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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



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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Watch List: 50 Top SA Small Businesses To Watch

Keep your finger on the pulse of the start-up space by using our comprehensive list of SA small business to watch.

Nicole Crampton



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Entrepreneurship in South Africa is at an all-time high. According to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), total early-stage entrepreneurial activity has increased by 4.1% to 11% in 2017/2018. This means numerous new, exciting and promising small businesses are launching and growing.

To ensure you know who the innovative trailblazers are in the start-up and small business space, here are 50 of South Africa’s top establishing companies to watch, in no particular order:

  1. Livestock Wealth
  2. The Lazy Makoti
  3. Aerobuddies
  4. Mimi Women
  5. i-Pay
  6. AfriTorch Digital
  7. Akili Labs
  8. Native Décor
  9. Aerobotics
  10. Quality Solutions
  11. EM Guidance
  12. Kahvé Road
  13. HSE Matters
  14. VA Virtual Assistant
  15. Famram Solutions and Famram Foundation
  16. BioTech Africa
  17. Brand LAIKI
  18. Plus Fab
  19. LifeQ
  20. Organico
  21. 10dot
  22. Lenoma Legal
  23. Nkukhu-Box
  24. Benji + Moon
  25. Beonics
  26. Brett Naicker Wines
  27. Khalala
  28. Legal Legends
  29. The Power Woman Project
  30. Aviro Health
  31. AnaStellar Brands
  32. Data Innovator
  33. Fo-Sho
  34. Oolala Collection Club
  35. Recomed
  36. VoiceMap
  37. ClockWork
  38. Empty Trips
  39. Vula Mobile
  40. SwiitchBeauty
  41. Pineapple
  42. The Katy Valentine Collection
  43. OfferZen
  44. KHULA
  45. Incitech
  46. Pimp my Book
  47. ART Technologies and ART Call Management
  48. Prosperiprop
  49. WAXIT
  50. The Sun Exchange
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How 28-Year Old Entrepreneur Adam Fine Is Leveraging The Global Phenomenon Of Five-A-Side Football

Adam Fine of Fives Futbol discusses how he leverage a global phenomenon and the value of strategic partnerships in business.

Monique Verduyn




Vital Stats

Nothing about Adam Fine is by-the-book. The 28-year-old entrepreneur describes himself as a slightly big child. He’s the CEO of one of the most exciting start-ups in South Africa, having leveraged the global phenomenon of five-a-side football to start a business that has grown almost as fast as the game itself. Not bad for a venture that was launched with the princely sum of R85 000 — Fine’s life savings at the time.

He started it in 2011, with a strong focus on corporate social investment and making a positive social impact. It was by forming strategic partnerships that Adam really managed to grow Fives Futbol. He’s opened pitches in prime locations that serve both the school and corporate markets, while still being accessible for social impact interventions in local communities.

Related: 3 Local Entrepreneurs Share Their Business Challenges And How They Overcame Them

Pivoting at the right time is key to growth

The challenge:

In the last 18 months, Fives Futbol has trebled in size, and achieved some amazing milestones — it now employs 50 full-time staff, and 80 part-timers. It’s one of the factors that drives Adam, as many of his employees support up to eight family members. It’s now also represented in four provinces and 15 locations around the country. By September, there will be 18.

Quick growth means you have to be able to pivot quickly when things do not go according to plan, and mostly they don’t, Adam says. “If things are not working you should be able to ‘pivot’, to shift your focus. And do it fast. It’s not a sign that things have gone wrong by any means, on the contrary, it means you have the insight to recognise that there is a problem with the assumptions on which you have built your business model. The decision to pivot is a big one, and not something to be taken lightly. It requires you to take a hard look at your reallocation of resources, and to do it with an open mind.”

The solution:

In Adam’s case, construction delays, councils taking their time to approve, or having to put money into rolling out sites as opposed to marketing, means the promotion of a new site will slow down, for example, because the business does not yet have a large marketing budget.

“When we run behind on the construction of a new site, R40 000 can suddenly become R100 000 — but here’s the thing: If a deal comes along that will probably harm your business in the short-term but enable significant long-term growth, sometimes you have to juggle what you have so you can make it work.”

The Lesson: Choose your investors carefully

Fine says he’s lucky to have a solid group of investors that he has cultivated over six years. “Their input is invaluable. They’ll say, ‘slow down’ or ‘have you thought of this?’, ‘have you factored in that?’ The ability to develop a good relationship with our investors has had a significant impact on the success of the company. Over and above money, they provide wisdom, guidance and connections.”

His relationship with his investors is key. While many entrepreneurs make it just about the money, Adam understood something else — he has a pretty cool brand with a great cause behind it. So, while investors are asked for money all the time, he was able to offer something more than just a business idea — alignment. He generated enthusiasm for the ‘why,’ behind the business. Like most of us, it makes investors happy to know that they are helping to make a positive difference.

And while it’s easy to bandy about the word ‘partnership’, Adam has worked hard to make that a reality. He set out to find like-minded people who are passionate about the business and the cause, which is why they are able to serve as great resources for advice and insight.

Related: Richard Branson’s ABCs Of Business

“The best way to ensure that you and your investors have a valuable and lengthy partnership is to make sure that everyone is aligned on the vision.”

This includes Adam’s team. The internal culture of an organisation is vital to its strength and growth. “Without our team we don’t have a business for investors to support — our people are critical to our success. They’re the executors of the vision at the end of the day.”

The Lesson:  The value of strategic partnerships

Much of the growth of Fives Futbol has been fuelled by finding the right sponsorship partners in key industries. To overcome the challenge of a limited marketing budget, Adam has secured sponsorships with big brands like Adidas, Total Sports, Debonairs, and Klipdrift, allowing Fives Futbol to use their access to communities as a marketing platform to derive income as well as scale. And it works both ways.

“Because we have a national footprint and a team of people, we run activations for our partners, which also provides us with an ancillary revenue stream,” he says. “Knowing how to join forces with other businesses has been a key factor in making the business successful. Our strategic partners have enabled the business to leverage their brand to give us more exposure. When it works well, a strategic partnership can be just what you need to speed up the growth of your business.”

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Watch List: 15 SA eCommerce Entrepreneurs Who Have Built Successful Online Businesses

The advent and advancement of the online marketplace has led these entrepreneurs to successfully build and grow their ecommerce empires.

Diana Albertyn



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South Africa’s ecommerce market is worth R10 billion per year. By 2021, the number of online shoppers is expected to have reached 24.79 million.

“Our recent research on SA shows people are browsing three hours or more on their mobile phones and 25% shop online. They trust local brands,” says Geraldine Mitchley, Visa senior director for digital solutions in sub-Sahara Africa.

These entrepreneurs have cashed in on ecommerce and launched successful online stores that have either established their dominance in the market, or are taking the e-tailing world by storm.

Here’s how these 15 ecommerce capitalists are making money using the Internet:

  1. Aisha Pandor
  2. Andrew Higgins
  3. Kerryn Tremearne
  4. David Davies
  5. Andrew Smith, Paul Galatsis and Shane Dryden
  6. Trevor Gosling
  7. Nicholas Haralambous
  8. Justin Drennan
  9. Neo Lekgabo
  10. Ryan Bacher
  11. Tracy Kruger
  12. Luke Jedeikin
  13. Tarryn Abrahams
  14. Sascha Breuss
  15. Antonio Bruni
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