That Lot’s David Levin: things I’ve learned from 18 years of working my arse off in London

Levin (with iPhone) with That Lot at Weber Shandwick

Last week, my business partners and I sold our little social media agency to a massive shiny global agency to help take it, as Dane Bowers might say, to another level. Our excitement levels are bordering on Game of Thrones season finale and I’ve mostly been drunk ever since.

But in a moment of self-indulgent reflection last night, during an ad break in Love Island, I asked myself: “How did I get here? And what have I learned?”, to which my internal monologue replied: “You should write a bloody blog about it, mate.” So here we are.

Let’s start with where I’m from. Before reading the rest of this paragraph, please watch the below to get you in the vibe.

Yes, that’s right, I grew up in a reet simple part of the country called Leeds where folk work down’t pit and everybody sounds like Mel B. Rush hour is tolerable, people speak to each other on public transport and in most pubs you can get a round of drinks for a tenner.

Naturally, when given the opportunity to escape to dog-eat-dog London to do an internship at MTV for 8p a month, I put down me Yorkshire pudding, kissed me mammy and me daddy and set off down the cobbled streets shouting: “I’m off to London! I’m off to London!” at me neighbours as I skipped passed them on’t street like a less graceful Billy Elliot. But none of them responded because they’d never heard of London.

Anyway, despite plummeting me into debt and forcing me to live in a hoover cupboard in Cricklewood, the internship was the best thing I’ve ever done. It kickstarted my career, absolutely changed my life and allowed me to hang out with some of the most important artists of our generation such as Kerry Katona, Shaggy and The Vengaboys. I’ll forever be grateful for it. So, there’s my first tip: internships are great.

Having talked my way into a junior news writer position during my internship, I spent the next few years at MTV learning what it actually means to have a job, discovering essentials of professional life such as brainstorms, email etiquette and Jägerbombs.

I also learned that most of the people at the top of their game had something in common: they weren’t dicks. The industry is full of dicks who treat junior staff like crap and give it the full Lord Sugar in meetings, but most of those guys end up working in Chicken Cottage eventually. It’s worth remembering that, in an industry like the media (even more so in social media), the intern you were just a dick to will probably be the global marketing director at Facebook in a few months. So, tip two: don’t be a dick.

A few years later, I heard about this thing called ‘freelancing’ where you can work whatever hours you want for whoever you want and you can work at home in your pants. It sounded great. What nobody told me was it requires some effort to get work and, in order to get paid, you need to spend about seven hours a day chasing these things called invoices.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I made approximately £17 in my first year and ate a lot of soup. But like Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich, I soon got the hang of it. I realised how great freelance life can be. Being your own boss in charge of your own time is a wonderful thing. If you can get your day-rate to a decent level, you can earn what you need without having to work a full week. Or you can work a full week and have a bit of extra cash to save (or to climb out of your overdraft). And being freelance makes you better at what you do because you constantly have to adapt your skills to different clients. That’s tip three: freelancing is good.

After MTV, I made the obvious career move for someone that wants to be a successful freelance writer: I joined a band. We got signed and went on tour and lived like we were on Magaluf Uncovered. I felt like Bono (if Bono ever travels in a transit van). When I ran out money, I started freelancing again. And I was better at it. Because I had a fresh perspective, a renewed hunger and a leather jacket. Tip four: take a break from the thing you do, then go back to it. Particularly you, Bono.

A few years later, I set up a Twitter account for a pub. It was just an excuse to make jokes about east London and 1990s R&B artists, but it got pretty popular and I started getting asked to tweet for brands, famous people and TV shows. Loads of them. I whored myself round dozens of agencies, brands and broadcasters and worked until I passed out.

What this taught me was the importance of a specialism. The Evening Standard called me ‘the UK’s first professional tweeter’. Shortly after I doubled my day-rate (thank you, Evening Standard). A lot of people use the phrase ‘fail fast, fail often’ and I’m sure there’s something clever about that. But I prefer: ‘find something you’re good at, do loads of it fast and often, and keep doing it brilliantly for ages while you get more brilliant at it’. I appreciate, as slogans go, mine is less catchy. But anyway, tip five: find your niche.

In my capacity as the Tweet Writer About Town (maybe I should turn that into an acronym) I found myself speaking at events about my unusual job. If you’ve never done public speaking, it’s terrifying at first but becomes less awful if you stick with it, like Love Island.

After speaking at one of Twitter UK’s events, I met David Schneider. We went to the pub, I spent two hours reciting my favourite lines from Alan Partridge [Schneider played Tony Hayers in the show], yet somehow he didn’t run away. We decided to start a social media agency with a third Dave (Beresford) who seemed to understand numbers and was also dead good at Photoshop. We all got on brilliantly, we made each other laugh and we were very honest with each other about what we wanted.

And that’s never changed. We’re a team. The three Davemigos (needs work). We took risks, including bringing in someone who wasn’t called Dave: pinching Laura Tannenbaum from Bauer Media who came in and built our accounts team and revolutionised our entire agency. Tip six: if you start a company, do it with the right people (shared first name optional).

As our agency grew, we started pitching for clients and hiring new talent. And in the process of both, something became clear: the advertising/marketing industry is disproportionally white. Not, like, Donald Trump rally white, but as a mixed-race person who tends to be confused for an Egyptian or a Mexican, it’s not uncommon that I’m the only person in a meeting that’s not the same colour as all the other people. When we recruit for a job, we get very few non-white applicants.

But herein lies an opportunity. Many brands and agencies (including ours) want and need to be a lot more diverse. So, tip seven: if any talented BAME folks are reading, and you want to work in social media, get in touch. And if you ever find you’re the only non-white person in the room, use that as a strength. I find a good way to get everyone to shut up and listen to you is to say: “As the only non-white person in this meeting, can I give you a different perspective?” That, or wear a Bob Marley t-shirt.

Building an agency is like building a Bavarian Shortbread Clock Tower Cake on the Great British Bake Off. There’s no point trying unless you have the perfect ingredients. That’s why we’ve hired the most supremely talented and specialised writers, designers, videographers, account managers, strategists, Instagrammers, Facebookers, Tweeters, Snapchatters etc that we could find. Which seems to have worked. Our team is a Bavarian Shortbread Clock Tower Cake made out of humans. Tip eight: hire people who are better than you. And not just at baking.

Perhaps the most obvious thing I’ve learnt from these 18 years of working my arse off in London is: do what you love. If you can get paid to do something that you’d still be doing if you won the Lottery, you’re very lucky (as I pointed out in a thing for Cannes Lion that had the most awkward logo placement of all time).

For it to be worth putting as much time and energy into your work as most people I know do every single day, it’s got to be something you’re passionate about or part of your well-curated five/10/18/65-year masterplan. Otherwise what’s the point?

Tip nine: don’t do work for fun, girl (or boy). Let it be the one, girl. Love work for a reason, and let the reason be love.

Well done for reaching the end of this romp through the past 18 years of my work-life.

Shoutouts of course to everyone who’s hired me, taught me and helped me over the years; to our unbelievable team at That Lot (now ‘That Lot, a Weber Shandwick agency’), to my family and friends who I only tend to see when nothing major is trending on Twitter and to my fiancée who I haven’t had a proper date night with since the arrival of Instagram Stories.

I now intend to put some of my energy into life outside of work too, starting with a return to those cobbled streets to tell me mam, me dad and everyone in the Yorkshire pudding factory that things have worked out okay in that faraway place they’ve never heard of.

David Levin is creative director of That Lot, which was acquired by Weber Shandwick last week. This article was first published on LinkedIn.

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