A series of interviews with the founders of independent + successful ad agencies and creative studios.

Nick + Vern

Halo

July 25, 2018

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

In a few sentences, can you tell us about Halo?

Halo is a leading brand agency based in Bristol. We are a Design Week Top 100 consultancy with a broad client base, working with household names and challenger brands in FMCG, lifestyle, food & alcohol, corporate blue chip, and music and entertainment.

What made you decide to launch your own agency?

Sometimes it’s time to stop saying you don’t want to be told what to do, and just stop being told what to do. Take a leap of faith and do it your way—which is why we started Halo.

Vern was a digital designer specializing in Flash gaming and I was an art director and creative brand strategist fighting in the advertising trenches. We were friends with a shared passion for design and beautifully clever tech. We also loved getting wasted in festival fields and stumbling out of sweating break beat clubs.

When we started Halo we didn’t have a single client, and no clue what we were doing. But we knew we could make it up as we went along and wing it until we figured it out. We were also stupid enough to believe that was true.

What’s the story behind the name Halo?

We wanted a cool name! The fact that there’s a marketing term called “The Halo Effect” is completely coincidental. The fact that there is an awesome game series and DC Comics character by the same name, less so.

If you could start your agency over, what’s one thing you would do differently?

It’s hard to answer this, because the truth is, you only get somewhere through trial and error. Perhaps the biggest thing we underestimated was the fact that as creatives, we’re not natural businessmen, and learning to run a company (and everything that involves) has been, and remains, the steepest learning curve you can be on.

Did you have any mentors who helped you out when you were just getting started? Who do you guys look up to now? 

In terms of inspiration, we’ve always loved Attik and Karmarama, fearless creatives like Stefan Sagmeister, and shops like Snask. I think agencies like Design Studio and Ueno are endlessly fascinating right now, and 72 & Sunny and Droga5 are downright heroic.

We’ve had a few mentors over the years who have helped us look at the shape of our brand and have provided guidance on how to build a platform for growth. For the first 10 years we were in business, however, we relied mostly on our own experiences and instincts.

How large is your team now? What are your thoughts on remote work? 

We have 25 full-time staff and are currently growing our team even larger, with a focus on digital and design. We believe in flexible work hours, and working remotely is already a part of our culture, but who and how often depends on many factors—including the need for team collaboration in the flesh and the specific demands of a project.

We believe it’s important to keep the working process as fluid as possible, which often means enabling a flexible approach, engaging with technology, and keeping an open mind. It’s performance that matters, not geography.

What does a typical project look like for you? 

There’s no such thing as a typical project, as every client is different and every need is individual. We start every project with a blank sheet of sketch paper and an open mind.

Fundamentally, however, we always begin with full immersion and integration—trying to get to the heart of the brand before we build the strategy. We like to go native with our clients, aligning as part of the team.

What is your approach when dealing with a new client? 

Every client is different, but broadly speaking, we think it’s vital to mutually formulate a set of criteria on which to judge success before any engagement begins. This initial objectivity removes any unhelpful subjectivity that may come later, and keeps us focused on the project requirements.

Have you ever turned down a project because it didn’t fit what you do well? 

Sometimes we can tell that there is not a cultural fit and we’ve walked away before things go too far, but on one occasion, we turned down an internationally well known financial brand because they asked us to end our association with Transform (an organization that is trying to end prohibition and the needless war of drugs). We are proud of the work we do for them, as well as what they stand for and represent.

What’s something you wish people understood better about your business?

That you can look outside of London for top flight branding. When we say “challenge the brief”, that’s both a promise and a threat.

How do you measure progress as an agency? How do you know you’re on the right path?

Beyond the financial markers, we tend to base success on if we’re doing great work for clients that we love. So far, so good. 

I guess you don’t ever know what the right path is. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, it’s probably going in the right direction.

Particular career highlights include our extensive work with Live Nation and Ticketmaster. From Download Festival to Ticketmaster Sport’s strategic brand platform, it’s been a challenging, inspiring, and endlessly creative partnership for over 6 years. Away from global digital, we’ve been privileged to launch a number of challenger brands in FMCG—winning acclaim for our rebrand of South West legends Butcombe Brewery, and delivering Maxell Hitachi’s biggest ever selling headphone range. We also helped a luxury children’s toy brand move from a big idea to Harrods in under two years. 

Now, with major ad campaigns for fashion retail, the TV debut of The God of Cider, and a rebrand of a consumer rights champion, we’ve got a lot to look forward to creatively.

Has social media had any impact on the way you approach a project?

Social media is a game changer. Brands have always been shaped by the people who consume them, and social media merely underlines this and holds a stark mirror to brands to act with purpose.

We’ve always approached branding with this ethos.

Are there any technology trends you are particularly excited about? 

We’re really interested in the combination of micro-robotics and the activation of real-life actions with instant and social messaging. We’re also continually fascinated by Virtual and Augmented Reality as a new way to experience brands. We’ve got a number of projects right now that will see us push the boundaries within these tech spaces.

Last year, we delivered a 360 degree film for Travis Perkins workwear brand Scruffs that pushed us to develop a wearable GoPro Sphere for an engineer climbing the chains on the Severn crossing. This summer we’ll be starting work on a new concept for a mobile VR experience for a disruptive alcohol brand.

We may not make Flash games anymore, but we’re still playful!

Where do you see branding and digital storytelling headed over the next few years? 

I think we’re moving back to a space where we talk less about brand building and more about brand shaping. The rise of social media means that we have to rethink the constructs of the last 20 years and move into delivering meaningful connections between brand and audience through compelling CX that is driven by brand purpose. At Halo, we call this “emotional momentum”.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting their own creative agency?

Remember that you are starting a business. Take the boring stuff seriously and do it well. Learn to say no, no matter how scary it sometimes feels. The first book you should read is Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway.

When you become a parent yourself, you suddenly understand your own parents’ point of view. You see how hard it can be. You learn how wonderful it is. It’s the same when starting an agency. You set out to avoid the perceived mistakes of previous employers—you’re never going to make that deal, or get pushed into making the logo bigger. But you will. You’ll do it all. The trick is to find your path and keep moving forward. Never look back, you’re not going that way.

Also, remember that if you don’t love what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it.

 

Check out more exciting work from Nick Ellis, Vern Edmonds, and the rest of the Halo team here: wearehalo.co.uk.

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