Bastion: A principled approach to marketing

By Justin Ware. Published at May 15, 2019, in Features

Founded in 2009, from humble beginnings. Bastion Collective has grown to become Australia’s largest independent communications agency, boasting an extensive client list which includes Microsoft, Deakin University, AusPost and Ferrari.

At just 31, Founder and CEO Jack Watts has been pivotal to the company’s success.

His impact is undoubted: it includes a proactive acquisition strategy that resulted in Bastion achieving greater than 30% compound growth year on year for the past 3 years.

He recently sat down with Finfeed’s Justin Ware to discuss what separates Bastion Collective from other agencies, his advice for young leaders and more.

Justin Ware: Afternoon Jack, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me today.

Jack Watts: No worries Justin, let’s get started!

Justin: For sure, tell us a little bit about your background prior to joining Bastion as CEO?

Jack: In the years prior to joining Bastion, it was a bit of a grind. I was a commerce graduate out of Melbourne Uni and worked as a currency trader from 6PM to 6AM most days.

The company I was with was backed by a mortgage group, which bundled up subprime mortgages and sold them on to mum and dad investors (sound familiar!). When the 2008 financial crisis hit that company went under and I found myself without a job. That’s when my brother Fergus came into the frame.

As you may or may not be aware, Fergus played a few years in the AFL (Adelaide and St Kilda) but was cruelled by significant injuries. After he retired, he began working at a Creative and Digital Agency called Belong. He took what he learned during his time there and founded Bastion Collective.

I joined a few months later and it’s been an incredible journey since.

Justin: Fantastic, for those who may not be familiar with Bastion, can you tell us a little more about it?

Jack: Absolutely. Bastion Collective is the largest independent communications agency in Australia. We’ve been in operation for 10 years now and provide a comprehensive suite of integrated communications solutions for our clients.

There are several agencies under the Bastion Collective umbrella. These include: Bastion Latitude, Bastion Effect, Bastion China and Bastion Films.

Most importantly, we only have one dedicated department to each service: one creative agency, one PR agency etc. There’s no internal battle where several departments are competing against and undermining each other. In the larger multinational agencies this happens, and it often comes at the expense of the client.

This allows us to function as an efficient integrated agency that delivers time and time again.

Our core aims are to help clients create, grow, protect and measure their ideas. We deliver a plethora of services including research, creative and digital, corporate and consumer communications, sponsorship and experiential, content production, government relations and data.

As a company we’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that when an acquisition of a complementary business is finalised, the founder or CEO of that company retains their position within that business.

This allows us to provide an owner operator service, which you cannot find, at scale, anywhere else in our industry.

Over the last decade the Australian agency scene has shifted. What we’ve found is there’s four or five huge multinational agencies and an abundance of independent smaller agencies with very little in between.

That’s where we aim to be a point of difference – a hybrid between the above. We want to become known as the great Australian agency, the ‘bastion’ of Australian ingenuity and problem solvers that has made us such a prosperous country in our short history.

We’re well on our way.

Justin: What’s allowed you to take Bastion from a start-up into the nation’s largest independent marketing group?

Jack: Because we’re Australian owned and comprised of locals, we’re on the same page.

I can’t understate this advantage enough. When you think of the large agencies and the different countries and time zones they’re across, getting everyone up to speed is a chore.

We have the capacity to move in a direction quickly and stay one step ahead. This is reflected in our results – our compound growth has been about 30% year on year over 10 years. The industry standard is 2% at best.

This result can be attributed to the advantages I stated above. We also adopt common sense (which has become all too uncommon). Agencies are for more complicated than what they need to be. A great agency comes down to two things: clients and staff.

If you nail both of those aspects the results will come.

Justin: 30%?! Bastion has been proactive on the acquisition front, especially over the last 6-12 months. What are some recent ones you’ve made and what will they do for Bastion?

Jack: Sure. We recently took a majority stake in Banjo Advertising. That was huge for us because it filled a need in our creative function as a company. They’ve worked on some great projects with exceptional clients like AMP and Real Pet Food Company.

Another key move we made recently was the acquisition of Stable Research, a leading data and market research company in NSW. As you know, data is everything. Adding a backend data agency to our group was a major coup and allows us to combine creative with data which is a powerful mix.

To create the great Australian agency, we need to know Australians better than anyone else out there. Stable has an active database of more than 150,000 Australians and has been collating data on every product and major industry for some 15 years.

We now have access to crucial insights – if your research and analytics are not up to scratch, plotting the correct angle of attack for a campaign can become overwhelming quickly and your message will fall on deaf ears.

I touched on this a little earlier, but I do believe we have lost the art of communicating to our fellow Australians. With so much of our industry having been bought out overseas, more and more campaigns and activations are globalised (and often Americanised).

Bringing in Stable Research gives us the tools to communicate to Australians and generate the best result possible for our clients.

Justin: You’ve now expanded Bastion overseas into LA and Shanghai, why those two markets?

Jack: We’ve identified both of these regions as key growth opportunities, especially China.

The Australia-China relationship has grown tremendously over the years and will continue to do so. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to establish and solidify Australia as the western gateway to China.

Our presence in China is now touching on five years, and we have 10 Chinese nationals working across our offices in Melbourne and Sydney (Bastion China) to complement our push into that space.

Our LA office came about because we believe the US is experiencing a similar phenomenon to the Australian industry: a real lack of mid-size agencies with an integrated offering. We’ve been in that market for about 18 months now and employ 20+ staff in LA.

Justin: What advice would you have for aspiring young leaders?

Jack: Embrace failure. My father used to tell my brother and I when we were younger “you never learn anything when things are going well.”

When things get tough you find out a lot about your business, your staff and who you are. It’s where real, legitimate personal and professional growth comes from. If you aren’t taking risks and prepared to fail, you won’t reach your potential in either arena.

The best decisions that we’ve made as a business have come from mistakes (and there have been plenty). Without that prior gained knowledge, you’re flying blind.

It won’t be fun at the time, but your failures are often the genesis of your success.

Justin: That’s great advice Jack. We’re out of time for today, but it was a pleasure.

Jack: No worries Justin, likewise.

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