent and who brings a winning team together completely validates your position. This is when the tipping point occurs, and also when you can start focusing on real growth strategies.”
Another key point that Neu-Ner and Oved highlight is that entrepreneurs have a tendency to believe that their personal touch is all important – if they aren’t involved in everything, the business won’t succeed. They’re also very conservative about costs. “Eventually, if you’re lucky, and you’ve still managed to build a sustainable, growing enterprise, the business will get too big, and you’ll need to let go.
For us, if we’d let go sooner, we’d be ahead of the curve. We wasted a lot of time and resources thinking small.”
One of their key examples is the finance department: “We’re two born entrepreneurs – neither of us likes systems and processes. Our sales were always faster than the systems we could implement, which has meant our systems are always playing catch-up. Even though we understand this, we still waited far too long before putting a proper finance department in place.
“In terms of job titles – and this is true of pretty much all job titles – the difference in cost to company between a mediocre employee and the best in the market is about 20%. But the difference in output is 100%. Today we know to just pay the money. A good financial director costs about R250 000 per year more than an okay financial director. But the mistakes that the good FD stops you from making can run in the millions. We know that if we’d had that vision years ago, we would have saved millions.”
Turnover vs profit
There are different levels of growth, and they’re often dependent on your company’s lifecycle.
“First, you’re just trying to stay open and pay your bills. You’ll be fine, but you need to maintain growth, which impacts your personal life and health. The next level, which for us happened in 2011, is putting a management structure in place. If you really want to grow, it’s important for this to be a top-class management team.
“This is an area where we had previously made mistakes. You’re trying to do things on the cheap, which results in two things: One, you have poor or incorrect hires, or two, you end up with ‘compression’ managers, where all managers (including us) are performing multiple roles – your role, and the role below you. No one is working exclusively at their pay level, and that impacts the more strategic growth areas of the business.
“During this first period, you’re concentrating on top line growth. This is important. Revenue gives you the confidence to build your business. It allows you to become a player in the market, to scale and to leverage your suppliers (the bigger you are, the more you purchase, the better you are as a client, the more you can negotiate better rates, and so on).
“But with revenue comes a cost of sales as well. All revenue that comes into the business has certain responsibilities tied to it – supplier invoices, salaries, overheads. This is where the next level of growth comes in.
“Efficiencies are where you save money, and this directly impacts the bottom line and your profits. Revenue and efficiencies are not mutually exclusive, but where you are in your lifecycle will dictate which is more important and requires more focus.
“Get revenue first. Once you’ve started growing though, it’s time to focus on efficiencies and EBIT (earnings before interest and tax). If you ignore that, you’ll never make great profits.
“Our analogy is that revenue is the fuel that drives your car. Without fuel your car won’t move, so it’s important. But once you’re on the highway, you can now start worrying about efficiencies – how far can you travel on one tank, where are your efficiencies, where can you save on fuel costs?
“Revenue is important. But, it’s not about turnover; it’s about leftover. From a turnover perspective, we’ve had good, steady growth since we launched. We reached a point where our turnover could no longer double though, and that’s when we started looking seriously at our earnings. In 2014, our earnings doubled.
“We’ve invested in systems, in managing the business better, and we’ve become a lean, mean operating machine. We watch our costs, and we look for every little efficiency we can find. The results have been phenomenal, and that’s where real future growth and earnings lie.”