In one sentence, can you explain what Mohawk does?
We create inspiring journeys that take you from one state of mind to another—for customers getting to know a brand or a product, for clients who want to see their business and their careers progress, and for our own staff to find out what’s possible in their lives.
You co-founded Mohawk after honing your respective talents at larger agencies, including stints at JWT and Wunderman. Tell us how it all began and what triggered the move to go at it on your own?
Before we set up in 2007, we were presenting digital and integrated ideas that senior people in the big network agencies couldn’t even understand—let alone make happen. So the only way to ensure that our thinking stayed current and relevant was to set up our own agency and build a team for ourselves. The ability to work with the very best people, without the restrictions of working with group associations or affiliates, has given us a sense of freedom that makes every day more creative and enjoyable.
We have always believed that our clients know more about their business than we ever could. So the first thing we do is just listen to them and engage with them. In our experience, many people inside the big network agencies only view their clients as an inconvenience standing in the way of getting the adulation they think they deserve at awards ceremonies.
What were some of the early challenges you had establishing a brand and winning new business?
Because people didn’t necessarily know what we stood for when we first set up, we sometimes got called in to pitch for some crazy briefs that weren’t a good fit, and that reminded us why we set up our own shop in the first place. You have to decide fairly quickly whether you’re willing to just jump at every opportunity (which can pull you around and waste a lot of time) or to be more thoughtful about the type of work you want to do and the type of client you want to work with.
Learning to focus on our strengths took us quite a long time. It’s not easy to say no to work, but we have never regretted it after the fact.
Our first major client win was in financial services. And very quickly, it felt as though we had been “pigeon-holed” in that sector. A big key for us was learning to embrace that and turn it into a strength. We now have seven clients in the same sector (with wildly differing brands and creative challenges), as well as great clients in many other industries.
We actually set up right before the global financial crisis of 2008—which just shows that you never know what’s coming!
What does a typical project look like at Mohawk?
There’s no such thing as a typical project. More and more, however, projects begin with a need to understand the effects of changes in the marketplace on a client’s brand or business. We try to be ahead of these changes—whether it’s technology, competition, regulation or whatever—and we have a great strategy team to help us with that.
There is such a thing as a typical client, however. We find that there tends to be an individual within a client’s organization who is ambitious and focused on long-term progress. Once we establish a relationship with that person, the work goes from strength to strength.
You have locations in London, Cambridge, and Hong Kong. What are some of the benefits and challenges of having a workforce that spans the globe?
Geography shouldn’t be a barrier to creativity and great working relationships. Two people sharing an idea creates a connection that can overcome any distance.
After that, all you have to do is make sure you speak frequently so that you’re all going in the same direction. The biggest failures happen when people stop speaking and rely solely on email, where messages and intentions can easily get distorted or misinterpreted.
Opening up in Hong Kong gave us a totally different perspective on our business and our industry. Many of the preconceptions of the ad industry in London and the U.S. just don’t apply there. For us, a great breakthrough in Hong Kong came when we began finding clients who had the same understanding of the power of creativity to build a brand. It only took us three years!
How does the location of your team members affect your work culture? Do you let people work remotely?
We’re a tight team of 25 people (and we’re trying not to grow too much), but we want to work with flexible people, and we encourage adaptability. Proper work-life balance is important to us and all of our people. The reality of life is what enriches our agency culture and enhances the ideas we present to clients.
Even though many juniors enter the industry believing that they need to work 24 hours a day to succeed, we believe that being closeted in a tiny room and told to generate ideas does not create a happy environment or consistently great work. The culture inside our agency is energetic and highly engaged with different events and talks scheduled all the time—and also open to opportunities for free drinks wherever they might be!
How do you typically negotiate payment with clients? Has this evolved over the years, and do you see a noticeable trend away from hourly fees?
Over the last few years, there has been a shift away from retained work to more project-based relationships, which feels like it is being driven by procurement departments rather than by our client contacts themselves. We try not to work on an hourly fee basis, as it just reduces the value of creativity. Performance-related fees have tabled far more in recent years, but there’s a fine line between a client trying to reduce a supplier’s fees and a client working with a partner so that all parties benefit.
Tell us a little bit about Mohawk Labs—you’re building your own apps and even brewing your own beer! How do you measure the success of these investments?
Mohawk Labs is the expression of an idea we had when we first set up. It’s based on the belief that most big agencies bring in lots of talented people and then use only a tiny fraction of those talents.
Labs gives our people a creative outlet for their wildest and most ambitious ideas—whether that’s digital, design, strategy, or copywriting. It has helped to attract and keep some of our most talented and entrepreneurial people.
We judge the ideas not by how much money they make (some have, and some haven’t), but by what we’ve been able to learn by doing them and how we have been able to grow creatively. Often, clients find the projects interesting, and they can inspire new thinking for them too. So everyone benefits!
Over the years we’ve tried numerous tools and approaches, and have gradually honed it down to the ones that fit seamlessly within our process/people/locations and that enable people to work the way we do without adding to their workload.
While we’re one of many agencies, we feel our blend of culture and process is unique, and therefore a mix of off-the-shelf products combined with some self-built ones gives us a “seamless” effect. We’re currently playing with Amazon Echo and integrating it within Tipi to carry out some of the basic admin tasks which will allow team members to focus on the core, valued added elements of a project.
You’ve been in the game for ten years now, do you think the role of agencies has changed today versus when you started out?
It’s always changing. Sometimes we are partners involved at a high level, and sometimes we’re suppliers whose job it is to execute. Clients go through different phases when the emphasis is on one or the other, but we like to maintain a balance if we can.
While in-house agencies are in vogue, we believe that most of them will struggle to retain the best talent—even if some good people will be tempted for a while. Ultimately, this shift is being driven by perceived cost saving benefits, but the downside will be a dilution of the impact and power of the work and the brand over time.
You’re independent and successful. Is it a challenge for an agency like yours to stay autonomous in this industry?
We’d much rather be independent and nimble in today’s environment than lumbered with huge numbers of senior execs and hordes of account handlers. The big consultancies are trying to move into this area by buying up independent agencies. To see some of them is like watching a car-crash in super slo-mo. It’s going to look quite spectacular for a while, but you know you’re going to end up with nothing but twisted wreckage at the end.
If you have the controls of the office Spotify, what is one track we are likely to hear?
Wild Horses—the original version by the Flying Burrito Brothers. (Editor’s note: Classic!)
Do you have any words of advice for those out there working in the bigger agencies who are considering starting their own?
Find out what you’re best at and focus on it. You may think that you can be brilliant at everything, but in such a competitive marketplace, you’re unlikely to succeed unless you find out what makes you special. Learn what you can in advance by talking to people who have done it themselves. Take them to a good restaurant and buy them dinner and drinks—lots of drinks.