This interview was the toughest one yet. Who’d have thought Jonny would end up giving himself the full good cop/bad cop routine, trying to establish where exactly “the money” was. The transcription that follows is all that was left after the rest of the recording was mysteriously deleted.
So Jonny, what was it that brought you to AHOY originally, because you’re straight out of uni, right?
Kind of, yeah. I graduated in July 2013, and started working at AHOY in March the following year. So I guess that almost counts as being straight out of uni?
How I ended up at AHOY is a fairly convoluted story, though. I was studying Psychology at uni, but I was writing a few reviews in my spare time – music and game reviews, mostly. I wrote for a couple of websites a lot of which are defunct now, or are still going but my reviews have been buried by newer stuff. I’d written quite a few of them in my first and second years, and saw that the Guardian were running some student-focussed awards for media-type stuff. I sent a couple of my reviews in, and ended up getting the runner-up prize in the Student Critic category.
Not quite sure how to mention the next bit without sounding bitter and arsey, but here goes anyway – the then-editor of NME told me at the awards ceremony that I probably would have won if I’d submitted music reviews rather than game reviews. Just throwing that out there, make of that what you will…
So with that, I started to think that maybe I wasn’t a completely terrible writer – so I applied for a whole load of jobs in journalism after uni, ended up getting a week’s placement working on the Guardian’s film and music desks. Outside of that though, I kept noticing that full-time paid journalism jobs wanted applicants to have had proper paid experience, and though I did have some experience, and a couple of pieces published on the Guardian website, it was never paid work – I was always working for free just to get my work out there, and to get the experience of doing it, really.
One day I was walking up Green Lane, and embarrassingly, up until that point I’d never really noticed AHOY – I just thought Avanti went up on two floors. I checked out the site, loved the work, loved how local it was and I just send Mark an email out of the blue saying that I was a graduate, that I had the experience I had and so on. Turns out he’d had a bee in his bonnet that week about bringing a writer in-house, I came in for a meeting the next day and started the week after that.
It’s funny because up until that moment, I was so sceptical of stories where people claimed they just got in touch out of the blue and ended up with a job – it’s one of those things that you just assume never really happens.
How does the working atmosphere at AHOY differ to that of the previous places you’ve worked at?
Other than the week’s placement at the Guardian, my previous job was as a research assistant at Leicester University – so maybe not the best point of comparison.
Obviously the Guardian is a much bigger organisation than AHOY but other than that, I’d say in terms of working atmosphere it was pretty similar to AHOY, actually. Both working environments are relaxed, but not too relaxed, no one takes themselves too seriously either, and everyone is trusted to get on with their jobs to an incredibly high standard. There are never people breathing down your neck or anyone trying to make you work in a particular way – you’re left to do what you do best, but you’re given access to a great network of managerial support if you need it. I’m basically saying AHOY is the Guardian of digital agencies. Whatever that means.
Describe an average working day for you at AHOY.
Like I’m sure everyone else is saying, it really varies a lot from day to day. Some days it’s keeping up with and scheduling blogs for some of our ongoing SEO clients, whereas other days it’s getting knee deep into pitches, press releases, website copy, naming… If it involves words I’ve probably done it at some point! Plus I guess now I can add being sat in the meeting room giving myself a Frost/Nixon-style interview to the list.
Which clients are you most excited to be working with?
Is it too much of a cop out to say that I think a lot of the clients we get to work with are exciting to work for? It is isn’t it? It’s true, though – we’ve got so many clients that aren’t afraid to experiment, and maybe go with design routes or social media campaigns that are quite different to what their competitors are using. It always gives us a lot of freedom, and it’s great that so many clients trust us to come up with something great – whether it’s on my side with brand stories, tone of voice proposals and so on, or on the design side with drastic departures from their previous branding.
Do you have any good stories from any of the projects you’ve worked on at AHOY?
It’s not so much a story as it is a glorified and prolonged ego stroke in answer form, but here goes nothing. It’s not even something I got to experience first-hand, which is a shame, but I’ve been reliably informed that it did in fact happen. When we worked with Greene King on repositioning and revamping a section of their portfolio dubbed “beer and meat”, I’d written a series of values and mission statements for the way the ideal ‘beer and meat’ pub should be. It was really aspirational stuff, it’d bring a tear to your eye and an Oscar in Tom Hanks’ trophy cabinet if he read it out. For some reason he won’t return my calls anymore. Not since the accident…
Anyway, Paul and Dave went to present our initial design routes, as well as one of the versions of the values and mission statements, and I think Chris at Greene King’s words were “this is Lennon and McCartney type stuff, this” – and I mean, ego strokes for writers don’t get much better than that. So based on that, I’m writing a song called “Imagine 2” – it’s really gonna to be something.
How do you find working in Heaton Moor compared to working in central Manchester?
I’ve lived in Heaton Moor all of my life, except for when I was at uni – so I’m probably a little biased on this!
What’s the best piece of industry or work-related advice you’ve ever received?
I’m not sure I can think of anything for this… I mean technically, you did already know this, Jonny – so why ask it? And more importantly, why write it down?
Alright, good point.
Oh there we go with the sarcasm – why have you got to be like this, Jonny?
Be like what?
You know – trying to make yourself look like Billy big bollocks, like you’re all prepared and you’ve sprung these questions on us, and now we’re scrabbling about for answers while you’re sat there all smug with your face and your hair…
OK so what’s the worst piece of industry or work-related advice you’ve ever received?
This is one from my freelancing days, and it was really well meaning advice but in retrospect I really don’t agree with it. I’d sent out a load of emails to sites that I respected offering to write for them for free, just to get my name out there really. A lot of the time I just got ignored, but one time I got a reply encouraging me to never work for free – and only ever write for someone if they’d agree to compensate me, even if it was only for a small amount of money.
While I agree that young writers shouldn’t have to offer their services out for free, it’s a sad reality of the industry that you do have to, more often than not. I certainly did – I’m not proud of it, but at least I enjoyed the writing that I was doing, and at least the singles and games I was reviewing were free. They were never good singles or games, mind you, but free is free, right?
The point is, if I never wrote anything for free, I wouldn’t have had a body of work to send into the Guardian – and without that, I never would have gotten my runner-up Student Critic prize, never would have gotten my placement at the Guardian, and maybe never would have gotten the very job I have right now at AHOY. Maybe I’m giving myself too little credit, but it’s always seemed to me that working for free was pretty damned important!
Are there any strings you’d like to add to your copywriting bow?
I’d love to handle more types of content, I think. There are features and content ideas that we’ve discussed with clients that I think would be a lot better suited to video or maybe even audio formats. It’d produce more engaging, instantly shareable content that people are more likely to actually view and listen to in their entirety – whereas written blogs aren’t always the most popular, no matter how well I actually write them!
I’d love to school myself in video and experiment – maybe even rerunning these interviews in a year’s time in full video rather than written text. Plus, I’ve had a plan for an AHOY podcast in the back of my mind for months now, maybe I could get that off the ground in the future… Who knows?
If you weren’t in this industry, what would you be doing instead?
The original idea behind doing the Psychology degree was that I’d become a counsellor, and I’d still like to do that in the distant future. That, or maybe going back to uni to study Forensic Psychology… Or maybe I’d do the clichéd writer thing and write a book of poetry or something, there’s still time for that, right?
Have you always been creatively inclined?
My dad always said I should have done English at uni rather than Psychology! Writing is something that has always come fairly naturally to me, but I’ve just never thought I was really good enough at it to do it as a career – a lot of writing types say the same kinds of things though, I’m sure.
Any albums or songs on repeat at the moment?
This is where I try to think up the most achingly cool, niche bands in my Spotify library, right? I have a bit of a masochistic streak when it comes to music where I force myself to listen to the worst shit possible. I’ve had endurance competitions with Jonathon where we’ve made ourselves sit through Nickelback’s latest albums just to see who breaks first – and I mean, we both made it through to the end. So after all that, the only winner was Nickelback and their smug, grinning faces.
What’s your favourite night out spot?
Port Street Beer House. They’ve got an awesome selection of imported ales, IPAs and nonsense, you can have a conversation in there without having to shout – and I think it’s technically just out of the Northern Quarter, so I’m avoiding giving the same answer that everyone else has given for this!
What TV series or film do you recommend at every chance you get?
TV series wise, I’d have to go for Six Feet Under. It’s a series that no one seems to have seen. It’s a HBO series about a family that own a funeral parlour, dealing with the aftermath of the loss of their father. It’s got a lot of actors in it that you’d probably recognise. It’s just a brilliant series – beautifully acted, poignant and genuinely thought provoking at times. Plus every single episode starts with someone dying, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Film-wise one of my all-time favourite films is Ghostbusters – it’s much funnier than it ever gets credit for, and it holds up astoundingly well, even though it’s older than I am… I’ve got really high hopes for the all-female reboot.