A series of interviews with the founders of independent + successful ad agencies and creative studios.

Adam Harris

NZ Digital

October 17, 2019

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

In one sentence, can you tell us about NZ Digital?

We turn information into digital experiences that people care about.

What made you decide to launch your own agency? 

From the time I was in high school, I always wanted to start my own agency. At the time, it was going to be a “traditional” advertising agency, and it was only by chance that I got into digital.

I’d been working for a small agency where I’d been learning web design and using basic content management systems. We had a contractor join us for a two-week project, during which time, she showed me how to set up a server and create a simple theme based WordPress website. Fast forward three years and NZ Digital was born!

I often think about how this single, seemingly random, event changed my future and created a passion for digital that I still have today.

What’s the story behind your name?

When we started, we were called “Zealand Advertising,” as I still hadn’t let go of the traditional ad agency concept. As we are based in New Zealand, it was meant to be a play on the name.

However, we quickly realized that potential clients couldn’t grasp it. I even used to say, “Zealand, like the country”⁠—still nothing!

So we decided to simplify and focus on what we were great at—digital and creating work for companies that were the backbone of the country’s economy. We changed the name to “NZ Digital” and haven’t looked back.

You have offices in both Auckland and Napier. What can you tell us about those areas?

Auckland is by far our biggest city, and its economy is the same size as the rest of the country combined. Napier is one of the best examples of an art deco city in the world. Aside from tourism, it has a really strong primary industry.

New Zealand as a whole has a great technology sector, and I believe the quality of the work produced in this country is very high on an international standard.

What were some of the early challenges you faced when you set up shop? 

One of the first challenges was the transition from a structured agency environment to what was essentially one person (me) doing the job of the designer, developer, and accountant manager.

It was hectic, and we needed to grow! It’s fair to say I dropped the ball a few times in those early days.

Did you have any mentors when you were first getting started? How did they help you? 

What’s great about starting a business in a small country like New Zealand is that there are so many people willing to help you succeed.

I knew a guy through my network that had recently sold his agency and moved into a CEO role. He would let me join him at the local cafe for breakfast, and I’d pick his brains for insights on how to create a successful agency. I also had a business mentor, who had come from a corporate background; he was great with governance and people advice. A good mate of mine also started a similar agency about the same time, and we would continually bounce ideas off each other.

These people were so important to the growth and direction of the agency.

What does a typical project look like for you? 

A typical project for us revolves around our core development and CMS offerings—WordPress web design and eCommerce development on Shopify.

We start with a project discovery session, where we look to gain as much insight as possible into our customer’s business, the markets they work in, opportunities and objectives, and any problems they are facing. From that point, we create a custom-designed and developed digital solution for their business.

Have you ever turned down a project because it didn’t fit with what you do well? 

Yes! It did take a while to get used to doing it, though.

We work in two main verticals (Primary Industry and Building /Construction) and try to work with businesses that fit with our skills and experience. This allows us to provide an insight focused service and to understand our client’s needs better.

How do you know that you’re on the right track as an agency? 

Progress for our agency is measured by doing work that excites us and that gets results for our clients.

If you can balance the needs of your clients, your business, and still have the flexibility to do work that matters, you are on the right track.

Have you worked on any exciting projects lately?

We’ve been working on a couple of really cool projects recently. Rayglass Boats is this amazing homegrown success story; they have a huge following from loyal fans, and their boats are exported worldwide. They also have a long-running association with America’s Cup as a supplier and sponsor of the team and official patrol boats.

With the next America’s Cup set to kick off in 2021 in Auckland, we have been working on redesigning and redeveloping the brand website to reflect the product, story, and people better. We’ve combined this with a content marketing strategy to raise overall awareness.

Another project we are really excited about is with The Apple Press, an FMCG juice brand. They are mad about apples and have a really unique brand story and a fantastic product.

As an agency, we love to work with brands that leverage digital technologies to tell a story in an interesting and engaging way.

Is anything different when your client is an established brand versus when you’re working with a startup? 

An established company has an easier time leveraging brand awareness using digital channels. That said, it can be harder to adopt new platforms or technologies quickly, whereas startups can harness the raw power of social media and create content on the fly without a formal approval process.

How has digital marketing changed since you first started?

The rise of digital has created increased competition for the attention of potential customers. Apps and mobile technology have allowed brands to get right into the hands of consumers.

However, the challenge remains the same: how do you create engaging and memorable experiences?

If you could start your agency over, what’s one thing you would you do differently?

Not be afraid to charge the full value of the work being produced!

Are there any technology trends that you’re interested in? How do you see yourself using them in the future?

I’m excited about the future potential of voice search. We are already seeing the technology being used in products built for the home, but how can the technology be leveraged in the digital marketing space to allow easier and quicker searches for products or people?

I think we will start seeing more personal brand sites for industry leaders and product pages optimized around voice search results. 

Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who is considering starting their own creative agency? 

Develop specialized knowledge to set your agency apart and focus on systems to improve delivery. 

Most importantly, be passionate about the work you’re doing, and when it’s great, let everyone know!

A big thanks to Adam for the interview. Check out more of what he and the NZ Digital team are working on at: nzdigital.co.nz.

Share this Interview: