As ad agency CEO, Taryn Hunter Sharman knew how to spot talent, and had more than once tried to convince a young marketer, Perri King, to join Ebony+Ivory which she ran. Perri, who was carving a career for herself in the corporate sector, always turned her down, mostly because the pay could not match whatever she was earning at the time.
Then, one day in 2016, she got another call. “If you come work for me,” Taryn told her, “I’ll give you 50%.” Also, there wouldn’t be much in the way of a salary, said Taryn, but she pledged to at least pay Perri’s debit orders with her credit card. “I thought: ‘Now that sounds exciting!’ and I said yes immediately,” says Perri.
That was the start of Faith & Fear, an unusual marketing and advertising business that the two entrepreneurs refuse to call an agency.
Agencies have a culture of telling their clients what they want to hear, says Taryn, while at Faith & Fear they have an uncompromising approach to saying it like it is. That seminal phone call back in 2016 is just one example. It is also right there in the company’s name, Faith & Fear.
When she resigned her position as CEO to start Faith & Fear, Taryn knew she was in for a very hard slog, a far cry from the glamorous but false image bestowed on entrepreneurship generally. On the fear side she knew there were going to be a lot of scary, difficult moments, but on the faith side she fervently believed that there must be a better way to do marketing. So why not just put the whole experience in the name, so that there is no chance for anyone, including Taryn and Perri themselves, to forget what they are dealing with?
Their edgy name has since turned into something of a litmus test for Taryn and Perri, who were finalists in 2019 Business Partners Ltd Entrepreneur of the Year®competition.
They found that if a prospective customer does not quite understand the name, they are probably not a good fit. “But when they love the name, and we don’t have to explain it, we often click instantly and the business kicks off straight away’,” says Taryn.
Taryn’s idea of starting her own business stemmed from her increasing disillusionment with the way in which ad agencies operated even as she doubled the turnover of Ebony + Ivory, where she started as an intern, worked her way to the top in four years and ran it as CEO for eight years.
Towards the end of her tenure at Ebony + Ivory, Taryn was so disenchanted with the industry that she decided to take a sabbatical to reconsider her career. It took all of the first weekend for her to decide to start her own company, and she called Perri, whom she had known socially for some time. Because of the difficult journey ahead, Taryn did not want to do it alone.
The timing was good. Perri, who had cut her teeth in the marketing departments of the accounting firm Deloitte and the IT company EOH, had recently stepped out of her corporate career to set up a function venue in Johannesburg with a business partner. It was a good business, but the partnership did not work, so Perri jumped at the chance of launching Faith & Fear with Taryn.
Taryn and Perri, who both operate from Johannesburg, explain that Faith & Fear differs in three important ways from traditional ad agencies. Firstly, the two of them remain directly involved in every project. This is in contrast to the tendency in traditional ad agencies where the senior executives get wheeled out for pitching to important clients. Once the client is suitably impressed and awards the contract, the execution of the job is fobbed off to a junior team, and the client never sees the senior ad execs again.
Secondly, Faith & Fear ditched the industry standard of billing per hour and chose to quote upfront based on the value of the completed project to the client, and thirdly, they stick relentlessly to the strategy agreed upon with the client, avoiding the drift away from the original plan that so often happens when projects are not properly managed.
Their departure from industry habits allowed them to experiment also with a radically lean approach to overheads and staff. Taryn and Perri briefly tried sharing an office, but it felt way too much like an agency, and since then they have been working from home, or from whichever spot they chose to put their laptops down.
When they need to build a team to work on a project, they tap into their network of talented collaborators, many of whom also roam free as they work. In this way, they can scale up a network of collaborators across the globe, as they have done recently for the launch of a South African start-up at the SXSW festival in Texas.
By the time the Covid-19 pandemic forced large numbers of the corporate workforce to work from home, Faith & Fear had been at it for a number of years. They were therefore in an excellent position to advise their clients on what to do, including the messaging that urgently needed to go out. 2020 turned out to be a huge year for Faith & Fear.
This year is unlikely to be as intense now that many companies have settled into a holding pattern and are waiting for clearer signs of the direction of the pandemic and the economy, says Taryn.
As for their own direction, Taryn and Perri have been growing increasingly certain that they are on the right path. Having won major accounts within the banking, insurance and medical aid sectors, they have been making inroads into this usually conservative industry – a good sign that while their approach is radical, it makes solid business sense. At some point they will have to consider finding more partners like themselves in order to scale up their operations, but, vows Taryn, never in such a way that it becomes like an agency.