Interview with Tim O’Neill, Reactive

What’s your day job?

I’m Joint Managing Director at Reactive. We’re a digital agency and have been running for 15 years. My main focus is working with our major clients, and helping to welcome new ones (you could call it sales & marketing).


What type of projects does your company work on – how long do they run?

A typical project is a large Web site that requires some sound thinking up front, a well-considered (and validated) user experience, some complex technical stuff and flawless delivery. We also help to build awareness through online campaigns, search marketing and the like.


How did you get started in digital?

My business partner (Tim Fouhy) and I both studied Computer Graphic Design in NZ, which had a large focus on traditional graphic design skills plus CD-Rom development. In our last year of study someone invented the Internet (or maybe it was Netscape 2), and we jumped at the chance to combine our design skills with the WWW.

Our first job in Australia was at Sausage Software, back in 1996 when they were flying high as one of Australia’s first true Internet and eCommerce businesses. We were thrown in the deep end, and loved it.

What’s your current favourite book, website, blog or source of inspiration for your business?

On the iPad I flit between design, digital and advertising blogs (such as Adverblog, Digital Buzz Blog); with ‘real’ books (or my Kindle) it’s normally business books. The last book I finished was The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, highly recommended.

What’s the ratio of project managers to developers/producers?

 About 1:5 or 1:6

 How many staff do you have in total

We have 110 full-time staff between our five offices; Melbourne (our Head Office), Sydney, Auckland, London and New York. We opened in NYC last October, and it’s been a smash hit.

I expect this will grow to 130 this year, we’re recruiting for a range of roles in every office (get in touch!)

Have you introduced in new roles/jobs title in your business – is the nature of your business changing?

Copywriting is a reasonably new full-time role for us, and an area of our business that is growing fast. This reflects a change in our business from being known as a great user-experience and Web development agency to a ‘full-service’ digital agency over the past two years, i.e. producing a lot more campaign work for our clients.

How do you keep hours and costs on or under budget? How do you maintain profitability on each and every project? Is it a result of project management processes, good budgeting, or initial scoping? 

 I think good budgeting and initial scoping are all part of a solid project management process – the project has started before it hits the studio! We’re pretty good in this area, project management and discipline is something we’ve continuously improved on in the past 15 years (or else we wouldn’t have lasted this long!).

We give our project teams a lot of ownership over the project budget and schedule, and try to involve them as early as possible. By having project teams that work continuously with the same clients, it helps us to more accurately budget for jobs, and also produce the work a lot more efficiently which is good for us, and great for our clients.

What tools do you use to manage time and job tasks?

We use Basecamp for client communications, and an internal ‘Timesheets system’ which tracks tasks, time spent etc. We’ve never found a tool that is perfect, and I don’t think this exists. With our own custom-built system we have built a lot of reporting about project efficiency, chargeable time, utilisation etc. Forecasting is always the tricky things, as projects sometimes change in scope midway.

Any suggestions on dealing with difficult clients?

Tim and I are fortunate to have a strong management team, and they’re great at helping deal with difficult clients. We have had good success with being very open and honest with difficult clients, explaining that it’s a two-way street and both their business and our business have to be happy.

Sometimes a difficult client is not the right client, and it’s a matter of parting ways. In this scenario we try and make sure there is a great hand-over to someone else, and will even offer to help them find another agency that may be better suited.

What’s your or the company’s biggest challenge currently?

Keeping up with the opportunities, and knowing when to say no. We are fortunate to be working with really amazing clients, and this means being a lot fussier about new projects we take on. But this is easier said than done!

What particular skill set do you look for in your new hires?

Cultural fit is the #1 thing we hire for. Generally if we hire smart people that are a good cultural fit, the skills we can help develop in people through training and processes.

How do you ensure that your team is performing well, and focused on the same goals? Do you have any special team activities that you do to maintain a good culture?

We ask them, both casually and formally. One formal thing we do is a quarterly staff survey, which asks people how happy they are in their job, what we’re doing well, what we’re doing not so well, how we can help them be happier in their job. We use the eNPS (look it up) measure as a scorecard of how we’re doing across each office, and make sure we’re continuously improving.

To keep people focused on the same goals we try to reiterate our company vision often, in different contexts. This is sometimes a challenge as we don’t want to ram the vision down people’s throats, but we want everyone to be pointing in the same direction.

We do lots of small fun things that demonstrate our culture, I love our Big Breakfast which is every 3 weeks where our GM cooks for the whole team. For some reason I always seem to be travelling on this day though!


About Claudia Sagripanti

Involved in the evolution of mobile marketing and advertising from the early years, including co-founding Mobile Marketing and Advertising Awards, founding chair of AIMIA's Mobile Industry Group, development of mobile advertising guidelines for industry as well as commercialisation strategy.