It wasn't always fun and games at Young & Rubicam's trio of outposts in Australia. Three years ago the agency was caught up in a legal battle over the resignation of its national creative director, Neil Lawrence, resulting in the loss of $20 million worth of business. Pay TV account Foxtel, gambling brand Club Keno and football account Super League all walked out the door. Y&R was getting a lot of bad press and no one seemed interested in the work coming out of any branch of the shop.
Fast-forward to early 2000, and life is pretty good for Y&R Down Under. In fact, after two years of soul-searching and the arrival of a new bevy of creative and management talent, Y&R's Australian arm has become one of the industry's star performers. Within Y&R's global network, the Sydney agency currently holds the No. 1 spot in terms of top creative performers within the international agency family, judged by a worldwide panel of Y&R creative directors. Not to be outdone by too wide a margin, the Adelaide office holds the seventh spot; Melbourne is in ninth position.
So who is responsible for the turnaround? In the months Lawrence and his legal battle with Y&R were capturing the headlines, two new recruits joined the agency: Shaun Branigan took the helm as CD at Y&R/Sydney, while Danny Searle became Y&R's national CD, based in the Adelaide office. Soon after, Peter Steigrad, known in Australian advertising circles as "Mr. Fix-It" or "The Doctor," took over as regional chief with direct responsibility for the agency's Australian operations. Together, the new management team worked with the existing staff at Y&R to establish a new set of shared values that would underpin everything the agency did -- from executing a brief to dealing with a client.
"My assessment," says Steigrad, looking back on his arrival, "was we were strong strategically, we had excellent creative people in all the offices, but we lacked appropriate teamwork within the agencies and with our clients. Without close cooperation and effective relationships, you can't produce good work. We set about putting in a plan to address that issue."
The agency adopted a new attitude toward its clients -- one which was not just about keeping them happy, but to challenge them with ideas they would not normally entertain. The agency's new confidence has been reflected throughout most of its work.
From Y&R/Sydney's notorious "dancing penis" commercial for a fledgling gay radio station to award-winning retail advertising for Mitsubishi, the agency is again being recognized for what it was supposed to do best. "Our philosophy of what makes good advertising is that it has to be relevant and unexpected," says Danny Searle. "There's lots of unexpected stuff out there that falls away on relevance -- funny ads, but what's the point? Then there are the relevant ads that have nothing to make you remember what they're advertising."
Searle's vision rings especially true in the mind of Branigan. It was the Sydney office that created a trade campaign for newspaper publisher News Limited, which aimed to convince marketers and agencies to be more creative when advertising in newsprint. The agency produced a giant book with striking, attention-grabbing images, such as a naked and obese body splayed out on the pavement -- an image to convey the idea that newspapers can be an emotive medium. The book has been a resounding success, and is widely credited with indeed having improved the overall standard of newspaper advertising in Australia.
It is also Branigan's agency that is targeting mothers in an ongoing pitch for a major pasta maker by creating children's playground equipment out of giant pasta shells. "Brands are becoming increasingly homogenized," says Branigan. "How do you differentiate as a brand? Creativity is going to be the deciding factor. Sometimes you have to lead the client, show them the way. Not just produce work that's going to keep them happy, but work that is going to work for their brand."
So in playgrounds across Australia, it soon may not be uncommon to hear, "Put another shrimp on the spaghetti."