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15 June 2023

The brothers behind Bastion

Jack Watts x Fergus Watts

For Bastion brothers Fergus and Jack Watts, it simply made sense for the two to merge together in business.

Founded in 2009, Bastion is heralded as Australasia’s largest full-service independent marketing and communications agency. 

Former professional AFL player, Fergus Watts, said he was 22 when he got dismissed from the Saints, unemployed and without an email address.

His brother, Jack, had just been offered a job selling sponsorship to the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. 

“I had never been to uni and frankly didn’t know what a ‘real job’ was. I went and met with a range of different people from different professions to try and figure out what I was going to do,” said Fergus Watts.  

“I settled on an advertising agency because the people there seemed happy, were wearing T-shirts and music was playing in the office. It seemed better than wearing a suit and tie every day (plus they offered me a job which helped!)."

Fergus then left that advertising agency with a grandiose plan to start Bastion because he realised his interests didn’t actually lie in the work, but more in the structure of an agency; mergers and acquisitions.

Jack Watts took the job with Ripcurl on a contract basis and started building a sponsorship agency, he said. 

“Because the Rip Curl Pro was in Torquay, I worked out of Fergus’s office in South Melbourne and basically played football with one of the guys there for four hours a day,” said Jack Watts. 

“In all of the sponsorship pitches it made sense having creative, PR and activation as part of the response and so pretty quickly we partnered up together.” 

Being the founder, Fergus is now non-executive chair and Jack is the CEO and runs the business.  

Fergus said he believed he could find people who had the individual talents and skills to deliver the required marketing services, and then build a team around them.  

“That’s how Bastion started. Jack was selling sponsorship for rights holders and working out of the Bastion offices,” he said. 

“He then started pitching sponsorship deals with on-site activation, digital activation and PR delivered by Bastion Group agencies. It then made sense for Jack to merge his business into the group at that stage and Jack and I became partners across the entire group together.” 

Having come from divergent backgrounds, the brothers have relied on their dissimilar strengths to complement each other's work at Bastion. Fergus Watts.

Fergus said while Jack is very client focused, his goal has been on the growth of new services within the group; into new regions and corporate financing for instance. 

“We have always used the analogy that I was the first guy through the wall on something new, Jack would then need to pick up the pieces on the ground and actually make it run properly as a long-term sustainable business,” said Fergus Watts. 

“In nearly 15 years of having this business, I am not sure we have properly clashed on operational things maybe more than five times (don’t get me wrong, many other dust ups on many other issues however!). Our strength is how we complement each other as we are very different.” 

Jack agreed in that he and his brother have always been different, none more so evidenced by how they both live their lives today.  

“We grew up in Bayside Melbourne – Ferg now lives on a farm and is raising farm kids, I live on the beach and am raising little groms,” said Jack Watts.  

Jack said his brother has always been great at getting the business, a new service or a new market from nothing to something. His skill on the other hand, is getting it from something to something a lot more, he says. 

“I honestly wouldn’t have done half the stuff in this business without Fergus pushing us into it and onto the next thing, which has paid off in spades,” said Jack. 

“I can remember being vehemently opposed to starting a Sydney office, Ferg moved up and did it. We now have more than 100 staff here and I live in Sydney with my family and love it.” 

All professional and personal relationships require healthy communication, especially when there is a crossover between the two for families in business.  

There’s even more to navigate for Jack and Fergus as their dad is also in the business, granting them an easy way to slip in to talking work relentlessly. 

Jack said this has always been a topic of conversation and a fine balance to get right.  

“I think for a while there our relationship became all about work, and we really had to put some effort in building a relationship outside of work,” he said. 

“That has got exponentially easier since we both had kids in the past five years. There is so much to connect on with our families and when we’re all together, it’s all kid related, and they don’t care about work!” 

Fergus said the balance sometimes works well, and other times it gets too business heavy.

“I have found the only way to do anything as a business owner, with business partners (especially family) is to just lean into it and have just one life,” said Fergus. 

“Separating personal and professional, just puts limitations on every conversation. And considering we speak every day, there can’t be any limitations.” 

Fergus notes building a business is all consuming and takes over every part of someone.  

“As 12 and 14-year-olds we would be kicking the footy together one minute. Then roll into an all-in brawl wanting to kill each other, then within four minutes of the brawl finishing we were kicking the footy again. That is a fair analogy of the advantages of working with family.  

“Building a business is all consuming and takes over every part of you. If you have a partner, you have to know that the partner is unwavering in their commitment to put the business first and put their ego aside. With family you know exactly what you are getting, and the stakes are high!"

Jack notes how great it is to do business with someone you know you can never fall out with.  

“There is almost some mutually assured destruction about it, that if we stuff up our relationship, we both know mum will kill us, so in the hard times you know you are in the trenches with a true partner,” said Jack. 

The brothers say they face challenges almost daily – it’s an inevitable part of business for such a wide-ranging company across three countries and nine cities.  

“We have faced many challenges together. We get over them because we are in the trenches together on everything,” said Fergus. 

Jack said due to the nature and scale of Bastion, there is always something to fix somewhere but being family, any issues are always resolved and the two are attending to the next duty in no time.

“Because we’re family, there’s never any pointing of fingers, we’re both in it up to our eyeballs so we just divvy up the tasks and get on with it,” he said. 

There are plenty of pitches out there in the market at the moment, Jack notes, with lots of activity and opportunity - particularly for independents. 

He says Bastion has a good snapshot of the market across multiple services, clients, cities and countries.  

“The Australian and NZ markets continue to remain resilient. From my perspective clients continue to see value in investing in brand and business transformation through uncertain times,” said Jack. 

“The US has had much more change and shifting of client spend, however it is starting to come back now.”  

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