The Mr. President CEO on always balancing life and work, coming from the “wild west of digital” and the challenge of celebrating the Royal Albert Hall’s 150-year anniversary during a pandemic
For all its overtures about digital transformation and the latest creative technology trends, it’s reassuring to know that the advertising industry is still about people first. And that’s the kind of reassurance that a conversation with Claire Hynes will reward you with. The CEO of London creative agency Mr. President since it set out its stand in 2012, it’s obvious that she’s innately well equipped to lead an innovative creative business.
Claire has always championed diversity: right from the start, the agency had a 50:50 male:female split in all leadership positions (including the board) and has actively supported incredible organisations along the way - such as The Prince's Trust, Creative Equals, Commercial Break and SheSays. She has spearheaded campaigns for Stonewall, the Pay Gap Pound and helped launch the VOWSS awards platform for female director talent at Cannes. She also led the agency to help "Girls get equal" across the world with Plan International and, most recently, rebranding the largest political platform for liberal women in Europe. Building on her passion for women's equality she wrote a great piece for Campaign on "why we're still banging on about the pay gap".
Thanks to her belief that you should trust your staff, rather than clock-watch them, the Mr. President team were already working flexibly long before the pandemic. So they were well prepared for the shift to working from home in March last year.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Claire to better understand the human element behind all this.
LBB> What were you like as a kid? Were there any apparent traits back then that have continued into your successful adulthood?
Claire> I combined being an absolute swot with being quite naughty and getting into scrapes. There was an incident involving graffiti in the school loos, and letters were sent home. Uniform infringements and later, smoking incidents. But I learned that if you put the work in, it always turned out OK.
My family were entrepreneurial and gregarious, but in no way academic. My parents both left school at 15 and launched themselves into the world of work, so had little understanding of - but a lot of pride in - the academic path I took. They didn’t care too much about the letters home and didn’t pile on the pressure.
I always did the work because I loved the thrill of good grades and I loved learning. This ethos followed me to university. I did far too much going out, but whatever I’d been up to the night before, and however little sleep I’d had, however rough I looked and felt, I was always at the library by 9am like a keen bean.
Fast forward a lot of years, and I like to think of it as a balanced approach to life and work. I’ve tried to create a culture at Mr President where people feel trusted to get the work done, and aren’t policed or expected to conform to one idea of how to go about being successful.
LBB> I read that you got into advertising as the result of a chance meeting on a night out. What was it that attracted you to the industry and why have you stuck it out?
Claire> From the outset, it was always the combination of creativity with commerciality. I naturally loved art and literature and culture, but when I left university I needed a proper job, with money and potential. The excitable friend of a friend I met on a night out in Edinburgh had a job in this new-fangled digital agency called AKQA. They were combining creativity with business transformation and growth and doing insanely well out of it. And they were hiring! So I sent in my CV, got an interview and soon after that was on my way to London for my first proper job.
A lot has changed since those early days, but I still love the applied creativity of our industry. We get to work with so many incredible, talented people and shape work that has an impact on the world and how people behave and how businesses grow. And collectively we’re always striving for improvement, to be more inclusive, more big-hearted and more compatible with living a good life, and I think that has had a large part to play in why I’ve stuck it out.
That friend of a friend is still there, now the managing partner of AKQA in San Francisco (hello Simon Jefferson) so he must have known he was on to a good thing!
LBB> What were some of the most formative projects/experiences early in your career?
Claire> I spent the early part of my career in the wild west of digital. Everyone knew the world was about to change but no one knew quite how much. So working at the forefront of a new type of creativity, we were doing all kinds of crazy projects with (admittedly nervous) big brands. I remember being let loose to run a huge retailer, paying massive fees, all on my own fresh out of college. It didn’t all go according to plan! But we delivered some awesome work too. We were so green, but it taught me that change happens at the place where people are slightly making it up as they’re going along, a willingness to experiment and make mistakes. I’ve tried not to lose that and feel we’re at our best when we’re doing things for the first time and feeling our way through.
I also got used to working in independent businesses that have their own freedom and energy, and never considered taking a step into the corporate world. I had a taste of freedom from the outset that I’ve never been able to give up on.
LBB> When you came to start Mr. President, what was your vision for it? Laura Jordan Bambach recently told me it was the right time to create an integrated agency from a digital point of view.
Claire> Having worked in digital creative agencies in the glory years, we could see that the opportunity for brands was diminishing as everything was becoming more granular, reductive and constrained. It was efficient on some levels, but wasn’t all that fun, and left little space for building brand love and genuine engagement. And the traditional ATL agencies were still starting everything with a TV idea and working downwards.
So we spotted an opportunity to create an agency to deliver gorgeous big powerful ideas that worked at the mass engagement broadcast level, but that also gave a brand a way to behave through every touchpoint, every step of the journey. Helping them walk the walk, as it were, as well as talk the talk.
LBB> What have been the highlights of Mr. President over the years for you?
Claire> Always the new offices. Each one has marked the start of a new era. Being back in London after the Covid pandemic has really reminded me how much the physical space brings life and soul to the agency. Working from home has its merits but nothing beats the buzz of a busy workplace and the energy it generates. And the excitement of starting somewhere new is hard to beat.
We were so proud of our first tiny little office - it was on Soho Square, and we were thrilled. But we also vastly underestimated our space requirements and at times it was standing room only in there because we didn’t have enough seats. The day we moved across the square to the plush surroundings of number 12 was a momentous one and I really felt we’d grown up and established ourselves. The day it caught fire and we all had to move out for three months was one to remember.
But nothing matches the gorgeous, airy creative space we now occupy in Northington Street. It’s got vast windows, high ceilings and an incredible atmosphere. I absolutely love it because it reflects a new era of experimentation and freedom and feeling it full of life and people again has been fantastic.
LBB> As a business leader, what were the biggest challenges of guiding the agency through the pandemic?
Claire> Like everyone, the early days were a real test of how we as individuals and as a business are equipped to respond to the absolute unknown. And everyone really did rise to the challenge, support one another and take it one step at a time. It’s fascinating how quickly the world adapted, and conducting business from home under restrictions just became the norm as we rode out the ups and downs.
But I think the biggest challenge was in understanding that not everyone was rising and falling at the same time, in the same way. Everyone experienced the pandemic differently - some people really thrived in this reconfigured world, some were deeply anxious at times, and others had even bigger problems and challenges going on at home than the pandemic that dominated the news cycle. Some felt stronger at the start, some struggled more later on as it dragged out from weeks to months and energy levels dropped.
I think throughout we were acutely aware that the agency, the team, the work provided a vital and consistent anchor to the team. Something positive everyone could contribute to. It certainly helped me. I was so grateful to be able to lose myself in the day to day and have my colleagues to give me a break from the four walls of my home and family (lovely as they are!)
LBB> And how do you think 2020/21 has changed the agency permanently?
Claire> There’s definitely a greater appreciation for the agency culture and the simple joy of being together at work. We’ve perhaps seen further into each other’s lives than we would have done before, and so there’s a greater openness and understanding, a better environment for having those big difficult conversations about inclusion and difference. An acceleration of the change that was happening anyway.
But also, 20/21 has shown us that everything can change, in unexpected ways, very quickly. I think it will mean we’re less fixated on plans, more fluid and open to what comes. It’s quite liberating in some ways, but building a team and a business that is adaptive, flexible and resilient is more important than ever.
LBB> What work are you most proud of recently and why?
Claire> I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done for the Royal Albert Hall. Who could have guessed, when we were appointed to help to glorify their 150th Year celebrations, that the doors of the Hall would be forced to close for the first time in its history? And that instead of pure celebration, our work would need to adapt to help ensure the hall’s survival too. In playing our part, at this moment in time, it’s like we’re part of the ongoing continuum of history that’s involved everyone from the Suffragettes to the Sex Pistols to Muhammad Ali and we’re proud of that. The night the doors re-opened to a full house for the first time was something to behold, and seeing our More History to Make work in action, and the 150th identity light up the stage and the Hall itself every night, that’s pretty special.
LBB> I know you're an avid reader. What books have been fuelling your imagination lately?
Claire> Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain is a must-read. It explores the Sackler family, and how they made billions of dollars by fuelling the opiate crisis, and brought misery to millions of people in the process. I knew about the drugs part of it already, but hadn’t fully understood how their expertise in marketing and controlling every aspect of the message was so key to their success. What they achieved is amazing and awful in equal measure, and their art-world philanthropy lent a veil of respectability to what was really just relentless greed. Fascinating.