A new book by Meerkats co-founder Mike Edmonds, Truth, Growth, Repeat, expounds a business philosophy influenced by four decades of advertising industry experience, good and bad.
Advertising executive turned management consultant and author, Mike Edmonds, learned his trade on the job in the bush, where desperation in supply and demand led to the kind of opportunity that is rare these days.
While arriving in Perth as a two year old would normally qualify any immigrant as Western Australian, Mr Edmonds said his school mates somehow cottoned on to the fact he was born across the Nullarbor and dubbed him a croweater.
It is something of a theme in his life, Mr Edmonds tells Business News over a noisy lunch at Julio’s.
His early career in regional WA, three years in Narrogin and Bunbury, led people to assume he was from the country when he reappeared in Perth.
“My affliction is that everyone I meet and work with thinks I’m from somewhere else,” said Mr Edmonds, who grew up mainly in Claremont and went to the former boys school St Louis, which later became part of John XXIII College.
It is also perhaps that Mr Edmonds left WA briefly after high school and started his career as an office boy in an advertising agency in Adelaide after his family moved back to South Australia.
“When I saw an ad in the Adelaide Advertiser for junior ... I think it’s even called office boy, they actually named me office boy. I’m probably the last office boy in the history of capitalism. It said office boy in an advertising agency, I thought, ‘cool, I might be able to one day get paid to draw’,” he said.
“I’d grown up loving comedy and drawing.
“So I kind of just eased into writing from a really natural point of view of just wanting to make people laugh, and I did funny voices and I enjoyed that, and I also really loved drawing.”
Mr Edmonds mainly wrote copy for Woolworths supermarket advertisements during his time at The Advertiser, a specialisation that he soon mastered and bored him. It was the start of a nomadic period of his life, during which he quit to return to WA, heading back across the desert in an old MG at a time when the road was not yet fully sealed.
In Perth, Mr Edmonds worked as a junior copywriter at Boans department store, which had its own advertising division for newspaper advertisements and brochures.
“It was quite grounding; I learned about discipline and how to compact things into a certain word count and how to, every now and then, be clever with a headline,” Mr Edmonds said.
He then worked at a tiny advertising agency called Pen Advertising, broadening his skills to broadcast, which led him to radio, a medium he found fascinating enough to venture to Narrogin to organise a few hours a day of local content and advertising.
“If you think driving across the Nullarbor in a beat-up MG is an experience, you try being a single man and DJ in 1980 in Narrogin,” Mr Edmonds said.
“I learned at a real grass-roots level what the act of creativity actually was because I’d have to meet the guy who owned the chemist and watch him take the money out of the cash register and one time a guy said to me, ‘Well alright I’ll buy a Christmas package from you, you know, 30 spots’, they were only like five bucks each by the way, ‘but I saved this money for my kids’ presents, so if what you’re telling me is true, then I’ll get more’.
“So I learned what am I actually doing with my creativity? What’s my obligation here? It’s not to win awards, and it’s not to make myself famous, and yet I needed to be creative in order to have this guy stand out from the other eight chemists in Narrogin.
“But it was a very raw experiment in the role of advertising in free enterprise in the whole process of capitalism.
“And you are so much closer to the market than almost anybody else.”
After his next stint in Bunbury, Mr Edmonds found a job in Perth working for an agency called JMA (Jenkin Morgan Aitken), having written a job application he claims was a dissertation on effective advertising – providing an inkling of his future career as an executive, agency owner, business consultant and author.
“That’s what eventually got me the job,” he said.
“In fact, and again that’s why people say, ‘wow, you got a job at JMA, you’re from Bunbury? Like, why did they pick someone from Bunbury?’ Well, I’m not really from Bunbury.”
Despite being awed by the slick St Georges Terrace premises, he stuck with his focus on effectiveness before creativity and grew with the agency as it developed under the leadership of Ron Jenkin.
Mr Edmonds then took a management role as JMA eventually became part of global behemoth Ogilvy & Mather.
He said it was a great seven years, during a period of big memorable advertising campaigns, but eventually he felt he had learned enough and the market was shifting.
“It’s like if you did a big funny ad launch on Sunday night, and had a three week campaign with a bit of press and radio spots, it seemed to work,” Mr Edmonds said.
“Then it started to seem to not work so well.”
In 1990, he moved to a newish agency called 303, which he said had a passion for developing brands and understanding the business relationship of advertising, the consumer and the company.
Like at JMA, he said, he worked at 303 with some amazing people, many who went to great careers in Perth and elsewhere.
Mr Edmonds spent the next decade (a couple of years too long for everyone, he said) at 303, now 303 MullenLowe, and joined what was then the state’s biggest agency Marketforce working for John Driscoll.
Part of the wooing process involved meeting brand planner Ronnie Duncan, who had been lured out from Scotland. Mr Edmonds said he recognised that Mr Duncan, his future partner at Meerkats, was different from the start.
“I’ll embarrass him by saying it’s like a professional love at first sight,” Mr Edmond said.
“It was like something happened. Not for him (just) in my head.
“It’s something about his demeanor, the way he talked, whatever.
“Anyway, over the next year we just clicked like crazy in terms of resisting bullshit propositions and clients’ demands that weren’t going to work.
“Asking difficult questions like: ‘if you spend this million dollars, mister client, what do you think is going to happen?’”
This was a period when advertising was changing. It was pre-digital and media companies and market researchers were vying with agencies to dominate the clients’ boardrooms.
In essence, the pair started developing the approach they ultimately established at Meerkats, and Mr Edmonds has shaped into a book. Advertising was not always the answer to every problem, at least not at first.
“Our instinct was to make a better product,” he said. “Or train your staff better. Or come up with something new or innovate, or fix that problem.
“Then let’s advertise that. And you know what? You’ll get a better result for all this money.
“And in the end, what we were talking about was truth.”
This was a business problem a creative agency was better able to solve than traditional management consulting firms, Mr Edmonds said.
“They can’t take all that research and findings and then with a blank piece of paper invent the future,” he said.
“I don’t think they are very good at that.”