Avoiding burnout and stress, vowing never to become a big agency

By Ruby Derrick | 8 February 2024
Paul Chappell and Josh Whiteman.

Sydney-based creative partnership Brand+Story consists of just managing partner Paul Chappell and his business partner and co-founder, Josh Whiteman. 

A micro agency that’s disrupting the traditional model; scaling as it needs but otherwise employing no staff.

Chappell and Whiteman are the junior copywriter, the junior art director, the strategist, the senior strategist, the ECD, the producer and all the rest - with accountability at the core of all they do. 

Brand+Story is able to focus on its clients and on the job at hand because that's all its concerned about, says Chappell.

“We don't pitch, we don't enter awards. Partly because of all the bullshit around it, but also, because it takes up a lot of our time," he says.

“We also don't feel like we need to enter awards. If we're proud of the work we do -  that's good enough for us. And if our clients come back, and we're winning work because of what we do, then that’s a better win than any kind of award.”

Their client list includes the Commonwealth Bank, REA Group, Qantas, Oporto and IHG. The duo manage creative from initial brief through to strategy, ideation then across production and delivery.

From the beginning, Whiteman and Chappell vowed never to become a big agency. 

“The best way that we could approach that is to not employ any staff, because that would keep us a literal partnership in the true sense of the word,” says Chappell.

Brand+Story started around seven years ago, with the creative partners both over and out of the big agencies. Whiteman was working at Publicis in London, Ogilvy in Sydney and then Host in its early days. 

Chappell grew up “cutting his teeth” as a radio and creative director with SCA before stepping into agency world with dentsu. 

The duo’s recent work for Commonwealth Bank saw the launch of the CommBank Yello campaign; the bank’s customer recognition program.

Brand+Story wrote, produced and directed the TVCs and social campaign.

Ryan Kelly, founder and director of full-service recruitment agency Creative Natives, believes clients are choosing to work with smaller, bespoke agencies where those involved in the pitch are the ones doing the actual work.

“With these micro agencies, clients are dealing with fewer stakeholders and are able to get straight to the source of information,” says Kelly.

“There aren’t those layers upon layers of resources. Clients are getting more experienced service more efficiently."

One major point of difference with these agencies is that they can offer more specialisation, believes Kelly. 

“These micro agencies, they often come about through being really good at something and being very specialist. Clients are going to rely more on these specialist boutique agencies - bringing the best of the best together rather than having one agency that does things okay,” he says. 

Brand+Story has engaged freelancers and contractors from time to time, but with the pair’s combined agency experience of strategy and creative, they can do all the agency work, says Chappell. 

“It’s literally just the two of us at the table that our clients are engaging with,” he says. 

Whiteman and Chappell's recent work for CBA was the first since the bank strayed from M&C Saatchi. They worked on it from the creative brief all the way through to production delivery.

“That’s our key point of difference. We refer to ourselves as a full-service, creative partnership. Josh normally directs most of our work, and I turn into creative director or executive producer. From there we scale the production as we need,” he says. 

Chappell loves that Brand+Story is so small, because it keeps them 100% accountable for their work, which the clients appreciate - because there’s no one else to blame. 

The move to a two-person "agency" also stemmed from the pair both being fathers and burning out from the stress and anxiety of working in agencies, says Chappell. 

“I wanted to create a business where I could have that work-life balance, even though running a business is 200% of your time,” he says. 

“It was from a lifestyle perspective, but Josh and I are very pragmatic individuals who hated the bullshit of the ad industry.”

That’s how the pair became a “tactical partner to brands”, where as former screenwriters, they’re both focused on narratives and storytelling, all while disrupting the agency model. 

There’s this trap that many agencies fall into, particularly Indies, says Chappell, where it’s a growth model, and agencies know they have to scale in order to grow in order to sell, if that’s the ambition. 

“A lot of agencies have come undone because of that model. We don't have those pressures, because we’re two guys doing work that we love to do. We don’t have any plans to grow,” he says. 

“In fact, it's harder not to grow. We could put on 20 staff right now. If you're trying to grow, you have the pressure of scale. If you're trying to stay small, you have the pressure of obviously restricting the work that you can do in order to be able to do it. There are pressures on both sides.”

Whether its nutting out ideas, writing out copy lines or thinking about campaign roadmaps, Whiteman and Chappell have done it all a thousand times in big agencies, notes Chappell.

“The balance for us is not biting off more than we can chew. We only have about five clients at any point in time. That’s the sweet spot, so we’re able to have multiple client engagements each day,” he says.

The creative partnership’s positioning as the "specialist team" means clients can still retain their agency of record, while Brand+Story can come in to perhaps develop a bigger or better idea than that agency, who might be a little jaded if they’ve had the account for ten years, believes Chappell. 

“We can inject that fresh energy, working very synergistically with those incumbent agencies. We had no trouble working with M&C Saatchi for CommBank, as well as Thinkerbell with the REA handover,” he says. 

The two get the big projects through their refined process. They’ll be the sole contacts up until they have an approved concept and script. 

From here, they’ll choose their production partner. 

“With CBA for CommBank Yello, we cherry picked the people like the producer, the production manager and the DOP, based on our relationship with them. It’s great we can retain that ownership from creative and strategy,” says Chappell. 

“The major point of difference for our business model is that we see it through from the initial brief through to dispatch.”

Around the time Whiteman left the agencies as well, says Chappell, he was a freelance TVC director. 

“We then got the first Qantas safety brief, where over a weekend we brainstormed a whole lot of ideas and developed a concept of the passengers telling the safety story,” he says.

The duo are up to their fifth safety video now, with Qantas being a key client since 2016.

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