Craig Mills always knew he wanted to be an adman. Despite being rejected from 25 advertising agencies after university, he was not deterred and went on to become Managing Director at McCann Health, before starting his agency, Frontera, in 2011.
Since starting out in Craig’s garden shed, Frontera has quickly expanded and now has 22 permanent staff. The agency focuses on integrated health ideas but is currently looking to expand their digital offering. In their words, they aim to ‘combine deep insights in the health space with an innovation-led and integrated approach’. Craig loves working with people who write stories and draw pictures for a living and finds it inspiring and fun to be around creativity.

1. What have been your key milestones and how have you celebrated them?

A key milestone would have been the landing of my first client worth over one million pounds after our first couple of initial pitches failed. Going from no turnover to a million reasons to feel secure over a weekend was crazy. I broke the news to the others over breakfast at the Covent Garden Hotel. We had absolutely no idea what it was potentially going to be worth and I took the four of us who were in the company at the time to breakfast to break the news, which is the best breakfast I’ve ever had to organise. It was fantastic.

I’ve got a shed at the end of my garden that I used to work in and we also worked at Frank’s house (Frank is another agency partner). In June 2011 we rented space from a group called The Network One in a beautiful little office in Floral Street. Moving into an office space was crucial for us to look like an entity people could take seriously. We quickly realised that by taking on this new business, we needed to rapidly shift into office space that could hold full teams. So we moved here (St. Johns Square) in April last year. We took our first hire on in February 2012 – and that made us feel official. That was a crucial point and made us feel ‘now we’re not just a business, we’re responsible for people’. And that’s where achieving financials becomes so pivotal, as you become responsible for the livelihoods of your employees and their families.

2. Have you had any setbacks or disappointments along the way and what have you learnt from them?

A few, I suppose. Winning major business was terrific, but then being able to effectively push clients to keep everything on time as a small organisation was a real challenge and pushed us to the limit. There was some time before the work we were doing was paid for at first – and that was stressful – but the bills got paid in the end. There was no Finance Director at that time to chase the bills. Organising the client became very important and we needed to assert ourselves.

Being burgled was another major setback that threatened the company. It happened last October, and we were too young to have a real disaster recovery plan. Thousands of pounds worth of machinery, laptops etc were taken. It was a nightmare, but Hiscox, who we have our business insurance with, were incredible. They visited our offices the next day and we had new equipment and were back up and running within 48 hours. So most people in the team were offline for less than 48 hours.

3. Have you taken any chances or risks that you feel have really paid off?

We don’t pitch that often which you could class as a risk for an agency. Being smaller, we don’t often get invited to big agency pitches. Instead, we have an internal process called Lab10, which is essentially where we spend 10% of our time on R&D. One morning a week, everyone will get together and present their ideas and thoughts of interesting things that we could do; be that in the charity sector, healthcare sector or what have you. It might be that a brand’s circumstance has changed so significantly that we think we can come in and address it and offer something new to that client. We will proactively develop the idea and take it straight to the client – and that’s how we’re winning most of our clients. It means that we have a number of different clients that we’ve essentially cherry picked.

People were another risk. It’s almost like you’re trying to adopt a child with your first hires and then you become a little bit more flexible. You also have to accept that sometimes you’re going to get it wrong and hire the wrong people. When we were starting and were in a position where we could command a seat to talk to clients about opportunities, we needed to be able to switch resources on straight away. Using freelancers was the most flexible option of course but meant that quality was not maintained as they are not as committed to the business. Probably the biggest gamble that we’ve had to make was to establish a significant staff base. You need people who are flexible and willing to go to the ends of the earth to make the business a success, and are as happy to put up a shelf as pull together a strategic framework. We’ve had a deliberate turnover of staff and the team we have now is amazing. We’re at a point now where our work and culture is known, so interesting and creative people are coming to us.

4. Tell us about your work life balance?

Rubbish! I’ve got a good example I can give, and I’ll show you the photo in a minute. My son made me a card for my birthday – on it was a picture of Liverpool, my favourite football team, and inside it simply had the message: ‘Dear Daddy, can I spend a little time with you?’; it was one of those weepy points. It is hard because the effort and energy you have to put in to a start up is relentless. Starting from scratch – it’s been euphoric at times and horrible at others, especially early on. But that’s life, you know?

5. Where have you taken inspiration from?

You’re either a dog with a bone, or not, and if not it will be hard starting a business. Because it is relentless. But it’s always been my dream and that’s me. I got to a point where I realised I could do this for myself. There are people, and I’m one of those people, who are unemployable. I’m serious – I’m opinionated, and I have a certain view about how things should be run. My ideas are well-informed and I feel others who have that should take the plunge.
Another inspiration was financial; money plays a big part in this. I was brought up in a 2-bed bungalow in Yorkshire with seven kids. It was tough but made me all the more determined. I want to provide for my family and have the privilege of giving up work at 50 years old. I also want to help others in the business to be financially successful. Working within the constraints of a salary gave me no sense of achievement and that motivated me to go it alone.