February 22, 2017 - No Comments!

Interview with James Hillhouse, co-founder of Commercial Break


In this series, agency brand expert Karla Morales-lee interviews agencies that stand out from the crowd on what makes them different and better to the competition?

1. What kind of agency is Commercial Break?  Are you experts or specialists in anything? Who are your clients and what kind of work do you do for them? Any projects we'd have seen or heard of?

We’re a youth transformation agency.

  • We transform young people’s lives by creating career opportunities in the ad and pr industries
  • We transform agencies’ ability to access new, different, young talent
  • We transform brands’ ability to connect with young people through deeper insight, relevant strategy, and distinctive creative.

We’ve been going for 5 years, and we only work with one client per year.   We’ve been extremely lucky to work with some really big, interesting brands in that time – Ubisoft, Beats, ITV, Comic Relief, and EE. What they all have in common is that they desperately need to connect with young people, but in many cases, were struggling to do so.

I think the piece of work that we’ve done that’s had the biggest cultural impact has been the ‘Paving the way’ award for the MOBOS (from our time working with ITV). The idea came from a really deep insight into what ‘urban’ meant nowadays, and how it had become a dirty word in mainstream media, and the creative thought it produced was so much more important and impactful than a marketing campaign – it was an award that is now the MOBOs equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. To be there when Wiley (pictured) was the first recipient was a hugely satisfying moment.

2. Why is your business in business? What frustrates you/do you seen as broken that you want to make better?

The origins of our business come from a project I undertook looking at young Londoners living on estates, and realising there was a huge amount of talent there that just wasn’t getting the chance it deserved. Ally that to the fact that I was growing really sceptical of an industry that prided itself on doing things differently in its work, but was staffed by exactly the same sort of pale, male, middle-class person. Commercial Break was born out of those dual frustrations.

There’s so much that’s broken in the industry… but to avoid turning this into a manifesto, I’ll pick out a couple things relevant to what we’re trying to do.

I hate, with a passion, the word ‘diversity’. It’s a baggy word. It gets bandied about as though it isn’t. If clients used that kind of language we’d haul them up on it, and tell them to be more specific. Yet, we don’t do that to ourselves. I don’t want to hear about an agency with a focus on diversity, I want to hear about them focusing on LGBT, or ethnicity, or disability. Incidentally, our focus is on social mobility.

I also hate tokenism. This usually comes from the same sort of thinking that leads to using a word like ‘diversity’. Too often an agency’s ‘diversity’ initiative involves getting someone into the agency so a box is ticked, but then not really knowing what to do with them, and grumbling when they don’t do things in the same way as everyone else. If you’re going to do, do it properly, or don’t bother.

3. Is their anything specific about your business that makes you stand out from the competition? E.g People, process, services, structure, promotion, pricing, office, culture etc?

So, our model is really distinctive in lots of different ways.

We exist all year round, but we only work on our client brief 3 months a year.

We have only one client during that period.

We’re staffed by young people with no experience.

They do all the work – all the insight is theirs, they develop the strategy, and all the creative ideas (there are other agencies working for social good that use the young people only as a resource). This means our clients are getting it straight from the horse’s mouth, not via some 40 year old who thinks he’s still in touch with ‘yoof’.

We’re not just seeking to do great work, we’re looking to transform the lives of our staff – that’s a heady double whammy for any client.

We partner with a whole host of agencies that offer placements to the Commercial Breakers when they finish with us.

4. How do you raise awareness of your business with clients and the industry? Have you ever done any original marketing for self-promotion? If so, what? What's worked for you?

Beyond the usual talks and panels, we’ve been very lucky in that a lot of our business has come from word of mouth or recommendation. For example, we worked for Comic Relief based on a recommendation to them from our client at ITV.

But, ultimately, the best way to raise awareness of what we do is the ex-Commercial Breakers who now work in the industry – when they do well, we do well.

5. 10 years from now you are awarded 'Agency of the decade' by Campaign mag. Complete this sentence from the opening paragraph:

"Commercial Break has been named AOD because... "

Without trying to be annoying, can I change the construct? We don’t want Commercial Break to be agency of the month, year, or decade. We want ex-Commercial Breakers to be the people responsible for making our agency partners successful. So, maybe my answer is ‘Lucky Generals/Saatchi London/Mr President (delete where applicable) has been named AOD because it had ex-Commercial Breakers at the heart of what it did.


Does you agency need differentiating? Contact karla@hunterandfarmer.com for more information on how you can identify, articulate and market what makes your agency different and better. 

Published by: admin in New Breed

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