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News Analysis

'A specialist SWAT team, not an army': Dentsu's former Isobar boss Konrad Spilva on building new models, avoiding big agency baggage at Shadowboxer

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

17 November 2020 5min read

Shadowboxer founding partners, L to R: Konrad Spilva, Stephen Graham and Mike Fraser

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

17 November 2020 5min read

Aiming to bridge the gap between agencies and consultancies by providing "short, sharp and accountable" project work for brands, former Isobar boss Konrad Spilva turned down a shot at going client-side and resisted joining former Dentsu CEO Simon Ryan's RyanCap to launch his own consultancy, Shadowboxer. Working with national brands such as Forty Winks, right through to funding and investing in start-ups, Spilva is pushing his tech and marketing-led business strategy beyond the CMO and putting himself squarely in front of CEOs and boards – and says they are listening more intently than ever.

What you need to know:
  • Former Isobar boss and Visual Jazz founder Konrad Spilva has gone back to his start-up roots with Shadowboxer.
  • Spilva told Mi3 he turned down the option to join a major Australian brand in a chief digital officer role to launch the consultancy.
  • He had also been pegged to join former employer and Dentsu CEO Simon Ryan as digital lead for his new venture RyanCap.
  • Starting with five partners, Spilva expects10 by the end of the year, with 20-30 in the next two years.
  • Former Isobar colleagues Mike Fraser and Stephen Graham are creative and strategic partners, respectively, with two partners to be announced shortly.
  • Foundation clients include Forty Winks, Defeat Diabetes and Doshii, however, Shadowboxer will work with an array of clients through "financially specific" arrangements.
  • Spilva says models include full fee-paying, reduced fees for equity, long-term partnerships with the ability to buy stock options and investment or 50/50 splits, to which Shadowboxer has dedicated a support fund.
  • The former digital agency boss says it's high time for a consultancy that offers more than just "another plan for the PowerPoint graveyard", with intentions of getting in front of boards and CEOs as much as CMOs – and post-Covid, says he is pushing at an open door.
  • The business will do more than "sell a tech stack" or "push a big brand idea" aiming instead to solve broader business problems, with less focus on retainers and more "short, sharp and accountable" project work.

 

“Shadowboxer is more about having a specialist SWAT team, not an army. This is where we intend to engage in short, sharp and accountable project work for clients that address a business issue, rather than on-selling creative, tech or media solutions a brand doesn’t need.”

- Konrad Spilva, Managing Partner, Shadowboxer

Start me up

After resigning from his role as the CEO of Dentsu’s digital cash cow Isobar in March last year, Konrad Spilva has gone back to his start-up roots, launching another new business, Shadowboxer.

Spilva was notably the founder of Australian creative shop, Visual Jazz, eventually acquired by Dentsu (then Aegis).

Alongside four other partners, including former Isobar colleagues Mike Fraser and Stephen Graham and two who are yet to be named, Spilva is pushing a new tech and marketing-led business aimed at avoiding the  baggage that can come with large agencies and big-time consultancies.

Spilva was thought to be joining former Dentsu CEO Simon Ryan, leading the digital side of the former holding group’s new indie outfit, RyanCap. However, he confirmed his decision to step away from the business in July.

Speaking to Mi3, Spilva says it wasn’t the right fit. He also turned down a client-side role to do what he “knows best” and build something from scratch.

The Melbourne-based outfit has had its figurative doors open for the last four months and has already begun working with major national clients such as Forty Winks.

Spilva expects that the business will reach 10 staff by the end of the year, with 20-30 in the next two years but is keen not to seek “scale for the sake of it”.

“We don’t want to get caught up in the usual issues that plague agencies and larger consultancies, such as governance, chasing higher fees, looking for retainer clients and creating capabilities just to keep a client hooked in,” says Spilva.

“Shadowboxer is more about having a specialist SWAT team, not an army. This is where we intend to engage in short, sharp and accountable project work for clients that address a business issue, rather than on-selling creative, tech or media solutions a brand doesn’t need.”

Spilva says the business will take a “niche position” for brands, working between big consultancies such as PwC, Accenture and Deloitte and agency holding groups.

He thinks there is an opportunity to be the link between the two when it comes to implementation of tech stacks, digital transformation strategies and wider creative brand development.

“There is always going to be a need for both consultancies and agencies. However, what we’re seeing is consultants going into a brand, offering them their tech, data and digital tools as a solution – but then leaving without explaining how it solves the issue,” Spilva says.

“That often leaves an agency scrambling to figure out how that fits into what they see as the creative, brand or media issue and suddenly you’re already behind. If we can be the link between the two that provides the execution and strategy, then it makes the process much smoother.”

“Right now too many relationships are more like a bad date – there’s a predefined brief, unreasonable expectations of one another and little thought to what ‘long-term’ could look like. As far as we see it, this is because agencies and clients negotiate price on timesheets, not outcomes, something we’ll never do.”

- Konrad Spilva, Managing Partner, Shadowboxer

A different way of working

Spilva suggests the agency landscape has a “big problem” and that the value exchange between agencies and their clients is broken.

He says agencies should always be obsessed with their client’s total business and be experts in its strengths, weaknesses and blind spots; while clients should see their agencies like business partners, not just there to complete a predefined task.

“Right now too many relationships are more like a bad date - there’s a predefined brief, unreasonable expectations of one another and little thought to what ‘long-term’ could look like,” Spilva says.

“As far as we see it, this is because agencies and clients negotiate price on timesheets, not outcomes, something we’ll never do.”

Spilva says this means Shadowboxer will be less focused on building up a large client portfolio and will limit itself to 5-10 projects at a time.

In the case of Forty Winks, for example, while the company has a brand recognition of 95% among Australians, it needs to rapidly execute a digital transformation strategy that drives e-commerce and customer retention.

“They’re up against the likes of Koala, which has managed similar brand recognition through the direct-to-consumer environment, so you can already see a clear business issue that needs to be addressed,” Spilva says.

“We will solve that, rather than go in, suggest pumping millions into a specific tech stack, get them to re-platform and hire an expensive digital team – there are smarter, faster and more efficient strategies that consultancies and agencies simply ignore.”

“Where once a brand could easily assign three years and millions to a project, this has completely flipped on its head and now needs to be briefed, built and executed in six-months – and those conversations are had at a much higher executive level.”

- Konrad Spilva, Managing Partner, Shadowboxer

Boards scrambling post-Covid

Spilva says the most surprising thing about his new role is the number of conversations that are being had at CEO and board level, rather than with marketing teams alone.

He’s witnessing a “real shift” in how some brands are engaging with their marketing function, as Covid has forced “large-scale rethinks” to how businesses operate.

“There’s now this notion that they, if brands haven’t already, need to identify how they can re-shape their business model to adapt to the widespread changes made in digital and tech-driven marketing,” Spilva says.

“Where once a brand could easily assign three years and millions to a project, this has completely flipped on its head and now needs to be briefed, built and executed in six-months – and those conversations are had at a much higher executive level.”

“That’s one of the biggest problems with the agency landscape at the moment – the client always gets what the agency is selling, whether they need it or not. We’re not a content shop, we’re not a website shop and we’re not an ad shop.”

- Konrad Spilva, Managing Partner, Shadowboxer

Varying ventures

Shadowboxer will also work with clients in three key ways, though Spilva says all three ensure that Shadowboxer has “skin in the game”.

“We won’t build a technology solution unless we’re co-investing in the product itself and it’s not one of the big tech vendors,” he says.

“Skin in the game makes for better outcomes and being independent means we don’t have a bench of talent who are aligned to a specific solution that we need to funnel work too.

“That’s one of the biggest problems with the agency landscape at the moment - the client always gets what the agency is selling, whether they need it or not. We’re not a content shop, we’re not a website shop and we’re not an ad shop.”

Shadowboxer’s three primary financial models are:

  • Equity – the consultancy will build tech or offer reduced fees for equity in the business
  • Long-term partnerships – changing fee structures in return for stock options
  • Co-creation – working with a brand from the ground up and taking a 50/50 ownership in the business.

“For us, it won’t just be about working with blue-chip clients or just start-ups, we are going to be in business with companies of any size, which is why we’ve opted for this working structure,” Spilva says.

“We want to be able to work with legacy brands and prove our commitment through investment, while also guiding start-ups in capital raising and development by using an established fund to financially back them.”

Instead of just talking about how broken the agency model is, Spilva is creating new ones – and it seems his timing could not be better.

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