Mischief: Inside America's hottest young agency
Founder Greg Hahn on what's different about his new agency and why it's enjoying such success
25 May 2022
When Greg Hahn was made redundant in April 2020 after working at BBDO New York for 15 years, his predicament served as a bellwether of the things to come for advertising post-Covid.
Yet Hahn re emerged a mere two months later partnering with indie Canadian agency No Fixed Address. Hahn was given carte blanche to run its first U.S. outpost, and Mischief @ No Fixed Address was born, unburdened by bigger agency bureaucracies and focussed on winning instead of fearing losing.
And it seems Hahn's fresh approach has worked; the new(ish) agency already boasts over 30 clients ranging from Netflix to Duolingo to old-school giants like Kraft. Earlier this year the start-up topped AdAge's A List of the best agencies.
What Mischief has also done is remind some of us how exhilarating and damn joyful it can be to work in this industry, to push at the usual boundaries, shake things up and try stuff out. This is the spirit some of us were chasing when we first came into the industry, but it's a spirit that's so easily smothered by conventions and fear. Watching Mischief's rise has rekindled some of that spark, even if only vicariously.
The work speaks for itself, and so does Hahn, who we sat down with to discuss just what the hell actually happened when he left BBDO and why Mischief works.
What drove you to begin your own agency?
I felt like the agency world needed a stir and that collectively there had grown this strange situation wherein ambient fear was driving everything.
I thought at the next place I would think just fuck it: let’s do something because it’s right, not just because it’s safe.
Is playing it safe the biggest problem in advertising today then?
I think everything that is a problem in advertising today stems from this fear. And that comes down to anything from how work gets made to how work gets approved, and to how people behave. It’s interesting because if you take away the fear it removes a lot of the struggles of advertising today. I was chasing that freedom and fearlessness and it just doesn’t exist elsewhere right now.
Do you think this fear is always coming from the top down, or do you think that there is a semblance of it coming from within individuals themselves also?
I think it's just an ambience in the air. If you say the wrong thing or if you bring something to a meeting that's going to piss off the client, there are big consequences in these bigger agencies. If you’re a young creative you might get taken off of the account, then suddenly you don’t have any billings to your name and then, when those layoffs happen, you’re on the list.
That small little kernel of fear culminates in a wider ambience of fear.
I wanted to start a place that was more offence than defence, and was focused more on winning than worrying about losing.
So how does that look on the ground? How do you make sure that everyone's got that ‘all balls to the wall’ winners philosophy?
It all comes down to the people who you bring in and making sure they know why they are there. It also naturally comes down to the clients that you work with and that they are like-minded too.
How do you figure that out?
It’s a big part of the reason why I named the agency Mischief, as it sort of filters out people who want that kind of work done and they can kind of know who we are just based on the name.
The second part of that stems from the kind of work we put out. I believe that our best new business tools are the work we do for our clients. So when we put out the kind of work we want to do, it generates that cycle of clients coming to you for more of that type of work in the first place.
A lot of agencies probably want to be like this but as they get older and bigger, layers of bureaucracy just compound the problem. How will you avoid that?
I think a lot of agencies are really bad at branding themselves — especially the big agency holding companies where their names are literally a bunch of letters jumbled together.
I don't know who's doing what or who stands for what. At Mischief we really paid attention to how we brand ourselves. Ultimately if we can't do it for ourselves, why would a client trust us to do it for them?
So the way to never have the bigger problems of the bigger agencies comes down to knowing what you stand for. This leads to clients who work with you being more like-minded, as well as helping you draw in the right kind of people who are aligned with your way of thinking. Then the key is not to lose sight of that. If you’re just about growth, growth, growth, you’ve already compromised that because you’ll accept clients that don’t adhere to why you started in the first place.
Which takes me to my next question: when is it ok to say no to a client?
A lot of the time. If you say yes to a big client and give into that temptation, suddenly you’re going to have to compromise on the work you do because of that pay cheque. At this point, you’re back to being a commodity, and doing work that you don’t want to do and attracting more clients that want more of that work.
One of our superpowers is the ability to say no. If you take on a client that that doesn't believe in the kind of work you do, but they pay you well, suddenly, you're vulnerable because you have to do that kind of work. And then you become like everybody else. And you can't say no to them because then you lose half your staff. So I still want to be in a vulnerable position. I want to be in a position where we are always in the playing offensive and things we think are right, versus being reactive and doing what we have to do based on savings.
It’s a pretty eclectic mix of clients you have. Is there anything that ties them all together then?
The one thing they have in common is everybody believes in us and ultimately believes in the power of creativity.
I think one of the things they have found so refreshing about us at Mischief is that we’re humans, and a lot of the bigger agencies have put together this kind of facade of being super professional.
Some creatives tell me they think Client Services always seem to have a gun to their heads. Is that sometimes an issue in big agencies?
I know! It’s so fake, what we offer is no bullshit. Here at Mischief, we avoid that by being very much not siloed, and so some of our people working with clients are the most creative people I know.
This sort of environment, again one that isn’t scared of losing and focused on being human and winning, makes us able to work in ways like no-one else. For example, when we first started we had a couple of big companies come to us and tell us that their agencies were too afraid to show them some of the more creative types of work. Again it’s that fear running and ruining everything.
And which piece of work made you know that “actually this works”?
Well, honestly, the first piece of work we did was for Capri Sun — you know the packaged goods juice drink for kids.
But it’s a big national brand, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect it to do something that would require a lot of mischief. But if you think about it, it was kind of exactly right for them.
That project was about like, just kind of punking kids in the middle of pandemic and it was high profile enough that it got some attention and got us more clients. Then Kraft, who owns Capri Sun, liked working with us so they gave us more projects, so it kind of spiralled into a good thing pretty quickly.
How do you handle a more serious brief then? Like the Pfizer vaccine rollout work for example?
It's about finding unexpected, compelling truths. We always start there. You know, our process is very simple. It's first what to say and then how to say it. So we spent a lot of time on the first part, on strategy, and so we have positioned ourselves as a kind of strategic agency, cleverly disguised as a creative art shop. Our job is to find a compelling truth, and then just the most authentic way or interesting way to say it.
So for Pfizer, it was pretty early on during the pandemic so I think we were the first to take an emotional approach to vaccine confidence and not just give facts. The campaign was focussed on how much we have given due to this pandemic. So it's finding the most authentic way of doing that, searching for these moments and how we took them for granted and realising how valuable they are now that we lost them. So a really different approach to a very scientific brief.
So after you got let go from BBDO, was there ever a moment where you just thought - "Screw this, I’m out of here, out of this industry"?
I’ve never really thought about retiring. I don’t think I’m the retiring type. I need to have something to think about otherwise I'll drive everyone crazy and the truth is I really love advertising, I like what we do, I like creating things.
But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back right away because I was pretty turned off by the big holding company agency environment — getting let go made me realise how little control we all have in those situations.
No matter what you do, you're always at the whim of someone making decisions in rooms you're not allowed into. That was the big ‘aha!’ moment for me and it made me make sure that whatever the next thing I do, I will ensure I have more control over my future.
The decision to let me go just felt like it was so abrupt and so out of my control. There was some big Omnicom meeting that was happening somewhere that I was unaware of that had decisions about me being made. I always felt that people and creativity are not items on a spreadsheet, but these decisions were made like they were.
Had you ever thought about starting your own agency before all this had happened?
A lot of creatives have this vision of what they would do if they were in charge. So I've always had, from a creative standpoint, an idea that if I were to ever open an agency I’d do it in a certain way.
But I'm not a business person. I have no idea how to run the mechanics of an agency: HR, billings and all that. So there’s a lot of skills that come with opening an agency that I did not necessarily have or even want to have.
So when I was talking to Dave Lafond — one of the three co-founders of Mischief — who ran a whole network of agencies by the name of No Fixed Address and he asked me, “Well, what if we had someone take care of all that stuff for you?” That was a pretty amazing offer, a dream one actually.
So I had to take it.
Some more of Mischief's best work
Mischief created a campaign for Tinder featuring "weirdos" it seems no one would want to date - such as a new age mystic or a junk TV binge watcher. The point was that “you’re not for everyone,” but Tinder's "Explore" feature will help you find your someone with a shared interest, however unusual.
Miller Genuine Draft "Seltzer launch"
The Molson Corrs beer brand took the rise out of rival beer brands that had launched seltzer extensions with a campaign that saw a rival's seltzer dispensed into space.
Shutterfly "Make It a Thing”
This campaign for the photo service Shutterfly told unusual stories behind some of the otherwise mundane objects that you can create on the platform.
Alpha Foods "Horses"
This campaign for the plant-based food brand Alpha Foods played on the idea that its products taste so much like meat you'll hardly notice animals anymore. It features a woman able to resist shouting "Horses!" as she drives past a field of them.
This follow up spot to Eos' TikTok campaign "Cooch Blessings" was a spoof of 80s-style aerobics, promoting intimate female shaving.