Pull back the curtain on some of best things coming out of Richmond, and you’ll likely find this guy.
John Mills wasn’t living The Dream. He was living a nightmare.
“I was literally unemployed. I was making no money. I was dirt broke,” Mills said about a sliver of time in the late 1990s when he lived in New York City.
But during his professional nadir, Mills took a call from a producer at The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show.
Months before, Mills had signed with comedy talent management company Barry Katz Entertainment,1 wherein he submitted material that comedy shows could pick and choose à la carte.
The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show producer had liked Mills’s work so much that he phoned Mills to offer him a job. “I’m so excited,” Mills recalled. “I got super drunk.”
“Then the next morning, in the haze of my hangover, [the producer] called back and said, ‘Uh, yeah. Sorry. They cancelled the show.'”
Mills’s previous comedy writing visited him while later working as a copywriter. One day he watched an episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien,2 and the show used one of the skits he’d submitted to the management company without notice, let alone credit. “You basically sign your life away when you do that,” Mills said about submitting material. “[Shows] can take anything.”
That skit wouldn’t be the last time Mills’s work shined in the spotlight while he was on the sidelines. He’s since designed a local business to offer a fresh approach to creativity and marketing while deliberately avoiding the limelight.
Going through the back door
Having grown up in Richmond and attended Hampden-Sydney College, Mills left Virginia for New York in the 1990s. While there, he managed music acts for a record label owned by Atlantic with talent the likes of Hall & Oates and Carly Simon. Mills discovered and signed new bands that’d go on to have various degrees of success with major labels. But Mills and his cohorts remained on the sidelines while the labels relished their good fortune in the spotlight. “We realized the company was making a lot of money, but we weren’t making much,” he said. It was time for something different.
“I was also trying to do comedy writing in my spare time.” His work with Barry Katz Entertainment provided him his infamous one-day employment with Keenan Ivory Wayans, as well as work on The Magic Hour, the talk show hosted by Magic Johnson.
While scraping for work, a friend co-opted Mill’s talent for a copywriter position at the now defunct Mezzina/Brown. “I never set out to just be a copywriter,” he said. “I basically back doored my way into marketing.”
While copywriting in New York, “I became really invested in the strategic part of [client work],” he said. “I became really interested in the why part” of what he was doing all day.
Unfortunately, Mills had no chance of learning the strategic side of things as a mere “creative.” He said the way it was back then (and the way it largely remains) is that agencies segment their workers. Creatives go over there, accounting over there, and planners over there. “I think that’s one of the problems of the current advertising model is you’re told to be either a creative or a planner or an account person,” he said.
In 2003, he returned to Richmond, switching gears by taking on strategic duties and client management, diversifying his industry experience. “I feel like I’ve worn a bunch of different hats,” he said. But Mills wanted something fresh: he wanted to work someplace that really collaborated, didn’t segment its workers, and did, you know, cool stuff.
He wanted his own agency.
“What is that?”
An agency that did things differently needed a different name. “I wanted to have a name that didn’t sound like a marketing agency, that didn’t have my name in it–because I didn’t want it to be about me–and something that made people ask: What is that?”
He chose Release the Hounds, which opened for business out of Mills’s garage in 2009 during a full-blown recession. “No one has any money. No one is spending any money. Why would you do this?” he said, recounting the early criticism. “My feeling was that it was actually the best time. If I could make it work when it was just hell out there, when things turned around in a couple years I would know better how to run a business because I would have the experience, and I also wouldn’t be the new guy.”
Release the Hounds has two main tenets in its manifesto. The first deals with collaboration. “There’s lots of talk of collaboration. It’s a very trendy sort of thing to say. But I think few people truly work in collaborative environments,” Mills said.
Release the Hounds revolves around four full-time people. Each has their own specialty, of course, but the group approaches each client, each project, and each idea with a “pack” mentality. Everyone is equal. Everyone contributes. Someone handling accounts can pitch a creative idea. A copywriter can lob a business suggestion.
“It’s more fun that way. You build great relationships. You build trust. You see things in people you’ve never seen,” Mills said. “The client benefits because you’re getting great ideas that you maybe wouldn’t have gotten” had everyone worked separately while tucked away in their own office corner.
The other tenet of Release the Hounds: the company doesn’t only advertise other people’s stuff. They make their own products. “It teaches us how to really understand how to build a brand,” Mills said.
One of its products is Crunch Dynasty, a crunchy hot topping that’s sprinkled on food. “It’s a recipe that was created by my mother-in-law who’s a Chinese chef,” Mills said. Release the Hounds began developing the product and brand in early 2013. It’ll soon be sold in Whole Foods stores.
But before Whole Foods came calling, Release the Hounds spent hours brainstorming and developing the brand for a product that they weren’t 100 percent sure would exist. Why not use that time to work with paying clients? “I didn’t set the business up to chase money,” Mills said. “I wanted it to be something that was fulfilling for my life.”
Mills also gets fulfillment by having Release the Hounds work with organizers of TEDxRVA and the 2013 RVA Street Art Festival, with the latter benefitting Art 180. “Getting involved in the community, especially in the arts, is just something that I feel is kind of our responsibility to do,” Mills said. “Because I think you should always do what you can do to lift up the community.”
The big regret Mills has about Release the Hounds is that he didn’t have the confidence to do it sooner. “There’s nothing like running your own business. The highs are much higher, and the lows are much lower,” he said. “But it’s yours.”
Even when you’re not in the spotlight.
photo courtesy of Release the Hounds