Meet Mark Harris

We interviewed our Co-Founder and Creative Director of The Onlii Mark Harris.

Mark Harris

Mark Harris, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi, I’m Mark Harris and I’m the Creative Director and Partner at The Onlii. I’ve been in the industry over 20 years now, with most of my career being in and around Leeds and Manchester’s creative scene.  
I’ve always been drawn to different disciplines within creative industries. From writing and graphic design through to art direction — and in more recent years, retail, physical and experiential design. All these different skillsets and mediums add layers of communication which together, make for effective and exciting creative. As a Creative Director, I think it’s important to really understand how they work together and to maintain that well-rounded outlook on things. 

Did you always see yourself in creative industries? 

I’m probably not a typical creative in terms of my educational journey. When I was younger I was stronger in areas like sciences, maths and mechanics; until College and University, the arts didn’t feel like a natural fit for me.  
I had a shift in my third year, from what I’d originally wanted to do — which was to do graphic design and purely visual side of things — into something that felt more layered in how it communicated; the classical art direction, advertising and copywriting space. Once I graduated, I realised my portfolio didn’t reflect that shift, and I had a tough time getting placements and felt like I was on the outside looking into this brilliant industry. 

I eventually did begin to get placements and worked my way up; initially through small agencies. It wasn’t easy getting started, but it forged a real hunger in me to not give up. That feeling of what it’s like to be on the other side of the hiring table has stuck with me; I’m always keen to help new graduates with their portfolios and share what I’ve learned with others. 

What inspired you to launch The Onlii?

First and foremost, we felt there was an opportunity to create an agency that had a real focus providing a positive impact for the people in the business and the planet, while at the same time doing brilliant work. For a business to succeed there has to be a need for that business, and we genuinely felt we could make a new kind of agency work by being able to talk authentically about things that matter for brands that sell to Gen Z consumers.

Rob and I had worked together for over 10 years and were really good friends, and between us we had identified some really problems in our industry that we really felt that we could tackle and solve. It was this realisation that change was needed that really aligned us. It galvanised our working relationship and was what sparked the idea for The Onlii. 

There are so many factors that aren’t in your control when you start a business, but what we do have is these different, but complementary skill sets — and many years of agency experience. We also had a shared ambition, attitude and openness to learn what we didn’t know towards doing thing better and building from the ground up. We knew it was important to be realists but also start taking those steps in the right direction when it came to our culture, creative process and impact. 

How has B Corp had an influence on your business? 

I think that B Corp really validated some of the discomfort we felt within the industry as well as our ambition for how we could do better business. It almost became a stimulus for us realising the values that we shared and to us having conversations we’d never had before, which fed into our synergy as business partners.  
Beyond being a blueprint for The Onlii, it’s also enabled us to check our progress and gain insights from other businesses, both within and outside of our industry. It’s a great ecosystem to be part of.  

Being B Corp certified has really given us credibility and enabled us to open the doors to some big brands. One FTSE business told us we were awarded work against three other larger business because we had the certification. So, as well as being the right thing to do, it has also help us commercially.

The B Corp process is very hard, and rightly so. But having the goal to be a B Corp business from day one has really helped us set up the Onlii in the correct way. It’s helped us create an amazing infrastructure and culture, which in term helps us do great creative work.

How do you get the balance right when it comes to doing better business while building an agency?  

As humans, we like neatness. We like stories to have a clear beginning and end — a destination. It can be tempting to want everything to fit into boxes; but that’s not how things work. I probably fell into a trap early on of wanting to fix things quickly and have all the answers. But the further down the rabbit hole you go, the bigger the problems start to feel. And that can be disheartening and overwhelming.  
I’ve come to an understanding that while the world needs to change, it has to keep on turning too. It’s shifting that mindset to embracing the messiness and leading with your values. That there won’t be a single fix or binary answer but thousands of small decisions, and opportunities, to slowly shift the dial in the right way.  
Sometimes our clients are ecstatic to take a new journey with us. And other times, we need to take them by the hand and show them that there’s a better way to do things. That can be everything from redeploying budget, promoting in a different channel, utilising a different strategy. Whatever it may be, it’s about starting that conversation, being honest and creating opportunities wherever we can to deliver high quality work and stick to what we believe.  

What are some of the characteristics that you look for in other creatives?

I think that a good creative team requires a real mixture of individuals, with a diversity of experience, perspectives and skill sets. The sweet spot is when all these people can learn from one another and inspire one another to make brilliant work.  
When it comes to the individual, self-motivation and open-mindedness are really important. Sometimes things go wrong; the creative process isn’t a production line and there’s a new challenge every day. Being able to move forward and react to these challenges (in a way that’s positive) are key to have.  
Self-awareness plays a big role too. I find that people who are self-aware are in a spot where they don’t doubt themselves too much or overestimate their ability either. Which gives them the confidence to address areas where they can grow. It also allows them to separate self-doubt from idea doubt. Having a bad idea doesn’t make you a bad creative; having the self-awareness to really understand that can help you to thrive in this industry. 

What do you enjoy doing outside The Onlii?

I’ve always been active. These days, that consists of things like cycling, the gym, taking the dog for a walk and a bit of golf. Also snowboarding, when I can. I’ve tried meditation in the past and I’ve come to realise that exercise and physical activity is my version of it. I think when you have a new business, especially in an industry that’s very deadline-driven, it can be easy to prioritise work over everything. But making time for the other parts of your life, like family, is so essential and can prevent burnout. I try to get that balance right as much as I can and put the time aside for the things that matter to me outside The Onlii.


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