Boys and Girls is two years old. Three of the agency’s partners explain to Michael Cullen why it’s time they started talking about Irish advertising and the role they play.
From outside the agency on Pembroke Road you wouldn’t suspect anything odd. Even as you climb the steps and enter the terraced office everything looks predictable. The reception is small and routine. You then get ushered into the boardroom and there before you is a table made up of 22,000 Lego bricks held in place by a plate of heavy glass.
Pat Stephenson, managing partner; Rory Hamilton, creative director and Margaret Gilsenan, planning director, sit opposite in perspex chairs. Behind them posters from The Dandy and The Beano adorn the walls. The agency logo is set among the Lego construct. It’s Boys and Girls and not as the late Jimmy Saville might have said “guys and gals”.
Launchng an agency is fraught with fear at the best of times. Doing so during the throes of one of the worst downturns in living memory may border on lunacy. Five of the six founders were colleagues at McConnells, an agency which had seen more changes in a short time than Madonna and Lady Gaga combined. Hamilton is ex-McCann Erickson.
As well as Stephenson and Gilsenan, Chris Upton, account director; Fiona Scott, account director with a background in media and Patrick Meade, planning director, made up the six. Stephenson says the first priority was nailing down a philosophy, a hymn sheet to which all Boys and Girls could sing along to and, in turn, use to convince advertisers.
The ethos was unambiguous; in one word, simplicity. From there the agency name sprung. “The harder people try to come with a name the worse it is,” Hamilton says, “it might sound funny at first but it’s less interesting each time you hear it. Rather than imply something about dynamism and the work we do, we just wanted a name about us.”
Stephenson and Hamilton had known each other socially for some time and had worked together for two years. They often asked the question, “when are we going to start a new agency?” When the six Boys and Girls eventually teamed up, they started from zero. Apart from Gilsenan’s relationship with Danone, the client list was entirely blank.
Once the office doors were open, they made it known they were available for pitches.
Two weeks later they won their first account. Irish Distillers asked them to handle some below the line work for Powers whiskey. “Once you have one client, it legitimises you to some extent,” Stephenson says. Having worked in adland long enough, they knew that pitching for new business can be a costly exercise, so they treaded cautiously.
The agency’s strike rate has been good. They saw off other agencies to win Superquinn, National Irish Bank, Energia and Dulux. As proof they have high aims, they have pitched for Zurich, which Javelin won; Amnesty, now with Irish International; BMW, which went to Chemistry and, most recently, Eircom/eMobile, won by DDFH&B-JWT.
“We were up against Rotcho for Superquinn and Chemistry, McCanns and Language for the Alzheimers Society of Ireland, so we’ve done well,” Hamilton remarks. Gilsenan says an indication of their intent to compete with the bigger and more established agencies is the fact they have two experienced planners – Patrick Meade and herself.
Meade worked on Aer Lingus at Rothco and O2 at McConnells and Rothco. Both clients are known to have been highly impressed by his strategic knowledge. Boys and Girls has its own testing tool called Kaleidoscope so Gilsenan and Meade do a lot of research for clients in-house before passing on the work to the creatives to apply their magic.
They work with all the major research companies, from B&A to Millward Brown Lansdowne, as well as the more modest-sized agencies. Like media, they often link up with a client’s incumbent and tease out the details from there. Gilsenan regards research as a tool to allow ideas “live and breathe” and develop, as opposed to a traffic light system where, if there is one tiny thing wrong, it brings everything down around it.
“We’re good here at differentiating ideas from executions,” Hamilton says. “We work collaboratively with our clients. We do the planning, do the creative and come back with an idea and examples of how that idea can live in all sorts of media. We discuss, negotiate and interrogate the idea and it comes down to one line – without any waffle.”
Last year, the agency had two campaigns listed out of 12 for the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) Awards and won an award at the Sharks. Hamilton admits to being a fan of the work done by Publicis QMP and the creative talent they have fostered. While adland budgets are under pressure, production budgets now allow far more value for less bucks.
Boys and Girls has no media department, it normally links up with whatever agency handles buying and planning. While they lost out on eMobile, they handle Denis O’Brien’s Digicel mobile operation in the Caribbean and beyond. Other clients include Dundrum Town Centre, National Irish Bank, Olhausen’s meats, Keelings and Sage.
As one adland veteran once said “old friends are best” and Irish Distillers has Boys and Girls handling a number of its brands, including Powers and Jameson whiskies, along with Campo Viejo and Brancott Estate wines and Havana Club rum. Stephenson says they have invested in digital and attended Hyper Island interactive courses.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Boys and Girls has created some memorable print work, including John West With Omega 3 ads which uses humour to show how eating tuna improves brain power.
It is not just about paying lip service to new media, with hand on heart they say Boys and Girls use whatever tools are needed to best serve the client’s needs – and they have the talent at hand to do it. “We’re here to do great ideas,” Hamilton says, “and whether the idea travels into digital, radio or TV, it’s our job to manage the process creatively.”
People began paying attention to Boys and Girls when they saw the print work they did for John West with Omega 3. A simple idea; one ad had a boy with his head stuck in a railing and another showed a young lad up to no good by disturbing a bee’s nest. The slogan for both ads read: ‘Because sometimes their brains need a little extra help’.
The agency now has 13 staff. Hamilton has invested in creatives by hiring young writers. Jonathon Cullen joined from McCanns and Anne Fleming from Chemistry, where she worked on Kerry Foods, Trocaire and Eircom. The agency has tried to nurture young talent too, people like student Barbara McGlade and designer Shane O’Riordan.
Two years on, Boys and Girls six founders, Pat Stephenson (pictured), Fiona Scott, Chris Upton, Margaret Gilsenan, Rory Hamilton and Patrick Meade have made strong ground. They pitched for some major accounts and won business against larger agencies.
From his experience in other agencies, Hamilton found there was a tendency to use whatever creative talent was available in the building at a given time, regardless of whether the person was cut out for that particularly medium. He would rather see agencies turn to creative specialists, people like Jonathan Stanistreet, aka Stanno.
Stephenson says Boys and Girls have no intentions of merging or even acquiring another agency. “We had a business plan from day one and we’ve over-achieved on that based on what we set out to do – our way of working is creative and the creative work works. Like others in adland, he is sorry to see the likes of Vodafone and 02 move to London.
While reluctant to offer the line that Ireland is the size of greater Manchester, Stephenson is adamant that if marketers want to sell product here, they must recognise the different mindset. Diageo quit Dublin for HHCL’s Guinness ‘Big Pint’ and where did that get them? He has yet to see brilliant work created for the Irish market made elsewhere.
With a lot of dissatisfaction in agencies and people being let go all the time due to cutbacks, Boys and Girls try to engender a good atmosphere, where work-life balance is respected and office politics are a no-no. Stephenson intends to keep putting the best foot forward, to pitch only for what they can realistically handle and for what fits best.
Just as the magnolia walls made way for comic posters and the Lego table takes centre stage in the boardroom, Boys and Girls aim to impress. Like their ads, the ideas are playful, not childish. They seriously want to achieve; to create campaigns that raise the bar for clients and being young at heart, may even catch the odd Shark along the way.
The great John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) says the business of advertising is simple, straightforward. It is about talented people coming together and having great ideas. Whether agency staff sit together, or in separate rooms, whether they hang upside down from the ceiling, or do away with desks and have bean bags, one fact remains.
Great ideas, great ads maketh.