Hart adds colour to the art of marketing

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Damon Kitney
The Australian
July 17, 2023

Under the umbrella of his AssembledGroup, Craig Hart wants to build the largest network of independent creative agencies in Australia.

"originally-published" Originally published in The Australian, July 2, 2022

Marketing executive and entrepreneur Craig Hart says there is ‘a lot of creativity in business’. On the last Thursday in March, famed artist David Bromley’s South Yarra Gallery in Melbourne played host to a gathering that was most unusual for the surroundings. One of Australia’s most sought-after artists, Bromley – a six-time Archibald Prize finalist – specialises in female nudes and has painted celebrities such as Lily Allen, Kate Fischer, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Miranda Kerr, Kylie Minogue, Megan Galeand Kate Waterhouse. Yet on this afternoon his gallery was packed with business folk, there to launch a new collection of some of the nation’s top marketing and communications agencies brought together by high-flying lawyer-turned marketing executive and entrepreneur, Craig Hart.

Master of ceremonies, Sayers Group executive Russel Howcroft, remarked to the crowd about the unusual friendship between the suit-wearing Hart and the flamboyant Bromley that now looks set to come to life in business as the former looks to expand his new firm known asAssembled Group. Assembled has grown from an initial investment in advertising agency Halo two years ago to comprise 11 specialist marketing agencies that work independently but also collaboratively with its chairman Hart, formerly of Omnicom in Asia, Photon Group and Blueprint Group.

Under the Assembled umbrella, he wants to build the largest network of independent agencies in Australia. The firm’s executives include former sportsmen and broadcasters David Schwarz and Mark Allen.

“When we were thinking about launching Assembled on a more formal basis, I couldn’t think of a better place to do it than in a creative environment,’’ Hart says. He first met Bromley at his Prahran art studio 16 years ago and they have been friends ever since.

“As David would say, not all artists are creative. There’s a lot of creativity in business. In life I think you are always looking for a spark to inspire you, but especially in a client service world.” Hart and Bromley are now collaborating on some business ideas.

“I have learned a lot from his single-minded determination about a business model and pursuing what you believe in,” Hart says.

“I think he has a very large idea for where his brand can go. I think some of our businesses in Assemble can be of assistance to him. We can help with brand development, advocacy, social media and other things that we have.” Bromley, who says the “stars have aligned” with his good friend over the past year about finally doing something together in business – his wife Yuge, like Hart, is a former lawyer – believes advertising is and can be a “very creative arena”.

“I’m a big fan of having people come across art in a different context,” Bromley says. “The breadth of people Craig has provides an opportunity. If you are going to portray your art, should it always be in the rank and file of top commercial galleries? You can look at different environments. I love knocking on different doors to use different arenas as a canvas.

Artist David Bromley and his wife Yuge. Picture: JakeNowakowski

“That brings us to the trajectory I am seeking. I show my work all over the world. There is a broader audience to be reached through technology and different ways of putting things forward. We are really keen to look at that.”

From 2005, Hart for six years was the head of retail agencies across Asia for the NYSE-listed Omnicom Group. In 2011, he moved torun a division of Photon that included the retail and field marketing agencies in Australia and the UK and was the company’s first senior management hire under then chief executive Jeremy Philips. But Photon, once one of the fastest-growing firms on the ASX under chairman Tim Hughes and CEO Matt Bailey, had become overloaded with debt before it was turned around by Philips, who sold many of its businesses and reduced its debt. In July 2012, it changed its name to Enero Group.

Hart says he learned a lot from both his Omnicom and Photon experiences.

“The latter was the last one in a sequence of what I would call roll-ups,” he says. “But having the ability to do it didn’t necessarily mean it was the right thing to do. So if the only reason is to get to scale, so that you can pursue a listed environment and get a better exit, if that’s all there is then I think that’s more than dangerous.

“Then I also learned that a holding company is good and bad. A holding company like Omnicom was mostly good. They were financially astute.There was a cachet with that business that is worldwide, etc. But it needed todo more for the agencies as opposed to just sending people like me to say, ‘Try harder – we need more money’. That’s not that inspiring.

“The only way you can avoid that is not to imagine that you’re better than the people who ran it before and you can fix it. You need to build it from the beginning the right way, and make a contribution to the agencies from the beginning when they join your group.”

He sees Assembled as the chance to start something from scratch on the right terms focused on all stakeholders, not just the investment and the return that so often dominates listed or private equity constructs. Hart sees Covid as representing the most significant disruption to the landscape of the marketing industry for some time.

“If you look at the proliferation of online, it means that brands that have bricks-and-mortar are going to have to review their value proposition and why they are still relevant, as opposed to thinking that people will just come back when they throw the doors open,” Hart says. “They’ve now experienced that you can buy online. And most of the time it turns up and it’s not damaged.

“Demand has been brought forward by Covid. People are buying how as much as they are buying what. The reality is, some of our design isn’t better than other agencies. It’s as good as other agencies. It’s not necessarily better, but it doesn’t need to be better. It needs to be good, on time, within budget, delivered in a way the client needs and working with their team. Covid has made people choosier about that.”

Assembled has attracted some big-name backers. One is Craig Mathieson, a board member of AFL club Carlton and whose father Don and pokies baron uncle Bruce set up The Mathieson Group, which has a diverse range of investments from rural interests to resources and property. Another is former Carlton president Mark LoGiudice, managing director of Crawfords Group, a family-owned investment and development company involved in commercial, industrial and retail property. Both Mathieson and LoGiudice, who often invest together, have 50 per cent of Assembled and are directors of the firm.

“While Craig Mathieson and I have not previously been active investors in the advertising and marketing industry, we backed Craig Hart and his expertise in the sector,” LoGiudice says. “We saw Assembled as a strategic investment opportunity. At some point after the pandemic businesses needed to rebrand and market themselves more than ever. This has indeed proved to be true.

“We were excited about the people and businesses Craig had as potential targets – which he has now delivered and created a real point of difference in the market.”

LoGiudice’s point was emphasised by Howcroft during his speech to the Assembled launch party in March. He stressed that in the post-Covid world, firms needed to advertise more than ever.

The remaining 50 per cent of Assembled is split between Hart and former Gadens property partner Mark Woolley. They both worked as lawyers together.

“This backing from the two Marks and Craig gave us enough capital to take the initial investments to get the group going. We took a very deliberate decision in Covid – we only made one investment pre pandemic – to get on with the assembling of Assembled,” Hart says.

Assembled has started with a presence in Sydney and Melbourne, and Brisbane will be a priority for domestic expansion to give the firm coverage down the eastern seaboard. Hart is clear clients don’t want to be serviced by staff who are “visiting”. He says the next step will be to look abroad in Southeast Asia and he has already had some initial conversations.

“The retail circumstance in Asia is very interesting,” Hart says. “We probably look upon it as ‘Well, that’s a lot of little shops in Bangkok’. But the reality is what they do with their data, how they use it, the way they activate it in store is, in many respects, relatively superior to what we know for sure. So there’s a lot to learn there.

“We may get into an area where we have an activation ability as well as above the line. That would be probably the stepping-off point into a regional position.”

Hart and wife Chrissie have five boys, now all aged in their 20s.

He is conscious that he needs to eventually consider an exit position for himself and both the big and small name investors in Assembled. But it is a “fair way off”.

“I don’t think I could have done this before now. I don’t think I knew enough,” he says. “Assembled has got legal, commercial, operational and strategic and transactional elements. I just feel that this is the opportune moment to leverage all of that.

“There will be a plan for something [an exit] eventually. But it could involve an innovative model, where you fund succession into part of the exit strategy for people. It could involve an IPO. But it doesn’t have to. I couldn’t rule that out. That may give me more opportunity to attract talent, which again is absolutely central to what we want to do. We want to be an employer of choice.”

Then there are also the exciting opportunities to collaborate with Bromley. When they first met a decade and a half ago at Bromley’s art studio, the artist promised to paint Hart’s five boys together. Their father jokes that he’s still waiting to see the work.

“I am pretty good at meeting deadlines with commissions and portraits. But his still hasn’t been done,” Bromley says. “Whatever conversation we are on, it leads to left and right turns which is the wonderful thing.”

He is now looking forward to them working together like never before: “For me, you have a short time on this earth to get your message over. The circus is coming to town and the world is your playing field and your audience.”

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