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

Ronnie + Mel + Gav + Mike + Martin

Meerkats

October 13, 2017

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

In one sentence, can you tell us what Meerkats does?

We liberate the commercial and societal value of authentic human motivation.

What made you decide to launch your own studio?

We were fed up with rolling out traditional ad campaigns over and over that helped our respective networked agencies reach their profit targets, but that we knew weren’t the smartest solutions to the client’s business problems. We believed the future of creative consulting was in helping organizations discover their true purpose, and applying that purpose through business strategies first and advertising second. 

We were driven by a strong gut feeling that there was a better way of doing business in our industry; a more honorable way that would create a kind of self-fueling commercial karma. We convinced ourselves to give up the desperate fight for profits that compromises so many personal values, do the right thing, and the money will come. That’s become our cultural magic. We underestimated its value early on, but now it’s the jewel inside of Meerkats that’s helped us grow and stay true to our purpose.

What were some of the early challenges you didn’t anticipate when you first set up shop?

Perth is a regional market with no manufacturing base or headquarters for globally recognized product brands, so starting a new age agency that offers purpose-based creative business solutions was harder here than it is in a place like Portland or Minneapolis.

Our first two years were hand-to-mouth. We had to keep our egos in check as we attracted project-based, entrepreneurial-style clients with resources well below their ambitions. But we earned their trust and created some powerful case studies that helped promote our philosophy. A major challenge was maintaining a positive cash flow when we had only small clients and big ambitions.

Then it seemed we made a giant leap of the “careful what you wish for” variety. We picked up three major local brands in a couple of years—which was great for our image and bank account—but challenging to our sense of self and the culture we had established. We were in a rush to hire people (some who didn’t fit so well), and we were producing mostly advertising-only outputs at these big clients’ request.

Before our moment in the sun could burn us, we decided to resign a couple of clients, ignore the bad press, reshape our staff, and stay focused on our purpose.

That seems atypical, as a lot of agencies are in a consistent state of growth and hiring—two areas that appear to symbolize success. How do you measure progress as an agency?

Growth and hiring are good measurables, but you have to watch out that you’re not just doing those things out of fear (e.g., to stave off the future loss of a client). Or worse, to lock in as many income streams as possible as our industry converges with media, management consulting, PR, research, and others.

We measure progress in the usual ways of profitability, utilization ratios, etc., but we are also playing the long game here, so we place a lot of emphasis on client advancement and cultural health. If our clients are committed to aligning their business practices with their authentic purpose, that’s progress. If they ignore the false gods of short-term promotional campaigns in favor of the long-term benefits of genuinely innovative products and service design, that’s progress. Internally, if our staff understands how their roles help us achieve our ultimate purpose and it motivates them, that’s progress.

Over the years we’ve had many family members come up to us and say that their loved one has become a happier and more motivated person since working at Meerkats. It may sound cuddly, but we take those comments seriously as they’re glimpses into something much bigger.

We’re a creative company where open minds and hearts matter.

How large is your team now? Do you allow your employees to work remotely?

We have a team of around 40 “Kats” that work on a permanent basis, and a rotating number of freelance Kats who we maintain a really close relationship with. This allows us to scale up and down depending on the workload and the style of project.

Delivery is the key for everyone at Meerkats, so we are happy if people work in the office, at home, from a café, etc. as long as they do what they need to do.

What does a typical project look like at Meerkats?

We have two basic flows at Meerkats—”the race” where things need to get from A to B, and “the dance” where we align a project team best suited to solving the problem we’re tackling. Our people really come into their own during the dance, as it allows smart, ambitious thinkers to make positive change for our clients. Float plays a big role during the dance by making sure that our projects flow smoothly.

You’ve said that you like to “unite smart people with diverse skillsets” to work on projects together. That includes inventors, architects, electrical engineers, and tattoo artists (among others)—not a group of people you’d necessarily expect to see in advertising. How has that helped your projects? 

Solving business problems for clients is such an exciting team sport these days. Sure, you can still get a result with the traditional linear agency process, but why would you want to when you can cluster really interesting thinkers around projects and truly “dent the universe.” We believe that tackling a business problem with a diverse set of thinkers (followed by an equally diverse set of makers) ultimately leads to a better result. 

How do you manage your team’s time across such a wide variety of creative projects?

Meerkats isn’t a utopian society; shit still happens. We do our best to articulate projects clearly, allocate resources efficiently, and allow our team to do what they do best. It’s all about honest communication between humans, facilitated by the latest tools. We believe our culture of fearless curiosity and ego-free collaboration means we’re pretty good at understanding the difference between projects that need to be fast and workmanlike and those that offer a game-changing potential for our clients.

We think that a lot of creative service companies get this bit wrong by letting their ambitious, passionate staff treat every job as a chance to break molds and win awards. It’s unrealistic and leads to both disappointment and endemic resentment of clients (trying to sell ideas and so on). You’ve got to choose your moment to go full strength very carefully.

How has advertising changed over the last decade or so you’ve been in business?  

Clients have become smarter. There used to be an air of arrogance from ad agencies over naive clients, but (thankfully) that’s gone, and clients have taken back orchestrating their brands. People, in general, are a lot savvier—whether it’s as customers, employees, investors, etc. There are new layers of cynicism about advertising and a distrust of corporations.

At the same time, the number of ways to connect with people continues to increase. So the complexity’s gone up, and our job has shifted to helping clients tune in and thrive in that new context. Critically, (for Meerkats’ purpose) the business world has become completely transparent.

Telling the truth is no longer just a happy mantra our mums told us so we’d get into heaven—it’s increasingly the only way to achieve enduring commercial viability.

What’s one thing you wish people understood better about your business?

We’re pretty lucky in Perth; the jungle drums work well, and like-minded clients and talent come and talk with us. We find that most of them know that we’re doing something different here at Meerkats. Maybe the one thing would be to be seen as a creative business solutions company, and not just a new age ad agency. There is sometimes a delay getting into our clients’ boardrooms and really making a difference.

We’re also ready to be known beyond Perth. After more than a decade playing on the far side of the world, we genuinely believe we have something of worth to share elsewhere. We’re publishing a book and creating a separate website and social platform specifically to help startups and small business access our methods anywhere in the world.

Technology plays a prominent role in advertising these days. Are there any trends that excite you? How are you implementing those into your work?

We’re all about truth. We believe that truth is the fuel for a better kind of capitalism and having a true purpose is how businesses access that.  Our industry has a habit of latching onto buzzwords and exaggerating the effects of new thinking (especially if it’s something your biggest client’s CMO wants to hear). There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to new technology. We don’t get excited until we test it for ourselves and see whether it makes a genuine difference.

Big data is a good example. We don’t see it as the Holy Grail—it’s more like raw material that provides a peek behind the consumer’s defenses. How we design, arrange, and use the myriad of potential data points available is a distinct area of focus and opportunity. 

One way we’re doing that is by creating our own Purpose Index so that we have an objective method for measuring a client’s adhesion to their purpose.  Once completed, it will allow us to monitor if a client is staying on track or not, and help pinpoint areas where they can improve their focus and liberate their true potential.

You’ve mentioned that you’re based in Perth—a city in Western Australia known for its white-sand beaches and abundance of sunshine. What’s it like working there? What’s something that outsiders might be surprised to learn?  

Perth is the world’s most isolated city (even though its population would make it the 5th largest city in the U.S.). So it’s a funny anachronism of a place—big city stats, small-town vibe.

While it’s an amazing place to live and raise a family, there are some trade-offs for an ambitious advertising professional. For every sunny day, there is a little cloud over your career. For example, while many of the world’s best beaches are within our metropolitan area, known brands are non-existent as clients. You’ll only work on Apple if your client is giving one away in their May Sale. You’ll only work on a car brand if you have a used car dealer for a client, etc. 

For those who may be unfamiliar, what are meat pies and why do they matter? 

Meat pies are the original fast food in Australia; minced meat inside a round pastry shell. For a century they were the hearty, hold-in-your-hand meal that tasted awesome and cost less than a dollar. Our forefathers ate them while driving across the Nullarbor, building dingo-proof fences, and watching the footy.

But like Holden cars and Australian winners at Wimbledon, meat pies are slowly disappearing. They’ve been replaced by wagyu wraps and kale salads. Tragic.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking about starting their own agency?

Don’t worry about whether you will grow; think about how you will grow. The truth is, if you’re smart and passionate you will succeed. But will you become the company you’ve always wanted, or will you find that you’ve built a “successful” company at the expense of your values? In short, don’t be shaped. Protect your own agency’s purpose and integrity, because it’s the eternal source of your organizational energy.

Celebrate along the way too. We truth-seeking game-changers (there are lots of us around the world now) are ambitious folk, and it often seems that nothing is good enough given our potential. But even if it’s only with a shared grin and a high-five, we should all recognize each other’s achievements along the way. 

Lastly, take lots of pictures. Before you know it, that $10 trestle table you used as a makeshift desk in your garage will go from embarrassing eyesore to charming founder’s story. Maybe even a mythological totem. It happens fast, so record it all.

 

Thanks to Ronnie, Melanie, Gavin, Mike, Martin and the rest of the Kats for their insight. Check out more of their awesome work here: https://meerkats.com.au/

Share this Interview: