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A special touch: How Special Group embraces creativity

Creativity is at the heart of everything award-winning independent creative company Special Group does. From campaigns to brand-building, Special Group has always been about stripping down silos and layers in the aid of creativity for business. Executive creative director and partner Tony Bradbourne discusses how the agency integrates this through every part of their business. 

Executive creative director and partner Tony Bradbourne operates on a simple philosophy: creativity is Special Group’s product, differentiator and reason for getting up in the morning.

“It’s why clients want to work with us, what drives our effectiveness, what attracts our incredible staff, and what makes the work ‘Special’,” he says.

Due to its unique multi-channel business model and outputs, ranging from design to packaging to experiential, Special Group is unblinkered as to what the business answer could be.

“What we practice is business creativity. Creativity in the service of creating better business or social outcomes. We see both being inseparable. Creativity is smart business. Smart business is creativity,” Bradbourne says.

“Our vision was a company where both could work hand in hand, creating a better creative output for the consumer, the brand, and the brand’s bottom line.”

This open-eyed and ambitious approach meant in 2018 Special Group took home a host of awards, including New Zealand Agency of the Year by Campaign Brief, AUS/NZ Mobile Agency of the Year by Campaign Asia, Asia Pacific’s Most Effective Independent Agency by the global Effies index and Idealog’s Most Innovative Media/Marketing company. Work has been for clients as diverse as Smirnoff, Rubberkid, Karma Cola and Molenberg.

Its work with its client 2degrees is an example of Special Group’s creativity and innovation coming together. The brief was the usual Christmas promotion: handsets, data bundles and a television commercial.

However, because Special Group had a deep understanding of 2degrees’ business challenges and they knew they would be outspent by Spark and Vodafone four to one, it used its ‘business creativity’ to propose a different business approach.

Special Group presented ‘Data Hunt’, an idea where it dumped 200 million megabytes of data across New Zealand and turned hunting down the data into a game. The result was not what 2degrees had briefed, it was an integrated campaign led by a mobile experience that was played 1.5 million times and became New Zealand’s number one downloaded app. The result delivered an ROI of $9.93 and

it was judged Asia Pacific’s Most Effective Telco work at the APAC Effies.

“One of the biggest opportunities for businesses or marketers is to not pre-dictate or pre-determine a creative output,” Bradbourne says.

“Be open to the power and potential of what a creative output could be.” Founded in 2008, Special Group have several ethos that it abides by in its work. Connecting “brands and people by positively transforming the lives of both” is the company goal and how it approaches working with brands and clients as a whole.

‘Transforming lives’ is another and it comes in many forms, from making people smile by watching a commercial, or engaging in an event, to opening a bottle of cola.

A priceless example, says Bradbourne, was the reactions of people seeing the Kelly Tarlton’s shark bus chase a Filet-o-Fish McDonald’s burger across town for Special Group’s for Uber Eats Shark Bait campaign.

“You have created an unmissable but highly amusing moment in someone’s day, and you’ve got your message across.”

In 2015, the group was responsible for 2degrees’ ‘Play the Bridge’ campaign, which let people turn Auckland’s Harbour Bridge into their very own interactive music and light show, all via mobile phone. Using 2km of LED lights, the massive six-week technical and logistical innovation engaged hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders.

“It puts power in your hands, it’s very personalised, we had 50,000 [people] do it and had tens of thousands come and watch it live,” Bradbourne says.

Another ethos is ‘make things that matter’. As an independent company, Special Group has a choice of what sort of work it does and what sort of clients it works with, Bradbourne says.

“We choose to create work and experiences that matter to us. This doesn’t mean just ethical or environmental clients at – we’ve worked for clients on sides of the spectrum – but it’s about the type of work you create with those brands – does it make a difference or move the dial for the customer and for us?”

Bradbourne says he is a massive believer in the uniquely New Zealand approach that leads to such a high level and high volume of creative output from this country across many sectors.

“New Zealand is a driven, innovative country with many people, companies, agencies and start-ups doing incredible things – often with much less resource or funding than our global competitors. But I think that actually helps us.”

This fits in with another one of Special Group’s founding missions: to take over the world from the bottom up and export its New Zealand approach to creativity and innovation.

“All of the old school holding companies historically have been founded in London, Paris or New York and the last stop of their global empire is an outpost in furthermost New Zealand. We wanted to try and flip that on its head – instead, exporting all of the brilliant New Zealand and Australian thinking across the world – from the bottom up.”

The agency is constantly looking for creative ways to improve its model and culture both inside and out, including providing lunch for all staff each Friday and has an exchange programme with its Sydney agency where it takes staff over for a weekend of fun every quarter.

Having won 15 new pieces of business last year, Special Group’s focus is on delivering creative business thinking for its clients in 2019, with other exciting announcements to come.

“There will be new talent announced across the group, we will explore new offices – be it in Wellington, or Melbourne, or further afield,” Bradbourne says.

“We will actively move further into the innovation space, not just with clients, but developing our own brands and products, both physical and digital.”

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