Chris Denny is Founder and President of The Engine Is Red, an integrated creative agency which Chris claims functions more like a startup than like a traditional agency. The company provides a variety of services—branding, campaign work, and a lot of interactive and digital work—but it has eliminated the classic methods agencies use to try to control the risks and variables inherent in creative work—timesheets, project plans, change orders, scopes of work, contracts, and retainers.
Changing the way business is done changes results . . . Chris found that when his clients and agency were freed from old marketing paradigms, interactive creative collaboration resulted in bolder, more innovative work with less risk.
What does it take to produce risky and exciting and high-quality ideas? We’ve learned a lot about the sense of community and culture, the security and safety to explore dangerous things.
In this interview, Chris offers a number of operational insights he has discovered over the years. He believes that relationships are key to the quality of work produced . . . it’s not just a matter of talent.
The major cause of poor client relationships? Rigidity. Big ideas only break through when there is freedom and a trust in flexibility, when the client and agency representatives can sit down and hash things out from the beginning.
Find the right balance of predictability and safety, of freedom and autonomy, and focus on trust and empowerment. When things go wrong, be an educator and an encourager, not a critic – The more people as leaders focus on that, the more teams thrive and the more clients thrive. It makes all the difference.
At times, hashing things out does not produce expected results. One client wanted to expand its business of repurposing older buildings. In working with the company’s full leadership team, The Engine is Red discovered that a great barrier to “adaptive re-use” is not that people need to be informed about it . . . the real problem is that it is difficult to quickly estimate renovation costs. The company didn’t need a marketing campaign—it needed a tool. The Engine is Red worked with the company’s estimating team to prototype a product and ended up building a mobile application that fully specs cost, size, and occupancy of an adaptive reuse project—in under a minute.
The whole process of examining a campaign, pivoting to a product, and launching that product was completed in 10 weeks . . . on time and on budget—and all done with the original paperwork.
And why put an agency in Minneapolis? This was an early decision for the company, based on locating where there was a wealth of creative talent. Chris describes Minneapolis as “one of the most vibrant creative cultures in the country right now.”
Chris can be contacted on The Engine Is Red on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, on the company’s website at: theengineisred.com,, or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He encourages listeners to stop in The Engine is Red’s studios, either in Sonoma County or in Minneapolis.