As Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder’s founders Chiquita King and Ant Melder celebrate the agency’s second birthday they tell LBB’s Natasha Patel about how the agency came about and why they’re committed to giving back
A little over two years ago Chiquita King and Ant Melder launched Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder, an Australian independent agency that pledges to make a difference. Although the duo first met when they were at M&C Saatchi Sydney, it was a few years before the stars aligned and they took the plunge to set up the agency they affectionately call ‘Cocogun’ together.
Since then, they’ve grown their company to an eclectic range of employees from part-time comedians who double up as head of social to an art director who is an AFL player, weathered the Covid-19 storm and cemented themselves as an agency to watch thanks to their work for causes such as Anti-Slavery Australia and Rethink Sugary Drink Alliance. They’ve also committed to giving back 5% of their annual profits to causes, organisations and individuals where they can make a real difference. Point in hand is that this year they worked with The Smile Foundation in South Africa to support six children needing surgery due to facial conditions, mostly cleft palates
This isn’t where the agency’s pledge to put people first ends and as a self-described ‘white lady from South Africa with heritage in Scandinavia and a brown guy from East London with heritage in Bangladesh’ the duo is ensuring that they represent diversity and inclusion, culture and people the right way.
To hear more about these beliefs, their creative journeys and what Cocogun has in mind for the future, LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with Ant and Chiquita to hear more.
LBB> You both come from different ends of the world originally, how did your partnership and the agency begin?
Ant and Chiquita> Yes, Ant is from East London and CK is from Johannesburg in South Africa. We met when we worked together at M&C Saatchi Sydney. Running a big piece of business there was excellent grounding for going into business together. Especially because we learned that while everyone loves ‘press release day’, ‘big win day’ and ‘crack open the champagne day’, we’re both very much about showing up on the more challenging days too. We’re both very much ‘run towards the fire’ people. We talked about launching the agency for a few years before the stars aligned and the timing was right for both of us. Most of all, we were both at the point where we were ready to take everything we’d learned from some world class mentors, blend it with our thinking and start something special.
LBB> Growing up, how much was creativity in your lives?
Ant> I was crap at school and left at 16 but I was absolutely obsessed with culture, particularly words. This took the form of being obsessed with The Smiths and Public Enemy, attempting beat poetry, running gonzo fanzines and launching a national magazine. When I discovered advertising, everything fell into place.
Chiquita> For me creativity is about emotion. I fell in love with advertising because making people feel something is how you capture their attention as well as their imagination. The parallels between creativity and leadership are irrefutable. Great leaders cause you to reflect and light a flame inside you, as does a good idea. A career in creativity gives you a platform to leave the world and the people in it better off. What’s not to love?
LBB> Culture, D&I, people are things that are so important to you both - and the agency - tell me more.
Ant and Chiquita> Our agency proposition is ‘People are everything’. Lots of agencies talk about focusing on people and looking after people. For us it’s not a bonus or a side effect or even a chore, it’s our founding principle and at the core of everything we do. It comes to life in the way our team operates, the people we work with and the way we do business. And we’re finding that prioritising people is our special sauce. Focusing on people and our culture is a multiplier for us. Our people are happier, people like working with us and the work is exponentially better.
D&I may be a buzzword these days but creativity is diversity. And it’s in our DNA. A white lady from SA with heritage in Scandinavia; a brown guy from East London with heritage in Bangladesh. We’ve seen and lived the 1+1=3 principle of diversity and we’re building a brilliantly diverse and ridiculously talented team around us.
In terms of the culture of the agency, we do stuff that feels right and we don’t do things that don’t feel right. And we try to do things our way. For example, we’re an agency of passionate animal lovers. We’re not keen on Melbourne Cup Day and the injuries/fatalities to horses every year. So we do Melbourne Pup Day instead - we go and help out at a rescue dog centre (and then go for a few drinks in the afternoon of course!)
LBB> As an agency I know you pledge to donate 5% of your profits, so why is giving back so important to you and how do you choose who you give to?
Ant and Chiquita> Many agency propositions are nice words to be printed on business cards, painted on the walls, appended to email signatures...and promptly forgotten. We wanted ‘People are everything’ to be real and tangible. It may sound a bit hippy, but we passionately believe that creativity is a force that can be used not just to supercharge brands but also make the word a better place. Our 5% pledge is a way of doing that. For us, it’s less about writing a cheque and moving on; it’s more about identifying causes, organisations and individuals we have a personal connection with, and finding a way we can make a real impact. This year, through a family connection with CK, we helped The Smile Foundation in Johannesburg provide cleft palate operations to six beautiful African kids.
LBB> Tell me more about the culture at Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder and when hiring new staff what do you look for?
Ant and Chiquita> Our values are ‘Out-think; Out-class; Out-care’. They’ve served us well as a smaller, newer agency often going up against the network behemoths. So when we’re hiring we look for people who match those values. Plus, we look for people who can do more than the job we’re hiring for. The multi-talented thing has been an amazing source of creativity, inspiration and new ideas. For example, our head of social is also a stand-up comedian, we have a copywriter who’s a qualified sound engineer, an art director who’s a women’s premier league AFL player, a project director who’s had a successful career as an actor, a designer who’s also an illustrator and photographer. That’s just a handful...it’s a pretty special team.
LBB> After working for agency networks how has it been for you both to 'go it alone' so to say and become independent?
Ant and Chiquita> Network life was good to us, particularly getting to work with and learn from some brilliant people. Going it alone was a shock at first. We have a team around us now but at the start it was just the two of us. No IT support and lots of trips to Officeworks! But the autonomy has been liberating. Being able to run our own race, write our own future and build a culture free of politics, bureaucracy and BS has been a career high.
And it’s an interesting time for the agency landscape right now. Independents are starting to give the networks a run for their money and we’re excited to be part of that. Going up against the best is an important part of this industry. There was a famous poster on the wall of Crispin Porter Bogusky back in their heyday which read ‘YOUR HEROES ARE YOUR COMPETITION’. We love that.
LBB> What have been highs and lows of the past two years?
Chiquita> Highs: A high from the get-go was the industry wanting us to succeed. We were overwhelmed with industry peers far and wide that believed we would build something worthwhile. To this day, we get so many introductions to clients from other agencies who have a conflict of interest but know that we will make the opportunity count. I say this has been a high because it is evidence of camaraderie and this is often overlooked or not celebrated enough in this industry.
The calibre of people we have hired remains the ultimate high. I often look at Ant and say: ‘How is it that they’ve chosen to wear our team colours?’ They could work anywhere, for anyone, given their ridiculous talent and yet here they are.
The same goes for our clients. Super smart, good humans but impatient to do things better. This presents us with an urgent energy that drives momentum and we find ourselves playing to win rather than playing not to lose. I hope we never tire of the optimism that has us focused on the best outcome vs. the one that is buyable or reasonable.
As for the lows, well is it too obvious to say a global pandemic arrived just as we signed a new lease for our shiny new office in Surry Hills. Followed by our head of design sharing with us that he had just been diagnosed with cancer. Two projects in production halted within a week and two clients stopped all planned activity.
Through it all, I’ve learned that our agency proposition - ‘People are everything’ is not just a slide in our credentials deck. It is our biggest asset and in truth, the thing that shielded us from dissolving. We didn’t let anyone go, in fact we hired. We leaned on each other and rode the crisis out one day at a time. The last six months have been our best yet. Our revenue has grown exponentially, the phone is ringing and we have won a number of pitches.
LBB> Of course, I have to ask about the name Coffee Cocoa Gunpowder! How did it come about?
Ant> It was CK’s idea. We absolutely didn’t want it to be our joint surnames. That’d be too old school, too boring and, most of all, too focused on us. We’re about people, relationships, creativity and emotion. We wanted those elements somehow reflected in the name. ‘Coffee’ is about the jolt that gets people leaning in, ‘Cocoa’ talks to the warmth and humanity of our relationships; ‘Gunpowder’ represents our creative ambition and desire to make an impact. We know it’s a mouthful and hard to take in at first (we’ve witnessed the bamboozled look on many an office receptionist’s face!). So most of our clients and partners refer to us as Cocogun.
LBB> Chiquita, you called it a 'privilege' to work on the campaign for Anti-Slavery Australia. Why is it so important to highlight a cause such as this?
Chiquita> We opened our agency doors with a promise to bring audacious creativity and a vow to do good in the world. With our Human Mart project for Anti-Slavery Australia we felt like we’d begun to deliver on that. But it’s just the start. We’re working on a number of new projects that are just as exciting. It’s a privilege because we both already feel so ridiculously fortunate to work in an industry we absolutely love, with people we admire and respect, doing work that’s creative and fulfilling. To then work on a project that makes a difference to the community is particularly special.
LBB> The campaign for the Aged Care Workforce Industry Council is all about bringing joy, tell me more about working on it?
Ant and Chiquita> There’s obviously a big national debate going on in Australia right now about the quality of care our older citizens are receiving. ACWIC are looking to triple the number of people working in the aged care sector by 2050, so they need to bring huge amounts of talented people into the sector. Yet, many who might be suitable for a role in aged care either haven’t considered it or have considered and dismissed it. Our idea was to focus on the sense of pure human connection at the core of the roles. The opportunity to make a genuine, meaningful difference to people’s lives, every day. Working closely with ACWIC and a range of aged care providers, we saw up close just how important this task is. And getting feedback, particularly from current aged care staff, saying we’d nailed it was really rewarding.
LBB> You mentioned Gen Z being an influence for the Rethink Sugary Drink Alliance campaign, how important is it for you as an agency to ensure that everyone from the elderly to the young are represented and spoken to in your campaigns?
Ant and Chiquita> It’s the job of agencies to deliver the right messages and the right tone for every brief. Every brief – and therefore, every audience – is different, and the work should reflect that. We love the fact that our creativity is so versatile; it means we can’t be pigeon-holed. From irreverent and cheeky at one end of the spectrum, to sensitive and meaningful when the brief demands it.
We also believe it’s absolutely the job of agencies and brands to properly and fully represent the society and audiences they’re talking to. And whichever demographic you’re targeting, people have pretty finely attuned bullshit detectors, so authenticity is key.
LBB> With that in mind, Australia is changing so much so how do you ensure you stay abreast of trends to ensure that campaigns are as effective as they can be?
Ant and Chiquita> Agencies are hive minds and Cocogun is no different. Culture is the lifeblood of creativity and bringing together such a diverse team – in terms of ages, genders and cultural backgrounds – ensures we’re plugged into so many aspects of it. We’re also just a ridiculously curious bunch so diving deep into different elements of culture is what gets us out of bed in the mornings.
LBB> Finally, what are your hopes for the future and how do you plan to ensure you get there?
Ant and Chiquita> It’s a real ‘go big or go home’ attitude. Which may seem unexpected because, as people, we’re pretty well balanced and modest. But when it comes to work and what Cocogun can achieve, we’re ridiculously ambitious. There’s an epigram we love, taken from the Situationist movement that sprung up around the Paris 1968 social revolts: Be reasonable. Demand the impossible. So we’re not here to play small or make up the numbers. True to the ‘Gunpowder’ element of our name, we want to make a real impact. And we envision that being measured in every way, from industry benchmarks to societal effect. Be it D&AD pencils, headlines in the media, reports on the evening news, going ‘viral’ on social media (does anyone actually use that term any more?!)...all of the above.
Ultimately, how we gauge success relies on how evident our values are in every interaction: Out smart, Out class and Out care.
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