The Rise of an Ad Agency

Their divergent lifestyles and temperaments have prompted more than one acquaintance to describe them as, "the odd couple", with Owen O'Connor playing Oscar to Niall O'Sullivan's Felix. But whatever the most apt analogy may be, they combine into one of the most effective and enterprising teams in Irish advertising.


Under the banner of O'Connor O'Sullivan, they have taken their agency's turn-over from £100,000 in the first year of operation, just a decade ago, to £2.S million last year. It is the fastest growing agency in Dublin, with the exception of Wilson Hartnell and possibly Arrow. O'Connor O'Sullivan was launched with capital derived from second mortgages on their three bedroomed suburban homes in 1971. They rented a few rooms on the top floor of the Tara Towers Hotel, hired, including themselves, a total of seven experienced advertising people and waited for it to "happen".


Many new agencies are started by ex-account executives who bring with them prestigious clients from their former employers. Not so with O'Connor O'Sullivan, which made their venture all the more hazardous. They both had been doing well in the advertising business - Owen with Peter Owens and Niall with McConnells but both had reached a stage at the age of 34 where they were either to make a break for independence and enterprise on their own or opt for the steady security which their established positions commanded.


There were just seven people involved at the beginning. Both Owen and Niall had been account directors and copywriters and they were joined by Brian Wallace, also a copywriter. They had with them perhaps the best visualiser in the trade in Dublin, Ian Calder, who was also a shareholder from the beginning. Although they began with no accounts, they did attract an enormous amount of goodwill. They had both been highly popular in the business and had been connected with prestige accounts and there was bound to be a spin off sooner or later.


It actually came quite soon with Carrolls, the cigarette company, commissioning them to do a launch of a new product. They did all the production work on the project but the idea was scrapped. Nevertheless they got paid for the work and it was money in the bank. Warner Lambert's marketing people walked through the door within the first three months also and they have retained that account since then. Mitchelstown Creameries was another early acquisition and in September 1971, they made a breakthrough with a major client, Beamish and Crawford - they were given the Carling account. David Broome, then Managing Director of Beamish and Crawford, visited O'Connor O'Sullivan along with a number of other agencies. He was looking for a small agency with ambition where he felt a lot of attention and time would be devoted to his account. Three years later Beamish and Crawford shifted the Bass account to O'Connor O'Sullivan. Beamish and Crawford is now one of the agency's biggest accounts and for a while was the mainstay of the company.


Their handling of that account provides an interesting insight into the skills of the advertising profession generally. For both Carling and Bass campaigns on television were launched in the last two years, both of them have been very successful and both of them have won major awards.


The Carling ad was necessitated by the new RTE code on drink advertising. The former advertisement portraying people enjoying a drink of Carling in a pub scene was out so instead they opted for lush country scenes with a lot of vitality and colour, all scenes unobtrusively incorporating the Carling sign and with the well established Carling jingle being played in the background. The purpose of the advertisement was to provide reassurance to Carling drinkers in the Munster area, where Carling sales predominate. The point of reassurance was to create the impression that everybody was drinking Carling - it was a counterblast to the highly effective Harp campaign which has succeeded in creating the illusion of omnipresence. With such sub-conscious subtleties is advertising preoccupied.


The Bass advertisement was even more effective, principally because of the success of the agency in persuading the Dubliners to appear in it. The purpose of the campaign was to convey a sense of "Irishness" for a beer, which though brewed in Cork, is a successful British ale. It also sought to convey an excitement, which the product's image notably lacked previously. It was an enormous success.


Another major advertising campaign is about to get under way for another beer from Beamish and Crawford, a malt liquor, Colt 45. Over a year ago, Beamish and Crawford, decided tentatively on the launch of a new light beer, with slightly lower alcoholic content than normal beers and aimed at the younger age group, male and female. In conjunction with O'Connor O'Sullivan they undertook extensive market research but discovered that there was no real demand for the lighter beer the exact opposite was the case, the demand for a stronger lager with a somewhat higher alcohol content and a sharper bite to its taste. The people who wanted this new beer were younger, urban men with an "international" outlook (to use a cliché of the trade), without class consciousness and most critically, with a lot of disposable income.


The research undertaken on this project was very extensive. They tasted various combinations of content, various shades of colour, beers with more and less "heads" etc. They then tested a name for the new beer. They would have preferred to have opted for an entirely new name because there would be no royalty payment involved. But the research showed that "Colt 45" was by far the most potent - it had already established itself as a name of a leading lager in the US and UK and this awareness had spilled over into Ireland. Colt 45 it is to be.


They have already tested the product in 250 pubs in Dublin with only marginal advertising support and the indications are favourable, even though the lager sells at about 6-8 pence more than do rival beers. The major launch will take place in April. This experiment is particularly interesting in view of the disappointment with Guinness Light. The Beamish and Crawford research showed that there was not a market for a lighter ale, which would explain the relative failure of the Guinness product. However in the Guinness case there is evidence that Guinness Light served as an introduction to Guinness regular, whose sales increased at a time when there should have been a progressive decrease in its sale from its spectacularly high level.


Another major client of O'Connor O'Sullivan is Datsun. In just four years the Datsun share of the Irish motor car market has jumped from 1.6 per cent to 11 per cent. O'Connor O'Sullivan has been mainly involved in the promotional side of this account they persuaded Angela Rippon to come over for the launch in Ireland of the Datsun Cherry, they brought Terry Wogan to Galway and Dana to Athlone also on promotional work. The explanation for the huge success of Datsun on the Irish market would appear to be the primacy of the car in the critical small car market and the very broad public awareness of the range of cars Datsun has on offer. The jingle "Datsun - We Are Driven" must be one of the most forceful on the advertising scene at the moment.


One of the most spectacularly successful campaigns launched by O'Connor O'Sullivan has been far removed from beers and cars, it has been Ballyfree eggs. Market research has shown that the campaign has achieved an awareness of the product of 70%, which is quite remarkable. In addition, literally within weeks of the campaign commencing, there was an increase of 40% in the sales of the product. The point of that campaign was to convey an impression of freshness and the subtle hint that the eggs came from hens on a free range, although of course they were battery hens. Again moody countryside film was used to great effect and the success of the campaign is underlined by the fact that the eggs sell for more than 2p more per dozen than most other eggs.


O'Connor O'Sullivan currently stands in the middle range of Irish advertising agencies. It hasn't yet broken into the big league dominated by McConnells, Wilson Hartnell, O'Kennedy Brindley and Arks, in that order. The agency still lacks any big financial institution, such as a bank; they have little Government or semi-State business (public bodies characteristically adopt a no risk approach which dictates that they go to the bigger and longer established agencies). But the growth in the agency's business suggests that it will be competing among the top four or six at its 20th birthday celebrations.