A beer with ex-adman Nathan Lennon

I’m digging deep into the tribe of talented ad people who’ve left the biz. Along the way, I’m uncovering some inspiring tales that make me want to build something great.

So, I’m going to make an effort to document and share them, in a Q&A format with the founder(s).

The first cab off the rank is Nathan Lennon, ex-CD at Droga5 NY. With his creative partner Dave, Nathan has launched a beer in Australia called Hawkes Brewing Co.

Note for non-Aussies — The brand is built around Australia’s most popular Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. A national icon who ran the country in the 80s, and who the people love. He is also known for his love of downing vessels of beer. Video proof. Without further ado, take it away Nathan …

Q&A with Nathan Lennon

Nathan and Dave

G’day Nathan. So how long have you and your partner Dave been a unit?

Dave and I had been a creative team for about 10 years before we started Hawke’s Brewing Co. We met in London, where we worked at BBH, then came back to Sydney for a few years (where we worked on a few beer accounts and “got the taste”), before heading over to New York, where we were creative directors at Droga5.

Do you still do a bit of creative advertising stuff on the side?

We’ll always, in part, think of ourselves as a “creative team” but we have a lot less capacity to work in advertising since launching our own company, which is all-consuming, especially in that start-up phase when you literally have to do everything.

“You’ll be ever thankful you went through all of the shit you did when you were in advertising. You are now carved out of rock. Well, malleable rock.”

So who did the words and who did the pictures? Did you find you shared those roles?

I am, and will always be, the copywriter out of us two, as Dave can’t spell to save his life. But for an art director, Dave does have good sensibilities and gives me helpful feedback on copy. And I suppose, over the years, I’ve been able to put in my two cents on art direction. After 10 years of working with each other, you can’t help but watch your roles overlap, particularly when you’re creative directing.

When and where did you have the idea for Hawke’s?

Funnily enough, this idea came about when Dave and I were sitting in our office at Droga5 NY on Australia Day 2015. It was freezing outside and we definitely did not have the day off work. To say we were homesick is an understatement. We got to talking about who we’d most like to have a beer with and simultaneously said “Bob Hawke”. It was quite a moment. From there the conversation just naturally drifted to the topic of “what would a beer company with Bob Hawke at the helm look like?”… and could we pull something like that off.

Bob Hawke, god bless him, in all his glory

And how long has it taken to bring Hawke’s from idea to can?

A little over 2 years. But the first year was a very slow burn, as Dave and I were still living and working in New York, and still had some things we wanted to achieve there. Once we got truly serious about Hawke’s, it took us about a year to get things up and running.

Did you know anyone or anything about brewing? (or canning, for that matter)?

Not really. And we knew immediately we wouldn’t be able to get this off the ground alone. Advertising, or maybe just common sense, taught us that you can’t do great things without surrounding yourself with great people. So we took that side of it seriously and sought out a business partner with industry experience (who is now our co-director, Luke Langton), and we presented ourselves as a team to Bob when we took him through the proposal inside the kitchen of his home. Once Bob said “yes”, we then went on search for a brewer. We went through a couple before meeting our head brewer, who is legitimately one of the best in the country. We didn’t want any compromises on product, so bringing on board a world-class brewer, was a priority.

Back to advertising, what do you miss about agency life?

The culture. The people. And being able to work with a team of extraordinary talent — from other creatives, to planners, to producers, to account management — to put all of your heart into creating something amazing, together. We also miss delegating work, haha. As I said, we have to do everything at the moment, and it’s time consuming. I wouldn’t hire me to do half the things I do day-to-day, but there’s no one else! I also miss not being able to lean on the experience of the icons I had around me. David [Droga] isn’t down the hall from us anymore, unfortunately.

What don’t you miss about agency life?

The fact that the boss isn’t down the hall from us anymore. It’s all ours, for better or worse. It’s liberating.

How would you compare startup life to agency life?

Be prepared eat humble pie. You realise very quickly how lucky you were to have the resources of an agency around you — the staff, the beautiful office space, free wifi, free coffee, someone who cleans up after you!

Do you think more creatives should make the leap?

Yes and no. I think lots of agency people, and especially creatives, daydream about life on the outside. It’s tough in adland sometimes. And the thought of building your own brand is obviously enticing. But if you’re going to leave the cushy world of life as an ad creative (and trust me, it is very cushy), do it with the intention of never turning back. No half measures. But if you have an idea you believe in, have done your research and believe you have something worth bringing to market, then do it. Life’s short. Plus you have an amazing career to fall back on if things don’t work out. You’ll be fine.

What skills are you thankful for, now that you’ve started Hawke’s? Do you guys like to have specialised skills, or do you see yourself as jacks-of-all trades?

You’d be surprised how deep your skillset is after many years in advertising. One of the most valuable faculties that grows inside of you, and this is an incredible asset if you want to start your own company, is your adaptability. You become a tenacious problem-solver. Running a company is 24/7 putting out fires and dealing with problems. In advertising, a problem is an opportunity, not a problem. The best people in our business adapt and evolve things creatively to make what looked like a nightmare into something original and world-class. You’ll be ever thankful you went through all of the shit you did when you were in advertising. You are now carved out of rock. Well, malleable rock.

A serious amount of craft has gone into Hawkes branding, which I think harks back to classic Australian currency designs

Any books or podcasts you’ve found useful since leaving the day-to-day?

Meditation podcasts, haha.

Finally, where do you see the Advertising industry in 5 years? Does it exist?

The pressure is on, that’s for sure. We now have companies that are arguably as creative, or even more creative than some of our best agencies. And they’re attracting our best talent. The strongest, those who survive, have always been those who adapt the quickest. But essentially, and this is why I think the best agencies are what they are, is that they have an intimate understanding of their client’s business and its problems (or even better, can identify its problems) and solve them. I know that sounds obvious but I think a lot of agencies (and the creatives inside them are often the most guilty of this) still think their role and responsibility is to create “advertising” for their client’s business, when it’s so much more than that. The agencies who genuinely become an extension of their client’s business, and close the “agency vs client” gap, are the ones that will survive and shine.