04th Dec

Quite a lot of the entrepreneurs we interview for this magazine have found their calling later in life, having fallen into their new career path almost by accident. For creative artists, though, it’s often a lifelong passion, something that’s part of the fabric of their being. Born to sing, born to act… or born to draw, in the case of Calvin Innes.
However, not many arty types manage to turn their creativity into sustainable employment, never mind a successful business – for the majority it remains a hobby that must fit around the day job. And here lumbers the elephant in the room, which is the view held by some that earning money from art is somehow selling out, that the pursuit of filthy lucre sullies the purity of creativity.
“That’s bulls—!” laughs Calvin.
“If you create stuff, and you make money from it – that’s brilliant,” he adds. “That’s what you want. There’s a big misconception that you can’t have a business mind and an artistic mind.”
There was never any doubt in Calvin’s mind, from an early age, that he would somehow turn his obsession with illustration, sci-fi and comic books into a job. As a boy he was almost constantly practising drawing techniques, and he soon realised that if he didn’t make a career out of it, it would only interfere with whatever job he ended up doing instead.
He sent his drawings off to dozens of publishers, large and small, building up a collection of rejection letters until his lucky break came at the age of 16, via an American publisher. “It sold next to nothing, a couple of hundred copies,” says Calvin, “but when you’re 16, that’s brilliant.” A lot of writers today would give their right arm to sell 200 copies, I’m sure…
But it was this streak of determination that spurred Calvin on. “I’ve got a bit of an obsessive nature,” he says. “If I want to do something, I kind of make sure it’s done. I’ll keep plugging away until it actually happens. And it was the same with the design side of things. I applied for all sorts of jobs and freelance work that I really had no right to apply for, as I’d had no formal training or portfolio. I just basically drew stuff and sent it off. But I got lucky enough to work with a few different marketing agencies, including the Girl Guides, London Zoo and the RSPB, who would pay me a couple of hundred quid for designing logos, toys, badges, etc, and take all the credit – I never got my name attached to anything.”
As well as honing his techniques as a designer, Calvin knew one of his key strengths lay in being an ideas man. Various spells at large companies followed, including in London, Manchester and Liverpool, storyboarding commercials for the likes of Cadbury’s and Nestle, and his unconventional style begin to make waves. “I’d sit in meetings and they would all usually say to the client, right, we’ll go away and brainstorm as a team. We’ll come up with some ideas and get back to you in two or three weeks’ time – but that’s never been the way I’ve worked; I would normally come up with an idea in front of the client… which always ended up getting us the client! That’s something I’ve always really enjoyed doing – thinking up ideas on the spot, and thinking of ways to approach projects; whether it’s been me designing or someone else, it’s the ideas that I really enjoy.”
Despite hitting the ground running so early on, Calvin then decided to “pack it in” and go through film school in Hull. “It was basically just so I could have the student life,” he says. Of course, there was more to it than that. It turned out to be a canny business move, as he had at his disposal state-of-the-art software and gadgets that he couldn’t have hoped to have afforded on his own. The course was “pointless”, he admits, “but access to the equipment meant I could start taking on freelance clients. My entire time at university was spent using their equipment to set up my business.”
The business in question was My Little Big Town, a publishing company that ran for eight years. “We did really well,” says Calvin. “We ended up getting worldwide distribution, and were selling half a million books a year, and I think we had 14 authors on board at one point. But as everything shifted from print to digital, we didn’t really act on it quickly enough – we took our eye off the ball and things started to fall apart. At the same time, I basically got bored with publishing; it was never my interest, I’d fallen into it through illustrating.”
However, it did open doors into creative marketing – other publishers would get in touch and ask Calvin’s company to promote their books, and by the time Calvin decided to close it down, he was already doing the marketing for a range of publishing firms, independent authors and illustrators, primarily for educational books. And out of this, in 2014, Drunk Animal was born.
“By the time we’d shifted all the publishing stuff away, we had a massive list of contacts,” says Calvin. “We spotted a particular niche in teacher training, where essentially businesses were set up within schools and run by teachers. They were great at training, but as far as marketing these businesses, nobody had a clue. So we specialised in this for the first year, because we understood marketing and we understood education, and nobody else was doing it.”
As he had always done, Calvin learned as he went along. “Just as I had done in illustrating – when someone would come to me and say, can you illustrate this comic, and I’d say, ‘yes, course I can!’ – I would go off and learn how to do it. Putting food on the table is a good incentive! I learned how to build websites, and do all the press and PR stuff, and after a couple of years we’d got about 60 or 70 clients on board and built up a really good reputation.”
Calvin soon wanted to branch out into areas beyond education, the company’s USP being ‘disruptive marketing’ – taking risks, pushing boundaries, never playing it safe, founded on his fundamental belief that marketing should always elicit an emotional response. “If it makes people happy, sad, or scared, it’s all equally valid. As long as someone’s going to talk about your products or event, then they’re going to remember it, and they’re going to share it. That’s the key. How it looks is kind of secondary.”
In two years the firm expanded to 10 full-time staff and moved to offices in Princes Dock Street. They soon outgrew those, and recently took up a huge space across two warehouses in Wincolmlee, to give them more room to work on large interactive installations. Unlike other agencies, they do not outsource anything – from video and photography to app development, web design and big builds, it’s all crafted in the “Drunk Animal Incubator”. Recent projects have included Tilly the Turtle for the University of Hull; the 14ft sculpture made entirely out of plastic waste took two weeks to build and enjoyed national media coverage.
At the other end of the scale, there were the “alternative blue plaques”, a project that was really intended to be an internal exercise in how to control the media. In a meticulously planned operation, by the time the famous Ronnie Pickering plaque went up in Bransholme, they already had its replacement ready to go, waiting for an angry resident to tear it down, which, of course, they did, eventually. The campaign reached the BBC’s One Show and Radio 2. “I’d done lots of this sort of guerrilla marketing myself before,” says Calvin, “but the team we’d put together hadn’t, really, so it was a way of working with them to show them how you can make things look like they’re organically growing.”
It’s been quite a challenge to do this sort of thing in Hull, says Calvin, but attitudes are changing, thanks to City of Culture. “We want to do the interactive, exciting stuff, which in other parts of the country traditionally has been a much easier sell. In London, if I’d come up with the idea of having rhinos charging through the streets to promote a taxi firm, they’d have gone, ‘yeah OK!’ You try that kind of stuff in Hull, and it’s a really hard sell – but it’s definitely getting better. In meetings now, when we come up with crazy ideas, they’re saying, ‘yeah, we might give that a go’ – and that’s 100% off the back of City of Culture.”
How he finds the time, I’m not sure, but Calvin still manages to draw almost every day, and also runs art sessions in schools and gives presentations at universities. Last year he gave a well-received TEDx talk at Hull Truck, on his work with children. And in 2016-2017, he was well-known to readers of the Hull Daily Mail as its weekly culture columnist.
And although Drunk Animal has recently opened offices in Manchester and Oxford – to enable face-to-face meetings with clients in those areas – Calvin remains passionate about, and committed to, Hull. “The next year-and-a-half will basically be expanding and working within Hull, and also working outside Hull, with more clients, but in a way that people know very much that we are from Hull,” he says.
Calvin is also keen to collaborate. “There’s been this weird culture of everybody being really competitive and guarding secrets – but that really doesn’t interest us. We want to do projects as big and exciting as possible, so we’re working alongside other agencies as well. I really enjoy those link-ups, and different perspectives and ideas that come together.”
Slowly, but surely, Calvin is encouraging Hull to think big. And nowhere is this better exemplified than the Wincolmlee warehouses themselves, which wouldn’t be out of place in central London. Which other workplace in Hull boasts a “beach” for a meeting room and go-karts for staff to play on? They really do do things differently here…

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire summer 2021

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