A look into Solo Union's behind-the-scenes work with marketers

"We are competing with ideas - not agencies," said Founder Matthew Bull.

Matthew Bull is no stranger to adland. He founded Lowe Bull in South Africa in 1996; became CEO of Lowe London in 2003; was named CCO of Lowe Worldwide three years later; founded The Bull-White House in 2011; and then took on the chief creative role at McGarryBowen.

Throughout his career, the purity of creating ideas has been what’s pushed him forward, which is where Solo Union comes in.

Bull established the "ideas" agency in November to help the industry get back to looking at the work.

"The principle was I just felt I wanted to start a business where I could focus - and get a team to focus - entirely on the product, and the product to my mind is a strong strategic foundation with a brilliant creative interpretation of that – a core creative idea," said Bull.

Bull believes that contracts and internal politics have caused marketers and agencies to pull away from having real, honest conversations about the work.

"Here’s an important point: Clients treat us differently and they are liberated because they don’t have to worry about relationships – just the work," he said.

Solo Union, which works with the likes of Unilever and Anheuser-Busch InBev, charges clients an upfront fee. "You can ask my clients - I charge like a wounded buffalo because I believe you’re getting exceptionally good people and an exceptionally good product and those people should be paid properly," said Bull. He declined to disclose exact details on what he charges.

When Solo Union begins to partner with a company, it promises that the strategic foundational work will be put together within a week, but then the client has three options from there, which can last two to three weeks.

The "hands off" option is when Solo Union presents ideas and then the client delivers them to its AOR or in-house agency. Possibility two, or the "hand over" option, is when a marketer asks Solo Union to oversee the idea and Bull becomes the client’s creative leader throughout the project. The final option is "hands on," meaning Solo Union works with an agency to execute an idea or content play. So far, Solo Union has worked on 15 projects.

Options two and three both directly affect agencies, which can sometimes be tricky. Bull said that many agencies know him and believe they can trust him, but sometimes they’ll be like, "’Who the eff is this guy?’ at first until they realize I’m there to help them, not hurt them."

"We’re competing with ideas, not agencies," said Bull, adding that he’s saved a few agencies from being fired by talking through other solutions with clients.

Unilever’s Tazo Tea brand was Solo Union’s first client, said Mick Van Ettinger, executive-VP of beverages at the CPG giant, who has known Bull for years.

Van Ettinger brought Bull on to work on strategy and vision for Tazo Tea and then translate that into ideas. Solo Union then partnered with Virtue Worldwide to execute the project (option three). "There’s no number one model, but [Bull] has found a model that allows him to utilize his creative strengths and get the support he needs," said Van Ettinger. "You need big ideas more than ever before today to cut through all the clutter, channels and opportunities that consumers have."

Solo Union currently has 25 "members" or freelancers, who each get membership points based on their projects that translate into profit shares at the end of the year. "I’ve always believed in equity because people are working for what they believe in," said Bull.

He’s also transparent about the money the company is making, as well as how much he’s paying himself. "These are important things because leaders should be accountable for how much money they make," he said.

Next up, Bull is hoping to do more work with corporations around big brand repositioning. He already works closely with CMOs on revamping creative and marketing cultures within their companies.

And while he used to work for larger companies, Bull isn’t interested in selling Solo Union. "There’s nothing to sell – there’s just a business idea," he said, which is why he’s franchising the name to people in Canada, London and South Africa.

These new businesses will use the Solo Union names in markets around the world and Bull’s original company will take a small percentage of it. Bull plans to leave the franchisees alone unless they stray way off of his brand message, (which he said he doesn’t see happening since he’s met with everyone).

"What I have to lose is my integrity and my principal and that’s more precious to me in my professional life than anything else," said Bull.