How to start and grow an innovative creative agency

Here, Neil Hughston talks about how he grew his creative agency business and learned from the failures in his previous company.

Here, we talk to Neil Hughston, founder of creative agency DUKE, about how he grew the business and learned from the failures in his previous company.

1. When did you start the business, why, and what were you doing before this?

DUKE was launched officially in March 2016; prior to that I was the founder of another start-up creative agency, it is the learnings from the big failures there that I took and applied in the setting up of the new agency. We are passionate about making sure we’re unmovable in our proposition – ‘Fortune Favours the Bold’. From the people we hire, the clients we work with to the campaigns we produce, we want to be consistently bold, boundary pushing and fun.

2. Talk about the early days of the business.

The early days of any start-up business are a heady mix of being a five year old on Christmas Day, and abject terror. A lot to the time you don’t know what you are doing, but there’s a feeling of invincibility and that nothing is impossible.

Taking those learnings and applying them to DUKE is straightforward, it’s about working with co-founders who are totally aligned, totally committed to the agency cause and completely confident in our reason for existing in the wider industry landscape. In 2016 we were kissed by a lot of frogs, so we made a pact that the agency would not pitch for any business, irrespective of the brand, unless the decisionmakers were in the room. We know this is a bold move and goes against the grain, but that’s what we’re all about; and as a team we are fully invested and everyone is moving in the same direction – we think it pays to take risks.

If I could give some advice to others with the gift of hindsight, I would say always stay true to your proposition, even if it seems scary – it’s okay to say no if the chemistry isn’t right. There’s nothing wrong with fishing from a smaller pool because it pays off in the long run. When you can confidently claim that all your agency output reflects who you are, you’re onto a winner.

I’d also say some of our success so far has been because we’ve decided to be honest with prospective clients. It is amazing how many people don’t want to hear the uncomfortable truth about their brand or business. All brands have at least one, but many are powerless to do anything about it. We’ve made it our duty to unearth those truths – even if sometimes they’re hard to hear. So far, we have managed to work with clients that have not only taken it on the chin, but embraced it, and have become fired up to make real changes. In my experience, not many agencies have the balls to call out the obvious, but if the client is willing to hear it, that’s when the good stuff happens.

With that in mind, I’d say, focus less on chasing specific brands and focus more on working with amazing people and doing great work. There’s more value in getting your own brand coveted with the right types of people in the right places.

3. What was the single ‘turning point’ moment?

Pitching and winning a well-known gaming brand was a game-changer for us. We pitched on our terms, on the principles and DNA of the agency and with bold ideas – being ourselves was the thing that worked in our favour. Because we pitched for the business this way, we were able to have a lot of fun with the team and the work once we were hired. There was chemistry from the beginning, and because everyone had a common passion, goal and direction, it makes the whole process much easier. But aside from chemistry, trust is really what allowed us to push the boundaries with them and enabled us to really show off our capabilities. Trust is also the thing that sees you through when things go wrong!

The real ‘turning point’ though, was the realisation that in a crowded market place, our proposition is differentiating; but we also know our limitations. Realistically, we’re probably only attractive to one out of seven clients. For a lot of businesses this would worry them, but actually it helps us be clear on who we work with and why. We have a criteria and clients must meet the following points:

– be autonomous
– have a track record in buying bold work
– have a realistic expectation on budgets, ergo you get nothing for £5,000.

4. From that point, how did your business scale?

The reputation of the business has scaled quickly – we are not afraid to put our heads above the parapet or give our opinion on what we think is right and wrong within the industry – and we’re now on a number of pitches for brands that fit the above criteria. What’s more surprising is that a lot of brands out there are actually looking for what we offer. They want to be braver, better and more creative. They don’t want to be pandered to, they want game-changing solutions.

Further reading on entrepreneurs

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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