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James Sommerville on Growing a World Class Design Agency

Ilise Benun spoke with James Sommerville about going from being a “pavement artist” to running a world class design agency. What a story!

James almost made it to HOW Design Live 2017 in Chicago, but something came up at the last minute and he didn’t get there. Luckily for us, he will definitely be in Boston this year. (Come see him live in Boston at HOW Design Live, April 30-May 3 – get your Big Ticket now).

However, last year, in preparation for his keynote, I invited him to join me and Zachary Petit, former editor of HOW and PRINT magazines, for a live interview as part of the HOWDesignLive@SCAD Lecture series. Here’s an abridged excerpt of the conversation, whose main topic was this:

If they are to continually evolve and attract tomorrow’s talent, what can large global brands, like The Coca-Cola Company, where Sommerville is VP of Global Design, learn from entrepreneurial start-ups, like ATTIK, a world class design agency that Sommerville co-founded and ran for 20 years.  

Sommerville is in a perfect position to address that question. Here’s why:

Born in Huddersfield, UK, James started exploring his creativity combined with his entrepreneurship skills as a pavement artist across major cities and towns in the UK.

 He co-founded his company, ATTIK, with his college colleague, at the age of 19 right at the attic of his grandmother’s house in Huddersfield. Supported financially by The Prince Youth’s Business Trust, coupled with their vision to adopt early Apple Mac technology, the fledging agency was quickly propelled toward growth.

 In 1990’s, James had designed the early campaigns of huge companies like MTV, AOL, Sony Playstation and Nike. ATTIK went global in 2000 and opened offices in London, New York, Los Angeles and Sydney. In October 2007, ATTIK was sold to Dentsu, the world’s largest single advertising agency, HQ in Japan.

 Today, James is a key leader in one of the world’s most valuable and innovative brands. He joined The Coca-Cola Company in 2013 as VP of Global Design. In his short time, he has re-branded over 20 global brands across the system. His works over the last 3 years has been seen by billions of consumers, in over 200 countries.

Q&A with James Sommerville

Ilise Benun: How did you go from being a “pavement artist” to running a world class design agency?

James Sommerville: I really I didn’t want to be on the “dole queue,” which is a British term for the “unemployment line.” Pavement art was really just something that allowed us to start an entrepreneurial journey. But we didn’t have a game plan. We just decided to go out and chalk on the streets.

Ilise Benun: And did you get paid for that?

James Sommerville: Well, you get paid by people who come up and throw some money your way, like busking or street art. The trick is to just keep emptying your container. What people don’t realize is you have a huge sack at the back which is just filling up continuously. So, yeah, it’d be quite lucrative.

Ilise Benun: Was there a big break at any point?

James Sommerville: I think the big break was the idea that could we basically come off the street and start a design agency. So the unemployment line was still there. We didn’t want to join that. And we thought at some point we’d need to take our creative talent, which was fairly raw — we had no business skills at all. So we wrote a business plan on half a sheet of paper and that was an opportunity to come indoors and see whether we could actually start a small agency. But really it was only a temporary proposition. We never actually felt that it would grow. We were really just waiting for the unemployment line to go down and then we’d go get a real job.

Ilise Benun: Here’s a quotation from you which I’d love for you to elaborate on. If you have the ideas, the passion and the drive, self-employment is a great alternative to the dole queue. Trust me, I’ve been there and I know.”

James Sommerville: My partner, Simon, and I were opposites. We were both skilled. We both came out of art school, so we both had that raw talent. I found in him things that I didn’t have, and he found in me things that he didn’t have. But together there was definitely a level of “one plus one equals three.” So I think if you’re ever thinking about matchmaking yourself with somebody, and you have the same vision, the same drive, but maybe you have complementary skill sets, by talking through that with somebody you really trust and believe in, all of a sudden you get this energy and this enthusiasm and this drive to want to succeed by doing great work.

Ilise Benun: You said that you didn’t have any business skills when you started. Which skills are you thinking of?

James Sommerville: I’m thinking of financial skills, marketing skills — although you know, design is a form of marketing. And operational skills, hiring people, making sure that you have income coming in and what you spend your money on doesn’t exceed your income. We learned that as we went. Like all of us, we do things and make mistakes and hopefully next time around, we’ll make a different set of mistakes, yeah, new mistakes.

Another important stage early on was the hiring of a financial director, a CFO. We were very conscious of costs but when you put the onus on somebody who really knows how to manage finances, it actually frees up your time. So it is a cost but the reward back to the business is huge!

 Zachary Petit: Looking back to when you were starting out, what do you wish you had known?

James Sommerville: I don’t really wish I’d known much more than I did. If I went into business now, I’d know much more than I did when I was 19.  But I think there’s something about being naive that molds the business. If you know too much that’s a dangerous thing.  Maybe you think, “Well, I’m not experienced in it. I don’t have this financial kind of model or foundation to build on.” But when you’re single, you have fewer commitments. As you get older, into the 30s and 40s, then that responsibility you have as an adult will become greater. I think a lot of people therefore don’t make the leap. I think doing it young is the right time to do it. And it seems to me also that more and more these days people go back and forth between self-employment and working for a company, and then collaborating with friends.

Ilise Benun: Do you consider yourself confident?

James Sommerville: I was definitely not confident at school. No, no, no. I think self-employment breeds that confidence. Certainly working for yourself, it’s one of the byproducts. It raises your confidence level without doubt.

Watch the video of this interview here

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