A write up of APG West Planning Labs, May 2017. This event posed a deliberately provocative question: Can you do the best work of your life outside London?
As one of the attendees suggested before the start, and the speakers proved during the session, it’s also quite a philosophical one. Self-reflection and personal perspective were recurrent themes.
And to some, it may even be quite insulting. Why should location matter? And who says London is so good anyway? (According to Phil Adams, the concentration of talent there makes for a ‘London paradox’, where both the worst and best scenario is true – see photo.)
Yet it can’t be denied the capital exerts a huge gravitational pull on our industry. It attracts talent, clients, money and fame by dint of its size, its density and, yes, its reputation. It remains a condition worth investigating, just as it remains helpful to spend time understanding the draw in the opposite direction.
A handle on both means it’s easier to keep our best people and attract new talent to the region.
Inevitably, the ‘quality of life’ argument always comes up. Yes, we finish on time. Yes, we’re near water and fresh air. Both are good things. But the question was about quality of work. Sometimes our regional comforts are – rightly or wrongly – cast as a comfort zone. Does not being in London somehow mean you lack ambition? Or, as one attendee put it, grit? After all, it’s how pearls are made.
So although Matt Desmier did do an enviable job of promoting the beaches and on-time finishes of working life in Bournemouth, that line of thinking was dispensed with pretty quickly.
So too was geography. Matt described taking a delegation on Bournemouth business leaders to Los Angeles, and his futile explanations to confused Californians about where they were from. By the time they’d taken two hours to cross the city, and realised the distance they’d covered was the same as if they’d travelled from London to Bournemouth, they were referring to their home town as “the beach suburb of London”. The confusion ceased.
Turns out distance is relative. It’s all about perspective.
Phil Adams made relativity the foundation of his thoughtful, considered talk. Paraphrasing Einstein, he said ‘best’ changed depending on how you looked at it. That led him to think first about geography too, but having made the move from BBH in London to The Leith Agency in Edinburgh 23 years ago, distance was impossible to separate from age when it came to the frame of reference through which he understood his career.
Instead he chose a different axis to plot a succession of roles at various agencies, examining each in turn to explore the factors that might make up ‘the best work of your life.’ It was an inspired reframe of the brief, and led to some fantastic stories about great work and some tough times.
On one axis Phil placed ‘Perception of output.’ Looking at our work this way lets us consider the relative fame of what we make, the awards it wins, the brands we work on, our perceived audience and the type of work we do. Sometimes we have to accept that our output isn’t designed to be visible. As Phil said, when you move from advertising to digital, a taxi driver simply isn’t going to have seen that last intranet you made.
A personal reframe of the work’s value is essential. And so ‘Fulfilment from input’ was the other axis. This is about how enjoyable, stimulating, educational and fun our contribution is to the work we’re making. Our sense of fulfilment changes with the work we’re doing, but Phil found it doesn’t necessarily correlate with seniority, size of agency or fame of the brand.
It is about how we perceive our own work, rather than how we feel others might. It is intrinsic rather than extrinsic.
It was this approach that made Phil’s talk such an applicable one to anyone plying a career beyond London. There were lessons galore:
Value the chances we have to debate with creative teams, rather than be beholden to their autocratic opinions.
Cultivate your agencies’ ‘cultural compatibility’ with clients – a competitive advantage born of living in the real world (or “out there” as Ogilvy & Mather are calling it).
Carry a chip on your shoulder, but don’t let it turn into an inferiority complex.
When something feels like a good opportunity do everything to get it. Trust your instinct
And finally, don’t let smaller budgets set the scale of your ideas. Think big, always.
Matt picked up on this last one, too. Size matters, and Bournemouth is the fastest growing hub in the UK.
Bournemouth is filled with agencies who’s ambition and clients belie their size. Outsiders who can teach us something about how to generate success.
Some, like Amuzo, have focused on doing one thing brilliantly. In their case, making digital games and helping Lego reinvent themselves. Or, like 3 Sided Cube, have won Webbys for their American Red Cross Blood Donor app. Or, like Salad, set their sights on winning a huge client – the Clipper Round the World race.
If anything defines the mindset these agencies have, then for me it’s ‘hustle’. It offers competitive advantage for any business smaller and nimbler than its competitors. Matt embodies that hustle, and told great stories about it too. The one about Make Studio, an 8 strong creative shop in Bournemouth, outgunning M&C Saatchi to win work for Garmin, is a salutary lesson for anyone looking to compete on their own terms.
Somehow Make persuaded the client to judge the work blind. No context, no strategy presented, no emotional crescendo from the ECD.
Just the work, on the table. No way of knowing who was who.
The boss picked Make.
If the ‘best work of your life’ is a matter of perspective, maybe it’s all about deciding what it is that you – and others – need to see.
To read more from the past APG West events, go here