It’s not often that giving away a product for free results in profits… but that’s exactly how one Australian postcard company has thrived for 25 years.
Three years is a long time in business, especially when you’re trying to sell a concept nobody’s heard of, and with hardly any traction. But this is how long it took Avant Card to make an impact and spread awareness of its free postcards after launching in the early ’90s.
According to founder and managing director Pat Mackle, initial reactions from potential clients, distributors and the public ranged from surprise to utter bewilderment. “It went on for many years,” she says. “The response was usually, ‘What do you mean?’ or, ‘How does that work?’ or, ‘Why are they free?’. Pretty much everyone these days realises it’s a form of advertising.”
Today, Avant Card’s highly collectable and striking postcards are found in countless cafes and bars around Australia. They’re beautifully designed, free, and might be advertising a film, concert, exhibition, or even a new government initiative. “Our number one client base is [the] art and culture [industry]. And number two is government,” explains Pat. “Nowadays, because of our 25-year history, we have a reputation. People know that what we’re advertising, what we’re promoting, is something worth going to see.”
This reputation and brand recognition is now Avant Card’s strongest asset. But, in the beginning, the then-27-year-old entrepreneur, who was based in Sydney, spent her first year in business wrestling with the urge to quit. A former editing assistant in the film industry, Pat was inspired after seeing free postcards in a cafe in Copenhagen. It was a concept she’d never seen elsewhere: a series of well-designed postcards advertising local businesses and events, stocked in spaces all around town.
On her return home, film work had completely dried up. “I thought I’d look around to see what opportunities were available for people with a business idea,” recalls Pat. After coming across the Australian government’s New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS), through which job seekers receive training and funding towards a new business, she decided to apply.
From 700 applicants, Pat was one of 30 chosen. “They trained us up in every aspect of how to run a small business,” she explains. “After the six-week training program, they made us all submit a business plan.
Then they accepted 20 of us to receive the funding, which was basically equivalent to the dole at the time – AU$135 a week for one year.”
Without the NEIS scheme, Pat believes Avant Card wouldn’t have got off the ground. “I was very green, very naive,” she says. “I didn’t really know what to do. If I hadn’t had that assistance, there’s no way I would’ve been able to make it. I would’ve fallen over, for sure.”
Armed with a mentor, a business plan, and a weekly allowance, all thanks to NEIS, Pat launched Avant Card from her spare room. “This was before the internet, so I had no laptop. I was working from home, with a phone and a folder with bits of paper saying ‘A to K’ and ‘L to Z’. I would ring businesses and see if they wanted to do some advertising,” she says. “It was very much hard slog: hit the streets, walk the town and knock on doors.”
Starting with 10 local cafes, Avant Card, which was the eighth postcard advertising company in the world, has grown its distribution network to more than 1550 venues, including cafes, bars, theatres, galleries, cinemas, universities and schools. This Australia-wide network reaches around 5.8 million pairs of eyeballs a week. “People enjoy themselves in our venues,” says Pat. “They’re relaxed, they have an open frame of mind, they’re less likely to be on their phones. They’re more receptive to noticing and picking up our cards.” Over 25 years, Avant Card has acquired all seven of its Australian competitors.
Consumer reactions have also changed in that time. “In the beginning, people were like, ‘Wow, they’re free, they’re amazing, they’re beautiful, I’m taking one of everything!’,” says Pat. “Now people are quite particular. They’re targeted as to what they’ll take. They’ll peruse the display and take what’s of interest to them, maybe two or three.”
Avant Card’s 4000 clients can now target specific markets and venues in bespoke campaigns, based on visitor tracking at venues. A recent campaign saw Avant Card team up with the Victorian government to promote bicycle safety along key corridors where cyclists were being hit by car doors opening. “Through the client’s research, Sydney Road in Brunswick [in Melbourne] was identified as one that was most affected. Then we could target venues along those roads,” says Pat. Avant Card distributed both postcards and bicycle grips that could be attached to interior car handles to remind people to always check for cyclists before opening their door.
Not every campaign has hit the mark, however. In the year 2000, buoyed by a wave of pre-Olympics enthusiasm, Avant Card launched displays in a large number of Sydney hotels. “It was a huge flop. After the Olympics, clients were no longer interested and we ended up with so many cards,” says Pat. But she remains philosophical. “Failure is part of business, and it’s part of life. It’s going to happen when you’re constantly trying new things.”
Throughout its long history, Avant Card’s biggest challenge has been the rise of digital advertising. “It definitely had an effect for a while there,” says Pat. “Everyone was telling us that they were moving to digital. But they’ve come back. There was a lot of hype, but digital is a crowded space. Clients still need a range of different media for their campaigns.” Pat firmly believes that print is not dead. “People still want a quality product, something tangible and beautiful that they can hold. One of the biggest strengths of the company is our unrivalled distribution network.”
After producing more than 20,000 different postcard designs over 25 years, Avant Card’s creative team knows what catches the eye. “It has to be interesting, intriguing, exciting, beautiful. It’s got to be something that people are attracted to. We really have to push the boundaries,” she says.
But it’s not all about business for Pat. At the heart of Avant Card’s philosophy is a commitment to give back, only working with businesses they deem to be ethical and fully covering the costs for one community organisation and one emerging artist per print run. “My mantra has always been to try and make the world a better place,” she says. “I’m always asking, ‘How can we do that in business? What are the tools we’ve been given?’. I’m so fortunate to be in this position where I’ve got a successful company – so what can I do?”
To create further value for Avant Card’s clients, Pat is working on a digital platform that will complement its print offering. “We have a massive fan base that loves the tangible product,” she says. “Now I’m researching how we can capture them on a digital platform and provide additional value for our clients with the pop that I’m looking for.”
But Pat doesn’t believe she’s held all the cards over the years. “Know when to ask for advice,” she says. “It could be that you need to consult a HR person. Or look up the laws of the particular state. You can’t possibly know everything. I wouldn’t want to.”
Whatever the future holds, Pat is satisfied with Avant Card’s longevity. “People still love what we do. And I’m proud that we’re bringing something beautiful into people’s lives, and that we give back to the community. I’m not out to make money, I’m out to make a profit. There’s a difference.”