Duke founder Neil Hughston wants to make a big splash second time around with a client-base of daring challenger brands.
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Creative agency DUKE makes advertising campaigns for challenger brands who want to be unashamedly big and bold. Neil Hughston, CEO and co-founder, explains why this brand of creativity isn't for everyone.
What's the business?
We make cool, creative stuff that makes people do things. We call it creative advertising. Yes, good old fashioned advertising that goes on the Television.
How did it come about?
With my three brilliant business partners, we’ve made it our duty to see that bold, brilliant and effective creative work makes it to the ‘streets’.
We passionately believe that the UK creative advertising business is in need of an agency like DUKE, as we want to push the boundaries and stop brands creating safe work. We like to make our clients feel comfortable with what many might see as uncomfortable.
Where are you at today?
There are eight permanent staff, but our freelance merry women and men swell us to over 30 at times. Given our proposition, “fortune favours the bold”, we are really only appealing to one out of five clients; those who have a desire and preparedness to do brave work.
Many talk a good game, but we look to work with those who have the balls to commission a genuinely bold piece of advertising. We specialise in challenger brands that have, or want to have, a big attitude and that want to rattle the category they are in but might not have huge budgets.
Duke's team of co-founders
What is the market opportunity?
We think there is a big opportunity, but it will take hard graft and real determination to deliver the output consistently. In five years’ time, if we can look back and say that we’ve created brilliant, bold and challenging creative for a set of select, like-minded clients, we can say that we’ve achieved what we wanted to. If we haven’t, then we’ll keep going until we do.
What about bumps in the road?
Mainly the cynics. I’m not sure whether you can overcome them with anything other than doing a great job and proving them wrong. We’ll keep fine tuning our proposition and putting it out there to be challenged. We’re lucky to have a couple of brilliant Non Execs, whose counsel and support is invaluable and always welcome. Ultimately, the creative work will speak for itself.
How does a creative agency advertise itself?
We always do something special at Christmas. In 2016 we created a Villains colouring book. We like ruffling feathers and plenty of people talked about it. Most importantly, it put a smile on everyone’s faces.
What's hard about business and what makes it all worthwhile?
The hardest thing is the emotional investment is equal to the financial investment. It always hurts when you lose, but it’s more personal when it’s your own agency. However, you gradually learn to become hardened to disappointment.
Conversely, the thing that’s the most fulfilling is when you win the pitch. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the headlines saying that you’ve won an account, and the overwhelming sense of pride and achievement is physical. The victories are even sweeter when you see your work out in the real world. It puts a spring in your step.
Creativity is its own reward, but winning is good too
What would you change about government?
Can I change a couple? I’d mandate the government to do far more than they currently do to promote startup businesses in the creative industry; the lack of support they give to arguably one of the country’s biggest exports is disappointing. I’d also want to make sure that creativity had far more prevalence on the school curriculum, both in primary and secondary schools.
If we are going to be more diverse in our recruitment and stop talent from draining into other industries, we need to start early, and start now. As it stands, creative advertising isn’t an option as a career – there are a lucky few of us that have fallen into it, but the opportunities to seek it out as a career option are non-existent.
What is your biggest mistake?
Being far too eager to start my first agency, which shut its doors a few years ago. It’s easy to let passion and excitement blind you to the commercial realities of running and sustaining a profitable business. Having said that, the learnings I have gained from the mistakes I made have paid back in bucket loads.
Why are you different from the others?
Staying true to our proposition sets us apart. Arguably it means we fish from a smaller pool, but the way we work with our clients is fearless, honest and truly collaborative. We become a partnership, not a slave / master relationship. The only way you can nurture that is by keeping your creative output front and centre. Those clients that see the benefit of bold work will stick with you, through good and bad times.
Heather Graham in Duke's Foxy bingo ad
How do you attract and reward your people?
We keep our ears to the ground, network, run open days and welcome people to challenge what we do. We take work life balance very seriously, we all have kids and love spending time with them, and want the people we work with to do the same. We’re happy with people working from home, everyone gets 25 days’ holiday a year, we always try and close between Christmas and New Year and everyone gets a paid sabbatical after three years’ service.
How do you rate government support for growing businesses?
I’d say not great. You only need to look at the Budget last month to see how challenging it is to be a small business. From increased business rates to the proposed tax hike for freelancers, it’s a difficult time.
What are your top three tips for people starting a business?
Chemistry. Chemistry. Chemistry. Get that right, and everything else will follow. Never give up on your beliefs and don’t be afraid to say what you think. Being comfortable in yourself at work beats the hell out of a fat salary.