Tickets Podcast: Debs Armstrong on bespoke experiential

On the guest list for today’s episode of Tickets is Debs Armstrong.

Debs is founder of Strong & Co, an award-winning experiential agency based in London, working with clients including Google, Twitter and the BBC.

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Debs’ started out creating installations at squat parties in London during the mid 90s, and was also the co-founder of the legendary Shangri-La area at Glastonbury Festival.

In this episode Debs tells us stories of recreating Blade Runner in the English countryside, where brands and agencies get it wrong with experiential, and how she balances artistry and entrepreneurship.

https://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/165130/52985852

Career Fuel: How to get paid like a DJ

I don’t charge for DJing, I charge for flying to get there now.

The traveling is the aspect I charge for; the DJing is free.

John Digweed, Magnetic Magazine, 2012

John Digweed is a British DJ.

He’s never had a breakout hit song, never been voted the number 1 DJ in the world, and never been on the cover of Billboard magazine.

But he’s been a constant in the upper echelons of the electronic music world for over two decades. He has a hugely passionate fanbase across the world. He makes an excellent living and has made very few creative compromises in his career.

His fans would wholeheartedly agree he is a master of what he does, and despite championing pretty niche underground music and being closer to 50 than 30, in what we keep being told is a young person’s world he’s as in demand as ever.

And the DJing, the craft, is still free.

He charges for the travel time. Or rather, he charges for everything involved to get him to the DJ gig: the travel, the practice, the developing of the craft, the preparation.

Here are just some of the skills creative professionals have to invest in on an ongoing basis:

  • Professional development
  • Equipment and Tools
  • Planning
  • Editing
  • Filtering
  • Trashing
  • Drafting
  • Rehearsing

These are expensive – either in time, money or effort. They are all things most people don’t want to go through the hardship or cost of. They don’t offer instant gratification. They send us down difficult paths.

That’s why true professionals can charge what they do.

Charging for the travel (or any of these other things) also removes time from the equation. John Digweed doesn’t get paid per hour of travel time, he charges based on the market and his value within it. That value has been built over time by his investment in what he does.

The good news is that a true professional can charge a lot of money – far from the ties of the hourly rate. And over time that can compound.

The bad news is that it’s hard. It takes time, it takes effort and it takes trust. The results don’t appear quickly. In fact they appear slowly, and once you’ve had some good results you can’t expect tomorrow to be better or even the same as today – you have to keep reinvesting.

Which route would you like to take?

The freezer or the morgue: a quick primer on innovation

As part of on-boarding for a new project I was asked to put together a quick 10 minute introductory talk on a business-related topic of my choice.

I chose innovation. It’s no doubt a buzzword right now but do we really understand what innovation means and how, when, and why we should apply it? Like a lot of concepts it can be over-complicated and mystified, often by people who want to look smarter than everyone else (and get you to pay them accordingly to explain).

After I took the group through what I’d prepared (slides included below), there was a brief Q&A. Questions ranged from how corporates could innovate when the pervading culture goes the opposite way, to how ideas can be tested quickly and easily.


The one question that jumped out was around knowing when to kill ideas.

Continue reading “The freezer or the morgue: a quick primer on innovation”

Tickets Podcast: Adam Morallee on international boxing and brand partnerships

On the guest list for today’s episode of Tickets is Adam Morallee.

Adam is founder of Brandsmiths, a boutique law firm based in London with a focus on media, entertainment and technology brands.

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Adam is also a prominent boxing manager, working with the world-title winning heavyweight David Haye and his Hayemaker Ringstar promotion company.

In this conversation, Adam shares his hugely valuable insights into setting up an international boxing match, the future pay per view sports broadcasting, and how talent and their representatives can forge more valuable partnerships with brands.

https://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/165130/52985853

Introducing ‘Tickets’: a podcast exploring the world of live experiences

Before I left London for New York I got chatting with a sports and media lawyer.

I mentioned my background in the live music industry, and he was fascinated to know more about how live music deals were made.

After telling him a little of what I knew, we discussed where some of those ways of working could be applied into his world. We both enjoyed getting insights into each other’s areas of interest and agreed to keep in touch, but we were both busy – him on a couple of big deals, me on visa applications.

Fast forward a few months and several conversations I’ve been having in my new home of New York have reminded me of that London meeting.

There’s little doubt the definition of a live experience is getting ever broader. As that happens, more white space is appearing between the disciplines, concepts and approaches being applied.

This is exciting, but there are a couple of problems.

  1. Many people creating and producing these experiences don’t have the bandwidth or access to explore these white spaces, join the dots and look at where they could apply adjacent ideas to what they’re doing.
  2. It’s not easy for audiences to develop a better understanding of what goes into bringing these experiences to life.

With both these problems in mind, I’m excited to announce the launch of ‘Tickets‘: a podcast series going behind the scenes with the visionaries, producers, and operators behind some of the world’s most innovative and vital live experiences – from Broadway to boxing, virtual reality to retail.

The first three episodes are now online. Here’s a brief introduction to each of our debut trio of guests.

Adam Morallee: founder of London law firm Brandsmiths, Adam is also a prominent boxing manager with deep expertise in areas such as brand partnerships, content licensing and IP development. (and yes, Adam is the person I had that first conversation with…)

Debs Armstrong: founder of award-winning experiential agency Strong & Co, Debs also co-founded the legendary Shangri-La area at Glastonbury Festival.

Andre Lorenceau: co-founder and CEO of LiveLike VR, Andre and his team are building a new way to make live sports broadcasting more interactive, social and compelling.

 

New episodes will be released each week and we’ve got some fantastic guests already confirmed.

You can check out Tickets through the following channels – please go ahead and leave a rating and comments.

Apple Podcasts

Stitcher

Acast

Our podcast landing page

 

If you’d like to be a future guest on the show or want to suggest someone who should be, drop me a line.

 

Enjoy!

Why do we ignore our middle chapter?

Like a lot of people I’ve got much more in podcasts recently, and my go-to is without doubt Shane Parrish’s Knowledge Project.

I think I’m pretty safe in assuming his most popular interview (and also longest – something of an oxymoron today…) is with Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist.

Just one of the gems of wisdom in this conversation concerns the subject of happiness.

To help understand what makes you happy and what you may want to change, Naval suggests asking yourself two simple questions about each of your past 10 years, or perhaps 5 if you’re under 30.

  • What was I doing?

  • How was I feeling?

I gave this a try thinking it would be pretty easy.

It really wasn’t. I had to think hard.

Going back 3-7 years felt particularly difficult – in my case (from a career point of view) to the middle years.

I made a mental note to go back to this another time. Perhaps I wasn’t feeling very lucid that day.

 

And then this morning I went to my first Creative Mornings event in New York. CM is something of a phenomenon – running in 183 cities globally, always free entry, always sold out in seconds. They’re without doubt one of the leaders in the new school of curators (another post coming shortly on those and why they’re going to matter so much in the future).

This edition’s guest speaker was Scott Belsky, founder of Behance and highly respected investor and author.

His very eloquent and (of course) beautifully designed talk opened with a graph outlining the journey a company or project takes from start to end. I found myself thinking this talk may be another spin on the startup hero’s journey; we’ve probably all had our fill of those.

But Scott wasn’t there to talk about the buzz of the Start or the against-all-odds Finish. He was here to explore The Middle; the times between the Start and the Finish that oscillate from mundane to meltdown, vexed to victorious.

We don’t often talk about The Middle.

In fact we often forget it even happened – either publicly when we’re selling ourselves and our ideas to others, or privately when we’re telling ourselves the story we’d rather hear.

Scott suggested how to endure the lows and optimise the highs that The Middle brings, as well as the benefits of maintaining your curiosity throughout the journey.

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In fact there’s easily enough not yet said about The Middle for a book or three – perhaps he’s working on it.

I left feeling a little better about struggling to remember my Middle, but also realising the importance of recognising, remembering and respecting it much more frequently – no matter whether it’s veering from mundane or meltdown, vexed or victorious.

 

What can you learn from your Middle?

 

> Scott Belsky at Creative Mornings

And on a similar note, The Dip

Lifelong Learning: Going spartan

Spartan by name, Spartan by (the call of) nature: Sly Stallone as John Spartan in Demolition Man

For the last few years the electronic music website Resident Advisor (RA) has run a weekly podcast called ‘Exchange’.

Despite RA’s focus sometimes being a little high-brow and esoteric for my tastes, there are some real gems in the Exchange series (not to mention in the 600+ DJ mixes in their main podcast catalogue).

Recently RA snared a highly regarded yet relatively low profile guest (in terms of public persona) – the founder of XL Records, Richard Russell.

I found two of Russell’s anecdotes particularly interesting: first, how he dived into the relatively basic music production software Reason on a recommendation from his friend Liam Howlett of the Prodigy; and secondly how his work with Gil Scott Heron on the ‘I’m Here Now’ was underpinned by one word.

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That word was ‘spartan’. Gil Scott Heron loved the sound and meaning of the word and it was used as the stress test for everything the pair created.

Spartan is generally defined as:

‘Showing indifference to comfort or luxury’.

It’s quite easy to confuse being spartan with minimalism.

I believe it runs a little deeper than being minimal.

Although adjacent, to be spartan feels to me more closely aligned to Stoicism.


 

In my own life I’ve recently implemented a more spartan approach, partly through choice and partly through circumstance. It’s not been easy or always particularly enjoyable, but I’ve learnt some lessons.

Going spartan has forced me to look at what I really need, and what are just frivolities. It’s also opened up new possibilities that probably wouldn’t have appeared if I’d stayed on previously trodden paths.

Here are a few things that have happened:

  • Hopping between alternative (i.e. free of charge) places to work in New York I’ve learnt which conditions suit me best (and worst) for creativity and productive work, and also discovered pockets of the city I never knew existed
  • I’ve got better at cooking. You’ll be hard pushed to get a decent lunch in NYC for less than $12. Cooking at home conserves funds, has made me query my diet more closely, get surprisingly creative, and is a good reason for my wife to leave the office at a decent hour and switch off from work for a little while 🙂
  • Limited resources have made me more resourceful. This is perhaps counter-intuitive at first but I’ve found it to be true. Stripping back the layers meant I’ve had to find ways to do more with less. A little like Richard Russell and Gil Scott Heron.
  • Whilst he was probably thinking more about minimalism in UX and design than being spartan, Steve Jobs famously once said ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’. I queried this when I first heard it but from recent experience of creating my own projects I now believe it to be true. A spartan approach helps frame things in a different way. Ask yourself how you could solve a problem if you didn’t care about comfort or luxury. A lot of great innovations have come from this start point. And Jobs himself did live a pretty spartan lifestyle, all things considered.
  • I’ve become more resilient. Small things that may previously have upset or frustrated me just aren’t that important now, and I know I can survive with or without them. Rejection or lack of recognition (i.e. not being able to bathe in the luxury of glory) hurts less.

I’m aware in my case these are very much first world problems. I still have the luxury of being able to afford a nice cup of coffee and have a roof over my head, and I aim to continue being grateful for those things. However, I believe the principles and benefits of being spartan can be useful to apply in almost any circumstance.

They may even make you happier.

Naval Ravikant describes happiness as:

the state of when nothing is missing.

The generally accepted route to happiness is to have everything you want. To acquire.

If Naval is right, and I consider him one of the wisest people I’ve encountered, perhaps it’s easier to get there by being spartan.

Building creative businesses: The Power of 3

This is part of a series of articles on building creative businesses. Sign up here for access to the full set.

 

The concept of ‘Hipster, Hacker, Hustler’ (aka designer, engineer, marketeer) has become pretty well known in the world of tech startups since the term was coined in 2012.

Since then quite a few riffs on this idea have appeared, again mainly mapped to tech companies.

For those working in less technology-focused fields the set up of Entrepreneur, Technician, Operator is worth a look. [1]

An example of this is the story of Hollywood agency CAA, which I wrote about here.

A group known as the Young Turks made moves to take over the running of CAA in the mid 90s. There were 5 in the group, but 3 of them stood out as the leaders and are still at the top of the company to this day.

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a tribe, and also for the power of a trinity. In the Young Turks’ case the trio at the centre started a tribe that was able to change the culture of the business and quickly build a power base.

They did it through the combination of Byran Lourd’s charm, Richard Lovett’s ego and relentless nature, plus Kevin Huvane simply being a great agent. A trio with this blend of skills is not an uncommon sight at successful companies, particularly those in the creative industries.

In CAA’s case it appears the Entrepreneur was Lourd, the Operator was Lovett and the Technician was Huvane. This may look to be the wrong way round, particularly in the case of an agent being a technician rather than an entrepreneur. However, a technician doesn’t necessarily deal with technology – they’re about craft, and there’s a craft to being a great agent, just as there is for a graphic designer or a web developer.

 


 

The power of 3 was also present in my first job in the advertising industry.

The agency’s three partners ran the company and their names were above the door. They ran the business from inception via a sustained period of growth, through the turbulent times of the financial crash, and eventually into acquisition by a larger holding company.

(Side note: this agency taxonomy infographic is brilliant, and applies to a bunch of other industries too).

The entrepreneur was a somewhat enigmatic and mercurial figure; rarely seen in the middle of the day, the office was rife with tales of his marathon nights out in the apparent name of client entertainment. More likely was catching him at 9am, arriving for a meeting with a new client after one of his 4am finishes, with the latest of his revolving door or PAs furnishing him with bagels and shots of coffee.

No one knew exactly what he did – he didn’t seem to actively service accounts, run the mechanics of the business or produce deliverable work – but he was without doubt the figurehead. He delivered vision, storytelling and charisma, and he certainly knew about supply and demand: his scarcity made people want him even more.

As with the example of CAA, the technician didn’t fit the definition in a traditional sense as he was trained as an artist rather than an engineer. However there was no doubting his technical craft skills and flair for solving problems with innovative ideas. He was able to provide very specific technical insights into the creation and delivery of great work. He was also an accomplished storyteller but did it through his work and quietly inspiring the members of his team rather than standing on stage (or on the bar).

At the time it was difficult to figure out the operator’s role – again he was a couple of steps back from key client relationships and seemed more introverted than the others. On the surface he was a technician as he sat with technical teams (digital, finance and IT), but his skills weren’t deep and focused as a technician’s tend to be; they were broader, like an expert-generalist, a common trait of modern COOs.

In this company’s case the operator wasn’t especially visible to low and middle tier employees as there was a line management system already put in place. His role was to harness the power of the entrepreneur and enable the technician, whilst quietly maintaining the engine of the company and fitting together various new pieces of the puzzle that may have appeared from time to time. A key example of this was the initiation of a digital department, which for an integrated agency in the early 2000s was not at all easy to get right.

 


 

There are various ways of configuring the trio of roles of course, particularly for smaller businesses where all members have to wear a number of different hats, but I’ve seen this core setup of Entrepreneur, Technician and Operator work really well for a bunch of companies over the past few years – from design agencies and production companies through to music festivals and even consulting outfits.

If you’re running a creative business, maybe ETO is your HHH.

 


 

[1] Sometimes ‘Manager’ is substituted in for ’Operator’ – while this still works, I see the dynamic being quite different. A Manager will tend to manage the Technician, whilst in the leadership team the Technician is often a creative and the Operator and Entrepreneur will weave in and out of each other until the company grows sufficiently for the two roles to be more distinct.

Are you an artist or a frame maker?

Why it’s worth knowing which role you’re best suited for, and how valuable it can be when looking to join a new community.

Last week I received an email from someone in London asking how life in NYC was going for me, and what I thought of The Met museum.

They knew I’d had to wait a while for my work permit and so naturally assumed I’d spent a fair bit of my enforced sabbatical visiting museums. Guiltily I replied I had not. I’d barely gone north of 75th Street, let alone explored Museum Mile.

Amends were made and yesterday I spent a couple of hours exploring the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art space next to Central Park.

I decided to travel roughly in chronological order, starting with Ancient China, via Dutch 16th portraits and 19th Century American furniture, and ending up in 1920s cubism.

In the final room of my visit something caught my eye – a painting by the Japanese artist Bumpei Usui.

Continue reading “Are you an artist or a frame maker?”