Focused on the big picture
Growing a successful communications consultancy in New Zealand’s highly competitive marketplace is not for the faint-hearted. Kelly Bennett shares stories and lessons from his time in the game. There’s often a compelling story behind the launch and the naming of a new business. This is certainly the case with Parnell-based One Plus One. It’s founder […]
Growing a successful communications consultancy in New Zealand’s highly competitive marketplace is not for the faint-hearted. Kelly Bennett shares stories and lessons from his time in the game.
There’s often a compelling story behind the launch and the naming of a new business.
This is certainly the case with Parnell-based One Plus One. It’s founder Kelly Bennett had previously started up consumer PR agency Eleven PR, which was part of the global TBWA creative agency group, owned by global holding company Omnicom.
“I’d built that business here in Aotearoa and was then involved in establishing its presence in Australia,” says Kelly (pictured above). “I was also parachuted into Singapore to see if they could get it going there, too.”
After several years building what has become a very successful Trans-Tasman business on behalf of a global holding company, Kelly wondered if he was up to doing the same for himself.
“I had a foundation client in my sights, with whom I had a great relationship and happened to be the CMO,” recalls Kelly. “Said CMO had even cleared the way with the CEO, but there was a hitch – he’d sold me in as Kelly Bennett ‘from Eleven PR’.
“The CMO called me to tell me the news and said, ‘Great news, the business is yours to lose. But… I told the CEO you’re the guy from Eleven, so you need to name your firm something similar’.
“At this point I’d already quit my job, drawn up my first ever business plan and was ready to make a go of it – although slightly trepidatious, if truth be told.”
And so, a decade ago, One Plus One was born.
Kelly’s intention was to bring something fresh to the local agency landscape: a consultancy that paired the creativity, ambition and fun of a creative network agency, with the commercial acumen and strategic nous of a more traditional corporate consultancy.
“My hunch was that while corporate agencies can sometimes be guilty of being too narrow in scope and too ‘rinse and repeat’ in output, consumer agencies can be guilty of relegating the rigour and measured perspective of corporate consultancies.”
Today, the agency is one of New Zealand’s leading strategic communications consultancies; was voted 2023 ‘Large Agency of the Year’ runner-up at the PRINZ awards; and has enjoyed consistent growth each year.
“And I never heard from Omnicom’s lawyers, for which I’m eternally grateful,” laughs Kelly.
Highlights and challenges
Looking back, Kelly says one of the things he’s most proud of is the growth and development of the young people who’ve worked with him. “To that end we’ve had more success than any agency in the country in the PRINZ Young Achiever of the Year awards category,” he says.
One Plus One’s growth has come through working for global brands and Kiwi businesses, and more recently, setting up a beachhead presence in Sydney.
“The challenges we faced as a business during the pandemic was by no means unique to us,” Kelly recalls. “The unholy trinity of Covid-19, inflation and an historically tight labour market haunted us all.”
But when everybody is facing the exact same challenges, an opportunity presents itself, he says.
“Who can navigate them best? Last year presented a particularly unique situation – while all firms in our industry were buffeted by the same headwinds, demand for our services was greater than ever.
“Therefore, the task became not generating demand, as is often the case, but maintaining stability, minimising stress and disruption,” he says. “And gearing up effectively to convert opportunities while expertly servicing the demand on hand.
“Thankfully, that approach served us well, and we’ve grown our top line numbers by 20 percent in the past 12 months alone.”
Why so successful?
“Invariably, it’s the strength of the connections we forge with people we work with that means they trust us to deliver what we say we will,” says Kelly. “I think that’s been a big part of our success. And I reckon we’ve excelled at creating an environment where our team feel valued, feel rewarded, and feel that they can progress. We’ve invested significantly in this area, and it has paid dividends.”
He says they recently broadened their offer to include specialist expertise in four key areas critical to the future success of the business: design, Māori engagement, experiential production, and stakeholder engagement.
“Again, this has worked exceptionally well, due to the awesome calibre of people we’ve been collaborating with.
“There’s enough goodwill in the business community towards us, and our ability to deliver what we say we will, which means we’re regularly approached to tackle exciting, complex business and communications challenges.”
Culture and expectations
Asked to describe the culture within his company and how he ensures everyone on the team works to their full potential, Kelly says he regards “company culture” is a vague term.
“On one level, it’s just a buzzword and something employers tend to pay lip service to without really thinking through what it means. On the other, it’s absolutely everything: the spirit at the core of our business that impacts how every part of it runs,” he explains.
“I’d hope that if you asked my colleagues what the culture is like at One Plus One, they’d describe it as ‘awesome’. But what’s that old saying? Culture is what happens when you’re not in the room? So, it’s really not for me to say.”
Kelly says companies often become obsessive about team ‘capacity’ or ‘utilisation rates’. “Viewed another way, it can be translated as ‘how much value am I extracting out of this particular team member?’
“Our operational success isn’t measured by utilisation rates or individual consultant profitability; it’s measured by people leaving on time, people not sending after-hours emails, and people enjoying their work – all while client expectations are met and we achieve, and ideally exceed, our forecast,” he says.
“We’ve delivered on this by resourcing appropriately before our team gets the speed-wobbles. “While this might seem common-sense, experience tells us it’s far from the norm across the agency landscape we’re a part of.”
Lessons and advice
So, what has the past ten years of success taught Kelly?
“It has taught me more than I would ever have dreamed of, and it’s gone so, so quickly,” he says. “My key advice [for startups] would be to surround yourself with smart, connected and curious people – ideally from day one. To give it 110 percent and to constantly keep getting better through the years.
“And enjoy the ride, which isn’t always that easy when it’s your business, because things invariably go wrong,” he adds. “Know that the tough times will pass – so you hold a ‘big picture’ view.
“It’s true that business ownership isn’t for everyone, so I’m just really thankful that with my modest skills and ability, I’ve been able to attract clever collaborators, and to do good work.”
Looking ahead, Kelly says he’s fortunate that he now has a shareholder and general manager, Max Burt, who has spearheaded much of the company’s recent growth.
“He and I have set a goal to double the size of the business in the next few years and with the team and clients we currently have, we’re well on the way to making that happen.”