The Last Thing We Want To Be Is Just Another Business

Andrew Brand calls it his 'art director MBA'. It's the lessons he's learnt building an advertising agency that cares more about customer supplier awards than glittering design awards. It's the foundation of a 300-employee strong business with a turnover in excess of R175 million that was launched because Checkers was willing to give a two-man agency a chance to prove itself. And it's how a business that was launched as the recession hit has not only survived, but thrived.

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Vital stats

  • Player: Andrew Brand
  • Company: 99c
  • What they do: Above and below-the-line advertising agency
  • Est: 2008
  • Turnover: R175 million
  • Visit:

In March 2008 Andrew Brand resigned as Head of Retail for the advertising agency he worked for. He also resigned from his position on the board. By May, he and his ex-boss, now business partner, Lewin de Villiers pitched for Checkers' entire retail advertising portfolio.

Sarah Schäfer

They were a two-man team. They had no premises, equipment or employees. Their business didn't even have a name. But they did have a track record, and a good working relationship with the Shoprite/Checkers group.

After a final meeting with Whitey Basson himself, the newly formed (and named) 99c officially had one client. But it was a big client. And it was time to get to work.

The accidental entrepreneur

There are many ways to enter the world of entrepreneurship. For some it's a calling that starts in school or varsity. For others it's a response to being virtually unemployable and not being able to listen to — or work for — a boss. Still others find their way into business ownership because of a burning passion to change an industry, society or even the world.

For Andrew Brand, the entrepreneurial journey was slightly different. Andrew liked being employed. He's incredibly ambitious, as his years of cricket captain, rugby captain and head boy will attest to, but he was also very happy to climb the corporate ladder, which is exactly what he did. He studied design, joined an agency at the bottom, and worked his way up from junior art director, to senior art director, to creative director on the retail side of the business.

He spent 13 fruitful years at a prominent Cape Town agency, and discovered a love for business, strategy, and the retail arm of advertising. It wasn't glamorous, it didn't win awards, but it did pay the bills, and it relied heavily on strategic thinking and planning, and a strong working relationship with clients. For Andrew, it was the bedrock of a successful agency's strategic focus.

"Advertising campaigns are typically ten-month contracts that focus on how glamorous a campaign can be," he says. "How can we get Matt Damon onto a glacier in Finland to showcase a new pair of Nikes?

"That's supposedly advertising. It wins awards. It looks incredible. But great retail advertising is about making sure clients make money. It's fast paced, it's immediate and it's highly strategic. You can't dwell for long, because when you place your campaign in this week's Sunday Star, you need to be tapping into what people care about on the ground, in that moment. And you'll see the results of your advertising by that Monday. Turnaround time is everything. It's fast and efficient, and it relies on excellent client/agency communications. I found my place in retail."

It was Lewin de Villiers, executive creative director at the agency, Andrew's mentor and one of his current business partners, who first pulled him into the retail arm of the business, recognising that Andrew would enjoy the nature of retail advertising. He was right.

This still didn't push Andrew into entrepreneurship though. He had an excellent relationship with his clients and loved what he did. The move to entrepreneurship would come later, once the agency was sold to a multinational media network and amalgamated with a Joburg-based agency.

"We were the retail arm. The Joburg-based agency was award-winning. Together we covered all areas of advertising. I joined the board. Rob Berry and Lewin had a two-year earn out period. For a while, everything was great. At board level I learnt even more about the business of agencies beyond my own division's budget. But once Rob and Lewin left, I also saw a side of agencies that I didn't identify with.

"Within a few months I resigned. I realised that there was a major culture gap between the way I viewed business and client relationships compared to the rest of the agency. There was no way I could continue to work there. You can't toe a line you don't believe in."

And just like that, Andrew was unemployed. He still wasn't thinking about entrepreneurship. In fact, his plan was to take some time off and consider his next move. And then the marketing manager of the Shoprite/Checkers group called Andrew and told him they were putting their business out to pitch. With Andrew no longer at the agency, they felt there was no continuity there. It was time to consider their options.

"This incredible opportunity fell into my lap. I contacted Lewin and we decided to go for it. He didn't need another business, but he enjoyed the challenge, and I could use the support and mentorship. We started putting our pitch together. There were four agencies that would be pitching for Checkers' business. Our old agency was one of them.

"We knew we were in for a fight, and that we were the most under-resourced candidate by a long shot — but we also had two very important things going for us: We understood and respected retail, and we had a good working relationship with Checkers."

Shining eyes and "one-cheeked playing'

The move revealed two gaping holes in Andrew's ex-agency's processes. First, Andrew didn't have a restraint of trade in place. Second, and equally — if not more — damaging, was the fact that he was the retail division's main contact for its key client. When he left, the customer had no-one they knew and trusted to work with. And so they put their business out to pitch.

The agency immediately tried to deal with the lack of a restraint of trade. "I received a legal letter trying to intimidate me. It was an oversight, but you can't implement a restraint of trade retrospectively. I refused to be intimidated and instead took the letter to an attorney.

"If there's one thing I've learnt in life and business, it's don't take a knife to a gunfight. It was worth the investment — she consulted me, calmed me down, sent a response letter, and it was over. My rights were well looked after, and they couldn't do anything. Too many small business owners allow themselves to be intimidated by bigger competitors simply because they don't know their rights. I wasn't going to be one of them."

When the time came to pitch, Andrew and Lewin had a pre-existing relationship on their side, but none of the infrastructure that the other agencies had. As it turned out though, simply having had the business previously wasn't enough for their former agency to move forward with Checkers. Their key man was gone. Andrew and Lewin's main competition for the business was instead an agency called Lowe Bull who had global network experience with Tesco's and a good strategic understanding of retail.

So why did they get it? Why did Whitey Basson ultimately decide to take such a risky move and award the business to 99c, a brand-new agency that would have ten weeks to find suitable premises, purchase all the equipment they needed and hire 30 employees — at a minimum to start with?

Andrew believes the answer is simple: Passion. "We had a client who wasn't unimpressed with other agencies, but they did understand substance and not just glitter, and in us they saw substance. We're passionate about what we do. I believe that skills can be taught; you can teach people retail. Everyone has a brain. But you need to trigger that passion."

Andrew is a learner by nature. He loves reading and watching Ted Talks, and is influenced by greatness. "Benjamin Zander, musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, explains the nature of passion best. He calls it one-cheeked playing. When you can't sit with both bum cheeks on the stool because you're that excited by what you're doing, you're truly passionate and inspired by what you do. When people are engaged and passionate, they have shining eyes, and that's what you need to be on the look-out for.

"We could never outspend or out-powerpoint other agencies, but our eyes shone more. When someone's face lights up when they speak — when that level of passion is present, in that moment — clients can see it. Checkers recognised it in us, and we look for it in the people we hire. The rest can be taught."

Shoprite/Checkers did hedge its bet though. Lowe Bull was hired as a contingency agency, in case 99c couldn't deliver. The pressure was on. The client had a plan B, but Andrew and Lewin did not. Defeat wasn't an option.

"I've been driven by excelling under pressure my entire life. It's why I always wanted to be team captain; it's why I love leadership roles. When the pressure is on you're driven to perform, provided you're working with the right people, you give them the support they need and you all have a shared passion. Anything is possible if you won't accept defeat."

By December Checkers cancelled its contingency contract with Lowe Bull. Over the past nine years, 99c has grown from the 30 people hired in those first few weeks to a business that employs 280 people, with over 30 vacancies currently needing to be filled.

Checkers and Shoprite are both clients, as well as numerous other corporates and SMEs. Retail is still the foundation of the business, but services have expanded to cover a range of above and below the line offerings, including PR. All because Andrew and his partners saw an opportunity, tackled it head on, and didn't have a plan B. They were going to succeed or die trying.