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

Chris Jefford

Truant

February 9, 2020

Interviewed by: Michael Freedman

What is Truant?

Truant is a creative agency that helps brands grow by unlocking their rebellious side. We have a unique offering, including advertising, brand, media, and music—giving clients their best chance of getting the attention they crave.

What made you decide to start your agency?

My partners and I had worked for some great network and boutique agencies in the past and saw an opportunity in creating a business that combined the best of both those worlds—the fast, frenetic, rebellious world of the boutique aligned with the smart, safe, reassuring world of the networks.

What’s the story behind your name?

The name comes from a song lyric: “Students truant, learn the streets fluent”, taken from a Dizzee Rascal track. We loved the idea of creating a brand that lived in the streets, lived in the cracks between cultures, didn’t abide by the traditional rules of engagement, and sought to find its own path. The name excited and scared us in equal measure; it sets an expectation of the type of people we are and the type of work we do.

It probably scares off as many clients as it attracts, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you first launched?

We started our business on the day it was announced that we’d hit a double-dip recession. As an agency without a founding client, we found it difficult in those early days to build momentum and bring new clients through the doors. When you run a business for the first time, you’re constantly questioning yourself, and there’s a belief that other people are smashing it and frustration that you’re not.

You get kinder to yourself as you grow into it, but at the time that was tough. Creating a differentiated proposition was hard (we’ve been through many), and selling the agency as something new and unique was a challenge.

I also think one of our strengths, which is our breadth of experience across a number of different specialisms like film, technology, strategy, brand, marketing, digital, etc., made it quite difficult for us to focus. We were always worried about missing out on something. Oh, and cash, obviously. That was always a worry in those early days!

What does a typical project look like for you?

A Truant project is one that takes what you thought you knew about a brand and turns it on its head. The process is fluid, the conversations are honest (and sometimes brutal), the skill sets are varied, and the outcomes are unexpected.

Have you ever turned down a project because it went against what you believe in?

Yes, especially in more recent times when we’ve had the capacity to think a little more before we commit.

Modern businesses have a responsibility to not only maximize profits but to leave the world in a better place than they found it.

We’re trying to do the same through our actions as an agency, and the type of engagements we will (or will not) participate in.

On that note, there is an eclectic mix of campaigns on your Causes page that your team is passionate about. Tell us more about that. 

We’ve always been at our best over the years when we’ve been working on something we believe in. All the way back to when we worked with the Home Office on their anti-knife crime campaigns, those projects that felt like they really mattered tended to result in us producing our best work.

Right now, we’re working with organizations that are focusing on ending the scourge of youth homelessness (End Youth Homelessness), that are encouraging the world to recycle their old electrical and electronic equipment (the WEEE fund), and with one that is seeking to launch a new helpline aimed at women (Polly). We’ve also worked on projects to provide money to local food banks and to drive the youth vote during the recent election.

Every one of these is driven by someone in the business who is passionate about it as an issue. It doesn’t matter what role they play, just that they want to make a change, and that primarily drives our decision making on what to go with and what to pass up.

Are there any differences that stand out to you when your client is an established brand versus a startup? 

It’s a question of mindset. Whether you’re an existing brand having your lunch eaten by industry disruption, or a new startup eager to mix it up with the big boys, we’re searching for clients who are ready and willing to look at new and unconventional ways of solving the challenges that they’re facing.

We’re not interested in being brought in to ask the same questions and deliver the same answers, or to work with brands that want to maintain the status quo by playing it safe. The world moves fast, and the time between massive industry changes is getting shorter and shorter. So to consistently play by the same rules is insane.

There can, of course, be challenges with larger organizations in building consensus for change. Still, if the desire and the intent are there, then we’re all up for the challenge.

In addition to advertising and branding, you also specialize in music experiences. What does that entail? 

Music is a huge passion for our agency and its founders, and we were frustrated by how little thought and budget is given to it as part of the creative product. As the music industry has gone through huge disruption (it was really one of the first sectors to feel the full force of technology), we’ve seen it rebuild itself into a completely different beast, where fans and experiences lead the way over and above record sales. 

We saw an opportunity to help brands navigate this new world and make the most of the opportunities it affords. 

We developed a strategic framework called Music Experience Design, a design thinking approach to looking at music and brand as one. In the same way you would expect a single-minded communications proposition, we work to unlock a brand’s single-minded music proposition—a north star that encompasses music trends, fan culture, artist partnerships, and brand values—which then acts as the blueprint for all involvement in music moving forward. 

Why do more agencies not do this? No fucking idea…music is THE universal culture, and to ignore it is madness.

Have you worked on any unique projects recently?

There are a few things in the wings that we can’t really talk about at present, but the most recent piece of work that is out there that we’re super proud of is the sponsorship idents that we did for The Masked Singer as part of our annual push for Royal Caribbean. The show is batshit crazy, and our client allowed us to push the look, feel, sound, and overall attitude of the work. What we ended up with was something about as far away from a piece of communication for a cruise company as you can get.

Have apps and other mobile technology made it easier to reach an audience? 

For sure. The biggest change has been the proliferation of devices and platforms that now make up the marketing mix—the age of the social web really did change everything and put the customers in control of brands to a large extent. There is definitely a greater opportunity to reach both broad and discreet audiences through digital. The technology is there to enable brands to laser target customers with new product innovations, and (for the moment at least) to build detailed data maps of their behaviors and movements to improve later iterations of messaging and media mixes. 

But the fundamentals remain the same—brands must be timely, be considerate, and above all else be valuable. 

From a creative perspective, many have seen the rise of data and programmatic advertising as being some kind end of days for creativity and in some cases that has borne out. Moving forward, I think the really successful brands will strike a balance between heart and science, creating brilliantly creative work that compliments their data capabilities and viscerally reaches their audiences in a uniquely differentiating way.

One of the challenges running an agency is that you’re paid to create and build products for other people, sometimes at the expense of your own ideas. Do you work on any internal projects at Truant?

For a while, we were guilty of putting our passion projects on the back burner. However, the Truant brand lives or dies by our ability to make, try, test, push, disobey, and create, and not every client wants that in their lives.

So over the past year, we’ve really amped this up by launching our own music showcase, Unruly, where we announced our first artist signing, Ayanna (more from her soon); we launched a shop selling Truant-designed wrapping paper with all the proceeds going to our local food bank (it sold out in a week); we created one of the most talked-about banners at the climate change march last year; we created a short film for the 2019 election that sought to galvanise the youth vote.

Creating work “for us” is super important creatively and culturally, and it’s something that we will continue to invest in as we go into 2020.

If you could wake up tomorrow and start your agency over, is there anything you would you do differently?

I’d start with at least one client! But seriously, this is the first time any of us had properly run a business with our own money, and the journey you go on is part of getting better at it.

It was once put to me that running a startup is like flying a plane while building it, which has always stuck with me as a brilliant summary of the exhilaration and fear that lives with you as a business owner.

We’ve had some amazing successes over the years, but we’ve also made some horrendous mistakes. But you learn from it and get better for it, so I don’t think I’d change a thing.

Are there any other technology trends that you’re particularly excited about implementing in your work?

I’ve been spending a lot of spare time researching the big trends in AI and machine learning recently, both from a business process point of view and also a future-skills one. I don’t buy into the “us versus the robot” narrative—the big winners in the future will be those businesses that can utilize technology to supercharge the human element in their organizations. For a creative business such as ours, this is incredibly exciting.

Apart from that, I’m still convinced that VR and AR are going to change the world, and the creative opportunities within these virtual spaces is literally endless. I remember when I first came into digital I used to tell people that what I loved about developing was that you could literally create anything from a blank (2D) screen. Now with 3D spaces, I’m no less excited by the possibilities.

How do you measure progress as an agency? 

Outside of the financials, I think an agency is largely shaped by the culture that exists within it. Our culture has to attract talent (and also clients), so it must be given the space to be properly considered.

A lot of my time is spent thinking about the people we are fortunate enough to have come into work every day and put in a shift for us. Are we helping them maximize their potential? Are we using them in the right ways to improve their development? Are we creating a business of leaders who are helping to shape who we are over time?

Retention is a key metric for us, as it’s a blunt measure of staff happiness. We are not an agency that holds awards in particularly high regard, but to be recognized for the work we do and in particular, for the way that we approach it, is really nice.

Ultimately, the question I ask myself every day is, “Are we being true to ourselves?” That is key for me. Are we living up to the potential that exists in our Truant brand, and are we coming into work every day and giving the best of ourselves.

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

Truly believe in what you’re doing, because if you don’t, no one will.

A big thanks to Chris for taking the time to be interviewed. Check out all the great things he and his team are working on at: truantlondon.com.

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