Francois du Preez. Picture: SUPPLIED
Francois du Preez. Picture: SUPPLIED

While ad agencies are forced to compete in the business consultancy and technology space, they are being compelled to be more innovative and provide cost-effective and workable solutions for their clients.

Gone are the days of brands relying on a single campaign to move product and service. So WPP-owned agency Grey has formed Grey Adventures, a local start-up incubator for emerging tech experts in the creative industry.

Francois du Preez, chief digital officer at Grey Africa, says the unit was created "from the belief that some of the most rewarding opportunities for brands happen at the intersection of business, popular culture and technology". He says agencies have no choice but to promote innovation. "Successful agencies are the ones that partner with their clients to look further than just marketing-related problems. As business is constantly changing, and the problems our clients face are always evolving, we have to perpetually find innovative ways to address these issues. In order to stand out, our ideas have to be fresh."

Paul Jackson, Grey’s Africa CEO, tells the FM: "To thrive in a rapidly evolving world, we realised we had to collaborate with like-minded start-up businesses in different fields of new technology and innovation."

While the idea is not entirely new — previous incarnations of the model have failed because the start-ups have been shunted to the operating margins of the business — Du Preez says this won’t happen with the new venture.

Invitation to participate

"Our clients are encouraged to participate in workshops and inspiration sessions with the various partner companies. We also invite them to participate in live briefs where opportunities for collaboration have been spotted. The Grey Adventures companies become part of our briefing and brainstorming sessions … This usually results in them working on projects with our internal teams and clients."

Another criticism of the incubator model in the past has been that bigger agencies simply acquire intellectual capital on the cheap. So how will revenue be split?

Says Du Preez: "Grey Adventures is built on the principle of value exchange where all parties benefit. We offer them office space, internet connectivity and access to our clients and live briefs, as well as guidance and mentorship in exchange for their advice and expertise. We want to ensure these companies are integrated into our agency’s innovation space … if they are isolated, no-one wins. The only formal agreement is active participation and a mutually beneficial relationship."

An exit clause is built into the agreement, allowing for flexibility. "As long as everyone involved benefits, they’re welcome to stay," says Du Preez. "We would see it as a successful exercise if they grow big enough to become independent and decide to move on, or if we are able to purchase an equity stake in their growing business, however long that takes."

Perhaps the bigger question is whether the industry is doing enough to promote skills transfer. Says Jackson: "Many agencies have formal skills transfer programmes that are giving young professionals the opportunity to develop, but we can always do more.

"We see Grey Adventures as more of a mutually beneficial partnership than a skills transfer programme, though. It not only helps to develop young talent but pushes our industry and keeps us suitably uncomfortable."