“Working 80-hour weeks isn’t cool”: Digilante’s MD on making time for fun as his agency grows

Kiel Van Daal

Digilante's Kiel Van Daal: Entrepreneur, musician, technophile and Guiness lover

Bonding over a mutual client, their complementary skillsets and a shared love of Guiness, Sydneysiders Kiel Van Daal and Eric O’Brien joined forces for a creative agency that would engage millennials through a marriage of traditional marketing and emerging technologies.

Nearly five years on, it’s clear their approach has paid off. Working with the likes of Rugby Australia, Bethesda, Qudos Bank, NSW Health, Mercedes Benz, Eclipx Group, Chubb Insurance and City of Sydney, Digilante – a portmanteau of ‘digital’ and ‘vigilante’ –  has twiced placed on the BRW Fast Starters list, its annual revenue increasing from $1.5 million to $3.3 million between years one and five.

In addition to serving as Digilante’s Managing Director, Van Daal is also a touring drummer and the incoming President of the Entrepreneurs Organisation (EO) in Sydney. The 30-year-old entrepreneur spoke to Dynamic Business about his partnership with O’Brien , competing against “out-of-touch” multinationals, the importance of creative outlets in business, the life-long health condition that has fuelled his desire to excel and the standout moments from his journey with Digilante.

DB: What is the elevator pitch for Digilante?

Daal: Digilante combines new and emerging technologies with traditional creative marketing to deliver engaging campaigns and customer experiences for brands targeting a new breed of consumer whose mindset, needs and behaviour we fully understand: millennials, aged 25 to 35. Unburdened by big agency process & protocols, we are fast, smart and truly agile in the way we work, getting big solutions to market in a timeframe now demanded by clients and consumers.

DB: What sort of technologies do you use?

Daal: The integrated marketing solutions we offer clients draw on emerging technologies such as video, motion graphics, AI, VR, social media and apps like Spotify to ensure their target audience are effectively reached.

For example, we are using AI for clients in the insurance and banking space as an intuitive way to manage customer service and convert leads. This is an area where we’ll see huge amounts of growth because it’s relatively cost effective to implement and the benefits are massive.

Regarding social media, we’re playing to the fact that more and more businesses are going to where the users are, i.e. popular channels like Facebook, rather than directing them to landing pages and websites.

DB: What’s your take on the marketing scene?

Daal: The marketing industry is going through a seismic shift. On the one hand, there’s a new generation of digitally savvy consumers who want to engage with brands in new and innovative ways. One of our strengths at Digilante is that we combine old school creative thinking (Eric’s department) with modern technology to ensure ideas resonate with this younger audience (my department).

On the other hand, millennials are changing the way the industry operates from within. They want to work with agencies that innovate through comms and technologies, and they’re bringing a whole different approach to management and campaign strategy. They’re the ones serving as the CMO, the Head of Marketing or the Head of Digital Communications.

I’m excited by the rate of change in my industry, the way in which it is being majorly disrupted – for me, it means endless opportunities. I love that we get to experience things first and bring things to life that have a genuine impact on our clients and their customers.

DB: How did you and O’Brien come to partner up?

Daal: Eric and I met at a ‘drive day’ event, where we realised that in addition to sharing Subaru as a client, we also shared a love of Guiness. From there, our respective agencies (mine was Sitback, Eric’s was Kindle) began to work closely on accounts, even pitching together for new business. It became clear that my background in web development and passion for technology complemented the experience Eric had gained over 20 years working for some of the world’s biggest creative agencies. We soon arrived at a point where our clients were asking us why didn’t just role our businesses into one offering and deliver solutions that were simultaneously creative and technology-focused. Capitalising on this demand, we pooled our expertise and formed Digilante – that will be five years ago this April.

Our working relationship is defined by a genuine respect for each other’s role in the business… of course, it also helps that we both like Guinness! With the addition of Andy [Burns], who joined Digilante as our General Manager in January 2017, we have a really tight, successful senior management team.

DB: What moments have defined Digilante’s story?

Daal: Here are the top four…

  • Onboarding Eclipx Group as a client: The vehicle and equipment hire company was one our first enterprise-level clients and we became their encumbent development agency. Our first project for them was an 18 month long digital transformation initiative, which saw us deliver technical web solutions on a large scale. We required a dedicated development team, which we didn’t yet have, so we hired up pretty quickly! This allowed us to hone our tech skills and helped position us as a capable digital agency when it came to web solutions.
  • Winning the pitch to rebrand Rugby Australia: It was proof that an agency of our size was capable of winning and delivering great work for large clients. It was also a sign that clients were getting wise to the fact that the old agency model is broken – they’re no longer interested in red tape, politics and overpriced/ineffective solutions from out-of-touch multinationals.
  • Winning and servicing clients from abroad: Today, we regularly deliver work for other markets outside of Australia including China, Thailand, Singapore and even the Middle East! For example, we now work with Chubb Insurance, the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurer, having signed them in late 2017. They have offices in over 50 countries and we’re really excited to be working with them and have already spent time in Singapore getting to know some of the team and working closely together.
  • Hiring our general manager Andy Burns: Since joining the senior management team in January, last year, Andy has added corporate management structure principles to our business in a way that enhances our fast paced, flexible business model. Andy comes from running large corporate organisations but he understands our startup culture and is a real asset to the business.

DB: What strategies have fueled the agency’s success?

Daal: Thinking fast, developing and mentoring our energetic and eager young talent for senior positions within the agency, and recognising when the time was right to bring in a general manager to support Eric and myself with the day-to-day management of Digilante.

DB: What have been some key business challenges?

Daal: There’s all the usual stuff like cashflow and making bad calls with hires… everyone in business has these challenges – no one is immune. EO Sydney has given me the opportunity to spend time and share experiences with other like-minded business owners. In some cases, I’ve been able to respond to a situation more effectively because of the insights from other members and in other cases I’ve been able to avoid things altogether. It’s a really powerful and valuable group to be a part of.

DB: What impact has cerebal palsy had on your life? 

Daal: Having been diagnosed with mild cerebal palsy as an infant, I always had to work that little bit harder than everyone else – double time in some ways – to keep up. Although I’ll never overcome the physical aspect of the condition, I’ve certainly learned to live with it. The drive to “fit in”, “be normal” and, above all, achieve inevitably helped me get to where I am today. I’m always happy to put in the extra 5%, which has probably given me an advantage over many of my peers in business as well as in other areas of my life. I’m extremely lucky to be where I am today and I can thank the support of my family and the cerebral palsy alliance at a young age.

DB: Has being a drummer has business benefits?

Daal: I’ve played and toured with Marlow for over 10 years and for the most part this overlapped with launching and growing businesses. We’re going through some line up changes at the moment but just released an EP of remixes which you can find on all good streaming platforms.

Creative outlets (of any kind) are really important in business. Having something that you enjoy enables you to channel positive and negative energy and, most importantly, switch off! Although people boast about working 70 to 80 hour weeks, that really isn’t cool! As an entrepreneur, it is easy to find yourself constantly working, always striving for more and forgetting to do things just for fun. I’ve seen plenty of entrepreneurs burn out and it doesn’t end up helping them or the business. For me it is about making sure I keep some balance and have interests outside of Digilante.

DB: What will be your agenda as EO Sydney President?

Daal: I hope to bring a balance of new and old to EO Sydney, which is part of a global entrepreneur network boasting 12,000 members. I want to maintain the values and integrity of the Sydney chapter but also implement new and innovative initiatives. I want the members to feel like we are moving forward and that they are getting huge amounts of value from their membership through learning and once in a lifetime experiences. I’m excited to working with the rest of the board to achieve this – it’s a great crew. My new role officially commences in July 2018 and I will come into it having been on the Board for two years.

DB: What ambitions do you and O’Brien have for Digilante?

Daal: Our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to be a leading creative and technology agency in APAC in under 10 years. We’re already on our way to achieving this, having signed up Chubb Insurance – we’re looking forward to being able to talk about our work with them more this year.