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A quick-ish guide to the SA digital agency landscape [update]

Update: Read The Memeburn guide to the SA digital agency landscape for a comprehensive and up to date look at the space.

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I think the digital industry in South Africa is on the brink of some major changes. In fact, many of these changes started a few years ago with a flurry of major acquisitions by big media and advertising groups of digital agency businesseses. AquaOnline was gobbled up by WPP, Trigger went to Aegis, Prezence to Primedia, and Amorphous to Avusa. A little more recently, half of Gloo was purchased by Kagiso Media.

The recession then put the brakes on the consolidation, but if rumours are to be believed, the whole show is back on. Traditional agencies, scared of being marginalised and made irrelevant by the explosion of digital marketing, are on the acquisition trail once more. Deals are being discussed and mooted and debated. So it’s about to become even harder to understand who’s who in the zoo.

Thus I bring you a brief and incomplete list of the who’s who of the digital agency landscape in South Africa. I stress these are the businesses I know and am aware of, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. The details I’m providing are anecdotal. Feel free to whinge if I forget you or get your facts wrong: We love it when you comment, so go wild!

Afrigator (Independent, previously owned by Naspers via MIH Africa)

Only on this list because of its close ties to the agency-people on the rest of it, Afrigator was the brainchild of Mike Stopforth (Cerebra), Justin Hartman, Stii Pretorius and Mark Forrester.

Ostensibly a blog aggregator, launched at a similar time to Amatomu.com, Afrigator has recently diversified into offering a targeted-advertising platform operating within its network of blogs. Owned for a time by Naspers (via MIH), the founders bought the business back last year as a way to re-focus and, presumably, escape the constraints of a big corporate mothership.

It’s difficult to guage the current success of the business, but it certainly remains the pre-eminent blog aggregator in South Africa after Amatomu’s long and troubled hiatus.

Key personality: Justin Hartman
Web: www.afrigator.com

Update: Afrigator shout its doors in December 2011, mainly due to the costs of running the business

Amorphous New Media (Owned/Controlled by Avusa)

The quintessential web development shop, Amorphous has been around for a decade or more. Starting out with strong ColdFusion skills back in the day, they have migrated technologically to Microsoft technologies, but also offer solid front-end design and flash skills. Nedbank has been an anchor customer for something like 11 years, but they also include many other big corporate customers on their brag sheet. They also offer digital “out of home” such as interactive kiosks, billboards etc.

Despite the length of time they’ve been around, Amorphous do seem to have slipped out the limelight a little, with no showing at any of the major awards in 2009. The Avusa deal remains something of a mystery, and it is a bit unclear as to how a creative agency quite fits into a big, old-fashioned media group. Nor is it clear how they work with the internal development teams within The Times and other Avusa brands.

Key personality: Grant Shippey
Web: www.amorphous.net

AquaOnline (owned by WPP)

By rather a long way, the most successful digital agency of any kind in South Africa, Aqua is also one of the longest standing. Through its various incarnations, the astuteness of CEO Brent Shahim has helped it keep pace where many of its early competitors foundered. From early involvement with the casino business, a listing (and de-listing), e-commerce pioneer and, most recently, full-service digital agency, the business has succeeded in growing a staggering client base with strong retainers that has seen it grow to more than 120 staff over the past four years.

Aqua was sold to WPP and housed close to Y&R in the South African agency network (WPP also owns Ogilvy and JWT, to name just two other major agencies). By all accounts the WPP relationship has been a big win for the Aqua team and a visit to the plush, buzzing Hyde Park offices presents a flourishing business that’s the envy of its peers.

Almost anti-rockstar in its positioning, Aqua has tended to focus on making money where others have been chasing awards, and it is this, most of all, that makes them the undisputed market leader at this time.

Key personalities: Brent Shahim, Adam Brandt, Dylan Maclean, Richard Sidersky
Web: www.aquaonline.com

Brandsh (Independent)

If Amorphous are quintessentially old school, Brandsh are one of the handful of digital agencies that were formed during the Web 2.0 era. With strong competencies in mobile and social media, Brandsh has quickly established itself as a market leader, helped by a long-standing contract with Standard Bank, who they have helped to make into social media leaders. Sub-brands within the company include mobile media planning services and an innovative MXit CMS.

A close relationship with Cerebra has recently ended, potentially creating some new competition for this business in the near future.

Key personalities: Angus Robinson, David James, Gaby Rosario
Web: brandsh.com

Cambrient (Independent)

Cambrient is my own business, so I’ll keep it brief. We’ve been around 10 years and have tended to focus in the content management and web application development space, although we increasingly look like a digital direct or digital conversion agency. Staff complement of just under 40 with major customers including South African Tourism, Toyota, DSTV, Liberty Properties, Moneyweb, Peermont Global.

Key personalities: Me (obviously), Kevin Lourens, Antonio Petra
Web: www.cambrient.com

Stonewall+ (Independent)

Stonewall+ is both an old industry stalwart and re-invented business, having been bought by Ben Wagner a few years back. With close to 50 staff and offices in both Joburg and Cape Town, Stonewall+ stands along with Gloo and Aqua on the leading creative digital agency podium. Stonewall+ have built a strong flash team onto their already strong team of digital designers, and have a heritage of beautiful work completed for many of SA’s leading companies including Neotel, DSTV, General Motors, Foschini, Shoprite — and many more.

Stonewall+ has also diversified over the past year offering media planning/buying and social media, and building out towards being able to compete with an Aqua-type full-service agency. Recently awarded the Distell account along with Quirk, they look to be within reach of this goal.

Key personalities: Ben Wagner, Jacques Nel, Lara Bryant
Web: www.stonewall.co.za

Update: Brandsh, Cambrient and Stonewall+ all merged to form Native. The agency, which employs over 160 people, has done work for a number of international brands including Standard Bank, General Motors, Nestle, L’Oreal and Samsung. In mid-2013, it was bought out by WPP and merged with VML.

Cerebra (WPP)

If any one business can lay claim to commercialising social media in South Africa, Cerebra would be a strong contender for this title. Driven by the inimitable Mike Stopforth, the business has secured a number of lucrative contracts with the likes of Vodacom and Toyota. Offering a slew of social media services including managed blogs, Twitter and social media campaigns, Cerebra is well-positioned to help companies make the transition from web to social web. However as these technologies become less mysterious, this looks like an offering that will need to be broadened to keep pace with big competitors like Quirk.

Key personalities: Mike Stopforth, Dave Duarte (ex)
Web: www.cerebra.co.za

Update: In 2013, Cerebra was sold to WPP for an undisclosed sum of money.

Creative Spark (Independent)

In his own unique style, Matthew Buckland put one finger in this pie during his tenure at Mail & Guardian Online and 24.com and grew it to the point it became his fulltime job. Creative Spark is, among other things, a digital agency offering solid services to local and international customers. The business also owns and runs Memeburn.com and Amatomu.com. Buckland’s network has given Creative Spark an edge in the market and customers like CNN, which have eluded most other South African agencies.

What Creative Spark are really capable of remains to be seen, but if Buckland’s history teaches us anything, it’s that he’s not to be underestimated.

Key Players: Matthew Buckland, Cat Murray, Chris Conradie.
Web: www.creativespark.co.za

Gloo (50% owned by Kagiso Media)

Gloo seemed to appear out of nowhere a couple of years back and have convincingly become the leading digital creative agency in South Africa. Award after award, they have dominated the local creative scene over the past two years, and have started gaining attention internationally, putting some Webby’s to their name. The agency is growing rapidly, opening up a strong Johannesburg office and claiming some highly sought-after retainers such as South African Tourism and BMW over the past few months.

Gloo’s culture seems to have been informed by a close relationship with former shareholder BBDO, holding quality of creative up as the number one priority. Indeed Gloo is synonymous with quality execution and brave creative ideas — a reputation carefully constructed by Pete Case and his team.

The 50% stake taken by Kagiso last year has allowed the business to do some expansion, as well as inherit some guidance from industry veterans like Kagiso’s Nevo Hadas, as well as work closely with Acceleration, another Kagiso-owned business.

Key personalities: Pete Case, Templar Wales
Web: www.gloo.co.za

HelloComputer (DraftFCB)

After several successful years in the digital space, HelloComputer was bought out by NYSE-listed mega-agency DraftFCB in 2012.

It continues to produce award-winning work, most notably in the outdoor activation space. Perhaps its biggest success was BG, the tweeting badger. The campaign saw the agency place a number of sensors around a honey badger’s enclosure at the Johannesburg Zoo. When activated, these sensors sent out automated tweets based on where they were placed.

Key People: Mark Tomlinson and Managing Director David Moffatt

Prefix (Independent)

Prefix are a passionately-focused business that set their sights on the publishing industry a few years ago, and became the undisputed leader in supplying CMS solutions to this niche industry. PreditorCMS is (along with Cambrient’s Contentsuite I would argue) one of the only really compelling CMS products produced in the country. And pMailer has taken a dominant position in the local email newsletter/campaign market. Customers include Creamer Media, Mail & Guardian and many other publishers.

Apart from this, Josh Adler also holds a key portfolio on the OPA as Head of Measurement.

Key personalities: Josh Adler, Sam Hutchinson
Web: www.prefix.co.za

Prezence (Owned by Primedia)

Prezence made their name doing very colourful, flashy promotional microsites and other marketing material for the entertainment industry, with some significant international work flooding into the business in past years. In recent times they have re-invented themselves as a full-service digital agency with (it would seem) mixed results. Now part of the Primedia Online stable they sit within a group that also includes iafrica.com, 365 Digital and — of course — the many other Primedia companies such as Ster Kinekor.

Prezence has a strong pedigree and a reputation of being a strong business, so it remains to be seen if Primedia can grow it to challenge some of the industry heavyweights in its new focus area.

Key personality: Prakash Patel (CEO)
Web: www.prezence.co.za

Quirk (Independent — though former shareholders include Vinny Lingham)

Quirk is a good name for this Cape Town agency who have garnered an almost impossible amount of attention online. This is no accident. Rob Stokes has an undeniable genius for both promotion and outreach, and Quirk is renowned for spending almost as much time spreading the word as doing projects. With a textbook, university courses and a fully-fledged internship programme all flourishing, Stokes probably deserved his Bookmark last year for the man who has done the most for the local industry.

Quirk offers so many different services it’s difficult to unpack it all, but they are acknowledged players in SEO, analytics, social media and general campaign services. They’re also known to spit out an entirely standalone business now and again as they have done with Brandseye and Ideabounty. They had a good showing at last year’s Bookmarks, apart from Stokes’ personal award. Ambition runs deep in Quirk, with offices in Cape Town, Joburg and London and a staff compliment approaching 80.

Key personalities: Rob Stokes, Heidi Schneigansz, Scott Gray
Web: www.quirk.biz

Realm Digital (Independent)

Another “back end” business that’s difficult to pin to the industry chart, Realm have built a reputation as solid developers. The recent launch of the Exclusive Books site made many industry players sit up and take notice. From what I understand, Realm have refocused on the SA market after the recession hampered international expansion plans, and this seems to be bearing fruit.

Key personality: Wesley Lynch
Web: www.realmdigital.co.za

Trigger (Owned by Aegis)

Since doing their deal with Aegis several years ago, Trigger have gone rather quiet. This may just be me not listening, but word is their heads are down and they are working hard. At what exactly, it is difficult to fathom from the outside, but presumably international work was part of the benefit of selling to Aegis in the first place. Quietness is rather a change of pace for Gavin Rooke, who has been an outspoken industry player from his time at Tool onwards.

Industry rumour has them winning the Cell C account away from Gloo — no small achievement — and Trigger may well be the one to watch again as the big accounts go out to pitch.

Key personalities: Gavin Rooke, Roelof van Wyk
Web: www.trigger.co.za

WhiteWallWeb (Independent, although part of RAMP Group)

About as far “behind the scenes” as one can get in this industry, WhiteWallWeb focus on the back-end stuff. In this respect they are similar to my business Cambrient, although are perhaps even “back-er-end”. WhiteWallWeb are part of the RAMP Group, formed by a collaboration between themselves, innovative hosting business RSAWeb, and VoIP business EvenFlow. Founder Pete Flynn is also working on product innovation, and looking beyond the services business to create a strong annuity income stream.

Key personalities: Pete Flynn, Rob Gilmour (via RSAWeb), Mark Slingsby (via RSAWeb)
Web: www.whitewallweb.com

With apologies to: Clickthinking, Thumbtribe, BeMobile, Afrigis, Hello Computer, Urbian and AtPlay.

I do know about you, maybe there’ll be a part II 🙂

Disclaimer: Creative Spark is the publisher of Memeburn.com and the views expressed above are those of the author.

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