Chris Howatson and Ant White's plans to create a legacy agency

Paige Murphy
By Paige Murphy | 1 March 2021
Ant White and Chris Howatson.

Former CHE Proximity CEO Chris Howatson and chief creative officer Ant White have officially launched their new and independent full-service agency, Howatson+White.

The duo’s departure from CHEP was announced at the end of last year, alongside their plans to start their own venture.

Despite the freedom they had at the agency, Howatson and White tell AdNews that sitting within a network still has its constraints.

“There was never anything wrong with what we had at CHEP,” Howatson tells AdNews.

“But I think you can never truly be accountable for something unless you truly are accountable for it. And it's just the difference between running something and owning something.”

Howatson+White opens its doors with 32 staff across Sydney and Melbourne and seven clients, all of whom have signed on with the agency without a pitch.

Leases have been signed for an office on Chapel St in Melbourne and Commonwealth St in Surry Hills, Sydney.

“Both have shopfronts, so it's almost like the return of the creative shop,” White says.

The agency is already offering services to clients across creative, brand, media, PR, tech and data.

White says building the agency as full-service from the start is one of the fundamental differences between Howatson+White and CHEP.

“CHEP is an incredible company but it was built almost bottoms up,” White says.

“It had digital and data and retail. And then you had creativity and brand. And we weren't stopping - PR, too. It was becoming more and more robust based on what the industry needed.

“What's happened now is with the clients we've taken on, we are full-service from the beginning. So, it's not built in stages.”

Naming the agency Howatson+White was a deliberate move to make it harder to sell the business.

The co-founders are adamant about this being the last stop in their careers and not just building an agency to sell off.

“So many people are making startups right now so that they can go and get some quick cash for whoever wants to buy it,” Howatson says.

“Ant and I want to create a legacy in this agency for the people that work for it, and the clients that we work with that transcends time. This isn't a next five years thing.”

He wants to align the business with other great Australian legacy agencies like Mojo, George Patterson and Clemenger.

White says the name of the agency also helps keep them accountable.

“Our names are on the door, which makes us, we believe, accountable for everything we do - it's us,” White says.

“But I think, and we really hope, that it transcends us.”

The ‘+’ in the name was also a deliberate decision instead of ‘&’ to focus on bringing things together.

All its branding is centred around this with any decks or collateral having the + with the client’s or other business’ name. For example, Howatson+White+AdNews.

“It's always additive. If we want this to be a way of thinking as well, you're always adding to ideas, not being a drain or being a block,” White says.

“Everyone needs to be part of this and adding to it, but it can be plus culture, plus brand, plus talent, plus song, plus ice cream, whatever it is.”

Top of the triangle
In addition to having a “no dickhead” policy, the agency’s approach to hiring staff is centred around having more senior talent who are hands on and involved in the work.

Howatson and White decided on this resourcing model because often clients are disappointed when the people they meet in the pitch aren’t the people actually working on their accounts.

To rectify this, they’ve opted to focus on hires in the “top of the triangle” as opposed to the bottom.

“The way we've approached things is to hire a very, very good senior person in that practice,” Howatson says.

“And then our proposition to client is, ‘This is the person who's going to work on it.’

“So, when it comes to programmatic, here is someone that fundamentally understands the exchanges, the platforms, and the publishers. And that's the person you're going to get, not someone who's just come into the industry and is figuring out how to deploy a campaign.”

That’s not to say the agency won’t be hiring junior staff, especially for bigger accounts which Howatson notes require all areas of the triangle.

At present, the agency is made up of around 70% to 80% senior people including Catherine King who used to head up Thinkerbell’s PR division. She will now be leading PR at Howatson+White.

While they haven’t set in stone goals for how fast they want to grow, Howatson says he does have a "magical" number of employees in mind.

“The most magical time that we felt at CHEP was when CHEP was probably about 300 people,” Howatson says.

“And because we're two locations, that meant we're 150 in each location and that's a really nice number because it means that you still feel you've got the scale of a group to have lots of skills. But then physically within your space, you still know everyone's name and you can still jam together.”

Howatson says they have also introduced a number of policies for flexible working arrangements to help with diversity and inclusion.

“The first one is we don't pay people for their time in the office, we pay them for the role that they take,” he says.

“Basically, [we] pay people for the job, not for the time on the tools. So, what we often call that is 'five four', which is five days pay for four days being available.”

They will also be paying 12 weeks maternity leave, and the new office spaces will also include wellness rooms for people to use for whatever reason they may need or want to step away from working.

This is advertising
With many new independents popping up, the term "consultancy" gets thrown around a lot but Howatson and White are very clear that they aren’t consultants.

“We're not a consultancy. Really straight up, we're advertising,” Howatson says.

For the co-founders, the launch of Howatson+White is the return to advertising.

Howatson says clients want to be able to be serviced for everything in the one place, and that’s what they will get with the agency.

“Advertising only fractured in the post-media separation period when specialization seemed to be valued by clients,” he says.

“But what every client has certainly said to me for at least the last five years is, ‘I need an agency to solve my entire advertising problems and I want them to work through more of the Ps. So, help us with our pricing strategy, help us with our product strategy, help us sell into the channels so we can get more distribution. And, of course, do my ads. Do my promotion but help me with all of that.’”

This was the reason for the agency starting as full-service from the get go and also what influenced its tagline, ‘This is advertising’.

“We want to create the work that challenges how people think about advertising in the world and that's why this is advertising is so important is we want people to look at something we might do in a data space or a PR space or an e-commerce space and go, ‘That is advertising’,” Howatson says.

“Advertising isn't just narrative storytelling.”

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