Working Around the Clock | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Working Around the Clock 

A tiny New Zealand-based ad agency finds a way to get more hours out of the day.

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Four years ago Richard McDonald made a phone call that changed his life. The New Zealander had just spent two weeks designing an ad campaign for a company in London. After finishing the job, he took a brief vacation in Spain. While in Barcelona he checked in with his ad agency back in Christchurch to let them know when he was coming home. But his friend and colleague Richard Tattershaw urged him not to hurry back. "He said, 'Things are going OK here at the moment, and we quite like the idea of the British pound coming in. Why don't you go back to London and see what else you can do?'" says McDonald, now 33. "I was only planning to go for a couple of weeks and ended up staying for four years."

That's how McDonald's firm TimeZoneOne began what he terms its "quite accidental" evolution into a multinational concern, with offices in Christchurch, London, and, most recently, Chicago.

Even though it spans three continents, TimeZoneOne remains a small company, with just a dozen full-time employees, nine of them still in New Zealand. Keeping most of the operation in Christchurch gives the company a competitive edge: they take advantage of time-zone differences and the weakness of the New Zealand dollar relative to the British pound and the American dollar. McDonald opened up the firm's Chicago outpost last summer and within six months had contracts lined up with SWK restaurant, St. Pauli Girl beer, and the Gene Siskel Film Center, among other clients.

McDonald, who works out of an office on Wacker Drive overlooking the Chicago River, started the company ten years ago with Andrew Carruthers, a high school classmate, and Tattershaw, whom he met while studying marketing at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand. "It was just after college when we got the idea," says McDonald. "We didn't actually start an ad agency deliberately. We decided we didn't really want to work for someone, so we created a company. We were young and eager to do something ourselves." The initial purpose of the company was composing business plans for other companies, but the entrepreneurs quickly decided that "writing business plans kind of sucks." "It was frustrating," McDonald says, "because they never implemented anything. You'd write a business plan and they'd put it on the shelf to collect dust and that was about it."

What they did like, the partners realized, was working on the advertising components of business plans, so they decided to retool themselves as an advertising firm, first under the name Idea Unique and later as IU Advertising. They divided their responsibilities according to their individual strengths. Carruthers had training and experience in corporate finance, so he became finance director. Tattershaw, who graduated from college with honors in history, took over the creative side of the business. McDonald, with his degree in marketing, became director of sales.

Building up clientele entailed making a lot of cold calls, says McDonald. "But we were really keen to prove ourselves, so people would give us a chance to do something, and if we did a good job, then it would grow from there." Over the next five years, the agency developed a diverse client base that included curtain retailers, travel resorts, and New Zealand's national police force. "New Zealand's is such a small economy that you can't be too choosy," McDonald says.

There are fewer than four million people in New Zealand, and just over 300,000 in Christchurch, the country's third largest city. The minuscule domestic market more or less obliged the partners to look beyond national borders. "We didn't have the history of being a big agency in New Zealand and it was harder for us to break down the big corporate doors," says McDonald. "We were doing OK but we weren't getting the big ones, and that was becoming a bit frustrating."

The Kiwis got their first crack at a foreign job in 1999 when a friend of McDonald's moved to London to work for MaxwellbradleyIT, a now defunct technology firm. When his friend called to complain that his marketing budget was too tight, McDonald pitched him the services of IU. The strength of the pound relative to the New Zealand dollar enabled IU to make a 30,000 pounds bid for work a British company wouldn't do for less than 50,000 pounds. McDonald flew to London to get the brief for the job. He made a follow-up trip in early 2000, which is when Tattershaw suggested that he stay put.

While carrying out the MaxwellbradleyIT job the team in Christchurch took full advantage of being 12 hours ahead of Greenwich mean time. By using the British and New Zealand workdays in relay IU was able to deliver work to its offshore clients faster than British competitors could. The downside of the system was the unsociable hours imposed on McDonald, who had to stay up very late or get up very early to confer with his home office. But the pros outweighed the cons, and in 2000 IU renamed itself TimeZoneOne to emphasize what had become its major selling point.

The company made great gains during McDonald's sojourn in London, attracting contracts from the energy provider Mitsui Babcock, the coffee roasters Matthew Algie, and NetJets, a company that leases private aircraft. The biggest coup came in 2002 when the firm won a contract with Strathclyde Passenger Transport, a large public transit network in central Scotland. The project called for comprehensive rebranding of SPT's bus, ferry, and train systems, right down to uniforms, maps, and tickets. "We had issues--like we weren't allowed to change the logo itself, and we were also required to use some color palettes that were a bit, um, interesting," says general manager Nigel Foley, who runs the Christchurch office. "But it was a good project to work on, and it's rewarding to walk out of a station and see a bus with a design you helped create." (The outsourcing of the publicly financed campaign to a foreign firm provoked a minor political fracas in Scotland.)

While expanding in Britain the company began exploring the American market. In 2002 McDonald spent nearly one week out of four in Chicago drumming up clients. By the spring of 2003 TimeZoneOne was doing more business in the U.S. than in Britain, and the decision was made to have McDonald open a new office here. Another marketer briefly took over the British office but has since left the firm, and McDonald says the company is now considering "winding things down in London" in favor of Chicago. Two more TimeZoneOne employees have joined McDonald here since September.

The exchange rate with Britain is more favorable than with the U.S., but the time difference works better here: Christchurch is 17 hours ahead of Chicago when daylight savings is in effect in both countries and 19 hours ahead when it's not. Right now when it's 9 AM Tuesday in New Zealand it's 2 PM Monday here, so clients and advertisers can confer during normal business hours. TimeZoneOne's designers can then work like gnomes through the American night and get the results to McDonald via the Internet in time for him to show it to the clients the next morning.

For McDonald's part, he says he's "quite liking" Chicago. "People are a lot friendlier here and the pace of life is a bit more human," he says. "Sure, I miss family. But that's life. I could be living in Auckland and only see them three or four times a year."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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