Chris Williams is the owner and CEO of KingSt Advertising, a full-service advertising, media, marketing, design and digital agency in the central North Island of New Zealand. Based in Hamilton and Tauranga, the business has been operating since 1999 and is one of New Zealand's most respected independent agencies.
Business Type: Advertising and Media
Number of employees: 24
Current Business Situation: Steady recovery to 2019 levels and productising service to create additional revenue Relationship with The Icehouse: Owner Manager Programme Alumni
'I have been working at KingSt for 15 years and my journey started with an internship programme while I was completing my study at WINTEC. KingSt has provided me a great career path with opportunities to grow within my chosen expertise in media. Chris has been a great mentor and he is a really charismatic leader, he sees potential in young talent and does a great job in nurturing those who have a passion for creativity.' Kwan Ng, Media Director
Tell us about yourself and why you decided to become an entrepreneur?
My whole career has been in the advertising agency business. I did my time working at the likes of Colenso BBDO in Wellington and Saatchi & Saatchi in Auckland. In the late 1990s I got to a stage of thinking, ‘I can either do this for the rest of my days or go out on my own’, and then the opportunity came to buy the business in ’99.
How did you become the owner of your business?
Russell Rimmington was the previous owner. At that point he was the mayor of Hamilton, and my father had been his accountant for many years. I was absolutely ready for a change and we’ve had a really good run ever since.
There were four people in the office when I bought the business. It was a hell of a difference going from a 70 to 80-person operation where a lot of stuff gets done for you to just the four, so you have to adapt and become quite hands on.
I’m reasonably versatile, but the biggest difference in becoming an owner was that I was suddenly in control of everything. This doesn’t appeal to everyone, but this way you’re totally in charge of your own destiny. It really sharpens your focus when your livelihood is on the line!
How does 2021 look for you compared to 2020?
We were tracking very well and the last two years were really good. 2018/19 was an excellent year, then in 2019/20 we had one of our best ever years with 20% growth and some great new clients in the mix.
As for the year that we’re in, It’s going well, but we took a hit when we lost a big client. It’s just a fact of life in our game but it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
But we’ve kept all our people and put in place a recovery programme and, if we play our cards right we should get back to where we need to be by the end of the 21/22 financial year.
It’s been hard psychologically and as an owner you tend to approach it in two ways – the way you approach it when everyone else is around and when you’re alone at night freaking out!
‘Spread the calm’ is something I try to live by, because there’s no precedent to this thing. I think leaders should freak out in their own time! To a certain extent it’s pointless listening to business experts who are trying to predict the future because everyone got it wrong.
What are currently your biggest challenges?
No doubt it’s about getting back to where we were in 2019. If we can convert a couple of the opportunities that we have in place, then we’ll be back on track. However, through the first lockdown and beyond we have been really busy and doing well.
Even though the technology is a lot better than it was, and things like Zoom have been useful, there are still challenges. In this industry it’s so much better presenting face-to-face – you can read the room quite well, and obviously that’s a lot harder to do on a call.
Since Covid came along a lot of clients have had to take a really good look at themselves in terms of their branding, positioning, marketing spends, and so on. So there’s been a complete reimagination of those challenges. We work to some good models, so we’re going to productise that, develop a brand within a brand, and take it to market in Q2.
It’s going to be a real process that we can put clients through; analyse their marketing spend and their audience habits, and then make some refinements and recommendations, create some efficiencies, adjust their brand positioning and messaging and charge a fee for this service.
I'm not sure if we'd be thinking along these lines if Covid hadn’t happened, but marketing departments everywhere need to change their habits and reset their priorities, and we can help with that.
In the two years previously, we’d done well in terms of retained earnings and basic cash management. One thing I have learned over the years, and this also came through in my OMP, is the importance of managing cash carefully, because you never know when that rainy day might occur.
What kind of support have you received from The Icehouse and are you looking to keep working with them?
I did the Owner Manager Programme in 2004. When I took the course we were the agency for the Auckland University which included the Auckland Business School, so that’s how I found out about The Icehouse.
I also had three or four contacts in Hamilton who had done the OMP who just loved the experience, so I thought, ‘now’s the time’. I put my heart and soul into it, because you only get out what you put in, and I thought it was brilliant.
I still refer back to my end-of-programme business plan and it’s always very helpful – even after all this time! There are always things you can refresh and implement so it never goes out of date.
How have things changed since working with The Icehouse?
The main thing I got out of OMP was how essential it is to get out of the business and have a good look at things externally. There was also an emphasis on governance, and I appointed a couple of directors as a result of what I learned on OMP. I also picked up a few ideas on handling growth and that helped when we opened our Tauranga office. In terms of the business development side of things we also put in place some processes which had been fairly random up to that point. This came down to putting a team in place to make sure all bases are covered. I know my strengths well but I know my weaknesses even better!
Something that’s rarely discussed is having personal ambitions when you’re a business owner, and the OMP also addressed that. So I’ve pursued my other passions and released two music albums and written and produced two musicals, ‘State Highway 48’ and ‘The Quest’. State Highway 48 has international potential – this has been confirmed to me after a North Island tour and a short season at Bruce Mason Theatre in Auckland.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are struggling/looking for help?
I do a lot of mentoring myself – mainly in the space that I'm in; marketing, communications, digital media and PR. I start with some searching questions around their client base, how they go prospecting, how they leverage their product and then go from there.
I also like to quiz younger business people on their financials. What's your income? What's your costs? What's your break-even point and all that kind of stuff. You have to know your numbers and more and more often I hear, ‘I’ll just get my accountant to check that’. That’s not the way to run a business.
People tell me I’m lucky, but I tell them there are two types of luck – good and bad – and I’ve had my fair share of both. I have 35 years’ experience in the industry, but it’s taken me 35 years to get it!
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