with greg layton

The Inner Chief is for leaders, professionals and small business owners who want to accelerate their career and growth. Our guest chiefs and gurus share powerful stories and strategies so you can have more purpose, influence and impact in your career.

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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, you’ll hear from Daniel Penny, Co-Founder and MD of Mustard Creative Agency, on going beyond the brief, working with agencies, and understanding your influence.

Daniel co-founded Mustard Creative Agency in 2001 with his business partner.

The agency has worked with well-known brands like Target, Hertz, Hisense, Coles and The Good Guys.

Daniel is also the founder of LearnSpring, an online learning digital platform.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Starting a marketing and creative agency from scratch and how word-of-mouth recommendations have fuelled the business since launching;
  • Why responding to a brief beyond what is requested is the best outcome for a client;
  • Leading an organisation of humans and understanding your influence; and
  • His core principles in driving employee and client engagement.

Connecting with Daniel Penny

You can connect with Daniel via LinkedIn

Books and resources


My father used to say, “If you're not willing to be part of the solution, you forfeit your right to complain”.


On Mustard Creative’s sustained success

  • We're super consistent in what's been important and why we started. Probably the biggest thing is our growth mindset. We've never lost this desire to be better and grow and find new ways to optimise and deliver better for our clients. Even through COVID, lots of businesses had to board up the windows, but we very early on said, “Hey, we're going to grow our way out of this.”
  • It was really challenging going through COVID, particularly with some of our biggest clients, where a lot of our retainers and things like that got put on hold pretty quickly. It would've been really easy to just try and ride that out, but we got busy and we realised that at some point these key clients, people that we love working with, are going to need to punch their way out of this. Let's be ready.
  • We really dig deep into our customers, so we're learning all the time about their businesses. And I would actually say that we know more about their business than they do.

On going beyond the brief

  • When you're given a brief, the easy thing to do is just respond to the brief. But then very often you start to think, “What are the peripheral solutions? What's the other thinking around it that you could deliver?” We've probably learned a lot through some certain situations about our actual value to the client and what we can actually do in terms of influencing their outcomes.
  • I think there's a big difference between what they ask for and what they need, so position yourself so that you can understand both sides and then determine how you respond.
  • The brief matters. It can be really easy for an agency to go, “Oh, the brief wasn't great.” But I'm not just talking about what's on paper, I'm talking about the more of an experience or the more informative you can be through a briefing process. The client wants to be inspired and they want to see different angles, and sometimes you just need to open more doors in their minds.

On word-of-mouth driving the business

  • It's a really competitive space, as we've said, and there's lots of great agencies out there and lots of great work that gets done. If you engage an agency, you should expect great work. But when I think about why people come to us, it's very much because someone they love or trust has told them to go and talk to these guys.
  • We have built our business for 20 years off of purely word-of-mouth recommendation, other than having a website and a LinkedIn presence.
  • It's something we talk about a lot – being worthy of recommendation – because we know that is the most powerful form of marketing.
  • The reality is, to drive recommendation you've got to be bloody great at lots of things. It's how you handle the situations. It's how you partner up with them when times are tough. I think that's where we've won really heavily over the years is that we're at the coal face and we're ready to punch on when you need us to punch on and we're right by you.

On working with creative agencies

  • It starts with knowing exactly what you really want out of the relationship before you come in. Strengths, weaknesses, where are the gaps. Again, it's back to that “beyond the brief” message I discussed earlier.
  • It can be very transactional – deliver the work, push it out through media channels, invoice, see you when the next campaign run comes around. Or you can genuinely want a partnership and that's a whole other conversation around how do you actually genuinely build a partnership if that's what you want.
  • You never really know where that insight or that data point is going to be hidden that drives the creative idea or the problem-solving idea. You just need to dig and dig and dig and then you might find a nugget and go, “Oh! That's it! That's the thing. That's actually the thing that's going to drive the thought that drives the outcome.”

On his evolution as a leader

  • No-one would work harder than me. That was kind of my mentality. I will outwork this situation. It was a real follow-me kind of leadership – I was the first person over the wall, and while I still probably retain a little bit of that, I've probably over the years just gotten way smarter around my influence over the people around me that are smarter than me, and more creative than me. So now it’s about how I can actually help and grow them and encourage them.
  • Continuous learning is something I just have more than ever now. I'm desperate to learn, which is funny, because at school I just didn't want to learn.
  • There's also this awareness I’ve developed of the compound effect; where are you putting your time and energy and what are the things that are going to continue to build and build and build?
  • Who you surround yourself with is basically the ceiling you set. I'm always trying to be around people that I think are more successful than me or think differently in certain areas, so I can really absorb some learnings from them.
  • Build models, build templates and when something goes really well, think about that from a model or a product perspective. In the creative space, the more models and templates you have up to a certain point, the better, and then when you get to play, you can really play as opposed to trying to plan and play the whole way through.

On understanding your influence

  • Just understanding the influence that you have as a leader, particularly as a CEO or an MD or someone who runs a business. It is staggering.
  • You're going to fail. You're going to screw up. You're going to do so many things wrong. But it’s how you respond, how you react. That is what people will watch and respect the most. So really understanding and putting a high level of, I guess, reverence on the influence you have on people.
  • Leadership is a privilege, even in the most difficult of situations, I'm in an incredibly privileged position to lead people, to be able to walk into a room and help solve problems and have people look towards me, be it clients or staff, to actually inspire or encourage or play whatever role I need to play in that moment.

On managing his wellbeing

  • What you put in your brain is as important, if not more important, than what you put in your body. There's so much literature out there about physical health, but probably still not enough around what we're absorbing, putting in our brains. It makes such a difference to my headspace.
  • I'm way less active on various social channels. I might absorb things that are more newsworthy or business related, but it's just about volume and velocity of these things going in.

On Mustard Creative’s values in action

  • You're faced with so many scenarios where you've got to decide which path you go down, particularly when you're dealing with projects and you're dealing with clients and so on. So that’s where values really can help frame your decision-making.
  • Mustard Creative’s values are really strong and there are four phrases that come together as a sentence: “Do good. As one. With passion. To grow.”
  • So every one of those stands alone and has a particular meaning or reflection based on us, but also we've built out the story for what it means for them. What does it mean for our clients? What does it mean for their customers?
  • It's been very uplifting and very uniting for us. Our activities that we build out together, our community actions that we take, they all fit underneath one of these, but they all come together to deliver this greater sense of who we are as a business, what we mean for our clients, and what impact we have on the community.
  • We always do the right thing by your customers and sometimes that means you have to have the hard conversation. Sometimes that means you've got to pivot on which decision you choose to make, because it's the better of the two angles for them. But it really is about challenging the status quo and it helps from a decision-making perspective, which I think is where values can be really powerful if they're actionable.
  • What's the internal view? What's the external view? So that talks to the way we work together internally and you don't leave a man behind. You're always looking after your teammate, you're checking in, you are always trying to support. But from a client perspective, it comes back to what we talked about a little bit earlier around that immersion and getting deep. How do we actually build relationships and break down the barrier of the agency versus the client, and actually build really productive and solid teams together?
  • When you can integrate values into the daily, the weekly, the monthly, the annually, that they actually become something far more than words. You actually give everyone the green light to call things out.

On recruiting the best talent

  • Recruiting in general is really difficult for most industries, especially at the moment. I generally structure a bunch of questions around that to try and extract what is under the hood of the candidate.
  • Passion is absolutely key. People buy people and people buy passionate people.
  • Focus and work ethic is the difference. There's that whole work smarter, not harder kind of thing. But when you overlay that with the consciousness of energy and influence, you actually probably end up with the right kind of balance.

Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders 

  • Leadership is a privilege and don't ever take for granted the impact you have on people's lives. You cannot lose that. The trust and the responsibility that comes along with it, is something you just have to be conscious of all the time.
  • Who you surround yourself with is your ceiling in terms of what you can learn and how you drive new behaviours.
  • Finally, what you put in your brain is equally, if not more important, than what you're feeding your body.

Stay epic,