Adman Matthew Bull launches SoloUnion in SA



Can you sell your ideas only? That’s what advertising agencies say they do, but South African advertising doyen Matthew Bull – now based in New York – is adamant that ideas are the most important thing he is selling. He has launched his agency SoloUnion in South Africa, with the message: “The heads without the overheads.”

Bull founded SoloUnion in 2017 in New York. A member of AB-INBEV North American Marketing Council, this is what he had to say after the South African launch in March: “I’m incredibly excited and proud to partner with two of South Africa’s greatest advertising talents, Gillian Rightford and Rob McLennan, in forming SoloUnion SA. Gillian, Rob and I were partners at Lowe Bull when we were a dominant creative force in the world and we intend to bring that same flair and ambition to our new venture.

“We have lined up some wonderful talent as members of the company and are already working with a couple of the country’s premier brands. We’re in competition with ideas, not agencies, and our ultimate goal is to get our industry back to focusing on the reason we exist – great ideas. Finally, I personally, am so proud to be involved again in my home country’s industry. I owe much of what I have professionally to it, and I understand my duty to the country and the country’s talent.”

The loss of talent at the top of the advertising industry is a global challenge, not just a South African one, and the SoloUnion concept allows for talent, which has enormous value, to be applied to create value for brands and business. It is an agency that charges for ideas, not hours, and does not implement the strategy it crafts for a brand, explains Rightford, whose consultancy Adtherapy, is a strategic lead for SoloUnion in South Africa.

As Bull says, “I feel that I spent the last ten years before SoloUnion making ads for clients; now I’m genuinely part of delivering solutions to them – big ideas that embrace the over-arching vision of the company or brands. On top of that, clients treat us differently – I feel a greater sense of partnership, a greater sense of trust than I have for a while. I think this is primarily because it’s all about the work, not about the relationship.”

The clients they believe may find this agency approach valuable are in-house agencies; consultancies; C-Suite executives that have big juicy problems to solve; agency or client teams that are struggling to crack an idea; and clients who have brands that desperately need to rediscover their soul and their purpose, and communicate it in a contemporary, relevant way.

Screen Africa spoke to these advertising legends on the power of ideas:

How do you ‘only’ sell ideas? How do you market yourselves differently?

Many agencies claim to sell ideas but in fact they sell the output of ideas. They sell TV, radio or print ads, banners, adwords, promotional materials, or activations. They will come up with an idea, and they will sell that, but the vast portion of their resources, and therefore their costs or fees, will be used to execute the idea. The challenge to many clients is that if the idea is not as strong as it could be in the beginning, it obviously sets up difficulties in the executional phase. We aim to provide the idea – giving them the platform from which to launch their executional output with their existing resources. In terms of marketing differently – the one area is “idea only”, but the other area is the level of expertise. You will have noticed a lot of discussion in the industry about the “crisis of youth.” We are a highly experienced, awarded group of talent – and the big thing is – you only pay for us when you use us. There are no retainers, there are no massive overheads. In a project SoloUnion did for a global client, only 11% of the fee was used for strategy and creative. Our model means you get 100% and only when you need it. The most pertinent point is we don’t sell the servicing of the idea, but the idea itself. Therefore, we put all our energy and focus into delivering what all clients go to agencies for: ideas.

Is this an entirely new business model – a game-changer for the industry?

It’s a game-changer. There will be, going forward, several iterations of our businesses model, but the principle is the most important thing – hopefully it will be part of a new wave of companies that focus on the product they produce, on creating work that sells, rather than selling their work. The creative agency model will probably remain as it is, but it is in deep trouble. Michael Farmer’s book, Madison Avenue Manslaughter, shows that as fees have come down, delivery timings have become shorter, workload volume has gone up. The bigger problem is the value equation. We strongly believe, as most good agencies do, that the power of a big idea is worth its weight in gold, and it can have a lasting effect on a brand’s success. What we do know is that it is plugging a gap in the industry which is a source of frustration for both marketers and agencies. The writing is on the wall. Various permutations of re-modelling the way communicators do business are popping up all over the world. The traditional advertising/communications agency model is flawed, and marketers and agencies alike know this. It is inevitable that the game plan will change.

So, how do you ‘sell’ an idea to a client? How do you get their buy-in?

What SoloUnion has found in the practical application of the model in the US and Europe, is that we get much more intimately involved with the overall ambitions of the business. We are fortunate in that we only have to concentrate on one thing – creating big strategic and creative solutions for the client’s business problem. All of the partners in our business are highly experienced and awarded creatives and strategists. That, in its own way, separates us from the relationships and expectations clients have from and with their agencies. They are not expecting us to solve the myriad other complexities that are expected from an agency, which creates a different relationship.

What constitutes a brilliant ‘idea’ to you?

It’s no different from time immemorial, really. All new ideas are influenced by other ideas that surround us at any particular time or place, but they are always a ‘new’ or fresh interpretation of these influences. And hence people find that compelling and interesting. No one likes a rerun as much as an original. Creativity is all about one thing – creating desire. So, if an idea creates desire for a brand or product, then that counts as brilliant to me. As for the old fresh vs stale argument, take a look at the Adidas Originals ad – everything new has its origins/inspiration in something old. Brilliant is also in the sweet-spot where brand insight and human insight meet.

How does one actually measure the ‘value’ of a thought or an idea?

This is the hard part. It’s impossible to ‘cost’ it, but you can place a value on it. We will charge what we think is fair value. But you measure the value by the effect it has on the top line of a business. As simple as that. We know we deliver the goods for our clients, we know what it takes to get great talent to work with us, and we know the margin we want. The question is more like, “How does one measure the value of talent?” People should expect to pay more (and do) for work from talented people because they provide the most compelling solutions.


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