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Equity Agencies Agency Models

Uncommon’s Communion deal is an ‘F You’ to finance ads and ‘pompous’ client work


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

August 22, 2023 | 9 min read

United by a minority stake arrangement rather than the usual fee model, adland provocateur Nils Leonard and startup boss Daniel Hegarty are sticking two fingers up to the financial and advertising establishments.

communion chain

Uncommon created Communion’s brand identity and launch ad / Uncommon

If you want to advertise a financial service, you are only allowed to use the following elements: a horse, a young widow on a cliff, or a comedian on a quirky adventure. Bonus points are available if the comedian or the widow is Scottish.

In recent years, Uncommon has been trying to find a way out of the horse-widow-comic paradigm. Its ads for online mortgage broker Habito reimagined the staid world of interest rates and borrowing in lurid color, promising to deliver customers from damnation via a series of posters drawn by Californian artist Jimbo Philips.

This month, it has returned to the sector to unveil Communion, a new fintech venture founded by Daniel Hegarty, who founded Habito in 2016; he ran the business as chief executive until earlier this year. In addition to the leftfield approach to launching the new business, Uncommon has an atypical client relationship with Communion – it has a minority stake in the company.

“We were introduced by our tremendous CMO, Abba Newbery, and had an introductory meeting,” recalls Hegarty on his first meeting with Uncommon co-founder Nils Leonard. “I wasn’t very keen on Nils at first. He was a bit rough with me and I didn’t like it – but I came away excited and intrigued.”

Five years later, after an “incredibly fruitful run building advertising that did brilliant things for Habito,” Hegarty says he wanted to work with the agency again. On an impromptu phone call, Leonard says Hegarty ambushed him with an investment spiel.

“He called me in the middle of the day, asked what I was doing. I said I had 10 minutes – and he’d definitely rehearsed this trick – he said: ‘Do you ever think about how no one should die poor?’”

communion brand asset

It was a good hook. “I’m needy, and I’m a sucker for language,” says Leonard. Uncommon’s strategic partner Lucy Jameson is “obsessed” with finance, he says, and Hegarty’s call “sparked a conversation that had been underlying a lot of Uncommon’s thinking to that point.”

Communion’s focus is on savings, and it’s the feature Uncommon’s launch campaign has chosen to spotlight – an ‘FU Fund’ savers can build up to provide security from financial precarity. This isn’t necessarily new in the market, but the way Communion and Uncommon are talking about it is.

“I wanted to build something that would address the fundamental feeling of disempowerment and anxiety and shame surrounding this topic,” says Hegarty.

Leonard says: “This category is littered with lens flare and ‘when you’re saving for a rainy day.’ No motherfucker is saving for a rainy day. You’re saving to get out of your shit flat, or to stop your car being so rubbish or to stop being judged for having old trainers. That’s why people save.”

Instead, Uncommon’s point-of-view spot encourages customers to consider saving an act of defiance, a license to stick a V up to bosses, landlords and intolerable flatmates. And it’s determined to discuss finances without resorting to maudlin piano covers or pastel colors, instead choosing a high-tempo rock instrumental and a black-and-white palette. ‘Save enough to save yourself,’ it says.

Establishing trust, he argues, is less important than catching a customer’s eye. “No one walks past an ad and says: ‘Hey, I can trust that.’ Not a single person. The only hope you have is: ‘Have you seen that?’ That’s all you get. You get one go.”

Such an arrangement changes the way Uncommon’s team approaches the work. “It makes it more ferocious,” he says. “Is this going to move the needle? Is this going to work? And is it good enough?”

Although Leonard says the studio has always prioritized creative quality – retainer fee or not – owning a chunk of the business it’s working for puts that philosophy to the test. He says: “If we’re really going to grind on this and believe in it and do the things we need to do, we should try and do that on terms that mean we’re both in the boat.

“If you simply take the money and make some average work for someone, you’re not succeeding. That’s not a win. If you’ve poured your time and people’s energy into something you’re never going to reference and nobody else is, that’s a loss,” he adds.

It also changes the fundamental bond between agency and client. You can’t get rid of your supplier quite as quickly when they hold a percentage of your company.

“Disagreements do happen, but the thing that’s great about equity when you get it right, is that Dan can ring me up, tell me it’s shit, and we’ll chat. No one’s going to get pissy because we’re both in the same boat, and we’re both taking it as seriously as the other. One of the benefits of this is that it removes some of the pomposity and some of the distance from a relationship.”

It’s not the first time that Uncommon has taken a stake in a client business instead of a retainer. “When we started the studio, we wanted very different relationships with client partners. I think our industry is crippled by dependency,” says Leonard. “I’d argue we’ve become cynical because we’ve been trained to give our best work and thinking away for a fee.”

communion gif

An earlier arrangement saw the creative studio take a chunk of coffee brand Halo, which aimed to compete with Nespresso’s coffee pods business with an environmentally friendly competitor product. It didn’t end well. Leonard says he doesn’t have regrets but notes the episode presented a steep learning curve.

“Halo Coffee is not an incredibly successful business,” he says. “From the mix of founders to the management to the share structure, it was learnings in every sense – and I mean learnings in the sense of fuckups.

“I wish the business was better and that I’d realized it wasn’t a coffee business but a global supply business three and a half years ago, but there you go. But Halo as a story, as a brand, as an experience, all these things taught us everything we need to know about doing this elsewhere. I don’t think it’s a negative story for anybody involved.”

Having had that prior experience, the decision to take a minority stake in Communion, which came before Uncommon’s sale of a majority stake to Havas, was “the first time where the decision was as easy as this,” says Leonard.

There is a decent chance this could go belly-up for Uncommon and Hegarty. “The failure rate for startups is basically 100%,” he chirps. “The odds of you ever getting paid… it’s a bad model.”

Uncommon’s team clearly thinks the endeavor is worth their time. “You don’t do this with anyone you don’t trust, that you haven’t worked with, that you haven’t got a good sense of, and that you’re not prepared to have hard chats with,” he adds. And it’s an opportunity to produce some great work.

“Nothing Uncommon does, whether equity-based or retainer based, is done for the money. The partnership is rooted in output,” he says. “Anyone wanting to do this shouldn’t be approaching it as a hustle, as something you’ll cash out of. That gets boring really, really quick. The way to keep the agency engaged is if everybody believes that what’s going to come out of the doors is going to be stellar.

“It’s critical that you look to the output. From our side, I would argue that it’s already worth it because of the work we’ve made, and the conversation we’ve created. At that point, you’re winning. Or at least that’s the lie I tell myself to feel comfortable giving Dan lots of money.”

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