Russell is a Worcestershire born creative who now resides in Bristol as director of branding and design agency, Extra Strong. He tells us how his early experience in theatre helped form his ten year long design career, why he’s more likely to encourage you to go to the cinema than work late and why asking questions will get you a long way.
What was the first time you realised you were a creative person?
Bizarrely it was way before I studied it. When I first graduated I actually studied theatre, I went into performing because I thought that's what I wanted to do - I thought I wanted to be an actor. So I did a BTEC in Stratford Upon Avon which was in Performing Arts. As part of that you did quite a lot of things, it was quite diverse, so y'know, everything from musical theatre to straight drama, to dance... a bit of music. One thing that I got to do at the end of the second year was writing and directing. I got to write and direct my own play. It was only a short thing, I think it was inspired by Harold Pinter and his play Dumb Waiter. It was called Three Dead Monks, it was actually named after a Red Snapper tune, which I had at the end of it. It was very moody and a bit gangster-esque. I think if I went back and saw it now it'd think it was so pretentious and wanky. But anyway, I got to write and direct it and I really worked hard at writing this thing... and it was only on once.
I was really nervous but I remember it went down really well, there was less than a hundred people watching it but I remember it getting a really good round of applause and some people were standing. It was really nice but the feeling I got from being sat at the back of the theatre, knowing that you created all of that - versus being on stage and just bowing because of a performance when you've played a character - I just suddenly realised that buzz of seeing your work as opposed to being in the middle of the work being an actor. That was when I went 'this is great' - it was very different. It felt like a much more grown-up creative outlet. And I just suddenly went 'yeah, this is what I enjoy doing more' because it's almost like it's my creation. I'm not trying to say acting is not as good, it's just a very different type of satisfaction you get from it. But it was because of that that made me study things I probably should have studied anyway, so I went back and did art. So rather than go off and do drama school, I did an AS-level - which is the first year of an A'level - in Art and Media and I also did a photography City & Guild. It was a two year course and I stayed an extra year.. and then that eventually lead to me doing graphics.
So after A'levels, what's the series of events that lead you to where you are now?
So I did the art AS-level and my teacher was an absolute legend. He was called David Crocket, and he was a landscape watercolour painter but if you said that to somebody - he was the opposite of what you'd assume. He always wore black and always drank black coffee and was always smoking a roll up. He had this really straggly black hair, kind of slicked back. He looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie, but he was so funny, so sarcastic, so dry. He was such a good facilitator of peoples talent and he could see I was ready to go and do a load of stuff, which I don't know whether he could really understand because it was a lot of graffiti-based, graphic stuff. But he'd just kind of encourage you to do whatever and then encouraged me to go off and study at Falmouth. So I didn't actually do an art foundation, I actually got into Falmouth based on one year of A'level. I'd done so much work, if the studio was free he'd be like 'yeah come and use it'.
So yeah, then I went to Falmouth. I took a year out of my degree to do acting. I took a year out and toured with a theatre company for a year, in between my first and second year degree. My mum and dad were like 'make your mind up'. They never thought I'd go back and finish it. I think I went back and finished it just to spite them (laughs). But I'm glad I did. Then I got a placement with a film poster company in London, called Empire, who were great. I was really chuffed to get a placement. They did all the Tarantino films, all the Pixar films. I went for a months placement and I learned loads of stuff... it was when they were doing the first Bond film with Daniel Craig, they did the Trainspotting poster, so much stuff... but I didn't get the job at the end of it, and I think my confidence was a bit knocked by that. Everyone seemed to be moving off to London and part of me wanted to do that and part of me didn't - I wasn't completely convinced. I think if I'd have actually got this placement it might have been a different story, I guess because I didn't get the job I sort of rejected London a little, I thought 'fuck you London, I didn't want you anyway' - maybe there was little bit of bitterness there. But also I did miss home. Falmouth was a long way away, I'm very close to my family and I wanted to be close to my mum and dad and my brothers.
I graduated in 2006 and I started work at ASHA (ArthurSteenHorneAdamson) in Cheltenham in 2007. I wasn't there very long. I missed being able to do my own thing.
After ASHA, there were years of freelancing and I came down to Bristol and found people who had graduated Falmouth and were running things; my friend Ollie who runs Play Nicely, which is doing really well now... I wanted to explore, I wanted to go back to doing my own projects. I did a lot of talks at different places. I moved to Bristol and started doing a lot of networking. Then I started at Document, which then became Smith & Milton. One of their main clients was Bristol Old Vic and I was put in charge of looking after that. They had them as a retainer so I got to go and talk to them and go back to the theatre and explore that again.
Then Bristol Old Vic actually offered me the in-house role, I thought that was going to be the dream job. Theatre and design merged into one! When I was working at Smith & Milton and taking concepts over there it was great, very similar to what I'd started off doing with the film posters. But when I ended up taking the job, really quite quickly I became a cog again, you were just a designer and you had to get it done quickly. And it really took the shine off it and I ended up creating all the collateral most of the time, rather than nice big show posters. I'm actually more about the concepts and the ideas than the nitty-gritty. I very quickly got bored of it because I was just doing this one thing all the time and I missed the variety of what being a designer in an agency brings, because you get to work with everybody.
I met Graham and Ben through friends, just design friends. Just people who I'd known freelancing before, I was still freelancing and being social with them. I came to their office to look for a space because I was thinking of leaving the Old Vic and maybe I stayed in their mind but they contacted me and invited me to chat about being a third partner. They very much felt they had these skills set up, creative and digital but they didn't really have the means or the skill set to promote themselves or to bring in bigger work. We seemed to really get on so they asked me to come and be part of it. Eventually it made sense that this is what I wanted to be doing.
One thing I've learned that I think is so important in business is empathy... especially in design because you're essentially putting yourself in someone elses point of view. Not just for your clients but for the people around you.
Do you think your theatre background makes you better at the job you do now then, because you've got that charisma and that ability to sell stuff, go out there and talk to people without any inhibitions.
I think so, absolutely, because I've been a complete twat on stage and done things that... it's a weird thing because when you're on stage you're being someone else - and I kind of think that about business as well - I think everyone does put on a slight persona for work, just another version of you. One thing I've learned that I think is so important in business is empathy. That to me is what theatre is about, acting especially, you're looking at someone else's life and you're going 'why are you like that', and the most interesting characters are the most fucked up ones. So yeah theatre is empathy and I think in business it's the same thing, especially in design because you're essentially putting yourself in someone elses point of view. And not just for your clients but for the people around you.
How do you find leads for potential work, how do you pick up leads?
People work with people they like and I think you can do all the cold calling in the world, nothing is as good as a word of mouth referral from someone. Nothing can beat that. And people only do it about people they trust and they like. Different networking groups have different theories on how to generate leads. I find it from just being a nice person to talk to I think.
That's one thing I've realised is really important when you're trying to build a business; taking an interest in other people. Listening to other people and actually taking an interest. Whenever you network, nobody wants to sit there and listen to someone else, people usually want to talk about themselves. And I genuinely do take an interest, try and listen to what they're saying and ask a good question because then they go 'oh this person's actually listening to me'. If you engage someone as a person and you ask about their thing, suddenly you've made it personal. It actually makes your job better as well.
So you've got two girls and three boys in the agency currently?
Yeah, it was so important for us to get girls in, I think that's massively important because I think design seems like a very male-heavy industry, wherever I've been anyway. It's a fucking shame, I think you can't have a good agency unless you've got a pretty equal mix of male and female, and different backgrounds if you can. You've got to keep it diverse, otherwise you end up with designs that end up looking the same way. I've been told before 'it's a very masculine design', when you're a designer you just think 'oh I'm just a designer' but other people can look at it and go 'it's a bit boyish, a bit masculine'.
Would you say you're creatively satisfied at the moment?
I'd definitely say in my situation there's a space where I could be more satisfied... one thing we've brought back in [at Extra Strong] is group brainstorming. We've realised the importance of everyone being able to come together on a project and say 'I've got an idea, can I just tell you it' and whomever's in charge of the project can take it or leave it but y'know... I'm glad that's happening more, so any ideas I've got I can get out.
I don't feel creatively dissatisfied but I'm not doing that much creative work. I'm actually quite happy to look at being creative in my spare time. As simple as drawing or painting, actually going back to why got you into this in the first place, which is just being able to say, 'oh I just wanna make some marks, do some watercolour' or whatever. I'm learning to play music, I'm doing a lot more music stuff. I'm still thinking about theatre, doing little acting projects in my spare time but I'm being very selective of what I do and making sure I find them interesting. And again, that's the empathy thing, I've realised that's what I like about acting, is the empathy side of things and inhabiting an interesting character. Rather than just going and being on stage. The idea of analysing something very theoretically and going 'why are we doing this, what's this logo made of' it's the same with acting, it's like 'why has this character done this'. I even draw out characters as well now, if they were to go home and cook what would they cook?
I quite like where I've got to in this business, having my personal creativity coming out somewhere else. It's that age old thing about doing something you love is it becomes a job, not a hobby. I'm sure some people who have the best jobs in the world still wake up some morning s and go 'ugh, Monday'. It's very hard to keep it fresh all the time. But I feel like we've started something really exciting at Extra Strong and I really believe in it.
To be a good designer you've got to be a good all-rounder, because design touches every industry, you pull stuff from everywhere.
Does living in Bristol shape or influence your work or company in any way?
Yes, the culture of living in Bristol definitely does. I've been in agencies before with that culture of 'everyone's gotta work overtime' which I think is really bad, I think it's really dangerous. Yeah, sometimes every one's gotta stay late but I guess the people who are in Bristol are here because they didn't want to do London. They don't want it to be quite so intense. So emphasis seems to be much more on quality and I think we're starting to feel like that's where our strengths are. We don't want to be an agency that rush, we want to just do things well. I'm not saying we can't turn things around quickly if we need to, but it seems to me that we have this culture at Extra Strong of 'you finish on time, you don't feel bad about finishing on time'. As long as you've done the things you're meant to do, that's fine, and if there's too much on your list you tell someone.
It's not good for creativity either, I've realised. It's not healthy. To be a good designer you've got to be a good all-rounder, because design touches every industry, you pull stuff from everywhere. If you're spending all your time at work you're not out there experiencing stuff. You should be socialising, you should be going to the cinema, the theatre, you should be eating out places and seeing stuff. Yeah, Bristol's got a great vibe. There's a real nice spirit here, it's very community based. It's a really diverse city and it feels like that's encouraged here. And being in Old Market, you see shit.. there's some interesting characters around here, lots of police activity, someone usually passed out on the path. And we're sat here watching out for them with a cup of tea.
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Yeah, every good teacher is a mentor, no matter what they taught you. My mum and dad are amazing, I'm so lucky to have great parents because they've allowed me to do whatever I want and given me the confidence to do it. I know that sounds really cliche but my dad's always gone 'do something you enjoy, do something you love'.
David Crocket who we've talked about. Marksteen Adamson at ASHA.
I've not had a mentor as such, and maybe thats why it's taken me quite so long to learn. Because I have learned lessons later in life I think. I wouldn't say to my detriment, I like where I am now but I think it has been a bit of a self teaching curve. I definitely have been inspired by people, but I think as soon as I'm inspired by them I kind of move away from them, because I think I don't want to become that person, I wanna kind of bounce off them and then go my own way a bit. But then sometimes possibly I don't take enough, or stay long enough to learn the other side of it. I just go 'oh great, great... I'll see you later' (laughs).
So any particular words of wisdom that you've heard over the years that have stuck with you? Anything that's really resonated?
Well, my dad saying 'do something you enjoy' - that was obviously the first words of wisdom. In design, listen to people. Don't just wait for your turn to speak, actually listen. That's something I'm still teaching myself. I do a lot of meditation now, because I think peoples minds, especially in the creative industry are buzzing all the time. You get so wrapped up in it, and actually the guys here - Ben especially, is very patient, very clear-minded and a very calming presence.
So what words of wisdom would you impart on someone else?
Learn as much as you can, but ask questions. If you don't understand something, ask. There's no shame in that. The worst thing is people being too scared to go 'I don't understand.'
What I used to say when I did my talks was 'show your mum' because if she doesn't get it... the idea of that was not literally to always show your mum but show someone who's not a designer. We all sit there and go 'ooh, typography, I love the kerning on that and the ligatures..' and then you show somebody else and they go 'what is it, I don't get it' and it just falls flat on it's arse.
Even doing stuff like chilling out, you should probably make sure you've got some time allocated to do it... It's as important as that meeting.
Tell us about a time when you thought you were losing your way, or you thought you were doing a bad job. What are some of the biggest professional challenges you've faced?
Illness has been a big one. M.E was a big one. [Russ has suffered bouts of M.E through various points in his career, for the first time just before he went to uni]. I've had it two or three times, I suffered from it again nearly a year ago. It's stress related and I think that's one thing I've realised. M.E is a thing that people don't know much about but people say it's quite psychological and I'm convinced it is, I think it's related to stress and worry. I've been in some pretty low places actually throughout that time... even quite recently.
Mental health is a real big thing people should talk more about and like I was saying, mediation has been a real big thing for me. The more people talk about depression and bad places the better because I think too many people think it's this thing that only happens to other people, and actually them going and talking to a psychologist or whatever is a bad thing. But the mind is a hugely complex thing, especially if you're spending most of your time trying to test ideas and you're pushing yourself all the time. I think more creatives suffer from it than maybe you know. It's that perfectionist nature... obsessive, you can start to bring it into your own life. To me the idea of taking a step back from your thoughts was a revelatory thing. You get so absorbed by what you're thinking, but actually it's a thought and if you just came out of it, if you stuck your head above it, its like 'oh well, there's nothing here, everything's fine. That deadline, who gives a shit. We're not heart surgeons.'
Always take a step back and try and give yourself some 'me' time. And that comes back to working hours. Even doing stuff like chilling out, you should probably make sure you've got some time allocated to do it. It's so important and should never be put to the bottom of the queue. It's as important as that meeting or this or that. It's mindset, there's no point looking for perfection, happiness is here right now. I'm sat at work, I'm warm, I'm having a beer, I'm talking to Emma, the music's playing. It's actually pretty good. I've got loads of beer as well, it's nearly a full can. That's great!
So, conversely, what's a moment you've been really proud of yourself?
That play was one of them, the one where I wrote and directed it. I really worked fucking hard and I stuck to what I wanted to do and I made a good thing. The first design job I ever felt like I did that at was when I was working at a company called FreemanChristie, I was put in charge of branding this company in Oxford called Aspire who were a homeless charity. It wasn't a big branding job... it didn't make it into any magazines or win any awards but I got to meet all these people who were homeless or on the verge of, or just getting out of it.
What Aspire does is it takes homeless people and tries to find them work through various different streams, like recycling, gardening. I got the office camera and went and took some pictures and chatted to them and then I delivered this brand, which the guys in the office loved - they just kind of let me do what I wanted. And I remember delivering this stuff, and I'd done a bit of copy writing - never really done a lot before - there was the fruit and veg side of [the charity], and I did this presentation to them and there was a line in one bit which said "all of our fruit and veg has travelled less than five miles, but our employees have been on quite a journey." And the client started crying, it was kind of the end of the presentation and she said 'you've just absolutely got us'. It was really overwhelming and I felt so proud. It connected with this woman on an emotional level. She just went 'you did it' and I just went 'yess, you nailed that'.
Whats a typical day like for you at the moment? Talk us through it.
I'll either cycle in or walk in from Southville which is lovely, really enjoy that walk. I think the journey into work is a really important process for everybody. I used to work from home and it's tough. Even if you just get up and go for a walk round the block with everyone else, and come back to your house, it's healthy because that transition is really important.
So yeah, Monday meeting. I do a lot of meetings, a lot of trying to find people and find out what's going on, networking with people. I oversee stuff and I'll be asked my opinion on stuff. I make a lot of tea (laughs), I've come full circle.
How much of a role does social media play in getting you work? How active are you and how important is it in your business?
I know people that have made a career out of social media, or are digitally active, and if that's you I think that's great, it's an amazing tool to utilise. People are making careers out of being on YouTube... incredible! And fair play I would never knock that, it's just not my approach. I guess I'm just much more about being next to someone and talking to them and understanding what they say - as they say, seeing the white of someones eyes and just seeing if you engage with somebody, if you're on the same page. But all my connections have come through other people or other people I've worked with.
And it's obviously had a rolling effect, working at an agency for the Old Vic and then being employed in-house, then being able to bring that connection into what you do now...
I guess focused marketing is really important and targeting who you wanna work with, but sending out blanket emails, people just see it and go 'oh... it's just someone marketing or it's just someone trying to get my attention'. There's such a noise out there of stuff. You've gotta be careful that what you're putting out there is targeted otherwise you're just contributing to the noise. I think we all like to do [social media] now and again but it's very much like 'oh, I'll just do a tweet quickly', it's not like 'what's our strategy'. It's completely reactionary at the moment.
I think I've still got an issue with how public-facing social media can be. Like if someone @'s you in a tweet, I'm like 'why didn't you just send me a message? Why do you have to tell everyone else about it?'
Do you think you're an introvert or an extrovert?
If I was to answer that completely honestly, I'd say I was a bit of both because I think my public facing 'me' is very extrovert, because that's the way I engage people. But I admire humbleness when it comes to achievements and social media feels like boasting. When I'm an extrovert I actually feel like I'm championing other people more. For me that's a really complicated question. I guess I feel like my extrovert-ness is actually part of my selling our business. It's actually what people come to us for... the personality or whatever. It's a little bit of yourself, but actually sometimes you just want to put that away.
So, we're at your wake and you're floating above us all as a ghost. What's the one thing you'd like to overhear someone say about you?
A couple of people have told me things that other people have said about me and one thing they've said is that I just made them feel better. They probably shouldn't have told me, it's a bit of an ego boost. Someone saying that I've cheered them up or psyched them up. I like to think that's what I do with people here, I say 'right, okay, let's do this'.
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