Bruce grapples with Octopus’ many tentacles

It’s been a steep learning curve for Octopus MD Paul Bruce, but he’s keeping his head above water writes Richard Abbott

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By  Richard Abbott Published  March 26, 2006

Bruce grapples with Octopus’ many tentacles|~|Bruce,-Paul200.jpg|~|Bruce... ‘They understand what we do. Do they want it? Are they ready for it? Some are. Some aren’t’|~|Paul Bruce has been eluding Campaign for some time now. The MD of brand communications consultancy Octopus (the middle ‘O’ is a zero) has been putting in daft hours since he took the hot seat at the Dubai-based outfit last October. A quick glance back at our e-mail communication is testimony to this. On 2 November he wrote of his “16 hour-days”. On 17 November it wasn’t getting much better: “Horrendously busy, late nights etc.” Last month, he found time to contribute to Campaign’s Private View feature. “This is the best I could do between 2am and 7am this morning,” he wrote. Such is life when a creative director moves into management for the first time. Bruce, who has served time with Impact BBDO, Saatchi & Saatchi and Face to Face in the Middle East, knows his onions when it comes to writing, but he has had to learn quickly about the other tentacles that make up the Octopus offer, including PR and events. “I have learned more in three months of being here about all the other businesses that we are associated with than I did in 15 years previously,” he says. “How much do I really know about PR, about media buying? Not nearly enough as I should.” Bruce began his career at creative agency Abbott Mead Vickers in London and moved to the Middle East in the mid-90s. After a spell in Dubai with Impact BBDO he moved to Saatchi & Saatchi. It was while working for Saatchis in Riyadh that he teamed up with Stuart Cameron and Stu Higton, who are now chairman and creative director of Octopus respectively When ‘big Stu and little Stu’, as they are known within the agency, left Saatchis to form Octopus, Bruce did not join them for family reasons. Instead, he joined design agency Dunes, where he spent five years. But he was reunited with the two Stus last October. “I was sad to leave but you have to keep pushing yourself to do new things,” he says. “I could have carried on very comfortably where I was forever but comfort is dangerous. It was a protection thing. If you don’t carry on learning you die.” Bruce has arrived at a time of impressive growth. Turnover at the five-year-old business, is up by more than 200% year on year. Staff numbers have risen to 30. Sounding suspiciously like a full-service agency of yore, he says: “We like to build the strategy for the client from day one and then use whatever tools we can to implement that strategy.” With this kind of approach there is a risk involved. The total brand communications consultancy is not the norm in this region, and it may be a leap too far for many firms, who instead go down the familiar route of having separate agencies for advertising, media and PR. So, do clients understand what Octopus can offer? “They understand what we do. Do they want it? Are they ready for it? Some are. Some aren’t,” says Bruce. “The biggest challenge for me is the fact that the industry pigeonholes people, and people stay inside their own little box. If you are creative, you write ads and that’s as much as you ever have to think about. “We take a slightly different approach. We’ve always thought that the creative process should begin a long time before you get anywhere near the creative department.” One client that saw the benefit of Octopus’ approach was Dubai’s Ibn Battuta shopping mall. For the launch last year, the agency came up with a strategy and then produced everything from advertising and signage through to the commission of an animated film. “Before you start producing an ad you should really know why you are doing it, is it worth spending the money on it? Do you need it? Are you trying to build the brand or do something tactical?” In many ways chairman Cameron and MD Bruce are poles apart as personalities. Bruce is a creative Englishman, while Cameron is a talkative Scottish planner with a penchant for theorising. Bruce describes his chairman as “fairly forceful and a dynamic personality”. Halfway through our interview, Cameron enters the room and takes a seat. After apologising for hijacking the meeting, he launches straight into a theory on why Octopus is called Octopus. The concept of one head but multiple arms is fairly straightforward to understand. Then we’re into Edward de Bono, the beauty of the creative mind and linear progression. An A4 sheet of paper has been transformed into a flow chart. Personally, I prefer the idea of tentacles. Thirty minutes later, the subject returns to the new managing director. Cameron says Bruce was always part of the plan for Octopus. “He is a highly disciplined and organised person. He is much more conservative than I am,” he says. “That gives a balance to the business that wasn’t there before. He is also one of the best strategic thinkers I have ever worked with.” Some would question the wisdom of hiring a creative to manage an entire communications business, but Cameron is in no doubt that he has got the right man to take Octopus on to its next stage of growth. “We employ 60% on character,” he says. “You can change skill areas and broaden people’s horizon but you can’t change character. Now we have got a skill set that is as good as any agency in town.” The business strategy for Octopus is to have just eight clients, but with the caveat that each must spend more than US$1 million per year. Cameron explains: “Octopus UAE will never be more than 40 to 50 people because we are not a factory.” This sounds unusual. But not as unusual as the fact that the company offers clients the opportunity to pay 20% less or 40% more on a campaign based on how happy they are with the work. Is this the agency model of tomorrow? “We have always tried to stay ahead of the game and not rest on our laurels,” says Cameron. “I reckon we’re five years ahead of the industry.” The next step for Octopus is to expand beyond the UAE. The wider Middle East region is within reach. And naturally, with two Brits at the helm, the UK is also at front of mind. No-one can doubt Bruce’s commitment to the cause. Expect to hear more from him as his business spreads its tentacles further.||**||

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