How Humanaut, a regional small agency winner in 2017, made it to the top 10
Humanaut refers to itself as a brand production studio, not an ad agency. It’s a description that, much like its headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, strips away the trappings of the tried-and-true (and increasingly tired) agency model.
Humanaut isn’t spending time on the littlest details of big pitch decks, because clients come to the agency—not the other way around. It works on a project basis, shoots the bulk of its work at its 6,000-square-foot studio, and does its own testing. The model lets the agency more quickly offer what brands want: hard-working creative that breaks through.
The agency works only with mission-driven, sustainably-focused brands, a vision more easily carried out in a standalone shop than in a holding company, say cofounders Andrew Clark and David Littlejohn. They are particular about who they work with and say they have turned down brands that don’t align with their values.
“Most of our brands are challenger or emerging brands. They’re trying to fix what’s broken with a new thing,” says Littlejohn, who serves as chief creative director.
The client roster is packed with brands touting organic, natural, and better-for-you products. Humanaut created an amusing 30-minute pre-roll video (yes, 30 full minutes) for Organic Voices, a group of organic product marketers, in which a couple sings about chemicals not used in organic production. The shop also works on Hello, the “naturally friendly” oral care brand being scooped up by Colgate-Palmolive. And it was behind the branding and creation of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s “Holy Chicken!” restaurant.
The triple threat of creative, production and testing “gives us a really big superpower,” says Littlejohn. The agency does rapid prototypes along with testing results to show to clients. “For us to sort of DIY and take the onus of testing, to de-risk the creative work we’re doing, I think is a really big differentiator.”
It also means Humanaut can handle work at a lower cost than bigger shops with higher overhead. “We don’t have these massive beastly monthly numbers we have to make,” says Clark, the agency’s chief strategist.
Humanaut has been working with a project-based model for years. “We’re not trying to tie you down to a retainer and, given how dynamic and fluid the industry is, the retainer model just seems outdated,” says Clark.
When the projects are strong enough, clients keep coming back and grow alongside the agency. That’s what has happened with Organic Valley, an early client it has now worked with for six years. “What to me really sets them apart is their complete refusal of mediocre work,” says Jaclyn Cardin, senior director of integrated marketing at Organic Valley. “They won’t let us settle, either.”
The agency and the Wisconsin-based client use Google Docs and other ways of working together from a distance, and meet in person when it makes sense. Conversations are frank, and the agency suggests ideas that quickly get to the heart of what the brand is about. “They know how far they can push,” says Cardin.
A video showing fitness trackers on Organic Valley’s cows to count the steps they take in pastures also calls out dairy conglomerates for their slick packaging showing smiling cows even if they don’t get to roam, delivering the brand’s message with a wink. “They don’t want to be like any other agency,” says Cardin. “They do things their own way and have developed their own process.”
Doing only work it feels good about doing has attracted more of the brands Humanaut wants to work with. Last year was Humanaut’s biggest year of growth, with new business from repeat clients, referrals and brands who reached out after seeing its work. It projected $6 million in revenue in 2019. “The upside is that we haven’t really been forced to choose between making money and doing good,” says Clark.
When it comes to bigger corporations, Humanaut enjoys working on the pieces of their portfolios trying to do business differently. Heartland Food Products Group’s Splenda turned to Humanaut to promote its natural sweetener from the stevia plant. Knowing many people don’t know stevia is a plant, a campaign for Splenda Stevia shot in-house centered around touting stevia as the sweetest thing you can grow. It showed people saying they’d grow their own, including a guy bringing a baggie of the stuff to a restaurant. “That’s a great project for Humanaut,” says Littlejohn. “We’re going to help you get to the other side.”
At the time of this writing, the small shop had 26 full-time employees with plans to hit 30. Humanaut has only done layoffs once to date, after growing faster than it should have in its second year, Littlejohn recalls. Since then, it has taken a slow and steady approach and hires only when necessary.
So far, the agency has not had to pitch much. Still, Clark says, in order to grow, Humanaut will have to do more outreach. Littlejohn says the agency has already been through three business models, and is likely to develop a fourth based on how it navigates through the COVID-19 crisis. In a way, Humanaut feels ready to weather the pandemic, “because we’ve been in adaptation and change mode for so long,” says Clark. “Clients just need adaptable partners who can enter into that uncertainty with them.”