How to build a creative company: Lucky Generals' Helen Calcraft talks MBAs and 50 Cent

Will Railton
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Her EMBA has helped Calcraft understand her clients’ businesses better

"It's a quote by Napoleon. He was asked what it takes to win a war and he replied: ‘Bring me your lucky generals’,” says Helen Calcraft. “We liked the idea of being those generals that clients can send into battle and come back with a win.”

Her agency, Lucky Generals, has been winning a fair amount since it was set up three years ago by Calcraft and two veteran colleagues Danny Brooke-Taylor and Andy Nairn. In a single day of June last year, it doubled in size by winning Twitter’s first UK business and being appointed Paddy Power’s agency of record.

Amazon put their faith in us one year in. We’re the smallest agency on Unilever’s roster – winning Pot Noodle, and we recently won Premier Inn,” says Calcraft. There are others, but it remains a relatively small client list. For Calcraft, that’s important; Lucky Generals has turned down twice as many new business opportunities as it has gone for to maintain a high commitment relationship with clients, she says. “That has been big for us – bigger than I thought it would be.”

As experienced as Calcraft and her co-founders are (they worked together on brands such as Hovis, Waitrose and Virgin at their previous agency, and have known each other for a decade), to start any new business is to chart new territory. They started with no people, and no clients. “We went out and bought some Yorkshire Tea (now a client) and some sofa cushions,” she says.

At the start of the year, they started Lucky Enterprises, which Calcraft describes as “a family of companies which are ‘culture first’” rather than a network. Their first partner, Dark Horse, is a sports marketing agency. “We didn’t say ‘we’re going to launch into sports marketing’. We met an entrepreneur who shares our values, beliefs and dreams, rather than a matrix with PR, sports marketing and others.”

It’s an approach which explains Lucky Generals’ quick success. “Most agencies broadly offer the same thing – account planning, design and so on. No matter how different they say they are, the only thing that differentiates them is their culture. We say that we are a creative company for people on a mission.” There are several parts to this.

First, she insists that Lucky Generals is a creative company, “not an ad agency, which is defined by having a digital department”. Being agile and flexible is also a must, especially in a time of “unprecedented change in the way that consumers behave and engage with commercial messaging.”

The firm’s focus is on strategy and consumer understanding. “If you’re not careful in this industry, you can become very executional,” she warns. “Consumer insight is not a department here, it’s a point of view.”

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“Then there’s the idea of being for people on a mission. We realised when we were starting that, if we don’t know what we’re good at, we’re definitely going to fail. It’s too hard in this market. Happiness is important too. It may sound superficial, but it allows you to build a positive relationship with clients. And if you can do great work, everything else will follow.”

Recent highlights include their work for Hostelworld, which saw hip-hop artist 50 Cent take the audience on a MTV Cribs-style tour of a hostel. “It was knowing,” says Calcraft. “But not in an intellectual or snobbish way. Young people like that. You’ve got to do work that people admire. There’s not enough of it about.”

Rare for an executive in a creative industry, Calcraft has an executive MBA (EMBA). Has it helped her? “Massively,” she says. She had a party wall agreement with London Business School, which was building a library extension next to her house. “I went to the interview and said: ‘There’s so much noise, I thought I’d better check you guys out’.”

She started the course with the worst GMAT score in the class and little confidence. After two years of juggling study and full-time work, which involved going to bed at 4.30 and coping with “unbelievable stress”, she graduated with a distinction.

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“I don’t say that to show off – I say it because people in advertising don’t think they’re on the hard end of business. But they are actually very fortunate to get an overview of such a number of businesses in all sorts of categories and markets, and exposing themselves to all kinds of consumer trends.”

The business degree taught Calcraft which questions to ask. “I didn’t know my way around a balance sheet, or many of the issues our clients face in production and manufacturing. It allowed me to understand where marketing and advertising fits within their business. In terms of strategic partnership with clients, it’s a fantastic education.”

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