It wasn’t long after (shockingly) being let go from BBDO New York in the early days of the pandemic that Greg Hahn’s wife knew he was going to work with No Fixed Address.
As one of the world’s most successful and accomplished ad creatives, Hahn had been taking calls from heavyweights across the industry—from holding company giants, to the in-house agencies of the big brands, to tech platforms—but his wife could tell he was going to pick NFA.
Like Hahn, she knew very little about the 140-person agency based in Toronto, but she could tell it held enormous appeal. “My wife said ‘Every time you talk with the Canadian agency [it was still just ‘That Canadian agency’ then], you just seem happier. You just seem like you light up when you talk about that model. The other ones seem like more of a job,'” she told Hahn.
“And she predicted [after] the second phone call, that is the one you are going to go with.”
It was all so new and early that Hahn felt unsure. But she was right.
Hahn is now the co-founder and chief creative officer of Mischief at No Fixed Address in New York City. The agency’s expansion to the U.S. comes just weeks after NFA formally opened in Montreal.
Mischief is already open for business, working on some Kraft Heinz projects. Kerry McKibbin, who started her career in Toronto, but was most recently at Mullen Lowe in Boston, is on board as president, joined by three other employees.
BBDO’s decision to let go of Hahn in mid-April shocked many and made headlines across the industry. While cuts in response to the pandemic-induced market downturn weren’t unexpected, Hahn was regarded as the creative powerhouse behind much of the success at BBDO New York in recent years (see some of his work below).
Despite a surprising separation from the agency he called home for nearly 15 years, Hahn decided he wanted to move quickly to find something new. “I immediately went into ‘Okay what’s next?’ mode,” he said. “The day after, I felt almost liberated. Like ‘I’m free to explore what I want to do.'”
That meant a clean slate at a time when unprecedented transformation is being thrust upon the industry. Hahn wanted to consider all options for where he could take his career next. “I talked to all the social platforms and the big digital companies and all that kind of stuff to see what a career in creative in-house at a place like that would be like. And I also had conversations with more traditional agencies, even holding company agencies.”
A holding company role even after what had just happened with BBDO? “I didn’t rule anything out,” he said. “The holding companies are serious about making a change, and they think they need to do it; it is just harder to do at a place like that.”
People suggested he could create his own agency, but that didn’t appeal to him, and he didn’t want to start from scratch. “Then I started looking around for what’s a different kind of model.”
He hadn’t heard of No Fixed Address when he came across them on Linkedin. His Googling led to a 2016 article about the agency’s launch, and Hahn found himself drawn to the no-fixed business ethos articulated by founders Dave Lafond and Serge Rancourt.
Theirs seemed like a looser, leaner, more fluid model that puts a premium on talent rather than overhead, with basics like compensation models structured to drive client solutions rather than maximize revenues from the traditional billable-hours agency model.
“I was like ‘Oh my God, these guys have grown to 140 something people, and they’ve been killing it for the last three years. They’re already doing what everyone else is pontificating about,'” said Hahn.
He sent Lafond a note on LinkedIn, asking if they could talk. At first the pair thought it was nothing more than an informal chat about the industry, but they quickly discovered they had a shared vision for where it could go and how Hahn could thrive within it.
NFA’s mantra of “solve not sell” sounded like Hahn’s preference for “magic over margins,” said Lafond. Eventually, Lafond floated an idea: “What if you had your Greg Hahn creative platform and your vision, the blank canvas [and] it was just part of the No Fixed Address ecosystem? He said ‘Well, that would be nirvana.'”
Mischief at No Fixed Address will be an agency totally shaped by Hahn’s creative vision, except with the business infrastructure from NFA already in place and a pool of talent to draw on that most start-ups would never have access to: need a UX designer? NFA already has that, and therefore so does Mischief. Some PR help? Yep. Media expertise? That too.
The shared desire to build something new for a new age even shaped the promotional photo they’re using to announce the new agency: a stuffy corporate boardroom, a perfect representation of old-school thinking desperately in need of a little mischief. “Not pictured, Greg Hahn, Dave LaFond, Kerry McKibbin, any ounce of joy,” joked Lafond.
The deal with Hahn instantly gives NFA international status, buzz and credibility, not only within the ad community but with marketers who value top-level creative thinking—Hahn’s name indicates that Mischief at No Fixed Address is led by one of the best in the world.
Landing a talent like Hahn also validates the NFA model, which deliberately eschews many of the established tenets of agencies and holding companies, said Lafond. From day one, attracting talent was the most important objective.
“The trick here is that we actually invest a real big amount in talent,” said Lafond. That, combined with the virtues of remaining an independent—”We don’t send money up the line so we’re able to make moves quickly”—explains the agency’s growth from zero to 140 people and a client roster that includes AB Inbev, Questrade, J.P. Wiser’s, Little Caesars, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, and Mattamy Homes in just three years.
It’s a model that drew Jordan Doucette back to Toronto from Leo Burnett Chicago earlier this year, and enabled them to open a Montreal office with Jack Latulippe.
That all-out focus on landing the best creative talent and giving them freedom not possible in larger holding companies has some echoes of another born-in-Canada advertising business: MDC.
Lafond, though, bristles at the suggestion. “We will never use that term,” he said of the holding company parallel. Instead, they use “ecosystem” and “platform” a lot. “Because a holding company—think about ‘holdco’—is so rigid and firm, we are trying to be the opposite,” said Lafond.
The No Fixed Address ethos is about great talent working together from anywhere to quickly and efficiently solve client challenges. “That’s what Greg liked, the fluidity and flexibility of our mindset.”
There is perhaps no better representation of that than the fact the agency itself was created in the middle of a global pandemic. “I think a big part of the story,” said Hahn, “is we created an agency in three weeks over Zoom.”