Alchemy One: Sydney indie agency on being purpose driven

Alchemy One

“We came together with a vision to do something a bit different.”

Sydney-based independent agency Alchemy One is an agency that is about purpose according to its co-founder and managing director Joel Trethowan.

Trethowan founded the company with strategy director Paul Scarf six years ago. The pair came from different backgrounds with Trethowan working on the client-side with media agencies and at companies like Sony and Microsoft, while Scarf brought a creative background after working at BWM for a number of years.

“We came together with a vision to do something a bit different. I was a little bit frustrated by how awesome the industry is but the product from a media and strategy perspective felt like a simple approach versus something that I think has so much opportunity for growth regardless of budget.

“Back then it was just the two of us, so we worked with some small players, some medium, and some large players and it was such an amazing, crazy, bizarre ride. Back then being an independent agency was very hard because the first questions people asked you were about rate positions and your buying power, and if we had the capacity to deliver on what they need.”

One of the key evolutions of the business in the early stages was becoming able to buy their own media and not use another agency like they had when they launched.

“It was one of the hardest barriers to entries in the first one or two years because people were so rate sensitive, but since the start of 2017, we buy it all internally. We have relationships with all the media companies and that has been incredible because we know how strong our rates are comparatively.

Trethowan said that three or four years ago he started to see the tipping point of the industry really change in favour of the independent agencies.

“It was mainly from a service perspective and people wanting consistent senior talent across their brands, which is our core differentiator. We have built Alchemy One to be a very flat model where everyone has a strong level of experience and everyone that you meet from day one are the people that carry the account across the entire process.”

Trethowan said that the second part of differentiating themselves from the market was finding a purpose as a business, and their broader purpose above and beyond being a media agency.

“Bank Australia being Australia’s largest ethical bank and a client that we have had for three and a half years has just taught us so much about that and inspired us to redefine what our purpose is, and now we are actively in the market as a purpose-led agency. 60-70% of our current revenue comes from clients in the purpose space that are actively trying to do something greater for the betterment of society.”

Part of this goal of being a purpose-led company has meant that Alchemy One has applied for B Corp status, which would make it only the second media agency in Australia to receive certification.

The B Corp certification is an internationally recognised, third-party verified trust mark for businesses that are assessed to achieve a positive impact for their employees, communities, customers and the environment.

What Exactly is a B Corp? Read Here

B Corp certification is given out by the non-profit organisation B Lab which has been active since 2006.

The application process can be quite arduous with most companies falling short of the 80 point threshold for B Corp certification making an average score of 50 out of a possible 200.

Trethowan said that the big thing was going through the process, the company used a team of four people to prepare the application spending a period of nine months on the project.

“It really defines those businesses who don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk because there are so many people out there still trying to use tactics such as greenwashing or trying to use ways in marketing to make consumers think that they are better than they are in term of perceptions.”

Read more: Ethical business: The media industry and B Corp certification

Joining the IMAA

The Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA), is the national, not-for-profit industry association for the independent media agency industry, which Alchemy One joined in May of last year.

Trethowan described his feelings when the IMAA was announced as ‘this is cool’.

“It is sometimes difficult to feel like you are siloed on a little island when you know the holding groups have so much information always being funneled down to all their individual companies, which is one strength that they have always had. However, with the IMAA it is the number of agencies on board that I think is such a powerful thing because it wipes away one of the strengths the holding companies had.

“One of the biggest things we have is that it promotes the benefits of being an indie and it waves that flag for us and one of the biggest things is the whole knowledge sharing, networking, education, training which are all things that we would find a way to do internally but this just helps.”

Alchemy One’s Clients and Specialisation

The company has gone through a massive period of growth since launching and Trethowan said that they don’t have many of their foundational clients, but pinpointed a period about four years ago where they landed vital clients like Bank Australia and Square.

Trethowan added that like everyone the company struggled in 2020, yet they still had key client wins in Westfund Health Insurance and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“The biggest lesson that it taught us and one thing that we have always been proud of is to really be seen as a partner and an extension of our client’s marketing teams. What we did with Bank Australia and Square is pivot quite quickly to focus on below-the-line tactics and community-based activity versus anything that was brand and big and awareness driving from a broadcast point of view. In knowing their businesses so well we were able to cater and help them navigate that journey. Out of something quite dark at the time came something quite powerful.”

When asked about his agency’s specialisation, Trethowan said that Alchemy One is unique in how it offers partnerships.

“Partnerships with the media, but also partnerships with other organisations and people, and that is something that we have a very unique approach with.

“I know it’s not new within the industry in terms of partnering with the media to bring to life a brand through the lens of that specific voice, but the way that we do it, and Bank Australia is an amazing example of this in highlighting mass channels, medium channels, but also really niche channels to reach different people and different audiences across that full frontal which has been such a critical part of our strategy from day one.

“It is kind of beyond the realm of a media agency, it is even PR agency territory, it’s strategy agency territory. We really are going to be advocates of the brand to the media and to these organisations that we speak with.”

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