Duke & Grace wordt onderdeel van Springbok: “Een digital agency moet voor zijn klanten een weg banen door de jungle van verandering”

“A digital agency must navigate the jungle of change for its clients”

Bart De Waele (founder Duke & Grace) and Kim Verhaeghen (co-founder & CEO Springbok)

A new era starts today.’ That mysterious message was projected on five iconic buildings in Ghent city center a few weeks ago to announce that digital agency Duke & Grace will continue sailing under the wings of Springbok. The grand announcement of the takeover reflects the equally grand ambitions, founders Bart De Waele (Duke & Grace) and Kim Verhaeghen (Springbok) tell Bloovi. “Together we are building a company that must still exist in 100 years.”

Keeping exceptional talent on board

“I was actively looking for a buyer for Duke & Grace,” says Bart De Waele. He founded the agency more than 15 years ago, first as Netlash, which later changed to Wijs with bSeen and later renamed Duke & Grace. “So I’ve been around for a while now. It has been clear to me for some time that our customers demand a broad, integrated story. I realized that we needed more clout to be armed for the future of digital communication”, says De Waele. “That broader, integrated story is also important to give our employees even more opportunities to develop their expertise and shape their career path. Duke & Grace has exceptional talent on board, and I absolutely want to keep it that way.”

“Of course I didn’t intend to sell Duke & Grace to the first, the best. The bar for a buyer was high. Springbok came at the perfect time. How do they say that again? Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. I had been aware for a while that Kim is building something very beautiful with Springbok.”

The Apple Universe

Springbok founder Kim Verhaeghen had the same view as De Waele on the digital agency of the future. “In the past you could perfectly keep a digital agency running with ten people. Today, that technology and that digital expertise has become so deep and so specialized that you need a much bigger team. Unless you choose to focus on one niche, but that has never been our ambition. To service large international clients, you not only need broad digital expertise. You also have to ensure that all those experts work together across the digital channels.”

“You can compare it a bit with Apple,” adds De Waele. “You have people who have an iPhone because they think it’s the best phone there is. But you also have people who are really in love with that Apple universe and have an Apple Watch, AirPods and a MacBook in addition to their iPhone. If you let them communicate with each other, you add an extra layer on top of those separate products and give them even more possibilities. That’s kind of what we do as digital agencies. You can choose the iPhone, but you can also go for the total package to get even more out of that iPhone.”

The three Ds

“Our first conversation dates back to two years ago. In recent months, those conversations have become more intensive,” says Verhaeghen. “I’ve been following Bart and Duke & Grace for a long time. Predecessor Netlash was one of the Internet pioneers in Belgium. When we were still a young, small agency, we really looked up to it. If you get the chance to bring an agency with such a reputation on board, take it. Point.”

“Duke & Grace has great people and great teams. What they do for Netflix or Barco, for example, is impressive. At least as important is that the underlying vision behind those digital services is very close to ours. Duke & Grace wants to create added value by reconciling technology and creativity. We also operate at that intersection. Moreover, with Make Sense, we had recently taken over another Ghent agency and we can thus further strengthen that Ghent hub. When it comes to digital technology, Ghent is somewhat the place to be in Belgium, where we are now further strengthening our presence.

The challenges facing us today and in the coming years can be summarized under the three Ds: sustainability, digitization and diversity

De Waele sees another match. “I think our DNA is similar. Springbok is a good place for customers and employees. We view business, our market and the world around us in the same way. We share the same love for quality.”

“The challenges facing us today and in the coming years can be summarized under the three Ds: sustainability, digitization and diversity. I recognize in Springbok the desire to tackle all three. Otherwise you wouldn’t take over an agency like Make Sense, which focuses very explicitly on sustainability communication. ‘Okay, they mean it’: that was the final push for me to work with Springbok.”

Larger playground

De Waele passed on the torch as CEO of Duke & Grace at the end of last year and is now completely selling the company he founded. “Duke & Grace will always be my child. But kids grow up. They go to college, they get a boyfriend, they fly out of the house. That’s life. My relationship with the company will change, my role in the company will change. That’s OK. At Springbok I will support the things that I like to do and that I am good at. I will inspire our existing customers as much as possible and attract new customers by putting our digital talents in the spotlight. So I will do what I did at Duke & Grace, only my playground will be a lot bigger.”

The intention is that we will eventually evolve into one brand: Springbok. But we are not going to rush that evolution

The name Duke & Grace will not disappear immediately, explains Verhaeghen. “The intention is that we will eventually evolve into one brand: Springbok. But we are not going to rush that evolution. I think we can integrate our tools and our ways of working quickly and smoothly, I’m not too worried about that. Both Duke & Grace and Springbok are companies that are digital in origin, you will notice that immediately.

“But there is of course more to consider with such a takeover. No matter how similar two companies are, you always have to integrate two cultures. You should be careful with this, especially in a creative culture. It’s my job to pay a lot of attention to that in the coming months. We will first observe very carefully and do not force anything.”

Cultures don’t have to be identical either”, says De Waele. “You shouldn’t make a uniform sausage out of that at all costs. As long as the vision for the future is the same and you both want to go in the same direction, you can safely let the differences coexist. When you’re new to someone, you start to recognize a lot of yourself in the other person. When you start living together, little by little the differences become more noticeable.”

“The same goes for two companies. If you have nothing in common, your relationship will not last long. But if you are too similar to each other, it will also start to disappoint after a while. Whether in Ghent, Mechelen, Den Bosch or Amsterdam, Springbok wants to go in the same direction everywhere. This vision connects branches and teams. But they each have their own local colour. You should certainly not try to erase it, you should cherish it.”

If you have nothing in common, your relationship will not last long. But if you are too similar to each other, it will also start to disappoint after a while

Digital transformation x value transformation

Verhaeghen thinks that digital agencies like Springbok are at a crossroads today. “We have been working on the digital transformation for the past 15 years. Everyone is sick and tired of that term, I know, but many companies are still in the middle of that transformation. In addition to this digital transformation, a value transformation has now also been added. How do you stay relevant as a brand? How do you translate your purpose into your services and products? We are on the cutting edge of the two. I think we are good there for at least ten years.”

“Furthermore, I am convinced that creativity will gain importance again. You saw an evolution in the agency world that creative agencies were looking for technology. But I also see a counter-movement: digital agencies realize that they don’t just have to write code and not only need developers, but that the creative part is also indispensable to make a difference.”

An agency should always be a bit ahead, says De Waele. “We have to make our way through the jungle of change for our customers. But we shouldn’t be too far ahead either, because then they can’t follow and they get lost in that jungle. When Apple releases its VR goggles next year, Springbok’s role for me is that we’re the first to get one proof of concept have to develop for what our customers can work with. No Second Life-like gimmick, no tech for the sake of tech, but something that creates value for their end customer. That is how I see the role of an agency.”

I totally agree with Kim that creativity will make all the difference. That people will make the difference. If ChatGPT writes 99 percent of all texts in the future, the one percent that is still written by a human will just stand out.”

A company for eternity

These are turbulent times for tech companies. But while many agencies are downsizing or at least keeping their fingers crossed, Springbok has no plans to back down. “Duke & Grace and Springbok are of course not pure tech companies, as digital communication agencies we are a bit on the edge of that world”, De Waele responds. “But our sector always moves in waves. The more it changes, the moreis the same. New companies will keep popping up, some will survive and some won’t, some will grow big and others will stay small. One of the main reasons to work with Kim is that he has patience. He wants to build a company for eternity.”

Scale doesn’t interest me that much. It is a means of broadening and deepening our expertise

2022 was our best year ever, I believe it’s because we want to continuously get better at what we do”, says Verhaeghen. “Scale doesn’t interest me that much. It is a means of broadening and deepening our expertise. There will still be recessions and there will be periods of economic boom. When the time comes, we will adapt again and surf the new waves. Springbok should still exist in 100 years, that is the final goal.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *