Written by Jane Nicholls.  This article is part of our Red Papers business content series.

It’s always bring-your-dog-to-work day at Hardhat, an independent creative agency headquartered in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Prahran. "There’s a Labradoodle called Rosie and a mini Schnauzer called Minnie", says Justin Kabbani, co-founder and managing director of the agency (and also Rosie’s human). "We work in a pretty high-pressure game and these dogs are attuned to everyone’s emotions – it’s amazing how many cuddles they get through the day."

The Hardhat office has got the full suite of fun happening: a half basketball court, an enormous custom-made communal table snaking through the middle of the space, where everyone from the intern to the founders sit to work, and a whisky bar “with about 150 single malts,” says Kabbani. “Yes, it harks back a little bit to the old days of advertising,” he says of the bar’s clink to Mad Men. “But it’s also part of how we want to be able to celebrate on our terms whenever we want to do that, so it’s part of the company culture.”

The perks underpin something much more important. “For me, culture is not the whisky bar, or the basketball court or the dogs,” explains Kabbani. “Culture is what happens when the sh*t hits the fan. When we’re under pressure or have tough moments, our team has a great way of working together, knowing each other’s roles and being supportive as opposed to playing blame games and the work not getting done.”

Hardhat was founded almost 15 years ago by Kabbani and business partner Dan Monheit, ‘basically straight out of university … I’d studied marketing and creative advertising and Dan had studied marketing and management’.

Their original vision was to be a branding and advertising agency, “but no one wanted to trust two young punks with their brand.” They turned that to their advantage. Their fresh-minted marketing and advertising qualifications meant that clients wanted to tap their digital expertise. “We spent the next ten years getting great at building websites, always coming at it from a marketing perspective,” explains Kabbani.

Email and social media campaigns were the next step and then, in a textbook example of ‘if you build it, they will come’, the creative work started flowing about four years ago. “We’re now the full-service creative agency we always wanted to be, working on everything from websites and apps to TV commercials and radio ads, social media campaigns and everything that falls in-between.”

Today Hardhat is a team of 35. Key to the company’s success was Kabbani and Monheit’s client-centric pivot. They had one dream, but, says Kabbani, “We listened to what our customers were asking for, and we built some great relationships. Now we have a really compelling story. We’re a full service creative agency with a strong digital heritage and serious strategic and creative firepower.”

Hardhat’s own dedication to client service means they naturally expect their own providers to step up too. “Vodafone’s personalised account management is amazing,” says Kabbani. “When we’re running a major event and we get there and realise the internet connection is not going to support what we want to do, it’s great to be able to pick up the phone and chat to the Vodafone team and say, ‘Hey, here’s our problem!’ They’re always willing to jump in a car or pop something with a courier and send over a device to help us out.”

Even though Hardhat is long past being a startup, their energy is fresh. “We didn’t build a business that was copying something that we’d seen somewhere else; it truly has been an evolution.”

They’re experts in the field of behavioural economics, “looking at the who, what, when, why of people’s habits and being able to apply it in a strategic sense to the work we’re doing.” Another key differentiator is their all-in approach: they go beyond the marketing message to make sure their client can deliver on the promise.

“Traditional players who’ve been making ads for a long time are great at the promises side of things,” says Kabbani. It comes unstuck when the sell is leading customers to something that doesn’t work so well – a new app, for example. “Because we have digital expertise in our blood, we can help clients make sure that every brand interaction is living up to the promise that they’re making, from the mass media of the TV commercials right through to, say, signing up for a new energy plan, or buying something online.”

Speaking of total connection, Kabbani says Vodafone’s Endless Data is another plank supporting Hardhat. “We’re on the road a lot – we often have team members in Sydney for extended periods,” he explains. “The last thing you want to hear from someone is ‘I couldn’t send that because I didn’t have WiFi access.’ There’s an expectation of availability and just knowing that it’s not an issue and people aren’t data-counting is great.”

Hardhat took their business to the next level when they adopted Agile project-delivery methodology about five years ago. They used a coach who’d developed a version of Agile, specifically for agencies. Kabbani says it’s fundamentally changed the way they operate – these days they’re even helping to train their own clients. “More and more marketers are being asked to do more with less, and every leader in every business is talking about Agile.”

Kabbani says it ensures that ‘work is smoothed out’ and if people have spare time, they can pick up extra. “It reduces the situations where people are freaking out in the afternoon that they didn’t get something done, or worked on the wrong thing the entire day!” Sounds like team-spirit nirvana…

With big international conferences each year, Hardhat also relies on Vodafone’s $5 Roaming. “From a personal and a business perspective, $5 Roaming is incredible. We head to Austin for South by Southwest [SXSW] every year, and it’s great to know that while we’re over there, it’s business as usual. We’re taking calls and making calls and using data and we have cost control over all that. We want to send as many people as we can to Austin, and $5 Roaming is part of knowing what the fixed costs will be. When you travel, you really feel the global network of Vodafone versus a company that’s a one-country provider. Vodafone is a global company and you definitely get that when you travel – everything is way more seamless and accessible.”

Hardhat lives and breathes by these three guiding principles:

  • Hustle: We do whatever it takes to get the job done right
  • Humility: We love big thinking, not big heads
  • Heart: We have an undeniable passion for every project

Scoring high on ‘heart’ are Rosie and Minnie, who have an office full of carers on hand when their regular humans go away. “Rosie comes to work and goes home with any one of her favourites in the office– she’s part of the family here,” says Kabbani.

Hardhat, yes; hard-hearted never.

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