Sandbox Media CEO Luke Sullivan on leading a proudly independent agency

Media - Sandbox Media

Plus: How the agency is navigating challenges and opportunities facing the industry

Sandbox Media was established 13 years ago by Anthony Colreavy.

In addition to owning the agency, Colreavy is one of the founders of the IMAA, has served as a board member and is chairman of the industry body.

CEO Luke Sullivan leads the team of 12 with managing director Paul Brennan. The agency provides strategy, planning and buying agency on all media.

Sullivan spoke to Mediaweek about the agency’s growth over the years, the challenges and opportunities in the market, and his outlook for the year ahead.

How Sandbox Media creates balance

Sandbox Media has proudly maintained its base in Sydney’s Northern Beaches and cemented its position in the area with new offices ready for occupancy in 2023.

Sullivan noted that the agency has always had flexibility regarding working arrangements. However, the pandemic solidified its two to three-day in-office balance. In addition, the agency also offers its people an array of activities and options, so they are not entirely office-bound.

“Every Wednesday lunch is team tennis, and we use the local beaches for meetings, walks and talks, swims, lunches and breaks,” he added.

A proudly independent agency

The team behind the proudly independent agency have diverse experiences, from family-run businesses to large-scale global organisations, many of whom have a background in media sales. 

“The learnings and disciplines you receive in those companies are terrific, and there is no doubt they have shaped us into what we are today. However, being truly independent brings many freedoms and benefits that larger corporates typically don’t have,” he said. 

Sullivan noted many benefits of being an independent agency, including agnostic channel planning with no pre-conceived platform or media spend commitments to meet.

Sullivan said: “we spend a dollar like it’s our own,” and added that having diverse exposure to multiple media means they are not pigeonholed to channel specialities.

Sullivan noted additional benefits of being an independent agency include autonomous work with no layers of red tape or politics and empowerment to work with partners with entrepreneurial freedom.

Sullivan said Colreavy’s 100% ownership of the agency means that with no multiple shareholders and opinions driven by dividend-first decisions, the agency has an aligned vision and values of management. 

Sandbox Media

CEO Luke Sullivan with managing director Paul Brennan

Sullivan noted that with a single owner, Sandbox Media is not impacted by Global accounts that siphon people, time, and energy, often with little revenue.

Sullivan said that the agency can make and see the direct impact you have on the results. Having a single owner also means the agency is not impacted by Global accounts that siphon people, time, and energy, often with little revenue.

“For us, it’s also about unwavering clarity on whom we want to be and where we are going. We have set our sights firmly on an ideal team and partner size and maintaining that,” he added.

Sullivan said the agency also enjoys dealing with client partners from family businesses to listed entities. He said: “We are here for the long term, and our strategy at its core is simple and centres around exceptional relationships, happy client partners, service excellence and happy staff.”

“A really good agency is always about the people, and we don’t ever lose sight of that,” he said.

Sullivan continued: “We have worked incredibly hard to put ourselves in the fortunate position of being patient with new opportunities that fit our ideal partner profile.

“When we review new partnerships, it’s been well thought out with a long-term association in mind that incorporates the synergy of the people, not just the economics. The right opportunity, not every opportunity,” he added.

Evolving client relationships into long-standing friendships

Sandbox Media boasts a strong roster of nearly 30 clients, many of whom have been with the independent agency since its foundation.

“These relationships started as business and have evolved to long-standing friendships to the point we are part of the family,” Sullivan said.

Such clients include Bing Lee, Prezzee, Prospa, LDK, and Luna Park.

The impact of the pandemic on Sandbox Media

The pandemic devasted businesses, and Sandbox Media had its share of bumps during that time. “We regularly talk about the phone calls we received on that Friday 13th, to cancel everything. It was confronting,” Sullivan recalled.

The agency was able to pull through, with Sullivan crediting their “incredibly resilient and understanding” team and partners who continued to advertise despite the market conditions. 

Sullivan said the pandemic accelerated their planned changes by investing further into their digital expansion and service offering, led by head of digital and strategy James Sparkes.

“We have now well and truly emerged out the other side and are in a much better, diverse position than we ever have been,” Sullivan added.

Navigating industry challenges and opportunities 

The industry is facing an array of well-documented challenges, particularly recruitment and retaining talent.

Sullivan noted that additional challenges are the pace of change in digital and programmatic. He said there is a relentless cycle of more players, constantly changing models and high costs.

These challenges are set to be impacted by the change in economic conditions. “The challenge now is working with clients closely so they can balance not just the accountants’ budget cuts for marketing but adjust and understand their soaring operating costs,” he said.

“Some of our clients have told us of increased costs in production and logistics totalling over 200%. The conversations with marketers around investing in brand versus performance in a downturn are well and truly underway,” he added.

Sullivan noted the pitching process to clients as a challenge. “Like others, we have learnt along the journey some prospective clients are not truthful about the pitch process when really, they are just after three cost appraisals to benchmark so they can meet procurement expectations every three years,” he said.

“Sometimes they have already predetermined a winner, or others just make a play to steal your ideas. We don’t want to waste precious time and commitment of agency resources unless the chemistry is there from the start and the clients have genuine reasons for pitching.”

The dilution of budgets – for Creative and production, content, PR, influencers, search and media – was also noted by Sullivan as another industry challenge.

“Ultimately, the client needs to ensure the strategy and idea are right and that there is enough money in the budget to amplify the message to as much of the audience as possible. The right balance needs to be struck,” he said.

Sandbox Media

Sandbox Media team

Sullivan said that while these challenges exist, the agency sees great opportunities in keeping it simple. 

“There can be a temptation for marketers to have their focus taken off course trying to get too granular and over analysis, causing paralysis in decision making. Understanding the fundamentals, correlation and drivers between search, web, and all media is key,” he said.

“They can all have a role to play. Marketers need to remind themselves not to focus on the favourite child but look at the whole picture, not necessarily the most comfortable one.

“At Sandbox, we are investing in more search talent and looking for extended service relationships that give marketers the transparency and ease to make the right decisions,” he added.

The outlook for Sandbox Media in 2023

Sullivan noted that the Sandbox Media team are mindful of the economic forecast for the year ahead. He said their priority will be their existing partner clients, whom they will work closely with to help navigate during any turbulence.

Among the team’s focuses in the year ahead are their new office spaces and continued investment in their search capabilities and broader digital team under James Sparkes, head of digital and strategy.

With travel restrictions to New Zealand eased, the agency will also expand on opportunities and expansions at its Auckland office, established in 2015.

“Over the Covid period, travel restrictions and spending reductions slowed our plans for this market, but we see solid growth opportunities in New Zealand going forward,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan added that the agency is also looking to expand its service offering with like-minded complementary businesses and people.

How being part of the IMAA has benefitted Sandbox Media

Sandbox Media was one of the first agencies to join the IMAA upon its establishment in 2020, following the lead of Colreavy as one of the founders of the industry body.

Sullivan praised the IMAA for bringing learning and development to the agency with regular updates and forums from suppliers across all channels.

“Sam and the team have done a wonderful job in keeping the indies up to date and pushing the collective independent cause with awareness of the many wonderful smaller agencies available for businesses,” Sullivan, referring to CEO Sam Buchanan.

Top image: Luke Sullivan


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