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Dream Teams: Harbour’s Seemingly Incompatible Creative and Strategy Partners
Creative Consultancy
London, UK
Mick Mahoney, creative partner and Kev Chesters, strategy partner at Harbour Collective on six years of working together, despite all the doubters

If you met Harbour Collective’s Mick Mahoney and Kev Chesters, you’d probably struggle to correctly identify which of them was the creative partner and which was the strategy partner. Both are analytical intellectuals with the ability to think originally, but while creative partner Mick comes across as the stereotypical strategy nerd - quiet and thoughtful - strategy partner Kev is bombastic and opinionated. 

When they were introduced everyone who knew them thought they’d mix like water and oil. But somehow, over six years of their working relationship, they’ve managed to form an emulsion - a delicious vinaigrette of strategic creativity.

LBB> How did you two meet? 

Mick> We were introduced in late 2015, by the nicest man in advertising, Charlie Rudd, who was putting together a new management team to take over the running of Ogilvy in London. I’d wanted a different CSO who I’d worked with previously, but Charlie was adamant that Kev was what Ogilvy and we needed. I was a bit sniffy about him as he was at an agency that I didn’t really know anything about, and I was put out that I couldn’t convince Charlie about the CSO I wanted. So, I was rather expecting our first meeting in the bar at The Charlotte Street Hotel to be a pretty muted affair. Kev doesn’t do muted affairs. His first line was “You’re gonna love me.” At no point in the two hours we talked did we mention work or Ogilvy. In fact, at no point in the two hours we talked did I actually get to say much at all. 

Kev> We met in a pub around Xmas time in 2015.

Charlie Rudd had been tasked by Annette King with taking O&M out of the doldrums it had been in for years and putting together the right gang for success. He knew Mick and wanted him as his creative lead. My headhunter, Caroline Colwell, suggested me to him as strat lead. Neither Mick nor myself would take the job without knowing who the creative/strategy partner would be. Charlie set up a meeting. We wouldn’t let him come! We’ve been working together now for six years.

LBB> What were your first impressions of each other – and have they changed?

Mick> My first impression of Kev is still the one I have now. Noisy, funny, self-obsessed, kind, generous (emotionally, not financially – he didn’t buy a drink all evening and has probably only bought two or three since) and talks way more than anyone should. On paper, we are utterly incompatible. Anyone that knew us both only gave it a matter of weeks before we tried to kill each other. Except Charlie. But opposites clearly do attract as we’ve become more like brothers than friends. We argue constantly but never fall out. We are each other’s biggest advocates.

Kev> Every single person who knew us both said that our meeting would be a disaster. They all said we wouldn’t get on. They all said that our personal chemistry would be an explosive shambles. Mind you, everyone said that about my first date with my wife. And we’ve been together for 25 years. I thought he seemed like a hyper-smart, super committed and thoroughly decent human being. Those impressions haven’t changed one iota. Every one of them has been cemented and enhanced.

LBB> What was the first project you worked on together? How was that process?

Mick> Chaos. It’s always chaos. But it is a perfectly balanced, symbiotic and happy chaos that makes complete and unspoken sense to both of us. And it has done since day one. Nothing has ever really changed. Kev is all the bits of my brain that are missing, and vice versa. 

Kev> It was to define the kind of agency we wanted O&M to be, beyond the anonymous outpost arm of a US network. We worked together with Charlie Rudd and Clare Donald to define the people we wanted to hire, the work we wanted to make and the agency we wanted to be. 18 months later we had won £250m of new business from twelve new client wins, and we were runner up in Campaign Agency of the Year. The process was great because although Mick and I have nothing in common personality-wise we share a value system and a belief in the power of commercially applied creativity.

LBB> Why do you think you complement each other?

Mick> I think that our difference is our strength. Cognitive homogeneity is the achilles heel of our industry. We bring two completely different start points to any project. Which creates an immediate friction that powers the process. The important thing though in a dynamic like this is mutual respect. Neither of us cares who came up with the key thought at any stage in the project. We are both very quick to recognise the answer.

Kev> He’s the quiet, thoughtful, genius. I am the flamboyant, noisy one. It’s strange because the strategic and creative personalities are supposed to be the other way around. We always bring thinking to the table to discuss. I try to make sense of the world and create the conditions for creativity to thrive. It was the same when we wrote our book together. I would create a framework and he would work within it. Then when it came to presenting the book I’d strut out front and wave my arms about and he’d quietly sit apart from all the noise. Think Bernie Taupin and Elton John.

LBB> Is there anything that can frustrate you about each other? Or that you disagree on? 

Mick> Christ, I hardly know where to begin. Kev could start an argument in an empty room. He takes great pleasure in taking a provocative and contrary stance on pretty much any given subject. We are both very forceful characters and that in itself, can be quite hard work sometimes. We both demand a ridiculous amount of each other. If either one of us is less than 100% at our best it can really frustrate the other. I think we’ll just wear each other out one day.

Kev> He spends a lot of time talking about horses. He is very stubborn. But as Bernard Shaw said “all progress lies in the hands of the unreasonable man.” Often, he’s not being unreasonable. He’s just not agreeing. He makes me better because I am always trying to make sure he has nothing to criticise. It helps make strategy more bullet-proof. He’s ten times harder on me than any client has ever been.

LBB> How do you approach creative disagreement?

Mick> We’ve genuinely never had a creative disagreement. Kev is all about the work. He has a huge influence on it. He lives and breathes it. But would never dream of telling me what to do or how to do it. Likewise, with me and strategy. I have a big influence on it, but Kev’s word is final. 

Kev> It depends on what we’re disagreeing about. If it’s craft then I always defer. The power of specialists is a founding principle of Harbour. If it is creative strategy then we will talk it out. Sometimes we have a little blow up but that’s fine. We’ll then have a cup of tea and I’ll always have to apologise. ☺

LBB> What is the collaboration that you’re most proud of?

Mick> For me it is Harbour. We’ve gone on the toughest journey you can in your career together. It has really tested us both to our limits. And still does. But we still laugh a lot, argue a lot and respect each other inordinately. I’m also really proud of the fact that despite our differences we whole-heartedly agree on the principles of our business and have from day one. (Although, it’s possible that we might have killed each other in the early days without the intervention once or twice of our long-suffering partner Paul.)

Kev> I think it’s the book. We worked so hard to crystallise our philosophy and approach to creativity, and its application to life. I loved writing it. And I wouldn’t have done it with anyone else. It isn’t an industry book, but it does help to summarise our approach to creating great brands for clients. Doing that book whilst simultaneously setting up our own company wasn’t that easy. But hey! What good thing ever is?

Mick sees things totally differently to me. And that is super useful. He spots things that would never have occurred to me. He’s the third best planner I’ve ever met. I’m not in the top 10.

LBB> What are the benefits of having a creative partner or regular collaborator in the industry?

Mick> We have each other’s best interests at heart. Even if to others it doesn’t always appear that way. It makes working life so much simpler to know that there is someone whose opinion you can always trust. The other huge advantage that we now have is a communication shorthand. It means that we can dispense with the niceties of politeness and deference. And just be brutally honest with each other. It really does enable us to get to answers with incredible speed. 

Kev> All partnerships are vital. Different perspectives on the same challenge. Otherwise you get into what behavioural scientists call the Endowment Effect or eBay Dilemma, you fall in love with your own ideas. And that’s fatal. David Ogilvy always said that there was nothing that couldn’t be improved by showing it to a friend. I think having a partner who approaches things differently, thinks differently and has a differently wired brain is the key to success in anything. 1+1=3. 

LBB> Tell us about a recent project that involved some interesting creative challenges that you overcame together.

Mick> Our book. The Creative Nudge. That was a creative and strategic voyage of discovery for both of us. It was proof that we are better together than we are individually. 

Kev> It’s been developing the full brand world for our McCarthy Stone client. The average age of the target audience is 79. The challenge of being able to see the world through the eyes of an audience that you can never have personally been in the shoes of is a huge challenge. And the need to normalise the presentation of the older audience is one of our industry’s biggest challenges. It involved us challenging every prejudice we have/had and challenging each other every day to break down those prejudices. Having a brilliant partner has been vital to that. Pushing each other, being prepared to challenge each other. 

LBB> What or who inspires you and your work - another creative duo perhaps?

Mick> The Chuckle Brothers. ‘From you, to me. From me, to you.” The embodiment of how we work together.

Kev> Everything inspires. The world is endlessly fascinating. My job is to separate the useful from the interesting on Mick’s behalf! In terms of other strategists I am always permanently jealous of how clever Katie Mackay-Sinclair is. And I wish I could write as well as Richard Huntington. The thing that most inspires me every day is meeting smart people who do things I could never do. That’s why I love my specialist partners in the Harbour Collective.

LBB> Do you enjoy socialising together outside of work? If so, what do you get up to?

Mick> No. Our working relationship is so intense I’m not sure that it would be healthy for either of us if we did. On the odd occasion we have it’s always full of laughter. Mostly at Kev’s stories that I’ve already heard seven times. It’s the way he tells them! We do speak constantly though. My wife often says that there are three people in our marriage.
Kev> Yeah. We drink A LOT of tea. That’s how rock and roll we are. And we have a surprising shared love of ballet.

LBB> What have you learned from each other?

Mick> I’ve learnt all about Kev’s early life growing up in Cornwall. Why Kev believes the Tories are scum. The histories of Stoke and Bromley Football Clubs. The weaknesses in Roman military tactics. How much Kev loves his dog, Pepsi. The collected sayings of his Grandmother. The collected sayings of his Mother…

Not sure what he’s learnt from me. I don’t get to speak very often.

Kev> I’ve learnt that I don’t have a great eye for design or visual detail. Genuinely. Mick sees things visually and then explains why I’m so bad at it. It’s been a literal EYE OPENER.

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