For those of you who don’t know, Halo is a Bristol born and bred brand-first creative agency that isn’t afraid to think loud and test limits. Their motto literally is: LOUDER THAN LOVE shaping brands that resonate. They are creative & strategic partners to ambitious, purposeful brands, and their speciality is innovatively connecting brands to their audiences.
We first met Nick at Glug’s ‘Imagine if…’ event where he focused on ‘imagine if…briefs didn’t exist.’ He hilariously explored how creatives can turn a blank canvas into rich, multi-layered – and most importantly – effective work. So, we were excited to hear more about Nick’s and Halo’s philosophy and their 15 years in business.
Moxie & Mettle: Tell us about your career journey; how have you got to where you are now?
Nick Ellis: I’ll try to keep this short.
Went to art college but dropped out to join a band. Toured Europe but fame didn’t come knocking. Instead, when I realised my burgeoning rock career was a non-starter I got a job working for a large newspaper group in production before joining Future Publishing as a designer. Honed my skills before leaving the world of magazines to bounce around AdLand in various agencies working for the likes of BT, Jack Daniel’s and The Forestry Commission before finally deciding to start Halo with my soul brother, Vern.
Moxie & Mettle: Why did you decide to open your own agency?
Nick Ellis: AdLand is a weird (and wonderful) place and I knew that this was the industry for me. But drifting from shop to shop felt too nomadic and I decided that to find a permanent home that ticked all the boxes would mean starting my own agency. I wanted to build a business on the foundations of strategy and creativity, unbeholden to shareholder demands, able to define my own path and that meant biting the bullet – literally putting my money where my (often too large) mouth was.
Moxie & Mettle: What’s the story behind the name Halo?
Nick Ellis: Vern thought the name sounded cool. I agreed. We later found out that it was a marketing term which gave us some quality post-rationale.
Moxie & Mettle: What was the turning point in your career? / In Halo?
For the first couple of years, we made Flash (remember that?) Games for Peugeot Rally, shaped brands for SMEs and generally had a lovely/ stressful/ frantic/ crazy time building the agency. The turning point came when we were asked to pitch for the Visit Somerset rebrand in 2006. We were a really late ‘wildcard’ entry – included on weight of attitude alone, but against all odds, we pitched and won. The success of that project led to a few years of being pretty big in destination branding and it helped us grow. But there’s a number of moments that could be considered pivotal, including the rebrand of Butcombe Brewery, our first strategy presentation for M&S, the award-winning Festie Guru campaign for Ticketmaster that led to us becoming the digital global agency of record for Live Nation.
There are always moments. But sometimes, the ones you think are going to be big don’t work out that way. Our (at the time) groundbreaking TV ad for (sex toy retailer) Lovehoney that aired pre-watershed for example. Loads of press, loads of noise, we even made page 3 of the Telegraph and page 2 of the Times along with features on the BBC, Channel 4 and across the pond on CNN, but the fame was fleeting. Success can be a cruel mistress.
Moxie & Mettle: What has been the most important lesson opening your own agency has taught you?
Nick Ellis: Where to begin?
One of the most important lessons is about account management. We applaud and celebrate creative, but without great client relationships, an agency can’t survive. Those who work in client services are the backbone of the agency. They are the first creative department, the first exposure to strategy, the mirror of the agency’s values, ideals and ambitions. It’s a hard job that takes fierce organisation, focus and empathy. Client services rock.
I guess that overall, running Halo has taught me the importance of strategic thinking and taking a brand first approach. Without the intellectual rigour that underpins a project, creative work can become wallpaper, an aesthetic bandaid that delivers in the short term but struggles to maintain performance over the longer term.
I’ve also learned the true meaning of collaboration. Vern and I own the agency, but our people are the business. They are the heart and soul, promise and ambition of Halo, without them it couldn’t exist and it wouldn’t be the same.
Plus, I learned to control my ego. I realised early on that being a creative star in an average studio was meaningless. The studio’s output is everything so, there’s no place for rampant ego’s; you win, lose, triumph or crash and burn as one.
Oh yeah, and it’s just marketing – it’s not heart surgery, no one’s going to die because a post didn’t reach it’s projected impacts.
Moxie & Mettle: What’s the craziest pitch idea you’ve ever had, did it win the client over?
Pitching the God of Cider campaign to Mallets Cider was pretty out there. The campest, most ridiculous character led work with the strapline ‘Cast in myth, forged by legend, made with apples.’
Still won it though.
Moxie & Mettle: Where do you see creative branding and storytelling heading over the next few years?
Nick Ellis: That’s an impossible question to ask. The industry will talk endlessly about new technological advances. We’ll be bombarded with AR and VR. We’ll shout ourselves hoarse bellowing platitudes about the next demographic segmentation. But really, marketing – or at least the fundamentals – really don’t change all that much.
We need to stop reaching for the next shiny piece of tech. Stop our damaging reliance on social and programmatic. Stop living in the bubble of (predominately white, male) privilege that fills our industry echo chamber and get back to understanding what people want, need and fear. And how brands can connect in more meaningful, memorable ways.
Moxie & Mettle: What’s next for Halo?
Nick Ellis: We celebrate 15 years in April 2020 (that’s when we’ve chosen to release a retrospective of work) so it’s going to be a fun opener to the year. But mostly we’ll continue to build on our strategic brand proposition, working with clients to deliver insightful, creative and commercially successful work.
Plus we’ve got a range of Halo merch coming out featuring some of our favourite, vacuous marketing bullshit from the last few years. My personal favourite is ‘Get busy story living or get busy story dying’.
Moxie & Mettle: In your opinion, what are the top 3 skills it takes to succeed as an agency owner?
It’s not an easy industry to work in. It’s competitive, crowded and the knockbacks are almost as frequent as the successes. You need to resolve to keep going. Keep learning. Stay interested. Stay relevant.
You have to be agile, able to act quickly and with acuity to get things done. And you need to keep your mind wide open. Listen to your team – trust your team – and support them to be great.
Don’t be a dick.
No one wants to work with a dick. So work hard at not being one.
Li: Nick Ellis
I: We are Halo
T: Nick Ellis