'Honesty is really important in our work': Independent Insights featuring Humanaut's David Littlejohn

Humanaut's founder and chief creative director David Littlejohn

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with David Littlejohn, founder and chief creative director at Humanaut.

Cats with conspiracy theories about poop. Bros who drink organic protein shakes. Cartoon office workers battling hangovers. Those are just a few of the characters who’ve starred in campaigns created by Humanaut, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based ad agency that’s garnered a reputation for creating zany work that gets people talking.

Founded four years ago by David Littlejohn and Andrew Clark, the 20-person shop is perhaps best known for its work with Organic Valley, a farmer-owned co-op based in Wisconsin. The agency has helped the company break through with tongue-in-cheek campaigns that have fun with pop culture, like its ‘Save the Bros’ faux PSA that claimed Organic Valley’s Organic Fuel protein shake could help prevent the country’s beloved bros from going extinct.

Littlejohn, who before founding Humanaut worked as a copywriter and creative director at agencies including CP+B, thinks that being based in a city like Chattanooga helps it create work that will resonate with consumers since the agency is closer to “people’s actual feelings and associations” with brands than its coastal counterparts.

The Drum caught up with Littlejohn to find out more about why he started Humanaut and what advice he’d give to others who might be thinking about starting their own agency. See what he had to say below.

Why is independence important for Humanaut?

If your goal is to truly be profitable, you're going to be risk-averse. We’re working with clients that really need to take a risk. They’re clients that aren't famous. They're not mega brands. It's so noisy out there – they really need to be able to say things that are provocative or things that are not necessarily just going to be accepted by everyone. That's part of it.

The bigger thing that comes to mind is I think you'll see in our work [that] who we choose to work with is really important. I think honesty is really important in our work. Some of the work we've done in the past has blatantly called out certain industries for things that we don't think they should be doing.

We work with a lot of companies that are trying to make things better, and so doing that work just means that we need to be able to tell the truth. We need to be able to go out there and go to bat for these clients that are on the right side of history. By doing that, we ended up potentially cutting ourselves off from a lot of potential client work out there. That freedom to choose clients that we work with is really important to us.

What work are you most proud of?

A really great example of what Humanaut is striving to do is our ‘Save the Bros’ campaign. What I love about that work is it's really funny, especially for an organic company. We came out and completely challenged and changed people's perception of what an organic brand can talk like. The campaign went viral and then went on to win an Effie for the best product launch campaign that year.

What I'm most proud of is that we can do work for a really great client like Organic Valley, work that's incredibly shareable and at the end of the day, sells the product. We actually do what we set out to do. To me, that's the hat trick, the grand slam that I think everyone's really after.

What’s it been like finding and attracting talent in Chattanooga?

I'd say talent is one of our bigger challenges, but that's starting to change pretty quickly. Humanaut's reputation is growing. We've been able to continually do work that we're proud of. So it’s much easier now to reach out to creatives and talk about a potential collaboration or a role in Humanaut. Creatives are also reaching out to us.

I think there's a growing frustration with creatives in the big agencies in big cities. We're seeing more and more creatives looking for a chance to actually get their hands back on the work without all the hierarchy and process of these bigger agencies. We're at a size where our creatives still work with me on a daily basis, and we're really much more a team. I think everyone needs to probably go and have that big agency experience and work on huge accounts, but I think after a while there's this desire to get back to just making things.

For us, it's really just making sure we're finding the right people who fit our culture. That is really the hardest part. It's not finding talented people, because there's lots of them. It's talented people who have a similar mindset and are really willing to shed preconceived ideas of how the process should work and go with the flow of what we're doing, which is really pretty different and sometimes hard to get used to.

We're trying to find a group of humble, curious people who just want to make beautiful things. I think there's a lot of people who want to be that, but our industry isn't really necessarily teaching people to be that. And so, in some ways, there's a bit of an unlearning that has to happen when we bring in creatives who’ve worked at bigger agencies.

Do you find that independence is something that clients value?

I think our clients are very surprised at what we're willing to say to them. So many clients are naïve about what their own internal perception of their brand is, and they drink the Kool-Aid. What Humanaut offers is a very fresh, honest perspective.

The reality is most people don't care about brands as much as the clients think they do. And so a lot of times we're having to tell people that. When we're talking to clients, we're not talking to them to win the business, we're talking to them about what we really think about what they need to do. If they don't like it, they can leave, but we're going to speak exactly what we feel, and that means telling them some hard truths. To us, [it’s] important that we've built a really good, honest relationship with a client who's willing to do the work that they need to do.

I think that's one of the biggest reasons that clients come to us, and I think that is the definition of independence. We have the freedom to speak our mind and to make sure that the relationship's going to be one based on reality. We don't take clients on because they're going to help us grow or because they have a lot of money, we take clients on based on whether or not we can actually get excited about the problem that they're trying to solve.

For independent agencies that are just starting out, or for people who might be thinking about starting their own agency, what's one piece of advice you would give them?

The first thing I would say is, it's really hard. It’s going to be way harder than you think it's going to be. And that just means that you have to find a way to care about what you are doing, and the work you’re doing, and your clients, and your team, so much. That's going to be the thing that's going to allow you to build your vision.

I'd say to anyone who's starting their own agency, you don't have to know what you're doing – you just have to really care about it more than anyone else. Time and time again, we have clients coming to us who have had bad experiences from other agencies because they didn't get the care or the treatment that they were hoping to get. They could tell that the people just weren't truly trying to solve their problems. So that's what I would say to people starting out: your advantage is that you are smaller, you're able to move quickly and all you really need to do is care.

The other thing I'd say in general to anyone starting out is the clients that you choose to do business with really matter. And your values really matter. Compromising your values is a very slippery slope, and you just need to realize that it's hard to go backwards once you've started down the path of making decisions that you aren't proud of. It takes an incredible amount of energy to resist your vision getting degraded and eventually evaporated.

If something keeps me up at night, it's just that there's plenty of really big mediocre agencies out there. And I don't want to wake up and be the owner of one in the future.

Independent Insights is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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