Like Clockwork: The birth of a global communications agency

Nicholas Simmonds Clockwork Media Co-CEO

As the world continues to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic, the advertising and communications landscape is undergoing a massive shift. It’s an industry battling for relevance and facing down some harsh realities. But while some are pessimistic and resistant to change, others are spotting opportunities in the transition – and going global.

Enter Tom Manners, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Clockwork. It’s an agency with its sights set on the world – and nothing less. While everyone seems to be in a tailspin, Manners remains optimistic about the future. It’s an optimism rooted in a fervent belief in South African ad talent. In fact, Manners believes that the changes we’ve seen in the industry over the past three years have made way for a new and compelling working model. Says Manners: ‘I think the comms and advertising landscape in South Africa is certainly changing and we’re seeing a flow towards more integrated agencies that have strong communications capabilities. We’ve been enjoying some new opportunities that would have typically been preserved for ATL agencies.’ Manners has an office in Johannesburg and an office in London. ‘Really the model is focused on utilising and leveraging the fantastic creative talent pool that we have in South Africa,’ he says.

It’s certainly looking like Manners hasn’t missed a trick – Clockwork just added Peroni to its stable of heavyweight clients. And if you’re thinking this is all a brain-drain ploy to ditch South Africa, you couldn’t be more wrong. Clockwork’s local-international symbiosis is purposeful and pragmatic. ‘This is an opportunity to build a fantastic base in SA – to provide jobs to more people and bring more graduates out of the system. It’s tremendously exciting for us,’ explains Manners.

Of course it hasn’t always been smooth sailing…‘Our biggest underestimation was size of London agency market,’ says Manners. It’s a market he describes as a shark tank. ‘We had to spend a long time pushing a rock up a hill,
trying to get smaller projects in and proving ourselves. We could not make any mistakes. There’s a lot more leniency in the SA market than in the UK. We needed to make sure what we were delivering was always at the highest level and take any opportunity that we could.’ Clockwork’s strategy includes embracing hybrid work, as well as investing in skills and product development. He’s also keeping a close eye on trends. Says Manners: ‘The ubiquity of e-commerce in SA is a tremendous opportunity in my view. I don’t think that we’re really on par globally with the skills sets that the US and UK, for example, might have in terms of dealing with that from a marketing perspective.’

Manners is also leaning into some tough – but crucial – conversations. ‘Clients are facing challenges too. There hasn’t been a single one that hasn’t been significantly hit at a strategic level. We’ve had to partner strategically to completely
reimagine their world and rethink the approach to marketing that they’ve had. What is our responsibility as an organisation the people of South Africa and our stakeholders and shareholders – and how are we going to communicate effectively?’ Manners believes it’s about owning up to mistakes but also managing the impact of what
we can’t control. He’s identified a shift from product to purpose and really interrogating what it means to be a South African organisation.

But how can an agency like Clockwork build on its keen observations and success? Manners’ ultimate ambition is to become a fully networked global agency – to build a hub in South Africa that employs people doing world-class work. To create jobs. And to creating business that is meaningful and benefits the economy. ‘I don’t think we can beat around bush,’ explains Manners. There are realities that we face in this country that make it very difficult to do business. But the reality is that the private sector can and always does grow and find opportunity in hardship. I truly believe that it is
entrepreneurship in this country that is going to drive us forward. You will see and have seen organisations that are well run, privately managed and hungry emerge out of the chaos and succeed. Success is found in hardship. I’m very optimistic – you can call me a fool. But there’s tremendous opportunity out there.’