In his first interview since joining The Mission Control Communications earlier this year, James Killoran talks openly about the move and his reputation as a workaholic and what it’s like going head to head with some of the largest agencies in the world.
You’re regularly described as a workaholic, how do you respond to that accusation? ‘If that’s the worst people can say about me, I think I can live with it,’ says James. ‘But I don’t see it as a problem. Most of the people I know and respect would be described as workaholics. I think there’s a tendency in the UK though with all of the legislation around working hours to see anyone that works more than the standard 48-hour week as some sort of class traitor.’
So what makes you a workaholic? ‘Nothing makes me a workaholic. I just enjoy what I do. I spend a lot of time working with people in the United States and they have a very different work ethic to most countries in Europe. Personally, I find their drive really motivating and if I’m honest, I thrive on the challenge and the energy I pick up from them. You can’t help but get enthused when you’re around people that are constantly driven and positive.
But I think the term ‘Workaholic’ is often misunderstood and taken out off context. A lot of people look at it like some sort of disease or illness. It’s not. There’s nothing wrong with working hard; it probably says more about the ills of our society that you’re treated like some sort of pariah for working hard. For me, being a workaholic is a means to an end that I just happen to enjoy.
And what is that end? ‘Everyone expects me to say money, but it’s not. For me the objective is creating work that exceeds expectations and allows us to grow internationally. I’ve never wanted to just be the wee local agency or the big fish in a small pond. I want to create something that stands the test of time.’
Can you explain what you mean by the term ‘Workaholic’ being misunderstood? ‘Most people think of a workaholic as being someone on the fast track to having a heart attack and who never gets to spend time with their family. That’s not the case. There is a balance to be had if you just take time to plan your workflow. I choose to work the hours I do. No one forces me to. Personally I’m happier when I’m working instead of sitting vegetating in front of the television and I’m not really gold club material.’
So how many hours would you work every week? ‘It depends on how busy we are. But a normal week would see me do 90+ hours. I’m normally up and responding to emails from about 5:30am. I’ll be in the office for 7ish most mornings and then that’s me until the end of the day. I try and get away for 5:30pm so I can have some time with the family and then I’m back online and calls with the States from 7:30pm through to about 11pm. Weekends – I’d have more personal time, but I’d still spend a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays catching up with people and prepping for the week ahead. But the hours I do are on a power with what the brand managers and directors I work with in the States do. So I don’t get hung up on them. For me its about outcomes and not time put in.’
What about your team, do you expect them to do the same? ‘I think most of them would tell me where to go to if I said I expected them to do that. I know it might sound corny, but we all look out for one and other and if someone needs time off outside their normal time, we cover for one and other. We’re not into working people into the ground. Mental fatigue can be really difficult to shake so our approach is to give people the time they need and plan jobs out so no one is expected to have to work suicide hours. But from time to time, it does happen and when it does, we make sure people get time off to make up for it.
As for expectations, the only expectation I have is that when people are here, they give whatever they are working on their full attention. Naturally, you’ll get people putting in more time on jobs, but that’s just personal pride when people do go above and beyond in terms of time, we always make sure they get a break at the end of it all. But no, just to clarify, I don’t expect the team to do 90+ hours.’
What are the benefits to being a workaholic? ‘For me the big benefit is that sense of achievement you get when a project is completed and you see it really works. This year we’ve had some amazing feedback on jobs and do you know something, that means more to me than all of the awards we’ve won this year, put together. There’s nothing more rewarding than knowing clients are excited about the projects we’re working on together. The other thing is because you’re head is always buzzing with ideas, you can be much more proactive and take ideas to the client as opposed to just responding to a brief. That is a big part of the partnership relationship we have with brands.’
And the drawbacks? ‘I suppose when you crash, you really crash. I’ve seen times after it’s been really hectic that I’ve gone to bed and just slept for a full day. But that’s the exception as opposed to the rule.’
Do you see being a workaholic as a factor in the success of the agency? ‘It might contribute, but it’s far from being an overriding factor. Like I mentioned earlier, we have a lot of great people here and just as importantly, we have very switched on clients. Those are all big factors in our success. As for me being a workaholic, it just means I’m always about or chipping in with something or have my head buried in some research.’
Can you ever see a time when you’re not a workaholic? ‘I hope not. I think if that day was ever to come, it would be time for me to step aside and let someone else who is a workaholic take over. In this industry you need a hungry mind. You’re always learning and anticipating and if you’ve one eye on the job and the other on your golf clubs, something is going to slip between the gap if you know what I mean.’
How would you describe the year you’ve had? It’s been a rollercoaster. I started the year having to make some tough decisions, but they had to be taken or I wouldn’t be here today doing what I enjoy. Moving on and closing a chapter on your life is never easy, but sometimes you just have to do what is right for you. When I left my old agency, it wasn’t without a degree of fear and regret. I’d no idea how things were going to work out with the new place, so there were a lot of sleepless nights. But we put the work in and thankfully it’s all coming together. Though I’ve a lot more grey hair now.’
So why did you move agency? To quote Winston Churchill and Call of Duty: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’ I wasn’t happy where I was. I’d known for a while that things were not going to change, but had kept giving it the benefit of the doubt. In the end though, I found myself contemplating leaving the industry and doing something else. Well – I was never any good at cooking so running off to open a B&B somewhere was never going to be a workable option, so I started looking at how I could carve out a new path for myself within an industry I actually love.’
Was the move easy? ‘Hell no! I was closing the door on almost 10 years of my life. When you decide on doing something like that, your head gets filled with all sorts of doubts and uncertainties.’
But it was worth it? ‘Yes. For the first time in a very long time I found myself in a position where things were happening and I wasn’t having to battle to get stuff done. There had been things I’d wanted to do for years with the old agency and could never get them off the ground. Here – I’ve been given the freedom to push ahead and within months we’ve proven that the thinking that had always been blocked in the old place was actually right. We’re picking up business, we’re winning effectiveness awards and we’re actually having fun doing it.’
What’s your plan for 2016? ‘I think there are some people who would pay you a lot of money to know that. We’ve deliberately tried to stay beneath the radar, but that has actually got some of the big names in the industry looking at us trying to figure out our strategy and how we’re managing to take projects they’d thought were theirs for the taking.’
You’re not intimidated by the big agencies then? ‘No, why would I be? We’ve proven time and time again that we can go head to head with the internationals and we’ve outperformed them on multiple occasions.’
How does that feel? The first few times it was terrifying. But you quickly discover it’s a bit like that scene from the Wizard of Oz when they discover the guy behind the curtain. Sure the internationals can talk-the-talk and they put on a great show – but there’s nothing they do that we can’t.’
How often do you find yourselves up against one of the internationals? ‘More often than you might expect and it’s not just the big London agencies. We’ve sat at the table with New York, LA and Paris agencies over the past 10 months. But we make a point of getting everyone in the team in front of an international agency as soon a possible to show them there’s nothing to be afraid of.
We had to go to London a few months ago and it was a meeting with one of the biggest agencies in the world. You know the sort of place, stunning office, epic views out across the city, every surface dripping with awards. Basically everything you can think of that would intimidate a small team likes ours. Anyway, we were introduced to the other agency’s team and there were directors of directors. I suddenly thought my plan to show our guys that there was nothing to worry about was going to back fire on me. Anyway, to cut a very long story short, we let the big international do their thing and I could see the penny drop with our guys as they realised that there was no magic. They were hearing nothing that they didn’t already know and in-truth, some of what they were hearing was wrong.
When we left, our guys were buzzing. The myth of the international was shot. As we headed back to the Tube, my golden moment was one of the guys saying, “I can’t believe they didn’t have muffins”.’
So what can we expect from The Mission Control Communications in 2016? I’m not giving away any secrets when I say we have a pretty big announcement coming in January. We’ve also have some really amazing work in progress with one of the clients stateside. It’s one of those projects that redefines a sector and the brand director is a great guy to work with, which is always a bonus.
And will you be taking time off over Christmas? That’s the million dollar question. We’ve a couple of jobs going out this month that legally have to go live on December 31st. So at the minute we’re working with contributors in the States, Italy, Germany, France, England, Holland and Belgium to make sure that it happens. The nature of the job means that we’ll be on standby right up to the 31st for any updates. It’s that sort of commitment though that clients appreciate as they know they can trust us to always get the job across the line, regardless of the circumstance.
There can be no doubt that 2015 has been a landmark year for James, but it would seem that the workaholic reputation and unorthodox way of doing things gets results. The Mission Control Communications has repeatedly proven its credentials internationally this year, not only in terms of business acquired and awards won, but in the results it’s consistently delivered for clients and it appears that the motivation and drive that has propelled the agency in 2015 is set to continue well into 2016.