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How Renay & Russell Tandy have survived 2 recessions and built a successful agency

In a tough market, Renay and Russell Tandy have weathered two recessions and continued to grow by focusing on being a niche agency. 

Nadine Todd, Entrepreneur, 12 January 2017  Share  0 comments  Print

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Vital stats

  • Players: Renay Tandy and Russell Tandy
  • Company: Ngage
  • Launched: 2006
  • Visit:

As a niche marketing communications agency, Ngage’s founders Russell and Renay Tandy have had to think out the box to find and retain talented staff, win large clients and accounts, and compete against their much larger counterparts.

Here are their top five tactical lessons in building a business that has weathered two recessions while continuing to grow and prosper.

1. Leverage awards to build your reputation

Most industries have some form of industry award programme. Russell and Renay encourage all SME owners to enter every award programme available to them. “It’s a time consuming process, but it’s well worth the effort,” says Renay.

“We won Best Small PR Agency at the Prism Awards in 2013, and it made a huge difference to the business. It got our foot in the door with Afrox, which led to securing them as a client. Corporates like working with award-winning agencies.” They also want to see that you have a track record with large corporate clients, which means one large account usually leads to more.

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In addition, Renay’s personal win as Best PR Professional in the same year, as well as a special mention for a project, meant that the company was able to attract a higher calibre of staff.

“An employee value proposition is incredibly important,” explains Russell. “The PR industry is very competitive, and it’s tough for smaller agencies, particularly one like ours, which works with industrial clients and not glamorous consumer brands, to compete on an equal footing with much larger agencies. The awards put us on the map as far as our industry is concerned. People suddenly knew who we were, and young PR professionals wanted to work with Renay, who they saw as a mentor. Best PR Professional is a coveted award that all PR execs should be aiming for, and so the chance to work with someone who has won it is a big draw.”

There’s another important reason to be involved in awards programmes though — they allow you to benchmark yourself against the industry standard. “Being involved in the Prism Awards gave us an unmatched opportunity to see how the industry as a whole is performing,” says Russell.

“We’ve also had years where we’ve won nothing, and that has shown us that we’ve needed to up our game.”

This drive to do better has led to results as well, as the team’s 2014 Gold Award for a Client Campaign can attest to. “This is such a tough category or us. Our clients are B2B, and in this particular case the campaign was a Hyundai Excavator, going up against consumer brands — and we won,” says Renay.

“That wouldn’t have been possible if we weren’t constantly benchmarking ourselves and pushing to improve everything we do.”

2. Find a niche

“We’ve become known as the agency for industry,” says Russell. “It’s been tempting to diversify over the years, and we did fall into the trap of adding products and services that the market didn’t want or need. We needed to learn that lesson and close a few things down. Ultimately though, we’ve learnt that the biggest power a business can have in terms of growth is a niche focus. We’re extremely good at helping industry clients grow brand awareness. We’ve added verticals like social media and multimedia to help our clients do this, but we’ve stuck to our core.

“There are so many industries that are new to PR, and multiple sub-sections in each. In many ways it’s an untapped market. Our patience in growing a niche brand is paying off though; we’re the go-to agency in this sector.”

3. Grow existing business

Renay -Tandy -and -Russell -Tandy -Ngage -agency

It’s a well-established business truth that it’s more cost effective to grow existing accounts than to find new clients. Ngage has done this by expanding its product offering and educating clients on the benefits of new media avenues.

“Social media started out as quite a hard sell for us,” says Renay. “South African industry didn’t see how it was relevant to them.” And so Renay and her team started researching what international companies were doing.

“We wanted to stay within our niche but expand our offering, particularly for existing clients. Social media and multi-media solutions were the obvious choice, but only if they were relevant and provided our clients with real return on investment,” explains Russell.

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The research paid off. According to a Jonathan Wichmann case study, Maersk Line, one of the biggest shipping companies in the world, had at the time one of the largest social media presences, with over one million Facebook followers. “Your first response would be, ‘why does a commercial shipping company need a social media presence?’” says Renay.

“And yet they have this incredible content to share. Their ship captains are very involved, and people are interested in great, informative content that’s well curated.”

As Ngage saw it, South Africa’s industrial sector also has incredible content that no-one is hearing about. “We do so much R&D locally. There is a great deal of innovation happening in our industrial sector that no-one knows about.”

Even armed with this knowledge, Renay and Russell still had to offer it to their clients for free to get the ball rolling. “Instead of a hard sell, we decided to let the channel prove itself. The power of social media isn’t in sales. It’s in building brand awareness and creating connections. Prospective employees are finding out about the companies they want to work for online. Social media is an excellent way to show who you are, and what your brand stands for,” says Russell.

“The biggest challenge we faced was our clients saying that their clients aren’t on social media,” adds Renay. “But that’s not true. Companies might not be on social media, particularly in the South African B2B space, but people are. The CEO of your top account — or your top prospect’s account — is probably on Facebook or Twitter at night. This is the perfect way to engage their interest outside the ‘busyness’ of the office.

“This has been a powerful gap for us. Social media agencies aren’t PR agencies. We’re all about content, so we just needed to educate our clients and prove it worked, and it’s opened a whole new channel for us.”

Multimedia has worked in a similar way. Short videos say much more than pages of dry documents heavy in ‘industry-speak’ can do. “We’ve upskilled ourselves and keep everything in house, and again, we’ve built the division up slowly,” says Russell.

“We’re taking our clients on a journey, and we want everything we do to have strong foundations and be sustainable.”

4. Create a working environment that others can’t match

Despite becoming an agency ‘on the map’, staff churn remains an industry-norm. “Getting noticed and attracting top talent just meant that now we had staff for other agencies to poach,” says Renay. Over the years, the entrepreneurs have tried a number of staff retention tactics.

“We even separated the business into divisions, and placed someone in charge of each division,” says Russell.

“They had part ownership, and we thought that would keep them motivated and loyal.” Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that you can’t force someone to think entrepreneurially. “When things were good it worked really well,” says Renay. “But when things got tough, it stopped working. No one was willing to take the hit with the wins.” Back to the drawing board then.

“We eventually realised that we needed to create an environment that other companies weren’t willing to do. We can’t compete on benefits, but we can offer something even more valuable: time and flexibility.”

Ngage’s core work day for senior staff is from 10am to 2pm. Employees are expected to work after hours as well, but they never sit in traffic, and they’re able to go to crossfit at 3pm or spend more time with their kids. “We’ve had to be completely transparent to make it work,” says Renay.

“If someone isn’t pulling their weight, they lose the privilege of flexi-time. Most will do anything to maintain it, and so you actually get better performing employees.” Junior and admin staff get one admin day off a month.

There is a caveat though: Don’t employ someone whose benefits were better than you can offer. “We interviewed someone who was a perfect candidate, except she was coming from a large corporate that offered an on-site masseuse for free, among other things. As much as we loved her, we knew we wouldn’t hold on to her. She was used to an office environment that we could never offer. To secure loyal employees, you need to be hiring individuals who are stepping up; not the other way around. We always dig into what their current office environment is like.”

Related: Has your customer support lost that human touch?

5. Make it easy for clients to fire you

This is perhaps the most important tactic that Russell and Renay have used throughout their ten years in operation. “We don’t lock clients into their contracts. Agencies typically have long cancellation periods,” says Russell.

“You have teams working on an account, and if it’s a large account then those resources are 100% dedicated to that client. The problem is that these terms leave a bad taste in a client’s mouth, particularly if they need to cancel to save costs. No one likes admitting that they’re trimming their budgets, or that times are tough. The result is uncomfortable and often unpleasant conversations and bad breaks within the client/agency relationship.

“We’ve always approached it completely differently. Our smaller accounts have a 30-day notice period, and our large accounts three months, although if we can redirect those resources we will let them out of their contracts as soon as possible. We always say no problem if someone needs to cancel, we give them all their data, and we stay in touch. Our aim is to be as easy as possible to work with, and to maintain a good relationship so that it’s easy for them to come back to us, which they often do. We never burn bridges. It’s a short-sighted way to do business.”

Take note

People do business with people, not companies. The easier you make it for clients to work with you, the more they’ll want to give you their business — even if they’ve had to cancel a contract in the past.

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Nadine Todd, Entrepreneur

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