Are agencies unintentional incubators?


It’s hard to feel an iota of sympathy for the legions of Suits complaining about how hard it is for ‘creative agencies’ these days.

But consider for a moment the thinkers and craftspeople stuck in that quicksand - confronted daily by risk averse ‘managers’, sour lemonade budgets, cocaine expectations, and slag heaps of data.

Perhaps then it’s no surprise that some of the most interesting challenger brands have been/are being conceived by agency creatives sick to the back teeth of big clients who don’t listen.

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A good creative agency is an awesome place to master the dark art of brand strategy, but they’re also incredibly wasteful, with the best ideas rarely making it out alive.

Putting office politics and jerks aside, there’s nothing like studying a brand in-depth: Analysing its position, purpose, values, and overarching communication idea. It’s expected for smart minds and febrile imaginations to uncover new ways of sharpening things up.

It’s also expected for clients to corpse when presented with genuinely radical thinking.

A natural byproduct of this strategic creativity is the identification of emerging gaps in the category, fatal flaws in the incumbents, and measurable drifts in human behaviour.

You develop a knack for connecting a brand to contemporary culture, feeling the pulse of the times, and balancing that equation to create something valuable.

This is something we value greatly at The Craftory: That frustrated potential from which many legendary challengers have emerged.

Some examples:


Back when people believed smoothies were a panacea for health, Innocent was founded by Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright - three friends who were working in advertising and consulting.

Somewhere between unfulfilling jobs, unhealthy city lifestyles, skiing holidays and jazz festivals they came up with the idea for a new kind of liquid snack that seemed to nail health and taste great.

The legend continues with an angel investor called Pinto, classic marketing, and an eventual sale to health suck Coca Cola.

They’ve taken some kicks for scary high sugar content, but they’re actively making their agricultural base water sustainable - for which we give them chops.

Image ©  Plumen

Image © Plumen


Loaf your way through MOMA or the V&A’s permanent collection and you’ll encounter a noodly shaped bulb. The Plumen, ‘a designer low energy compact fluorescent light’, is a gorgeous thing to behold and to consider.

Founder Nicholas Roope also founded Antirom, a radical digital art collective/agency who used words like hyper and cyber a lot (and inspired yours truly to get into digital). Nicholas also founded digital agency Poke which is equally, and deservedly, famed.

Image ©  Halō Coffee

Image © Halō Coffee


The world's first 100% compostable coffee capsule. There are 30 billion plastic and aluminum coffee capsules in landfill and the ocean, where they will remain for 500 years. Imagine trying to sell that to Nespresso and being told it’s not the next brand challenge.

Nils Leonard had enough of this BS and decided to do something about it. That makes him a hero in our books. He also happens to be the ex chief creative officer at ad agency Grey London.


Branding agencies are notoriously good at spinning challenger side projects. For example:

Image ©  RobotFood

Image © RobotFood

Electric Ink

If you still think tattoos are subversive you need a slap in the face. One in three UK adults have a tattoo and the trend is getting bigger. Those of us who are tattooed know they’re sensitive to UV and dryness ... and they’re not cheap, so why wouldn’t you want to care for your life-defining statement of individuality?

Tattoo and skincare brand Electric Ink agree, and Electric Ink was conceived + founded by branding agency Robot Food. It’s one of the most relevant and appealing brands we’ve seen.  


So, finally, here’s the thing:

If you’re an ex agency person, who got frustrated with the BS, had an awesome product idea, that you’ve spun into a healthy fledgling business ...



Let’s talk.

JP Thurlow is a Partner at The Craftory, the counter-corporate anti-VC on a $300M mission to back the world's boldest challenger brands in the consumer goods space.