An Hour of Advertising with... Lucky Generals' Andy Nairn

In an Hour of Advertising, Matt Williams sits down for a drink and a chat with some of the industry's most inspirational people. Then he publishes the results pretty much verbatim. Illustrations by Guy Sexty.

Andy Nairn

You’ve got to love a startup success story. And in recent years, Lucky Generals is one of the most notable of the lot. It’s an agency built in the mould of its founders – fun, energetic, and mischievous, but also smart and thoughtful.

Andy Nairn is one of those founders. He’s what I’d describe as a ‘people’s planner’ – generous, self-aware, with a genuine love of solving problems.

Nairn is a graduate from the AMV school of planning. He moved to Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R in 1997 to work under MT Rainey, before a stint in San Francisco at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

Returning to the UK in 2002, he spent a decade at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy (which merged into Dare), helping the agency become IPA Effectiveness Agency of the Year in 2005, 2007 and 2010.

He launched the hotly anticipated Lucky Generals in May 2013, alongside Helen Calcraft and Danny Brooke-Taylor. The agency has since gone on to sell a majority stake to TBWA, launch in New York, produce a Super Bowl spot for Amazon, do some great work for clients like Yorkshire Tea, Paddy Power and the Co-op, and take Chris Eubank youth hostelling.

In our Hour of Advertising, we discuss the secrets to startup success, what it takes to become a great planner, how to define an agency culture, as well as a whole lot more…

Part one: the decency of AMV, the principles of planning and why you shouldn’t keep David Abbott waiting…

Can you remember the first time in your career that you really fucked up?

I can. My earliest fuck up was actually when I started at Abbott Mead Vickers – that’s not the mistake, that worked out as a really good thing! – but there was a moment when I was there.

AMV was a great place and back then the partners were still really involved. And all these great and the good were in a room, waiting for me to do my first proper debrief that I’d ever done as a junior planner. I’d just come down from Scotland and let’s say I wasn’t yet au fait with the London transport system. I managed to be late on an epic scale for this meeting. We’re talking stupidly late. Here was my chance to show all these incredibly important people what I could do and I messed up.

The way they dealt with it was an excellent lesson in management. When I ran in red-faced, sweating, dropping my bits of paper and clearly looking horrendously flustered, they didn’t need to make a big point about how I fucked up, because I clearly had. I knew that and they knew that. So what they did do instead was take a really funny, affectionate route into it. David Abbott asked me if I needed a chair and forced me to take his seat, checking whether I needed it adjusted and making a big deal to ensure it was to my satisfaction. The others were laying it on thick too, asking if they could get me a cup of tea, and would it be helpful if they ran out and got some Darjeeling or Assam tea, if I’d prefer that instead? Peter Mead was checking if I wanted a particular milk in the tea – maybe some goat or yak’s milk might be more to my taste?

Everyone was laying it on with a trowel to make sure that I wasn’t to worry and assure me that I was very important. They were merely here to serve and hear my words of wisdom, when really of course the opposite was true. I guess it was a testament to their culture. They made a point – I’d fucked up, but it was dealt with in a really nice way.

So you started your career working with some absolute superstars then…

They really were superstars. All three founders, Michael Baulk, Cilla Snowball, so many of them. They obviously laid the foundation for what is still today the number one agency in this country. When I went there it was number eight – and it’s absolutely nothing to do with me, but within a couple of years they became number one and have been number one ever since. In an industry as competitive as ours, to remain number one for 20 years is incredible.

It was down to their personalities, their desire as individuals to do things decently and properly but to still put the work first. I think you can see the people who have been there who have since gone on to other stuff, there’s an attitude to treat people well, not cut corners, have principles and do the best work possible.

I’ve spoken to a few people for these who talk about David Abbott as a God…

Well, his industry nickname was ‘God’. He was the best planner, obviously the best creative, the best media guy…he was a fantastically talented person. As a tiny, ridiculously unimportant person, just to be around him and learn from him was incredible. Being in close proximity to him and a lot of people like that was a huge privilege.

Among all the AMV greats, who did you begin working under?

I had an amazing lady called Mia Kennedy, who was head of planning then. She took me under her wing and invested a huge amount of time in allowing me to make mistakes and let me handle projects on my own. I’m very grateful for that and the way that she ingrained in me the core principles of planning.

How much did you know about planning as a discipline when you started?

I applied to AMV to do account management. I didn’t know what any of the jobs meant. I did law at university, so the whole thing was a bit of random fortune that I went there. And thank goodness, AMV steered me away from account management and said I’d be much better as a planner. Which I’m sure everyone who’s ever worked with me would agree – I’d be a terrible account person.

To build on what I said earlier, they had some amazing people in that planning department too. People like Peter Field, who’s now, alongside Les Binet, the godfather of all things effectiveness. There was a real strength of rigour there. Again, that’s because David Abbott was so strategic. Some of the best work that came out of the agency, like The Economist campaign or a lot of the work for Volvo and Yellow Pages, had very clear strategic origins.

And the AMV planning department had a similar ethos to the agency as a whole?

Definitely. They were commercial, they were grown up, they taught you to start from the business challenge. There was a respect and affection for the consumer, which wasn’t always true in agencies at the time. We weren’t talking down to people, which was genuinely rare and made a difference.

Part two: developing a planning ‘style’, working abroad and the grim aftermath of dotcom mania…

You spent your first decade in the industry working at some of the biggest agencies in the business, before settling at MCBD for a longer period. Was that a conscious decision? I often hear advice to twentysomethings to never stay at a place for a long period, so you can keep trying new things?

Sort of. I do think that can be good advice for younger people. If you do find the right environment and you can be incredibly happy there, I wouldn’t advise people to leave just to try new things. But I feel like often you do get a sense that you should be broadening your horizons.

I’d certainly never advise anyone to ever move for money – which is often what does happen with that first job switch. Because you can guarantee in this industry that if you’ve been somewhere for your first three or four years that you can get more money elsewhere. That’s always the wrong thing to do, even in financial terms. Going to the wrong place for more money will always ultimately hurt your earnings later on.

In my case, I felt like I got a brilliant classical foundation and training at AMV, and then I could tell there was a new style of working at what was then a startup in Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe. It was the hot agency at the time – I think it may have just become agency of the year before I joined. It was about 30-40 people when I arrived and it was led by MT Rainey, who was an incredibly impressive and visionary strategist. There were three other brilliant partners in Jim Kelly, Robert Campbell and Mark Roalfe, but I think MT’s personality for me was a real draw. It helped that she was Scottish as well!

In what way was her approach to strategy and planning different?

She had a different style completely. It wasn’t that it was less rigorous, but it was more assertive. It was her desire that strategy should be ‘creative’, before we even got into the creative process itself. Rainey Kelly’s mantra – which might not sound such a big deal now but was revolutionary at the time – was ‘ideas before advertising and ideas beyond advertising’. MT was amazing to learn from and I think most of my own planning ‘style’ has probably been influenced by that period.

Is having a planning ‘style’ something you’re conscious of. And are you conscious of the planning ‘styles’ of others?

Yes I think so. You have some planners who are perhaps more introverted. It’s quite common to think of planners as being those types who really burrow into the details and go into a room on their own and mine away for insights. They like to scrutinise the data before coming out the other side. Then there are some planners who are happier at the creative end of the spectrum, working closely with the creative director on ideas from the start. Perhaps that’s why working in a couple of different environments early on can be helpful, because you’re finding out what it is that you do best.

The best planners can shuttle between those different modes, I’d say. If you’re one of those rare beasts who can work with numbers and be ‘upstream’, dealing with big business problems, but then find a way to translate that into killer creative strategies and work, then that’s a real skillset.

What do you think of this notion that planning is an individual pursuit? Is it something that’s perpetuated because we’re so used to creative teams and single planners?

I think that can be the prejudice. I always encourage planners to be part of a wider team and not feel the burden should fall entirely on them. Sometimes there’s this degree of self-flagellation where planners think ‘I’ve got to crack this’ and they sweat over the brief and worry about whether they’ve got exactly the right words on a bit of paper. They try and write an end line from the start etc.

Actually it can be quite a relief to not have to worry so much about that. That it’s good to be part of a team and work with account handing colleagues and, importantly, creatives in this space. Creatives are problem-solvers for a living, so sharing the problem up front with them, having a chat about the brief before you write the brief, can be a really useful exercise. You can almost crack the strategic challenge with them, then it’s not a case of you as an individual forcing upon them or having to sell it to them. You’ve created it together.

After Rainey Kelly you went to the States to join Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Was it always an ambition to work across the pond?

I think first and foremost it was a lifestyle choice. I wanted to try and work and live abroad – and again that’s something I’d recommend to anyone. It’s a really interesting and exciting experience that puts you out of your comfort zone, especially as a planner where a lot of your skill comes from knowing the surrounding culture. All of a sudden you’ve not got any of that cultural baggage, so you have to flip that and make it work in your favour. You have to be the ‘alien that’s landed from Mars’ and ask stupid questions. Which can actually be quite a helpful way into challenges.

I chose the US because though I had that ambition to get out of my comfort zone, I didn’t want to ‘sacrifice my career’ as it were, so I wanted to be in a place that had great agencies. And San Francisco at that time was an incredibly hot place. It was the first wave of the dotcom revolution, and Goodby was right in the mix, with a really good reputation in particular for planning, which not all the American agencies had then.

As you say, what a fascinating time to be going to San Francisco…

Yes, it was an incredible moment in time. I interviewed and got the job in January 2000, at which point the city was this bubble where everyone was making so much money. I remember vividly the taxi driver on the way back to the airport telling me that he was going to give up his job next week because he had made so much money out of his shares. It was like a mania. The amount of money and excitement and hubris that was filling the air was tangible. But then it took six months for my visa to come through and by that stage it had all crashed. So by the time I actually ended up there, the mood had changed somewhat!

I remember there was one agency that ran out of money, couldn’t pay its staff, so somebody set fire to the front of the building. There was a big scorch mark outside their reception, which presumably wasn’t a great look for clients coming in! The restaurants were shutting down, you couldn’t get a taxi anymore, it was all a bit unfortunate timing! But it was still an amazing place to be for a year and a half.

Were the clients very different to what you’d worked on in the UK?

Absolutely. Which was also very interesting, because you have to learn what these things are. I was working for what the equivalent of BT is in the UK, a huge company called SBC, which doesn’t exist anymore. We were introducing something called ‘broadband’. And we were really having to convince people that there was a need for broadband in their lives. There wasn’t the content there yet to show why it was needed. I loved working in the States because there’s a real culture of creative selling – we were encouraged to put the commercial message front and centre, not bury it.

Part three: developing a leadership style, the secrets of a successful startup and how clients can define your culture…

You joined Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy in 2002. Did that have a similar startup mentality to Rainey Kelly?

Very much so. I’d had a brilliant 18 months in the US, but we had our first kid out there and so wanted to come back because for one thing we were short of support networks. I’d worked with Helen Calcraft at AMV, and I was really attracted to this idea of coming back and running a department, so here was the perfect chance to do that.

MCBD was a relatively new agency at the time. It was about two years old, so to have a stake in that and be incentivised to help it grow was a really enjoyable challenge. All the founders were from AMV so they had a lot of that supportive DNA that made them brilliant people to work with. What’s more, they already had a great lead planner there called Helen Weavers, who I’d worked with at Rainey Kelly, which meant for me it was a safe step to ‘doing the top job’ because you could do it with a mate and not get found out.

Were you conscious going in to run your first department about your leadership style and how you’d manage a wider group of people?

I guess so. I mean it’s horrendous talking about your own leadership style as you should probably ask someone I’ve led instead! But I suppose what I’ve tried to do – and what I’ve observed in others – is that I’ve tried to lead by example. That’s meant always getting stuck into the actual work. I’ve always admired leaders who are still ‘practitioning’ and who are either great creatives or great account people or planners. I’ve never wanted to be – and maybe I’d be really rubbish at being one – a ‘pure’ leader in the sense of being a boss in a big office with a big desk, getting people to do stuff.

I suppose that has a big effect on the culture you try and implement in an agency too? The past few agencies you’ve worked at – and founded – seemed to have strong cultures, how hard did you have to work on that?

I think what we’ve had – and what a lot of successful startups have – is the ‘founder culture’ and chemistry, which is just all-important. I mentioned already how the AMV and Rainey Kelly guys had their chemistry. If you look at Adam & Eve, they clearly all got on too. Helen, Danny (Brooke-Taylor) and I had all worked together at MCBD for a good number of years and become really tight. We’d done some of our best work together. You get to know each other's strengths and faults and how you navigate those sorts of things. We really enjoyed working with each other and wanted to do a startup.

If you speak to a lot of people in our industry – as I know you have – you’ll know loads of talented people want to do a startup, but the planets don’t always align. Either they haven’t formed an incredibly tight friendship, or perhaps they haven’t all been ready at the same time. We were very fortunate in that we knew and liked each other, we worked really well together, all our family and personal stuff was aligned, and we thought ‘if we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it’.

I’ve asked a few founders of agencies now whether you think the founding partners have to like each other. I’ve had mixed responses, but you seem pretty unequivocal that you do…

I guess you might not need to, but we found it incredibly useful that we did! Respect is one thing – you clearly have to respect each other. But I do think you also have to like each other. What helps in our case was that you had three people who all worked in three separate disciplines. Helen and Danny are both obviously amazing in their respective fields, so there wasn’t one dominant party, which helped. We all really respected what each other was doing. I could never do what they did, and hopefully they both have a level of respect for what I do too (although if they were here, this would be their cue to slag me off)!

And actually, having fun was important. There’s probably a whole bunch of people we all respect, but why would you want to spend your time working with them if you don’t like them? We like the sense of energy we all bring, and we’ve tried to inject that into the agency’s culture too. We want this place to be fun.

The places you’ve worked recently – like Lucky Generals and MCBD – have all had some sort of reputation in handling well-loved, British brands. Is that fair? Are you conscious of it? Do agencies become known for being able to do a certain type of brand well?

I think that definitely happens. And I think whether you like it or not, because we’re in a very cluttered marketplace, people try and pigeon-hole agencies in a certain way. Sometimes that’s deserved and sometimes it’s not, but it is inevitable. Some agencies may be seen as the ‘populist guys’ or that agency is the ‘punky, anarchic lot’.

MCBD I think perhaps had a bit of that ‘homely’ pigeon-holing, because we had some of the sensibilities of AMV. We did some beautiful work on the likes of Waitrose and Hovis. But we also did some pretty hard-hitting, spikey work for the likes of anti-smoking and the Metropolitan Police. It was really quite avant-garde stuff to try and prevent knife crime and gun crime. I spent a lot of my time going to prisons and places like that, which was just fascinating!

I think what we learnt is that you’re quite defined by your first client. So when we’ve occasionally been asked by other people starting their own agencies, one of the pieces of advice we’ve always given is to be careful who the first one or two clients are. Whether you like it or not, they will define how you develop and who you are perceived as.

Part four: the rise of Lucky Generals, creating the first agency deck and the trials and tribulations in coming up with a name…

So digging deeper into Lucky Generals. Day one. What was the feeling like?

Probably abject terror! Actually it was really good fun, mainly because we hadn’t been able to work together for a while due to the usual legal requirements. So it was brilliant ‘getting the band back together’ – we were like coiled springs, full of energy.

We didn’t set up with any clients or any other people, so it was just the three of us, and we were waiting for the phone to ring. But of course for quite a while, it didn’t. And so we would waste our time away having lunches or buying cushions – it took us an awful long time to buy the agency cushions! But it was a case of just enjoying it. If you’re a start up, you really have to cherish those moments.

Was that hard to do?

It was very helpful that Helen had literally already done a startup from start to finish with MCBD. She was able to remind us – as she does very often – to just enjoy the journey. She’d remind us that the phone was going to ring at some point – and if it didn’t and the worst were to happen, it was going to be a bit embarrassing, but that’s all. Unless we completely made a mess of it, we should still be employable! We’d have lost some money and some face, but it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. That was a liberating feeling, actually.

When we started we put a whole bunch of post-it notes up on the wall that looked at what we’d stand for and what our attitude would be. And our last one, which we still have in one of the agency cupboards said ‘…or die trying’. If you’re going to do it, you might as well try to do it well and have some fun along the way. Or die trying. There’s no point in setting up your own agency and then being cautious and timid and worrying yourself to death. And again that was a really nice and liberating way to start, and it turned out sort of OK in the end.

Let’s talk about the agency name – how did you come about it? Was it something you had nagging in your head for years beforehand?

It’s interesting actually because it really is a surprisingly big decision. Initially we had a different name. We even registered the company under it and were all set to go. But without going into too much detail, something happened in the outside world that suddenly made that name feel inappropriate.

So that threw us a bit. We spent a frantic day or so trying to come up with something new. It was now in the public domain that we were about to start something up, but we had no name. Helen always reminds us that she’d gone off to do something sensible at the accountant or somewhere like that, and she’d left Danny and I in the pub thinking of names. And we produced a staggering number of horrendous names, which we were convinced could be quite good. She basically looked at us and said, ‘let’s talk about this in the morning’. Naturally we then realised that we had some really shit names written down, but there was one that might work...

…Lucky Generals…

Lucky Generals was a name that Danny had come up with. I think he had wanted to start a band called this as a kid. And so he dredged it up from the back of his mind. We liked it because it comes from a Napoleon quote, where he was asked what was needed to win a war and he said ‘bring me your lucky generals’.

By this stage we all had a decent track record, but we liked the tongue-in-cheek modesty of there being no such thing as luck, and that the harder you work, the luckier you get. We liked that as a spirit – we were going to be hard working, we weren’t going to rest on our laurels, and it’s turned out to be a great name because, if you’re a captain of industry, you can admire the military and historical aspects of it, but also if you’re a young designer, you do almost think it could be a band or something similar! It’s also a name for a collective as well. That was really important to us. We’re all Lucky Generals. That esprit de corps was important to us.

It’s also giving your office a very military feel – there seem to be GI Joes and military paraphernalia everywhere!...

It’s funny – our first ever Christmas party we all went to the pub, dressed in army gear. And someone sent a tray of drinks over. He came over saying ‘I had to buy you some drinks, I’m ex-services myself’. We must have looked like the worst soldiers ever, but he’d already bought the drinks by this stage. So we had to fess up and get him a round back. He ended up having a whole bunch of mates who ended up piling in requesting cocktails! But it has been a great name for us – it’s a bit of fun, a bit of energy.

What was the first Lucky Generals creds deck like?

Firstly I’d say that I think in our experience, the important thing with this is to not overthink it too much. Because you’re going to be judged by your work. You can have the most amazing positioning in the world, you can have a great name, but if you don’t have great work then it’s going to count for nothing. We reinvest meaning in names. When you think about Mother, ‘Mother’ is a great name for an agency, but it’s great because it’s consistently done ground-breaking work over the years. If Mother had set up and done terrible work, we’d all think it’s a ridiculous name. You’ve got to emphasise the product and not worry too much about the positioning.

So that’s worth pointing out first. But of course in the first couple of months you don’t yet have the work, so the positioning does play a part, and ours was pretty simple. To be ‘a creative company for people on a mission’. And we’ve kept that mantra ever since. It’s been very helpful, because we want to work with people who want to put a dent in the universe, rather than just achieve an incremental change in their sector. Not all clients are like that, but then they wouldn’t be right for us. We’d rather have fewer, but high commitment, relationships than a massive list of average ones.

Is it important to set that standard of who you want to work with?

What we found was that it’s a really good test of a potential relationship. And it’s still true to this day. It’s still the first slide we show in our meetings, and people do tend to go one of three ways. Some really lean forward and state that ‘yeah, they’re on a mission’, they thump the table and really want to change the world. Or if they don’t, then they either feel like they’d love us to help and find out what their mission could be, or they recoil, feeling awkward defining what their mission would be. It’s a really good guide to finding out whether we’re right for certain clients, and we’re very much wrong for a number of them. We need to know that early.

Part five: the qualities of a good planners, handling agency PR and what it takes to be a Lucky General…

What does it take to be a ‘Lucky General’?

We try not to be too narrow in your definition of the type of person we’re looking for. But generally as an attitude we’re looking for people who are sparky – they don’t have to be noisy, but they should have an energy to themselves and a desire to do great work. We do work very collaboratively with each other too. We want people who are here to have fun and contribute to the collective culture of the place.

That sounds simple, but there are a lot of people who don’t tick off those boxes. What we’ve found is that it’s still very useful for the founders – if not all three of us but certainly a couple of us – to interview literally everybody who comes through the door. Because everybody is a general here and everybody contributes. We’ve got an amazing finance department – our finance director is a published novelist who writes the funniest all-staff emails every Friday, and that is a huge part of our culture, for instance. Everyone here contributes to our enjoyment. It’s a real team effort.

I imagine finding the time to interview every single person that comes in the door is pretty tricky?

It is, but what we have found is that that is time incredibly well spent. It’s nice for new joiners too. It’s good for them to see that we’ve still got the heart and the desire for the agency, so I’m sure it works both ways.

Who do you learn from? Do you read a lot of industry blogs etc?

I do read stuff within the industry. A lot of the usual suspects – whether it’s planning blogs like the ones Richard Huntington writes or Martin Weigel or Tracey Follows. But what I try and do – and advise others to do – is to not only get your learnings from the industry, it’s more important to get your learnings from outside of the industry too. Reading and watching things that have nothing at all to do with advertising.

The more eclectic you can be as a planner, the better. One of the best things about being a planner is that you have to find everything interesting. I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever found a brief ‘boring’. It might become made boring by various restrictions made by the agency or client, but in principle every brief I’ve found absolutely fascinating at some point, because it’s invariably about human behaviour and our illogicalities. I’ve worked on things like tax for HMRC, for instance. And actually our attitudes to paying tax are fascinating. I found it a really interesting brief. That’s what makes good planners – the ability to switch on those lights and devour all the cultural material around a potentially boring subject matter. Making sure you’re widely read allows you to take influences from a widely different sphere and apply an unusual bit of thinking to something completely unrelated.

Did that come for you because you studied law?

Maybe. I guess if there’s a connection with law it’s that law is a form of advocacy. You’re presenting the best argument possible for your client, in the most persuasive way possible, using a whole range of eclectic evidence. Even if it’s a bit more grown up than what I ended up doing!

Funnily enough, my breakthrough into advertising was through my law tutor, a guy called Alexander McCall-Smith. He’s a best-selling author now and one of these incredible polymaths. Anyway, he talked about that advocacy aspect and put me in touch with a contact in Edinburgh who was in advertising.

You’ve always been good at embracing PR. Is that something that’s important to you as you continue to build Lucky Generals?

I think so. It can be tempting to say ‘the work will speak for itself and we’ll never engage in PR’. But I think what we’ve always tried to do is make sure we have the substance to PR. Where people get it wrong is talking about themselves when the work’s not there. We’ve always tried to build everything out of the work. And if it’s there, we want everyone to know about it.

All the best startups realise that you have to ‘hustle’ a little bit. As a new agency you get a relatively small window. People quickly wonder why you’ve ‘gone a little bit quiet’, so you do have to get out there and be a bit unashamed.

We’re communication practitioners of our own right and you’ve got to be protective of your own brand. We’d never suggest to clients to not engage with the media, to go quiet and secretive and not tell anyone about what you do. Don’t push ‘empty hype’, but showcase the work, absolutely.

God, I’ve just realised I’m making this point in an interview that’s turned out to be quite a lot about me. Helen and Danny will slag me off for this, too…

Artwork by Guy Sexty

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