Brian Vella

For 20 years while the entire world has played catch-up trying to get their head around this thing you may have heard of called the ‘internet’, massive corporations like NAB, Myer, Honda, Qantas and Bunnings have been relying on a Churchill boy to guide them. Meet Brian Vella, one of Australia’s leading web experts.

In a sentence, tell us your job description, and what you do

Managing Director of a high performing, digital creative and technology team at DT.

Do you specialize, or have a particular niche?

We are a full-service digital marketing agency. Our model is based on a deep and broad group of digital specialists collaborating together everyday across all industries.

How did you get into that career?

I studied Management & Marketing at University. It wasn’t a typical journey, as I deferred study to get into Graphic Design half-way through the course. A few years laster I recognised I was never going to be the world’s best designer, though identified that I loved the creative field. So I moved into project and account management which was more aligned with my study.

Did you need to do some specialist study?

Not really, though the degree certainly helped my entry into the broader world of marketing. This was particularly important when partnering with those in the more traditional advertising space.

How long have you been doing this now?

I’ve been at DT for 12 years. In the industry for 15.

What type of clients do you work for?

It’s very broad. We work across all sectors from Retail to Automotive to Financial Services. Clients include Honda, Bunnings, Myer, Officeworks, NAB and Qantas (to name a few).

Where do you work from / where are you located?

St.Kilda Road in Melbourne, and St.Leonards in Sydney.

What companies or people have you worked for?

Prior to working at DT I worked at ecommerce pioneer (in the dot com boom). Prior to that my career started at Messenger Media, based out of Green Inc adjacent to Monash University in Churchill.

What would a typical working day involve?

It’s generally a combination of Consulting & Coaching these days. Consulting to clients, in terms of their digital strategies and working with the leadership team on their careers and evolving their own teams.

What kind of people do you get to work with?

The best in the business. I’m lucky and proud to have world class talent in my team, that I get to work with everyday. The core pillars of our business are built around our Technology Director, our User Experience Design Director, our Design Director and Creative Director. From a client perspective it’s generally CMO’s.

Can you tell us a little about your workspace or working environment?

We recently redesigned our workspace in Melbourne. We moved floors in our building and had a blank canvas to work from. This gave us the opportunity to design the space to supercharge collaboration. It’s entirely open plan with an oversized space in the middle – called the Sandbox – where people come together to connect informally and formally. It was beautifully designed by an Interior Designer and Architect and provides great inspiration for the team. To top it off our Creative Technology Lab has free reign and has made the space interactive in parts demonstrating our passion for innovation.


Anything special you keep nearby or things you use for inspiration?

Personally, it’s the people that I work with. We try and make the environment as positive as we can so that people can do their best work. In the Sandbox, we keep this as open and relaxed as possible with a table tennis table, personal barrista and loads of informal meeting spaces.

Would you consider your work fun? What about your job is fun?

My work is fun. Our purpose as a business is to be a ‘Future Guide’, this gives us great permission (and an obligation) to forge new ground and remain as innovative as possible.

What kind of challenges must you overcome in your work?

Ranging from retaining our best people, maintaining a pipeline of work that inspires the team and keeping the shareholders happy.

What are some of the most impressive things you have done in your career?

  1. Grown our team from 6 to 160 people. Beyond size, we’ve built a high-performing team that continues to lead the market in many ways – from growth, awards, retention and profitability.
  2. In 2012, we were named ‘Business of the Year’ in the prestigious STW Group from 75 other marketing communication companies.

I’m incredibly proud of this. Our client portfolio is second to none and we’re trusted by many of Australia’s biggest brands. Our ability to retain these clients is something else that I’m particularly proud of. Lastly, seeing the growth in many of our team members. A number of our key people have grown to become industry leaders in their own right.

Can you share any stories about glamorous/impressive projects?

We have full responsibility for Honda Australia’s entire digital ecosystem, ranging from their website to their online advertising to their CRM program. Recently we conceived and then built a world first digital activation of a ‘spinning cup’ called Honda Trope – I believe this is the most impressive piece of work that we’ve done. In fact Fast Co.Design agrees.


Have you won any awards or prizes?

We’ve won too many awards to list over the last 15 years, ranging from a Cannes Lion, to AIMIA and Webby awards. Most recently we were named STW Business of the Year.

Have you been published in special publications?

Personally, I’ve had thought leadership pieces in many publications ranging from Marketing Magazine to AdNew and B&T. Couple of examples here and here.

Have you worked with any famous people?

Famous? Not so much. Does John Calabro count?

Do you get to travel with your job?

A lot. Our office in Sydney see’s me up there at least every fortnight, if not more often. I also travel to South East Asia regularly, connecting with our regional Ogilvy partners. In the last two years I’ve travelled for work to New York City, Cannes, Singapore, Jakarta and Japan.

Are there any other special perks you’re willing to share?

Not really a perk, though in 2013 our parent company supported me on a professional development trip to Stanford University for 3 weeks.

Any things else?

Beyond DT, I’m also the Executive Director of Digital at Ogilvy, essentially responsible for the digital evolution within the broader Australian Ogilvy network.

Where did you grow up in Gippsland?


What school/s did you go to?

Churchill North Primary, Kurnai College Churchill, Maryvale and Monash University Churchill.

What are your fondest memories of living in Gippsland / favourite things about living in Gippsland?

The time and space. Even when I moved to Melbourne, for the first 10 years I’d travel back almost every weekend to get out of the city. I maintained my membership at Traralgon Golf Club for many years, enjoying the company and relaxed atmostphere of the Club. More often than not after golf I’d head to the local footy or cricket (depending on the season) to watch good friends in action. I love the community aspect of local sporting clubs and miss that most.

What kind of challenges did you have to overcome to get onto this career path?

  1. It was a big decision to move to Melbourne. At the time all my friends and family were living locally, and almost no one I knew had moved on. I had a stable job that I was interested in, though felt like something was missing. On top of that I’m an only child, so leaving my parents was a big deal. I took a chance, applied for a job at an ecommerce startup, and ended up getting the job. Even after receiving the offer I wasn’t sure, and it wasn’t until the CEO of the company took myself and my girlfriend (now wife) to dinner that I changed my mind. I remember thinking at the time that I’d do it for a couple of years, get some experience and then move back. 15 years later I’m still happily settled in Melbourne.
  2. After a couple of years at wishlist, I applied – unsuccessfuly – for my dream job at David Trewern Design (now DT). At the time not getting this was disappointing though deep down I knew I wasn’t ready, so spent the next 12 months developing myself professionally. A year later wishlist faced some financial trouble (after burning through $10M in venture capital) and a number of reduncanies were made. At the time this was frightening, though it led me back to DT where I applied again for the second time. I got that opportunity and I’ve been there ever since.

Were there any special teachers or mentors that made a lasting impression on you, even into your career?

Brendan Hibbert, now a Design lecturer in Perth, had the biggest influence on my career (he may not know this – I should probably tell him)! I worked under him in my very first job and he taught me everything I know about Design. One thing he said to me, which I still think about today, is that ‘everything has been designed’. This provides great inspiration and is something that’s guided my point of view on creative services, and how DT has evolved. Since then, without doubt it’s been David Trewern, the founder of DT (and now non-executive Chairman). We’ve worked closely together for more than a decade.

What subjects did you do at school, or what things did you do locally as a kid that may have led you to this career?

I studied Management and Marketing. Though at the time had no idea where that would take me. It was  ultimately my ‘summer job’ at the small graphic design studio Messenger Media that led me to today. I was lucky enough to work closely with a few entruperueners (Antony Svasek, Daniel Lewis and Andrew Philips) that instilled in me a work ethic and the curiosity needed to succeed.

What was your first job out of school?

‘Glassy’ at the ‘Chill Bar’ in Churchill. Back in the day it was the placed to be on Uni Nights.

How did your life change after you left Gippsland?

I don’t think I ever really left Gippsland. While I live in Melbourne, I still called Gippsland home and get back regularly to visit friends and family. I think I always will. Moving to Melbourne opened up a world of career opportunity that –for me – wasn’t available back in Gippsland.

What kind of things did you get up to when you were young which lead you to the career path you have now?

Certain shops you’d frequent, events, festivals, activities, local people who put you onto something, etc.

Interestinly I can’t really connect the dots from my early life to where I am now. I always had an interest in design, though never excelled at it at school or took any related extra curricular activities. I would highlight my golfing experience however. I spent a lot of time playing with adults on Saturday mornings, which I feel accelerated my maturity in some ways.

What are the best things going for Gippsland?

The natural beauty of Gippsland is under-rated. Percieved or otherwise, the rat-race does catch up with you. It’s good to be able to go to a place that’s less intense – I think this is healthy.

What are the biggest things Gippsland lacks?

I’d like to see Gippsland become more of an innovation hub. It has Monash University, and many years ago the ‘Green Inc’ concept was formed, though I never really felt it fulfilled its potential. It obviously can’t rely on the industrial industry any longer, so it would be good to see it embrace technology more and become Australia’s ‘Silicon Valley’. Easier said than done obviously.

How could our area improve to support young people trying to get a career in a creative field?

When I was at Stanford University we spent time at their emerging Built around user-centred-design principles, it’s getting worldwide attention and spawning all sort of innovative new products and services. It would be great for Monash to set something similar up and ‘own it’. There is a gap. Universities like Swinburne have a higher reputation for design, though there’s no reason that Monash – in Churchill – couldn’t take this space and lead the way. This would provide a greater base for students interested in creativity to bound from.

Do you still have connections with Gippsland?

Absolutely. Most friends and family are still back there.

Do you come back and if so how regularly?

These days, at least once a month.

Where do you get inspiration from?

Today I get my inspiration from my team, though externally the big events like the Cannes Lions Festival. I was there in 2011 and will be attending again this year. I’ll aim to get there every couple of years. From a publication perspective things like Fast Company and Harvard Business Review.

What kind of things do you need to keep track of to do your job well? How do you maintain working at such a high level?

Personally, I have a business coach that I see fortnightly. This is particularly powerful in maintaining high performance levels and personal accountability.

We also have a broad Dashboard view of the business’ performance which I look at regularly. Holding each other accountable for progress is critically important – so we’re religious at holding a senior management meeting every week. On top of that our parent company keep us on our game with Quarterly review meetings against targets we set for ourselves each year.

Who are your heroes?

I really respect the business leaders who have created sustained success. People that have created lasting legacies like Steve Jobs, Jack Welch and Phil Knight. I also get inspired by sporting greatness, like Adam Scott winning the 2013 Masters; an unbelievable ability to perform under pressure.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into a career like yours?

A. Maintain a growth mindset. I would hire someone with a positive, hungry and humble attitude everytime over someone with more skill and talent and a fixed mindset. I’ve recently read the book Mindset and it describes – in my view – a key element in professional and personal success.

Any things else?

I’d remind people not to underestimate the value in loyalty. It’s common for people in our industry to move around a bit – given the skill shortage and a grass is greener attitude – though there’s a trade-off everytime you do that. I have the firm view that as long as you’re constantly adding value in your role, and pushing yourself (as opposed to the company pushing you) you’ll be rewarded in the medium to long term.


Posted on May 1, 2013


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