Twist or Stick: Pearlfisher MD Darren Foley talks sticking to your guns to get ahead

Use your ears and stick to your guns; that’s the advice of Pearlfisher managing director Darren Foley, who tells The Drum and Twist Recruitment that it can be easy, and tempting, to compromise your personal values to get ahead in business.

“As soon as you dilute your principles on any level then the game is over.” Some sage and insightful words of advice from Pearlfisher’s managing director Darren Foley, who says that integrity and sticking to your principles is imperative to succeed in the design business – and after a long and successful career, he has his fair share of advice to dish out.

Foley entered the business straight from completing his A-Levels and spent time working at companies such as Holmes & Marchant and Brandhouse before joining Pearlfisher, where he has spent the last 13 years working on brands such as Absolut and Starbucks.

For anyone starting out in their career, he advocates maintaining your morals alongside using your ears, and advises having the nerve to be daring and to try out new experiences when you have settled on a sector that you enjoy.

“The first area of advice that I was given was around your principles,” he says, “your integrity and not compromising those; so your personal standards and making sure you live by them. It’s also a question of being able to listen and empathise, whether it’s in a client meeting or an internal meeting.

“Know that right at the beginning, it’s fluid and nothing is fixed in stone. Explore and try stuff out, see what excites you, what resonates with you, what you get the most energy out of doing and don’t be afraid to try new things.”

Part of this, says Foley, is making sure that you choose to work at a company that fits in with your values, and to think strategically so that the employer/employee relationship is one that works on an even keel, and is beneficial to both parties.

Tantamount to that vision, Pearlfisher is clearly a place where Foley feels at his best, and he enthuses that the design agency is increasingly moving to gain recognition on a global stage due to its passion, experience and creative ambition.

“The nature of communications, both social and viral, and all the other facets of communication have allowed us to reach further and further. The business itself is passionate about design, which I know you might say, ‘well of course you would be, it’s a design agency,’ but I think there are a lot of design businesses that aren’t as passionate about design and creative excellence as we are.

“We know we’re not just here to draw pretty pictures and make things look good but not exist in the real world. We’re here to make those things exist and perform. If our clients’ businesses are successful on the back of the work we do, we’re going to be successful.”

Foley reveals that he feels “empowered” working at Pearfisher, and says the way the agency has maintained its principles and ambition through 22 years of business serves as “incredible inspiration”.

Discussing the creative industries as a whole, he calls design the “little brother of advertising” but feels it is on the cusp of evolving and emerging from behind its big brother’s shadow.

“I think design is coming of age,” he muses. “We as a design businesses are learning the true value of what it is we do on a daily basis for our clients and the value we add to their business.

What we’re trying to come to terms with is not just the fact that we’re coming of age, but also the tension between creativity and being perceived as a professional business service, and extracting the financial stability that needs to come out of that.”

Foley says that design is now becoming the trusted business partner of clients and as a result, clients are seeing the value through that evolving mindset. Along that theme, it would appear championing the underdog is something of a fascination for Foley, who divulges that the brands he would most like to sink his teeth into are those which constantly play second fiddle to their competitors.

“The brands that excite me are the big brands that live in the shadow,” he says. “So I think about Pepsi v Coke; Coke is such an incredible marketing machine, and Pepsi seems to exist in the shadow of Coke, constantly trying its best.

“That for me would be an incredible brief; brands that have got the size and the business momentum but that just need to be given the edge.”

In another nod to Foley’s equitable side, the one aspect that he would change about the industry is the lack of allegiance it can often foster; if this current tendency was blown apart, he believes, the connection and relationships between clients, businesses and brands could be taken to a whole new level.

Freshness of creativity and ideas would also benefit by this “two-way street” of

communication, which is something Foley says he would love to happen.

It is clear that his enjoyment and fulfilment for the design industry runs deep and profound; when quizzed on what other career path he might have taken, Foley tellingly pauses before drawing on a favourite childhood activity for inspiration.

“I find it quite hard to think what my career would be if it wasn’t in this business,” he reveals. “The only other passion in my life since I was eight years old is riding my bike, so I’d probably own a bike shop. And maybe if I had vision I would have started the Rapha brand.”

What inspires him? Foley cites the art installation at the Tower of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One as a recent influence, and says that despite there being plenty of examples within the branding industry of exceptional work, this particular design really resonated with him.

“It captured a moment and an emotion, which you don’t get very often,” he reflects. “We work in branding, so we can all probably identify great pieces of work in our portfolio, but for me that was a piece of thinking that captured an empathy for something that was so hideous, but did it in a beautiful way. The aesthetic of it was incredible, and the meaning behind it so deep that I was very inspired by it.”

Interview by Paul Wood

Words by Natalie Mortimer

This feature was first published in The Drum's 15 October Issue, which is available to buy here.

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