You recently published a LinkedIn post talking about the financial barriers of US portfolio schools. What are some ways that design schools can help solve this issue? Design and portfolio schools should think about the barriers that prevent Black students and students of color from even applying. They can often be the cost of the programs themselves, but it can also be factors like who is teaching the course. If you’re a young Black creative looking at an expensive school with an all-White faculty, mustering the strength to apply and the will to stay—if you do get in—is a challenge that most White students and teachers don’t comprehend.
What inspired you to create ONE School, the free, sixteen-week online portfolio program for Black creatives? The ad industry prides itself on disruption, yet the way most people start their careers in the industry is the most traditional thing I’ve ever seen: with expensive schools and family connections. I’m disrupting the idea that good education costs a lot of money and takes a long time. If we can prove that it doesn’t, then we can open the door for talent that the industry has overlooked for a long time.
What have been the opportunities and challenges of running ONE School? The opportunity has been to connect with some of the most talented, passionate Black creatives in the industry. Black people don’t have an “old boys” club, so we have to build something new. Since the school draws a lot of people, it creates a network that can support students after they graduate.
The main challenge has been time. I get a lot of support from The One Club, but the day-to-day running of the school, creating the curriculum, teaching the classes, and finding tutors and lecturers is all on me. On top of that, I get dozens of emails a week from people who want to talk or help out, so most days I’m working twelve-plus hours just to get to it all. But because the work is so rewarding, it always energizes me. I wouldn’t change a thing.
How did you get started in the advertising industry? I used to be a chef, but I was miserable and hated working while all my friends were out enjoying life. So I went back to college to study journalism. At some point, I took a course in advertising and realized that I was more interested in doing something creative with my words. I later found an evening portfolio course that ran for twelve weeks and put a portfolio together. Eventually, that got me a placement at a small indie agency, and my college tutor told me not to bother with my third year of college. From then on, I just worked my ass off.
How has your experience as a chef informed your ad work? Once you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen full of angry men with knives cooking 300 meals on the night of Valentine’s Day, not much else stresses you out. My experience also taught me to use every minute of my time wisely. You get good at multitasking.
Why did you decide to take up the role of creative director at Spotify? It was literally my dream job. Music is my first love, and I’ve spent years building playlists on Spotify that I’m very proud of. But I also loved the work its creative department was doing, so I told myself that if I ever got the chance to join, I would do it without hesitation.
What are the biggest differences between working in agencies versus working in-house? In an agency, you present, the work goes off into a black hole for a week and then you get an email back with a list of changes. Afterwards, you have to spend another two weeks deciphering the email before presenting all over again. Working in-house, I feel much closer to that decision-making process. Many of the conversations that would have been big, scary presentations now happen in Slack or on Zoom. Things are resolved much faster.
What was your riskiest professional decision? One time, we were shooting a spot for New Zealand supermarket chain New World. After the director called, “Wrap,” the client thanked everyone and went home. But once she was out of the car park, we turned the cameras back on and shot another hour of footage. We had a secret list of shots that we knew we’d never get permission for beforehand. A few days later when the client arrived to watch the first edit, she was expecting a 30-second spot, but we showed her a 90-second spot instead. For about 60 seconds, she sat stonefaced until one of the funniest scenes came on; she burst out laughing and ended up watching the rest of the spot in tears. We compromised on a 60-second spot and it eventually became New Zealand’s favorite ad of the year. Pretty risky, but it paid off.
What trends in advertising are you most interested in? I’m interested to see whether a year of working from home will bring out the best or the worst of the industry. Who’s going to use this time as an opportunity to rethink all of the inefficient and inhumane ways we used to work? Who’s going to try to keep things as they were, but from home? I think the big places might struggle to adapt but the smaller, more diverse places that can call up talent from anywhere in the world will be a lot more prepared.
What skills do young creatives need to succeed in advertising today? You will need thick skin. Ninety percent of your job is being told that your ideas aren’t right, so you have to learn to take criticism seriously, not personally. I’d also tell young creatives to spend time thinking not just about the work they want to make but how. Great work is not great work if you’ve had to sacrifice your health, social life and family time to do it. Don’t let anyone try and convince you otherwise. I wish I’d learned that message earlier in my career; I hope young creatives will get there sooner than I did.