The world of advertising, while allowing people to engage in creative work, is notoriously high-stress with many agencies suffering from high staff turnover rates. But according to Rudy Hassiem, recently installed as MD of Brandnew Creative Agency (a small Cape Town-based agency), those don’t have to be barriers to building a happy and productive culture.
He should know too. An industry veteran, Hassiem has spent the past two decades working in a variety of marketing roles in the agency and corporate spaces. Throughout that career — which started out with the 2004 Cape Town Olympic bid company and encompasses names such BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi, and Shell – Hassiem says he’s been inspired by the desire to solve problems.
However, as we found out during our recent interview with Hassiem, that desire is balanced with an understanding that looking after people and allowing them to flourish can be more important than having the right strategy in play.
During the interview, Hassiem expanded on these beliefs, spoke about how his first job has informed his career, and explained why more business executives should act like Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp.
When Hassiem joined the company trying to bring the 2004 Olympic Games to Cape Town, he was fresh out of university. With many opposing the bid, he admits it was a “really steep educational curve”.
At the time, Hassiem says, many felt that the games were “a complete waste of money” which had the potential to set back development in a city with deep set inequalities.
The bid company’s job was to convince them otherwise and show that the Olympics could have serious benefits for the city’s poorest, most under-developed areas. While the games ultimately went to Athens, Greece the bid company did succeed in getting the city behind the bid.
According to Hassiem, the experience helped him understand how to approach complex problems. “It’s always been a matter of questioning, and trying to get people to understand how we work and operate and being inclusive in terms of how I operate,” he told us.
“We were solving a problem, we were trying to get people on board and that is exactly how I define myself as being in that problem-solving space,” he said.
That need to solve problems is something that excited him when he was approached to become MD of Brandnew.
“When I met with Tam [Brandnew founder Tammy Lederle], we had a whole conversation around what this agency’s about,” Hassiem told us. “And she said, ‘listen this agency’s about being problem solvers’, which really resonated with me.”
But, he adds, it’s also about people. According to Hassiem, “the fact that Brandnew is very much about the family environment, where people are hanging out just for the sake of hanging out and having conversation beyond just the work level,” was another major factor in him joining the agency.
While it would’ve been easy for someone of Hassiem’s experience to become jaded by the agency space, he actually believes that its easier to build a great culture in the agency space.
“The agency has a defined purpose to do really cool work,” he told us. “Whereas with corporate, I think the agenda is: how do we make more money, which is a completely different mindset”.
The people who work at agencies, he told us, also naturally foster “the kind of culture that says ‘we’re all about the energy and excitement and possibility’”.
At corporates meanwhile, he says, “it’s a different group of people with different mindsets: you could get someone who’s very homebody, versus someone who’s very outgoing, versus someone who’s quite sensitive”.
That means a corporate is much more likely to require “programmes and initiatives that gets everybody on board and understanding what the vision is”.
While Hassiem acknowledges that agencies can be stressful workplaces, he believes that much of this stress is self-inflicted.
“You can ask almost anyone in an agency, ‘are you the person who’s always punctual when it comes to a social engagement?’,” he told us. “I can guarantee you that 98% of them are never on time”.
“And the reason they’re never on time for that braai is because they purposefully make themselves late so they can feel the pressure of having to get to that braai”, he added.
Players over tactics
Having those kinds of personalities on board, Hassiem believes, makes it even more important for agency heads to properly manage the people on their teams.
And in his book, the best way to do this is to take cues from Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp. According to Hassiem, the German — who has taken the English football team to the top of the Premier League — places a premium on managing players rather than focusing on tactics.
That sets him apart from his predecessor Brendon Rogers, who was a brilliant tactician, but didn’t always keep player welfare in mind when coming up with his game plan.
The team, he believes, “didn’t quite know what they were doing, so they lost sight of where they were going to. This season [under Klopp], you’ve got a team that’s all about managing the people, and the people are now taking ownership for where they need to go”.
The same concept applies to managing people within an agency. You “have to make sure the people know what their position is and how to play to the strength of that position,” he told us.
If you’re going to do that successfully though, it means resisting the temptation to take a cookie cutter approach to company culture.
“I think an agency will naturally develop a sense of who it is,” he said. In that kind of scenario, managements role is to “boost the natural culture around the table” rather than impose anything from above.
Naturally Hassiem hopes this approach will result in big things for Brandnew. In the short term, Hassiem says he’d love to be able to see Brandnew “producing the kind of work that the industry goes, ‘Geez, that little agency […] is doing some really cool stuff'”.
According to the Brandnew MD, another short-term goal is to ensure that the agency’s current staff has a “really clear view as to their position on the field and how to play to that strength”.
Hassiem believes it’s less about him guiding the team “and more about each person on the field taking that space and driving it”.
Hassiem’s mid-term goals are loftier, but still grounded:
I’ve always said this: I think there’s space in the industry for more than a couple of key independent players. Stretch Experiential, King James, Joe Public. I’d like us to be in that same kind of echelon of agency, producing amazing work that clients buy into and that consumers look at and say, “wow, that’s amazing”.