Creative Director


We don’t know about you, but we’re tired of reading agency bios that read like CVs – we’d rather you were able to get to know us better than that. With that in mind, David sat down with Jonny for a chat that got a little… Weird.

What originally brought you to AHOY?

Being a friend of Mark, our MD. I’ve known Mark for over 10 years and first met him when I was 21 or 22 – he was the Studio Manager at my first agency. I worked with Mark for about a year before I went away and worked for myself – he did the same, and we just kept in touch.

During the following few years I started my own small agency, before working freelance for a number of years and was happy doing that until eventually I wanted to get back into agency life full time and further my career. Mark had been trying to get me in for a while, so I picked up the phone and he told me to come in for a chat and discuss a role.

Anyone who knows Mark will vouch for me when I say he is sometimes late. While I waited for him on that first day, I simply sat down in front of a computer, started working and just haven’t left since! Luckily, he started putting money in my account after that, so I must have been doing something right.

Bearing in mind your career progression at AHOY from Senior Designer to Creative Director, would you say that there are any more strings that you might want to add to your bow?

I think it’s simply a case of spending more time on just the direction, and less on the tools. Creative Direction has been my ultimate goal while working for the last 2 or three years, and as much as I still love my craft and wouldn’t want to give it up entirely, I do really enjoy working with the designers and sharing some of my knowledge and (not always good) experiences with them. I get just as much of a reward from seeing my guys produce brilliant work as I do producing it myself.

So which of the clients that you’ve worked with recently would you say you were most excited to work with?

I get excited working with all types of clients, to be honest. One of the biggest parts of my job is meeting new people, and that’s one of the things that I enjoy the most, so any new client is always quite exciting.

If I had to name one though, the first that springs to mind would probably be Greene King. It’s a great feeling to pitch as such a small agency and win the work from one of the biggest companies in the country. Working with them has been a really good learning experience for me personally, and its interesting to see how their marketing managers and in-house guys work. The knowledge I have gained working with them has enabled us to grow as an agency a little bit, and add some more strategy to what we do.

It’s also been rewarding to see how much they’ve enjoyed the process and enjoyed working with us, when they must have worked with loads of big agencies over the years.

And obviously the research phase was a real hardship for you.

Yeah. I did really struggle with having to “research” loads of pubs, nights out in London and drinking beer, but I managed to get through it, I don’t think I’ll ever truly get the credit I deserve for taking on that particular research task!

Do you have any good stories from any projects you’ve worked on, whether it’s from the distant past or just last week?

They’re not really stories as such, more one liners that clients have come out with… I won’t name names but here are the two that stand out to me:

There’s one where I was asked what the Pantone colour for cardboard was, which was good, and the other one happened when we were picking a colour palette for a client. This client had already signed off on five of the six colours we needed, we just couldn’t agree on the sixth so they phoned me up to ask, and I quote “if there had been any new colours released, because it didn’t seem like there had been any new ones out for a while”. If I thought he was joking, it wouldn’t have been as funny, but he was absolutely genuine – he thought that Pantone could add bits to the spectrum and release a new colour as and when they felt the market needed it!

How did you handle that last one, out of interest?

I just pretended I didn’t hear him – I think that’s the only way you can deal with that!

How did you end up in design?

When I was leaving school, I knew I wanted to stay in education do something creative – though obviously it’s hard to think back that far! I went to Sixth Form and re-sat my GCSE maths and on top of that I chose to do Art & Design, as well as Media Studies A-Levels. Neither of those courses were what I had hoped they’d be – Art & Design had no design in it, it was just Art and Art History. The Art History parts were really interesting – they were probably my favourite part of the course, in fact – but other than that, it was very much life drawing, charcoals – fine art, really.

I didn’t enjoy Sixth Form all that much and the courses I’d chosen were nowhere near creative enough for me, so I left to go to a more vocational college to do something that would satisfy that urge. On the opening day, there was a tutor promoting a Multimedia course. I wasn’t really sure what it was but it sounded amazing. I met a guy called Frazer who was one of the course tutors, and he told me that he was creating things for CD-ROMs, designing computer games and magazines, and these were all things that I was into anyway growing up – so it really appealed to me. I ended up getting an ND [National Diploma] in that, followed by a HND [Higher National Diploma]. It was a weird one because it was such early days for that course – I think I was in the second intake of it – and the tutors were still finding their way with the whole thing, I think. The Internet was just kicking off, and I remember still using AltaVista and Yahoo! – Google was a way off, imagine that!

I got my first job really quickly after leaving there, and it’s funny that all of this came out of not really knowing what I wanted to be originally. Graphic designers in the modern sense and web designers didn’t really exist then, they just weren’t jobs that careers tutors would have been able to suggest to kids at schools or colleges. So I guess you could say I got into design in a roundabout way, I suppose.

It might even still be true. I’m not sure if careers tutors today know to recommend jobs in SEO or front-end development to secondary school kids. You mention that after your HND you went straight into industry, was that a conscious decision?

Yeah definitely, my tutor tried to push me to go to Ravensbourne in London. He had good links there and he thought I’d like it and do well, but I was confident that I’d get a job straight after leaving college. I’d already studied for four years so I was already behind other people, especially having been to Sixth Form for a year on top of that. I didn’t want to be the 25-year-old guy just graduating and four or five years behind everyone, so I passed up on university.

I’m one of the only ones at AHOY without a degree, we’ve got some bright young guys here but hopefully it isn’t holding me back!

Would you ever want to go back to uni?

We were talking about this just the other day, actually. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind going back to the stuff I enjoyed at Sixth Form, I wouldn’t mind going back to some stuff in Art History – something more traditionally academic, I think.

So something completely unrelated to what you do now, like English Literature or something like that?

Yeah absolutely, maybe one of the classics – something random! I certainly wouldn’t do a degree and Masters in Graphic Design, I couldn’t do it full time as a career and study it as well, I think I’d go mad to be honest!

Now this is a tough question, I realise that, but what is the best piece of industry or work-related advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t think it’s a piece of advice, necessarily, it’s probably more of a mindset of how you should approach a role such as mine. It’s a fairly well-known idea and I think it’s true for anybody that manages people or have a team of people working with them, that you should always ‘be the stupidest person in the room. I’d tweak that a little bit though, so for me I should be the worst designer in the room. I can always get back on the tools, help out, step in and fix things when needed, but I shouldn’t be so proud or competitive that I feel that I have to be the best designer, because that’s not my job anymore, my job is to help my designers be 10 times better than me, because that’s ultimately what is going to lead to us all doing great work together.

On the flipside, what’s the worst piece of industry or work-related advice you’ve ever received?

I got a lot of people telling me I needed to go to uni, a lot of people telling me that I needed a degree to be able to succeed. But since then, no one’s ever asked me for one, my portfolio has been the thing that has mattered when I’ve been applying for jobs, I’ve never met anyone in my career that cared that I didn’t have a degree. It’s an interesting one – degrees just aren’t for some people, and they are for others. I certainly wouldn’t pass on the advice that you needed to get a degree to succeed.

Another thing I’ve heard time and time again is that you need to live and breathe the industry. You know, that you’ve got to be spending every waking minute going to exhibitions and reading design books. I think part of that is true in that you do need to love what you do, but I also think that you need to have other interests and really be able to switch off. Design is more of a career and a vocation than a job, that’s true, and it’s always good to keep up with what’s going on and take an interest in the industry outside of work, but that said, I don’t think you need to be completely tied up, blinkered and shut off from everything else because inspiration doesn’t just come from looking at other design work, it comes from reading a book, watching a TV show, going outside or listening to music – anything that captures your imagination. I think the notion that you need to be some kind of design nerd with 20 year old books and design manuals to be able to succeed it is a crock of shit, really.

Have you always been creatively inclined?

Yeah definitely. One of my memories of growing up was always being with my mum and my sisters at my grandmother’s. We’d always go and see her in the early evening, and I’d always ask her to get some pens and paper out for me. I would have been to the library and taken out some books on helicopters, aeroplanes, all of that typical stuff but then I’d take those books and try to draw the things I saw.

When you’re growing up you have your Super Nintendo or whatever, and in my case a BMX, and I loved all of that, but I’d always come back to wanting to draw, paint, build and make.

What is an average working day for you at AHOY?

I suppose the easy answer to that is that there isn’t one – it sounds like a stock answer but there really isn’t an average day at AHOY!

All I would say is that I’m a fairly early riser anyway, and given the way that my trains work in the morning, I’m always one of the first in – so that gives me half an hour or so to have a cup of tea, get through all of my emails, look around all the various blogs and bits and bobs that I need to catch up on. From there, it can be anything really, there are some weeks where I barely turn my Mac on, I’m seeing a lot of clients, going to a lot of meetings, going to pitches and presentations or travelling up and down to London. But there are other weeks where I spend a lot of time briefing, working with the designers and giving them feedback, or there might be another week where I spend most of it shut away and actually working on designs myself. There might even be days where it’s a mix of all three – so there’s just not really an average day, I guess.

I suppose as a footnote to that, if I was to take the question literally, then I would also say there is no such thing as an average day at AHOY anyway, sharing a room with the 15 other people I do every day leads to some interesting discussions on, let’s just say, a wide range of subject matters, so there’s definitely nothing average about that!

Are there any industry books that you have enjoyed or would recommend?

I do have a lot of design books, and they are something that I have a look at now and again for visual research, but the Internet is so good for visual research too. The design books I like are books like Adrian Shaughnessy’s How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul. I want to feel like I’ve learnt something from a book, not just see some nice design work (as beautiful as it may be). It’s nice to hear people’s other stories, things like where they come from, bad experiences they’ve had on projects – that’s the stuff that interests me rather than just people’s design work.

Shifting gears from business to pleasure now… What albums and songs are on repeat for you at the moment?

I don’t really have a lot of stuff on repeat, even stuff that I really like as I enjoy finding new stuff as often as I can. What I’ll tend to do is use an artist I like as a starting point for Spotify radio. I’ll do that, or I’ll look to sites like Clash or Pitchfork to find something that’s been reviewed and scored highly, ideally by one of the reviewers that I know I usually agree with, and that isn’t something that I’ve heard before.

In the last year I’ve listened to a lot of the latest La Dispute album though, – Rooms of the House. Anything with a concept, even down to prog rock, I listen to a lot of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and King Crimson. It’s not the coolest answer, but a concept album is always good.

I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t expecting you to say that – it’s not often you hear someone singing the praises of concept albums!

Haha, true, but thats because people will try to tell you what they think is cool! Seriously thought I think there’s just something about listening to something with a real narrative and idea behind it, I guess that’s the designer in me.

I enjoy hearing an album or song that I like sonically and then going away and researching it, finding out exactly what it is about and a lot of the time this ends up with me finding out something I didn’t know before. That’s partly, and this probably sounds really pompous, but that’s partly what I like about prog rock. It’s usually educated, middle class people who are very good at writing music and well read, so they write about mythology, poetry and classics – and then they’re very good at actually playing their instruments and music production, that they create a sound that, I don’t know, I just find more interesting than, say punk where they’re consciously trying to stick two fingers up at that whole idea.

With that in mind, are there any songs that you’ve researched, and found to be about something completely different to what people might think they’re about?

A Genesis song that springs to mind is Cinema Show, which is about Father Tiresias – who apparently found two snakes having sex and hit them with a stick, which turned him into a woman. That enabled him to experience sex as a man, then as a woman. I’d never studied or read anything like that before, though, so I found it completely fascinating when I did.

It all comes back to me as a young person not having a lot of interest in traditional learning, or in being the most academic, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten to really enjoy learning, so when I hear music that makes me go away and research it, I enjoy the whole process.

Jesus if this all goes on I’m going to sound like a right freak…

Let’s get this back on track and less weird – what’s your favourite night out spot in Manchester? Don’t say somewhere inaccessible

This is tough because there are lots of places that I like for different reasons. Some places have sentimental value for me, because I’ve been there with my girlfriend or had a really good night out there. I would normally just say that a good night out for me is any bar where they serve nice craft beer or real ale, and I can get served.

When you talk about issues getting served, are we talking ID issues or-?

Haha, I wish, if people as me for ID these days its to check I’m not too old to get in! No, I just mean the bar not being 10 deep with 19 year olds all buying Jägerbombs and VK or whatever it is they drink.

Come on Dave, if anyone’s ordering the Jägerbombs, it’s probably going to be you.

Yeah alright, that’s true.

What TV series or film do you recommend at every chance you get?

In terms of films, the one film I recommend to people is Once Upon A Time In America. I’ve always been massively into gangster films like Goodfellas and The Godfather – Donnie Brasco’s another favourite. It’s a long one too, a Schindler’s List three hour, turn-your-DVD-over kind of job, but it’s just brilliant – Robert De Niro when he was a lot younger, just a really amazing film. It’s got a great soundtrack too, if you’d call it that, the one whistle tune that the guy always plays really stuck with me.

Are there any games you’d recommend or…?

Haha I’m not getting into that… Super Mario Bros.