There's long been an air of mystery about Simon Curran. Over the years, it's been commonplace to hear his competitors in the industry question whether he even does advertising.
The Shine founder laughs, saying he's always been comfortable with this ambiguity. He prefers to see himself existing in the grey area, somewhere between a consultancy and a marketing firm.
It's in this space, he says, that he's capable of doing the best work for his clients.
He tells the Herald he's far more interested in helping businesses solve core problems than simply turning every brief into an ad campaign. Sometimes an ad might be the answer, but it shouldn't be the only answer creative agencies offer, he says.
It's a strategy that seems to be working for the reluctant ad guy. Over the last three years, his advertising business has doubled to over $10 million in overall revenue. On the back of this growth, the headcount at the business has grown from 20 staff in 2016 to 44 full-timers now.
Among these full-timers are recently appointed chief creative officer (and shareholder) Richard Maddock, head of digital Andy Schick (also a shareholder), digital account director Grace Russell and creative technologist Matt Ellwood.
But things didn't come easily. Around three years ago, Curran's ad agency hit a plateau and there didn't seem any way up.
It was around this time that Curran made the big decision to sell his stake in the hospitality business he was running alongside the ad agency. That hospitality business had grown to over 250 people, spread across a portfolio that included Tyler Street Garage, Ebisu, Azabu Fukoku, Ostro Brasserie and the Seafarers' Club. The move gave him refreshed motivation to get his ad business back into growth mode.
Although Curran has shifted all his focus to the ad agency side of the business, he says his background in running his own businesses allows him to have conversations that advertising agencies aren't often privy to.
The whole topic of advertising, he explains, is rarely involved in any of the early discussions he has with business owners.
"All our conversations with clients start as a no-agenda framework," says Curran.
"We're not having the conversation so we can do more advertising work for you. Often that conversation can be as a confidante, where we ask the executive what's happening in the business and whether they have any observations on the health of their team."
He says it's about identifying problems at the business and then finding ways to fix that.
Curran isn't the only the ad guy preaching the gospel that advertisers should be using their creativity to fix business problems, but there are some logistical hurdles with this bespoke approach. Take, for instance, the issue of retainers, which remain integral in ensuring that ad agencies earn a set amount each year. If your services stretch into so many different spaces, then should the money even come out of the marketing budget or should it come from elsewhere?
Curran's response is that it really depends on a case-by-case basis, explaining that some relationships he has with clients stretch right across marketing, HR, the innovation department and beyond. Sometimes the funds might come out of the marketing budget, but not always, he says.
A consummate entrepreneur, Curran also remains willing to take the odd risk if he thinks there's a worthwhile opportunity.
"We've gone to some clients and asked them: 'What if we put 100 per cent of our fee at risk?' We'll have no retainer, and we'll back our ability to deliver upside. And if we deliver that upside, we can get a lot more than our retainer, so we're prepared to roll the dice," he says.
"With almost all our clients, we've had a conversation about the proportion that's at risk. From 100 per cent to a smaller number. We always go in, asking our clients to back us on our output, not our input."
He says there's no better incentive for an agency to deliver a real business result than putting their paycheque on the line.
Curran says that when you get this approach right you create something that lives well beyond the momentary flash of an ad campaign.
The first example he mentions is Shine's continued work on the Spark Lab initiative, which focuses on bringing together New Zealand business owners to share their ideas. This was built from scratch off the insight that small- to medium-sized businesses aren't given enough support or access to smart mentors.
"There's no case of Spark going: 'Now, while I've got you, would you like to buy a call plan?' That doesn't happen. It's about reciprocity," he says.
Another example is Shine's work on developing Hopt sodas for Lion back in 2014. Launched as an alternative to younger consumers who were turning off booze, the product is still available on supermarket shelves today.
Curran is also proud of Shine's continued work on the Patience Project, which is looking at ways to help sick children confined to hospitals to feel more connected to the world outside. One way that they're doing that is by using virtual reality headsets to allow kids at Starship to attend classes at school.
Despite a decent run, Curran isn't one to rest on his laurels.
"Not everything we do is right or turns out well," concedes Curran.
"We try some things that don't always work. Like any client working on a product, we're constantly iterating. And what we try today might feed into the next variation and the one after that."