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Net#work BBDO: Mike Schalit

Fearless approach to the power of originality drives one of SA’s top agencies

Monique Verduyn

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Mike Schalt of Network BBDO

Ask Mike Schalit about the origins of Net#work BBDO and he’ll tell you that one of South Africa’s hottest ad agencies was born out of naïve optimism. “We launched the business in May 1994,” hes ays. “It was a time when the entire country was at a standstill and everyone had adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

People were storing toilet paper, but we were ridiculously positive. I think that’s why we succeeded; we were committed to making it work.”

Schalit had trained as a copy writer and had left TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris to co-found Net#work BBDO with long-time colleague Keith Shipley. Both were keen to create something of their own, having worked in the shadow of other agency heads for a long time. Today, Net#work BBDO is recognised as one of South Africa’s most adventurous agencies.

Its power billboard for Nedbank is a case in point: the agency won a Gold Bullet and the first-ever Jury Chairman’s Choice Award at the 2006 Annual Young Guns International Advertising Awards, as well as a 2006 Silver Loerie for Outdoor & Ambient Advertising.

A world-first, the power billboard, currently positioned at a school in Alexandra, produces solar energy that powers its kitchen, saving it nearly R3 000 a month on electricity bills.“We realised early on that we had to have differentiators if we wanted to survive and grow,” says Shipley.

“We chose to define ourselves through our ethos and value system, which turned out to be an amalgamation of extremes – a combination of discipline and design with spontaneity and vibrancy. To this day our people have to live according to those values.”

By the end of their first year, Schalit andShipley had employed 20 staff members. The business was entirely self-funded and cash positive from day one, although they did have assistance from global advertising group BBDO in the form of access to international accounts, the first one being Nissan.

Shipley notes that one of the early difficulties was that clients love the energy of a new company; at the same time, they also need security. “This had a lot to do with how we presented the company to potential clients in the beginning.

We went in with confidence,often leading even ourselves to believe that we were more established than we actually were. That, coupled with our creative ability, helped to seal many deals.”Abdulla Miya, who is today MD of Net#work BBDO, joined the company ten years ago.

Miya was brought on board because he shares the same value system. Shipley adds: “That is the difference between successful and unsuccessful companies. You have to attract partners who share your vision.”Schalit and Shipley took on BBDO South Africa group responsibility in 2004, with Schalit becoming group executive creative director, and Shipley the group CEO. Miya was joined by Julian Watt as executive creative director.

Schalit, ranked by his peers as South Africa’s top creative director for seven years in a row, is quick to point out that he is not averse to hiring people who are better at their jobs than he is,and may even earn more. As the creative leader in the company, Schalit ensures that the team constantly innovates.

“Our business is dynamic, and we are never afraid to take risks and make mistakes.”One of the challenges that Shipley and Schalit recall was taking the company beyond the “honeymoon” phase. Both agree that any customer base has great empathy for a new company, yet almost overnight clients reach a point when they expect you to be as professional and practised as any of your competitors.

“We learnt that fairly early on,” says Shipley, noting that their bank encouraged them to run the company as a fully fledged business right from the start.”Another early challenge was aligning capacity with client requirements.

“That happens maybe twice a year,” Shipley notes wryly. The fact is that you either have too much business for your resources, or not enough.”The company does not achieve its bottomline at the expanse of fun and pride. Shipley notes, however, that substantial backend systems are in place to liberate the creatives. “You cannot have chaos in our environment. Imagination needs strong bedrock on which to flourish.”

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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