The month of August 2020 marks exactly 7 years that a team of passionate, driven and skilled digital media enthusiasts have been leading the way when it comes to integrated campaign strategy and media buying execution in South Africa. What started as a small former team of Zando digital marketers has now become a well balanced mix of (inter)national account managers, strategists, data analysts, campaign managers, business intelligence specialists, creative designers, project managers, developers, performance leads and platform implementation specialists. Long gone are the days of media plans in Excel, fixed CPM (or CPC!) campaigns and campaign reporting on a channel basis. Having said that, you will be amazed how many advertisers and agencies actually still work like that. Today I would like to introduce the way we work, how we got here and what we are most proud of at Sprout Performance Partners (SPP).

Personal introduction and background

Born and studied in The Netherlands I gained my first digital marketing and media buying experience while selling online advertising space on one of the largest networks in the country. It was this job that created an interest in how advertisers could use the internet to connect with their customers and grow their client base. Those days, we are talking 2005, it was all about premium websites and generating reach. No clients at the time had the ability to track what happened beyond the exposure or click to their website. However, there was technology at the time (DoubleClick for Advertisers) that was growing in popularity as it started to provide campaign data that you no longer needed to contact the publisher or media owner for. This was the first step towards a holistic view of campaign performance across all channels instead of the last-click-only data many advertisers and agencies work(ed) with.

When I decided to move to beautiful South Africa following an amazing 3 week holiday crossing the entire republic by car during the Rugby World Cup in September 2007, I arrived in Cape Town in January 2008. I joined Habari Media and started sharing my sales experience from the Dutch market with the team and their clients across the South African market. What the South African digital marketing industry lacked in terms of technology access and experience it made up for with dedicated, motivated and ambitious young professionals who were all keen to learn and eager to move forward. The excitement and hunger for information struck me immediately. Despite this interest and ambition the number of advertisers who started experimenting with tracking technology and programmatic media buying (which in 2010 was really starting to kick off in more established online markets in Europe and the US) was very low. I was surprised by this hesitation and did not understand why more marketers were not investing in this data driven approach, when it was clearly delivering success overseas. It was for another year that I tried to convince and sell advertisers the concept of website tagging and integrated tracking to map their customers’ exposure to their campaigns. However it was not going fast enough for me. I decided to move back to The Netherlands and dedicate time to understanding and gaining exposure to this new way of digital marketing and media buying.

In The Netherlands (2011) I joined a global media group as their Sales Manager for their Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and Italian markets. This company offered both managed digital media buying services for agencies & advertisers and also had a technology reseller division for the Doubleclick product suite from Google (now called the Google Marketing Platform) for agencies & advertisers. Soon after I started there the magical world of ad tech and integrated (performance) media buying opened up for me. I was now in a position to learn and get experience from some of the best digital marketers and technology specialists available and it felt like I was back in school! I literally discovered that the way I had been selling and seeing advertisers buy digital media for the past 6 years was a thing of the past. What used to be a manual process where supply and demand met in a meeting or on an insertion order was now being done in an online auction. And finally there was a proven method for how an advertiser could host their own creative, instead of sending creative files to the publisher. Now, all that was required was to send a tag and campaign data could be tracked.
And importantly, this was possible across all channels, conversion and reach data could finally be de-duplicated. For the first time I saw campaigns being managed and reported on from a customer (journey) perspective instead of a cumulation of channel data. The possibilities opened by this new perspective and data were endless. The following 3 years I was part of one of the most advanced media buying teams in Europe and it was here that I met my business partner and Sprout Performance Partner’s current co-director and CTIO (Chief Technology & Innovation Officer), Micha Suarez de Koning. We shared great successes including launching the first national dynamic creative display campaign for one of The Netherlands’ big telcos.

As much as I loved learning about new technologies, working with advanced digital specialists and advertisers who were keen to drive innovation and try new things, I missed my other passion and love: South Africa. I knew I had to go back and transfer all that I had learned in the past 4 years to this emerging online market.

This opportunity I found at Sprout Performance Partners (SPP) and I joined the team in November 2014 as the Commercial & Client Services Director. The service offering at the time was relatively modest but with great ambition. What struck me most however was the amazing culture that this small team (8 staff members at the time) had managed to build in a very short time. It did not take long before I managed to convince the team and shareholders that if we wanted to make an impression in this rapidly growing market and differentiate ourselves from all the other agencies shooting up like mushrooms, we needed to change our strategy and expand our horizon. It was time to stand out from the crowd and take charge in building a team capable of implementing advanced technologies and solutions in an emerging market. Soon after we agreed on this direction I reconnected with Micha again and persuaded him to leave The Netherlands and join forces in sunny South Africa. In 2015 we became shareholders and I was appointed as CEO with Micha taking up his current position as CTIO.

Our approach and technical expertise merged with the ability to implement accordingly in the platforms as well as the experience to sell this concept to clients soon started bearing fruit. We managed to get one of the first licenses for the DoubleClick media buying and tracking platforms in South Africa and began to set up advertiser’s accounts with an integrated approach to their digital marketing. We started to attract not only more clients but also managed to hire and retain talent who were equally interested and excited about this development towards integrated data driven marketing. 

In January 2016 we were invited to participate in the most exciting Request for Proposals in the history of our company. The digital media buying account of the leading SA retail bank was out for pitch. David was about to meet his Goliath. The entire team (14 members at the time) pulled together as we started to unpack the brief, putting in long days of work to eventually produce a kick ass strategic approach for this client. We were up against all the big multinational agencies and were outnumbered even before we started. 

It was because of this underdog position that when we heard that we had been awarded the contract we felt extremely proud and excited about the road ahead. We knew that we had the knowledge and right vision to service this account but now it all had to be done. The team grew exponentially and soon we went from 14 to 24 team members in less than a year. We opened a Johannesburg office and installed a client service team to ensure that the client team was engaged with in person on their home turf. It was the start of an amazing partnership that built the foundation for what Sprout Performance Partners has become today.

It is all about the people

Fast forward to 2020 and it is fair to say that SPP has managed to maintain this growth over the past 4 years. Not only have we been successful in continuing to work for some of the leading financial service providers in the country (which are typically the most demanding clients to serve because of the huge competition) and many others, but we have made sure that we stayed true to our values around team culture and the attention to the development of our employees. As a growing business in a market that is somewhat behind the curve when it comes to skills development and exposure to leading technological solutions, we are dependent on our ability to attract and retain talent to be able to grow and scale our footprint. So not only are we extremely proud of the successes that we have delivered for our clients but we are just as excited by the fact that among our staff we have some of the most incredibly skilled, passionate and experienced specialists in the industry. Besides a customer centric focus in the services we provide it is our employee centric approach that links everything we do. Not only do we spend a significant amount of time on team building and events that facilitate close working relationships within the team, we also actively put measures in place to have staff members participate in decision making when regarding company strategy and service offering. 

Our services

So a lot has been said about how the company was founded and why we pay so much attention to the people in it but now let’s focus on what it is we do. For many years advertisers experienced the problem of not feeling in control when it comes to their digital media spend and strategy. There was a lack of clarity as to the role of digital media as a contributor to the bottom line. 

The introduction of ad serving technology and real-time-media buying which allowed marketers to target audiences instead of websites changed a lot on this topic, however, soon after agencies were putting smoke and mirrors in place to uphold the illusion. Especially as programmatic media buying grew in popularity, jargon, complicated strategies and ‘black box’ concepts ran rampant. Often this was a result of both parties not fully understanding how programmatic media buying worked, how it should be applied, what the benefits were and what to look out for. For a long time it was sold as the answer to all our digital problems. Many advertisers were burnt and budgets wasted. 

We decided on a different approach: one that was built on a couple of non-negotiable cornerstones: transparency, collaboration, putting the advertiser back in control and turning advertising into revenue generation.

So with these ideals and important values in mind we started building our service offering and vision. Now, 6 years into our journey we have built a strong team that offers the most advanced integrated digital media strategy and buying in the country. We are an official certified Google Marketing Platform Partner which means we are qualified to assist advertisers with the implementation and optimisation of campaigns and solutions on this technology platform. 

Our services go beyond digital media strategy and campaign optimisation. We have adopted the Google & Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Digital Maturity Benchmark’-concept to help advertisers develop a multi year roadmap to increase their customer centricity in their digital marketing and structure of their organisation. It transforms companies and their marketing teams from a media centric perspective to a customer centric one.

Success to date

Following the above mentioned concept of digital maturity we have been working with South Africa’s most innovative and leading digital financial services provider since early 2016. The progress that has been made is astonishing and witnessing the growth in contribution from digital marketing leads and sales to their overall sales has been an incredible journey. Digital media budgets have increased significantly every year and the solutions that have been implemented world class. 

Although we feel that we have achieved quite a lot in the past 7 years we also know that at the same time there is even more to be done in the next couple of years. 

Change has never been so fast and it will never be so slow again. 

We invite you to explore how we could add to your business and build a meaningful productive partnership that will last. Together we can turn your data into revenue. 

Stijn Smolders
Sprout Performance Partners