In Conversation With Tony Speight, Creative Partner

Tony Speight (Speighty), Creative Partner

1 February 2021

Kendra RogersHead of Insight & Strategy

Tony Speight is Creative Partner at psLondon. He’s also our resident colourer-in, lover of hip-hop, art fanatic and asker of the tough questions. I sat down with Tony to chat about what he learned from 2020, his hopes for 2021, and the actions that businesses can take to set themselves up for success and growth in the coming year.

He’s Speighty to friends and clients alike, and since you’re here with us, you’re a friend now too.

Our conversation began with Speighty’s business learnings of 2020. It was a year like no other, and we naturally found ourselves discussing disruption, new ways of working and the way to keep a company on track in the face of adversity.

TS: The biggest learning for me is that we’ve absolutely got the right team—and I’m not just saying that because you are interviewing me, I promise. First and foremost, every person in our business is curious and a natural solver of problems. These traits are essential, if you want to succeed at ps and clearly very helpful in an ever changing unpredictable time like we find ourselves.

A big part of ‘knowing we are a great team’, is trust and creativity. When lockdown first happened, the whole team felt a little nervous about what was to come. Primarily as a business we thought “what’s this going to mean for our future?”, “are our clients going to pause projects, cancel projects?” and “how are we going to run the business from nearly 20 different locations?” Suddenly, we were psLondon, psKent, psEssex, psNorwich even. There were so many unknowns.

But when we went back to the core of what psLondon is built on—'trust and creativity’ within ourselves, our clients, in our processes—that made the coming months easier. We’ve worked with so many of our clients for years, and we’ve always delivered, it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to trust us to work in this new way. The same went for the team, we have always found creative ways to solve problems…

“So one of my biggest learnings in 2020 was simply: Hold our nerve and continue to believe in ourselves. Believe in the talent,  resilience, dedication and creativity of our team.”

Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing in 2020. psLondon thrives on collaboration, so being unable to work side by side was undeniably a challenge.

As a creative agency, we are constantly focusing on our outputs. It can be easy to forget about making sure we have the right inputs, be that the conversations you might have in the office, at a dinner party, or over drinks.

TS: From a purely creative perspective, the learnings aren’t all positive. Working as a creative in isolation is hard. It’s very hard. Zoom calls and other mechanics can help, but you soon realise the impact that casual interactions have on our creativity — being able to casually look at each others work and make informal comments, or more formally critiquing the work on the crit wall together, it is actually about the ability to be fluid. Reviewing or presenting work becomes in nature more linear whilst we are all apart. I have a reputation within the agency for asking the hard questions…to really interrogate the work. But working remotely has made that very hard to do without damaging confidence and still motivating and inspiring the team.

You also have to have external inputs, otherwise your world becomes smaller and smaller. The luxury of having an agency in the middle of London means we can get to galleries and museums and shows easily. And that’s just talking about the formal things, the informal things: the graffiti, the smells and sounds of the streets… or the fashion we see around us all the time is probably just as important. If we don’t know our audiences, we cannot hope to represent them or communicate with them in an effective way.

I'm always pestering the creative team, to get out there and see stuff. Every show I go to, every exhibition I go to, every museum I go to, I bring back at least one book to the studio to share with the team. Creative stimulus is the key to great work.

Clearly, we can’t go to exhibitions and museums these days, so I’ve worked hard to do what I call “freeing work” to free my brain up a little bit. More often than not it has  been painting or image making: I'll go out and take my sketchbook, and lose myself for an hour. Even without the sketchbook, whilst walking with the dog, I’m making myself look at nature in the way I would normally look at the urban environment; I’m looking at how textures work, how colours might work, how proportions work. I’m also listening to a lot of really eclectic music, I am basically finding my inspiration in new places.

From there we discussed how the learnings from 2020 can be brought into the new year. Can time spent in lockdown be channelled into something constructive?

TS: In 2020, I had more time. I had the ability to read more, explore the things that I hadn’t had the time to do before. I’d like to continue that in 2021.

“One thing that was really cemented in my mind in 2020 is a rejection of this idea that you don’t have to be great all the time—I think that’s bullshit.”

Speighty’s suggestion that we really do have to be great all the time begs the question: How do you sustain greatness?

TS: Look at every piece of work at every stage like you’ve never seen it before. This applies to your own work and other people’s work too — try as best you can to look through the eyes of the viewer. Our brains see things because we join the dots all the time… and actually, it’s about resisting this default-setting and genuinely looking at work with fresh eyes.

The other strategy that I use is, ask yourself “How could you make it better?” When my team show me their work, I say forget the budget, forget the timings, forget the excuses, Is this the best it could be? How could we make this communicate more effectively?

That’s how you make sure the work is always great. You look at it with a fresh set of eyes every time and you ask yourself the question, that blatant question—what would I need, to make it better?

Speighty and I discussed how we apply these principles to the work we do for clients. If the client is going to want work toned down, they can make that decision. But our job is to offer the best possible version with no limitations, and then have it pulled back from there. Because if we pull it back ourselves, we do a disservice to them.

“Understanding the client’s ambition is one of the most important things.”

We have the luxury of working with lots of brands, lots of colours, tones of voice, all the time. Understanding that a client doesn’t get to work with as wide a palette as you means their ambition may be tainted by boredom, or because  they’ve worked on that brand for so long, or knowing that their bosses generally don’t like signing stuff off that does this or does that.

I've learned over the years that we need to go further than a client’s ambition. We need to push our own ambitions too. No one is ever going to say to you, “Oh, your thinking has been too good. The creative is too smart, your design too elegant.” They’re going to say, “Wow, that’s amazing. They may not be able to buy it 100% but how can we keep some of the essence of that?” That way you’ve still moved far beyond their original expectations for the project. I reference my hiphop here: “If you ain’t aim too high then you aim too low” J. Cole (January 28th, Forest Hills Drive) 21 Savage reinforces this with “Shooting for the moon, but the stars just fine” (No more, Not all heroes wear capes).

Finally, we discussed the importance of optimism when approaching a year full of uncertainty.

TS: I hope that our existing clients and new clients will enter 2021 with optimism. However bleak, dark or difficult it’s going to be, we need to have the optimism and the ambition to know that actually, we can still achieve great work. We can still make sure our brand has purpose; we can still communicate the important stories; we can still connect with the people we need to connect with; and we can do all this to progress our more emotive and inclusive brands with greater sensitivity and commitment.

Clearly we can’t control everything. My mantra has always been to only worry about the things we can affect. I can’t affect half of what is going on in the wider world at the moment… but what I can do is affect the morale of our team, our clients, and how we interact with our suppliers. We can show people loyalty, we can help where we can, and we can be really careful about how we run our business so that we are set up as best as possible to weather this.

“This is just another problem to solve, and who better to engage than ps….we’re problem solvers.”

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