The Ogilvy turnaround

Out of the blue, seemingly without warning, Ogilvy Cape Town has engineered a dramatic turnaround. What’s happened to turn the agency from inevitably but predictably and moderately successful into one of the most exciting agencies in the country?

CEO Gavin Levinsohn doesn’t deny an element of luck behind this recovery, but it’s equally clear that it has been an unusually well-planned shift. Four years ago, the agency was rocked on its heels by the departure for Australia of Mike Abel (now, ironically, back as the competition). Within six months, Ogilvy lost 30% of its business. Old Mutual, BP and MWeb all walked out. Levinsohn walked into a scene of devastation.

His first step was to form a close working partnership with new creative chief Chris Gotz. Partnerships of this kind, between the business boss and the creative chief, are almost without fail the underpinning of ad agency success around the world.

Ogilvy Cape is one of the few agencies in South Africa that has positioned itself as a specialist in integration. “Look at the nature of the work that created the success:  The Carling Black Label “Be the coach” campaign, integrated digital work with a strong mobile component for Kraft (formerly Cadbury), “street quest” for Volkswagen.

“It was not an accident that we were able to produce that kind of work. It took us four years to build the capability, which has now manifested this year in awards, growth and new-business acquisition. There have to be momentum and coincidence of supply and demand. Your work must be what the client wants, and if it’s what the awards judges want, all the better.” The nature of the work is difficult to describe, but Levinsohn ventures “complex, digitally led, sophisticated campaigns”.

The aggressive push into digital is a radical digital reinvention of the agency. The existing digital department, Ogilvy Interactive, was in a state of decay. But staff have grown from three to more than 20 people in three years. Heavy investment was made in digital media planning and research, through a division called Neo.

Digital consultant Dave Duarte came on board to run the Ogilvy Digital Marketing Academy, where 300 people, including staff, clients and others have now been through a seven-week programme.

“We have put small-agency intensity and hunger into a big agency,” says Levinsohn. “We’ve run the business almost neurotically but it has steeped us in the digital world. We tried to put operational intensity into the building, using healthy panic.”

It has always been a creative business, known primarily as an automobile agency. Volkswagen was the keynote client. “But now we’re known also for Kraft and SAB (having won back Castle Lite).”

Total staff count is up from 200 to 250. It’s been a record year for creative awards. Revenue is up, operating profit up. “All the metrics track upwards.” Observers comment that specialist digital agencies have been panicked by Ogilvy’s invasion of their space.

Levinsohn learned much of what he knows during a 10-year stint with The Jupiter Drawing Room. From there he co-founded a small agency called Singh & Sons, but after three years, the offer came from Ogilvy. It was what he wanted: a top job in the big-agency world. Now the sky’s the limit.



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