A Clean Sweep

Raleigh couple shares best and worst of the personal and professional

Natalie Perkins has many strengths but a great sense of timing hasn’t always been one of them. 

When the CEO of Raleigh branding agency Clean bought the company in late 2007, the nation was on the brink of the worst economic recession since the 1930s.

“The agency had a great book of business, really talented people and a great client list,” says Perkins, a North Carolina native and 25-year veteran of the advertising industry. “The struggle was, these great corporate giant clients, like IBM, Sony Erickson, John Deere, decided to completely scale back on their marketing. It was a tough time for us. But we survived.”

Not only did Clean survive, but it has grown and prospered. 

Since Perkins took the helm, the 21-year old agency has tripled in revenue, square footage and staff size. In 2013, Jeremy Holden— a nationally recognized advertising strategist and author, who just happens to be Perkins’ husband— came onboard as Clean’s president and chief strategy officer, bringing with him three decades of experience guiding the visions of internationally known brands at agencies in Europe, New York City and recently, Durham’s McKinney. 

Perkins credits the firepower that Holden brought to the agency with its growth and success. Holden says it was Perkins and her team’s work maintaining relationships with clients through the recession that brought the agency out on top, plus her “tremendous business brain, classic marketing and market research background, and deep roots in the community.”

Mostly though, they both agree, it’s the company’s deep well of talent and a blend of their two differing but complementary personalities and skill sets that have positioned Clean as one of the most competitive integrated branding agencies in the southeast. For Perkins and Holden, theirs is a partnership that, for their more than ten years together, has guided and supported them through some of the most joyous ups, as well the most crushing downs, in both their personal and professional lives. 

How They Met

Perkins and Holden have known one another for 25 years, and they often collaborated in the course of their professional careers. Holden, a native of the U.K., moved to the U.S. in the mid-90s, and freelanced for an ad agency that Perkins ran in Greensboro, marking the first time they met.

“We often say it’s bizarre we ended up finding each other,” Holden says. “But circumstances bring people together.”

“I think it was fate,” Perkins adds. “There were two or three times our paths could have crossed before they eventually did.”

Perkins is bubbly, quick to laugh, and knows how to work a room. Holden has a wry sense of humor and while he hates mingling in a crowd, he feels at home on a stage presenting to thousands of people or alone at a desk banging out words onto a page. At Clean, they’re two separate entities entirely, and often, their employees don’t realize they’re married until weeks into the job. At home, they say, they never argue and they love traveling together, especially to their mountain house with dogs Stella and Wally. 

Holden and Perkins married ten years after they met, shortly before Perkins bought what was then known as Clean Design (the company rebranded this May and dropped the “Design” from its name). With a strong creative team headed by partner and chief creative officer Scott Scaggs and creative director Glen Fellman, Clean grew its reputation by adding new services, such as public relations and enhanced digital and media capabilities that attracted more and more high-profile clients. 

Perkins stayed busy running the company and giving her time to various charitable organizations in the community, including serving on the boards of the Girl Scouts of North Carolina, Coastal Pines and the Greater Raleigh of Chamber of Commerce. Holden published a nonfiction book, “Second That Emotion,” in 2012, which looks at how people form affinities to brands and social and cultural movements. 

But recently, and seemingly out of nowhere, disaster struck.

In August of 2015, Perkins was troubled by a persistent cough that her doctors couldn’t get to the bottom of. As a last resort, she had a piece of her lung removed for analysis. The diagnosis was devastating: Perkins had an extremely rare genetic mutation, known as ROS-1, where a protein emitted inside the carrier’s body causes lung cancer.

“It’s an incredible thing, to be told you have lung cancer,” Perkins says. “It’s the last thing I expected. And when you start trying to figure out the odds of surviving…it’s a terrible disease, with an awful prognosis.”

Perkins immediately underwent surgery at Duke Medicine, and she works with a preeminent local oncologist, Dr. Jennifer Garst. Ultimately, though, Perkins was fortunate that the pharmaceutical company Pfizer had just released a breakthrough drug that previous April; the drug suppresses the cancer-causing protein emitted by the mutated gene in the carrier’s body; think of it as turning off a spigot. 

“I’m grateful for so many things,” Perkins says, noting that many patients never have any symptoms of lung cancer and aren’t diagnosed until it’s too late. For most people, chances of surviving the disease are less than 1 in 5. Perkins takes medication daily and researchers currently are working on second and third generations of the lifesaving drug, in case the cancer-causing gene becomes resistant to it. 

“For somebody who got hit with lung cancer, you will never find somebody who has more gratitude than me,” Perkins continues. “You never beat this thing but you find a way to live with it. And then I’m married to [Holden], who couldn’t be a better caregiver. I thank God every day for what I have.” 

Getting It All Done

Holden now sits on the board of the Lung Cancer Initiative of North Carolina and the couple is passionate about supporting lung cancer research and ensuring that people in all 100 counties of the state can access the care they need when diagnosed with the disease. 

Between his charitable work and his job at Clean, as well as his passion for travel with Perkins, Holden has also managed to find the time to write two novels in a mystery series with an everyman-type protagonist, Mal Thomas. The first novel in the Mal Thomas series, “Sea of Doubt,” tackles the alleged second coming of Christ and was released in 2016 to critical acclaim. The sequel, “Valley of Time,” which deals with space travel and the possibility of alien life, was released last month. A third novel in the series is in the works, to be released next year. 

“I wanted to take Mal, who is slightly flawed, and put him in extraordinary situations where he has to deal with incredible events,” Holden says of his books. “When I decided, I wanted to have a movement in the modern era at the heart of the books, [these events] seemed like fascinating pretexts.” 

Holden says he is easily able to compartmentalize his writing and professional lives, though when he’s on a writing streak, he sleeps as little as three hours a night—waking up at midnight and writing until 5 a.m. before going into work— for several weeks at a time. When he’s got writer’s block, Holden swims laps in a pool to enhance characterization or tighten up a plot line. 

“There’s a myth about creative people, that they’re scatter-brained,” Holden says. “I’ve found most creative people who are really good at what they do are incredibly structured in the way in which they live and work.” 

Holden says when he’s ready, he’ll retire from Clean and work full-time as a writer. But that likely won’t be any time soon. 

The agency, now comprised of seven departments with 65 employees, is the fastest-growing agency of its kind in the state and it has a lot more growing to do. By the end of the year, Clean will have expanded its offices on Six Forks Road to 13,000 square feet of space. And it seems that, as it grows, the company’s reputation is growing too, both with clients and with its employees. Last year, Clean’s employees rated it the best local, mid-sized company to work at in the Triangle Business Journal. 

“From the time I started running this agency, my mantra has been ‘people first,’” says Perkins. “It’s not clients first, but people first, and the people here know I will support them and back them all day long.”

That, says Holden, creates a ripple effect.

“You start to attract more of the types of clients who want to work with companies that treat their people well,” he says. “And the best clients get the best work, always have, and they want a true partnership and buy into the expertise of the agency.” 

It’s been a winning formula at Clean for ten years. Perkins, whose timing may not be perfect but whose leadership comes pretty close to it with Holden by her side, looks forward to steering the agency for the better part of ten years more. 

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