Matthew Bull
Matthew Bull

To say SA advertising veteran Matthew Bull is disillusioned with the global network agency model would be an understatement.

And he should know: he’s been in the belly of the beast for years since relocating to New York and working on some of the world’s biggest brands.

Bull contends that 90% of fees paid by clients go towards servicing the account in a never-ending rotation of "meaningless meetings and dialogue", and the remainder on ideas, creative output and talent. It should be the other way around, he believes.

The larger-than-life Bull was a leading figure on the local stage before selling his Lowe Bull agency a few years ago and moving countries. During a quick visit home this week, he spoke about his new venture, SoloUnion, a profit-sharing collective of top creative talent around the world, and about what he believes is broken in dvertising.

"The network agency system is now all about consolidation, billable hours and [it is] one increasingly based on profit by all means before product. And the less a brand pays the less they get, which is why we see so much advertising that is bland and meaningless." Bull’s seminal moment seems to have been at a client meeting when he realised most people sitting around the table would make no meaningful contribution to the campaign under discussion. He called it a "top-heavy gathering simply to show force". Out of that his new venture was born.

SoloUnion is a collective of 25 of the world’s top freelance creative and strategic practitioners who all seem to share Bull’s jaundiced view of the industry. Included in that line-up is another noted SA ad-man, Mark Fisher, who was responsible many years ago for some of Volkswagen’s most iconic ads.

In Bull’s model, members of the team work purely on the strategic creative side of a campaign before handing it back to the main agency for implementation. His experience so far suggests that agencies will be happy to work alongside him.

"We are not in competition with the agencies because nowadays most of them measure their worth by their revenue. We are in competition with ideas."

While members of the collective are free to work outside of Bull’s scope, he makes it attractive for them to commit by offering points for daily work done, which translates into yearly profit share. Bull says collectively his team has won more than 250 Cannes Gold Lions — the industry’s awards benchmark — and with a payoff line of "The heads without the overheads" is touting the business as the "Uber of advertising".

With Bull and his cohorts’ reputation in the industry, he’s already working for the likes of Unilever and AB InBev, with more multinational business lined up. He’s also not shy to charge for the talent working on the business. There is a flat fee of US$100,000 a week. Another component of the SoloUnion business is high-level corporate seminars on how companies can become more creative.

He’s been saying for years that too much brand research undermines gut instinct.