Beyond the agency walls: How top admen and designers get their creative kicks outside the 9-5


By Cameron Clarke, Editor

January 22, 2014 | 10 min read

It is no surprise that the advertising and design worlds are full of people with an artistic bent, but what happens when the commercial arena becomes too restrictive? Cameron Clarke finds out how some of the industry's biggest names unleash their creativity outside work.

Graham Fink found the canvas of his dreams in a quarry in Greece. At last, he had got his hands on the purest, whitest marble on Earth. A marble so pure it doesn’t have any veins and so white it sparkles. Now all he had to do was figure out how to print a face onto it.

Over the years, the chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather China has taken thousands of photographs of everyday objects, from clouds to cracks in concrete, whose shapes resemble faces – a phenomenon known as pareidolia. Having spent a year experimenting with ways to print his most eye-catching images onto the flawless Thassos marble, Fink this month put the results on display at his first solo art show in London.

Graham Fink, photographed at his art show by Julian Hanford

In doing so, he joined an ever increasing number of advertising and design professionals expressing their creativity beyond their agency walls. Fink, whose back catalogue of lauded and awarded advertising work includes the legendary British Airways ‘Face’ commercial (spot the theme?), tells The Drum his art project is “one of the best things I’ve done”.

The name of his exhibition, Nomads, would be an apt description for the many restless industry creatives who seem to be constantly hunting for new challenges. It certainly applies to Fink. “I’m always on the move and always looking for things,” he says. “In art I’ve always been searching for something. Even as a child at school I would always draw arrows all over my exercise book as doodles. This is all about being on a constant search, a constant journey, and perhaps never being satisfied.”

Where Fink is treading the path from adman to artist, Flo Heiss has gone in the other direction, starting as a painter before gravitating towards design and advertising. “I am now trying to revert that somehow with my own place, using paint and pixels to bring exactly that personal touch back into the commercial world and my commercial work,” he tells us.

Heiss knows that a designer’s artistic instincts can be tempered by commercial realities: “It's easy to be arty and good (to make something for no audience other than yourself, perhaps) and not make any money. It's easy to be commercial and crap (to make something for a client or a big audience) and make money, but the sweet spot of being arty and commercial and good is really really hard. That's why a lot of creative people need an outlet to scratch that artistic itch.”

Flo Heiss is putting art back into advertising for Converse

Are creatives getting the opportunity to fully express themselves in agencies? Heiss isn’t so sure. “I find that more and more creative people have somehow forgotten how to make things. I found this happening to me. So many creatives can paint or draw or film, but somehow stop doing that at an agency, especially the bigger ones where it's almost an inconvenience if you get your paints out. There is often not even a space for this kind of work.

"Some people might call this innovation. But if you don't make, nothing happens and you find your time spent scamping up ideas with felt-tip or Word for someone else to make. Was it always like that? I don't think so. Look at Herb Lubalin, John Webster, Tony Kaye, Ed Morris, Juan Cabral, Saul Bass, Andy Warhol, Alan Fletcher… I could go on. All mavericks and makers.”

David Buonaguidi fits the bill as both a maverick and a maker. He is best known for setting up St Luke’s, 4creative and Karmarama, where he is currently chief creative officer, but when he’s not making advertising agencies he makes robots, motorbikes, lights, tables, beer “and any other shit that I am inspired to do”.

Bikes are among the things David Buonaguidi builds in his spare time

Buonaguidi thinks advertising has become a more “functional, scientific process” and that’s why he craves a creative outlet outside the day job. “If I have a long day spent in meetings, I will get home and make something to rebalance. For me being creative every day is essential in keeping me both sane and alive. I know it sounds dramatic, but advertising is not enough, so whenever I get an idea I have to try and make it.”

So is it important for agency creatives to be able to make real-world things? Nicolas Roope, who sold “hundreds of thousands” of his Plumen designer lightbulbs outside his day to day job of executive creative director of Poke, and is now hoping for a repeat performance with the Plumen 002, is unequivocal: “It doesn't matter at all.”

He explains: “I studied sculpture at art school and am often asked if I miss physical material. Apart from the nostalgia conjured by a whiff of shellac, fresh wood chipping or bronze, I don't miss it at all. What matters is meaning. Doing something that matters, that leaves a mark or impression, that changes and challenges people, shifting their perceptions, changing their attitudes, making them more alive and equipped. How you do that doesn't matter. Whether it's a TV ad, an app or a sculpture on the fourth plinth, I really don't care. Our culture and communications industry are rife with prejudices about the value and status of different activities and practices which prevents us from ever joining things up with any fluency.”

For many creatives, their sideline projects are simply an escape from the real world for a while. Jon Attaway, head of copy at DigitasLBi, took a sabbatical to spend three months indulging his love of photography in South America. “Getting away from everything was amazing,” he says. “At the time I hadn’t had longer than a fortnight off work since 2000, so it felt long overdue. While I’d have happily extended it for a few months, any temptation to make it permanent was tempered by the sobering reality of my bank balance. And I came to miss the timesheets.”

Another who understands the importance of creative pursuits outwith a creative career is Billy Mawhinney, who, for as long as he has been in advertising, has kept a pair of drumsticks on his desk. When he was executive creative director of JWT at the turn of the 90s, he went a step further than that and had a drumkit in his office. “It was those heady days when creatives could do anything they wanted,” he says with a big laugh. “When a meeting lasted too long I would move quietly over to the drum kit and just start tippy tappying. Someone would go, ‘that’s the meeting over then’.”

Billy Mawhinney, third from left, with his band Jukebox

Having drummed in agency bands throughout his career, Mawhinney now plays “weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals” with Quorn CEO Kevin Brennan. “Something that John Hegarty always said was he didn’t live in advertising. He did advertising, but he lived doing all these different things. If people are in an agency from crack of dawn to last thing at night, and all they are doing is looking at briefs and work, they’ll have no idea what’s going on outside.”

Matt Baxter, creative director at design practice Baxter and Bailey, produces a comic strip each week for children’s magazine The Phoenix. “It's a satisfying gig on many levels,” he says. “I love writing and drawing the strip, I love that my seven-year-old son subscribes to the comic and can't wait for it to arrive every week, and I love that our readers send in their own brilliant drawings of my characters, something I never anticipated after a 17-year career in design.

"Many design studios cultivate an all-hours culture, where staff are expected to work long into the night. How can this result in anything other than knackered, uninspired designers with no life beyond the studio and their clients? Curious, switched-on people with a range of interests make for good designers. Studios which encourage this attitude make for much more inspiring, eclectic places to work.”

Places to work don’t come much more eclectic than the Suck & Chew sweet shop, which Grey London’s deputy executive creative director, Vicki Maguire, opened in London’s Columbia Road Flower Market “six years and four dress sizes” ago and now runs at weekends. “People go, ‘oh my god but you work so hard in advertising, basically you’re working seven days a week’. But this is a totally different energy. I love opening up on Sunday. People give you cold hard cash for something that you’ve done. You don’t get that in advertising. None of my sweets go into research. People don’t buy off a Millward Brown score.”

Vicki Maguire at her Suck & Chew sweet shop

The first company to take a jar of Maguire’s sweets was her old paymaster Wieden + Kennedy, which counts a number of artists and musicians among its ranks. Why are there so many of these talents in the industry? “Probably because it's hard to make a living as a musician or artist, but in advertising and design you can use your creative abilities to earn a wage,” says W + K managing director – and guitarist – Neil Christie. “Whether the commercial world stimulates or limits them will depend on the individual.”

As Christie points out, what you do for a living probably won’t be what ends up on your epitaph anyway: “T.S. Eliot was working at Lloyds Bank when he wrote The Waste Land. Anthony Trollope wrote nearly 50 novels while working full time as a civil servant. After guitarist James Williamson left The Stooges, he spent 30 years working in electrical engineering, before rejoining Iggy and The Stooges again in 2009, after retiring from his job at Sony. Some people feel more able to create when they have the security of a salary, some people work at a day-job as a temporary stage on the way to pursuing their dream as a full-time artist, others see joining the world of commerce as an unacceptable compromise.”

To all the frustrated artists out there, there is hope for you yet.

This article was first published in the 22 January edition of The Drum magazine, available now from The Drum Store.


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