Creative Director

Tom Heaton

Tall, smiley, and actually pretty good at what he does, our Creative Director, Tom, works hard to keep plates spinning here at AHOY. With years of experience in graphic design, he can often be found raising a quizzical eyebrow—and controversial points—during design discussions in the studio.

What’s your story? What brought you to AHOY and where were you before?

I studied graphic design at Lincoln, then set up my own agency, which ran for two years. I figured I’d set up my own agency because I didn’t have anything tying me down—no wife, kids, mortgage, so I decided to give it a go.

It was the easy route in a way because I gave myself a job, but the hard route in another way because I effectively gave myself five jobs—creative director, junior designer, copywriter, project manager etc. Quite an intense learning curve, doing the work, dealing with clients, dealing with suppliers. A lot of my peers were just working as designers, so in hindsight, it was really good for me.

So yeah, after that, I joined Raw as a designer, stayed there for six-and-a-half years and left as the senior designer. It was quite a young, fast-growing company, so lots of exciting changes, but then it got to that point where I was wondering whether to set out on my own again or join another agency.

DS.Emotion got in touch—they needed a new creative director to set up a Manchester studio for them. They had the main studio in Leeds, a little satellite studio in London, and they were looking to branch out across the Pennines. It was a bit of a win-win: an opportunity to create my own studio, but with the security of 25 years of experience.

I’d been there two years when I got a message from Alex at AHOY, saying the agency was looking for a creative director. I was well aware of AHOY—I’d followed them for years, so I suggested meeting up for a chat. I really clicked with Mark, and I knew the work was really strong. It’s been an interesting move for me because, at DS.Emotion, we were quite sector specific. The opportunity to get some more variety was obviously really attractive.

Is it too early to ask what a typical day at AHOY looks like for you?

Yeah, I think it is too early! In the first two weeks here, I recreated the brand workshop, delivered two of them and worked on two fairly sizeable pitches—quite deep end stuff!

Generally, my job is trying to juggle overseeing what the guys are doing, working on my own projects and keeping an eye on everything that’s going on with the business as a whole.

It’s lots of juggling, but that’s what I enjoy. It’s not like I lose focus, but I like to be able to focus on lots of little things, so that if I start to hit a block with one thing, I can move on to another. So yeah, it suits me down to the ground.

If you can’t spin plates metaphorically, or physically…

Can you spin plates?

I can! And I can spin cushions! [leaves room to fetch cushion] Let it be known that this is the first time I’ve spun this particular cushion…[performs impressive cushion-spin-and-flip]

I feel like we need more of this! But OK, besides cushion-spinning, what does ‘good’ creative directorship look like to you?

I heard this quote and I want to try and adhere to it—it’s along the lines of “A creative director should take none of the praise and all of the blame”. I’m here for the team, so a lot of my role is motivational and keeping the direction of the company at the forefront. I’m not here to better my portfolio; I’m here to make AHOY’s work the best it can be. It’s like that Steve Jobs quote—I play the orchestra. It’s about being a good conductor—having that knowledge, and using it to help other people achieve their best. I could put my hands to the design tools but, right now, the team is my tool.

Describe yourself at work in three words

Listen, refine, discuss

Describe yourself at home in three words

Films, food, friends…and cats.

If someone’s wondering whether AHOY’s going to be the right agency for them, what would you say?

I’d be surprised if AHOY wasn’t for them. From my month here, I’ve seen fantastic ability, skill, attention to detail, client servicing—the agency is massively on the up and really well placed to take on any kind of branding job that would come along. So yeah, look at the portfolio, come for a meeting—everyone’s lovely, and I can’t picture a branding job that AHOY wouldn’t be well placed for.

Who would you say we’re not a good fit for?

I could give the textbook answer of “people who don’t want to allow us creative freedom” but it’s tricky, and I can completely understand clients who don’t want to relinquish creative control—I wouldn’t always want to, either.

Everyone thinks they can design, and to a certain extent they can, but if I was investing money in a branding agency, I’d make sure I trusted them. The clients who want to dictate to us aren’t necessarily the ones we want because the work doesn’t end up being as strong.

What’s the best bit of your job?

So far, I love working in a really strong team with lots of people, and being part of those creative discussions— throughout every touchpoint of the business, and getting that creative oversight.

Project wins are great, really good fun, and I’ve scored on my debut here, which was a nice feeling. We’re really lucky, because we’re basically being paid to do our hobby. The way I approach branding work, especially identity work, is it’s almost like telling jokes—you’re telling a visual joke, combining elements to get that reaction, that little smile in the mind. Any opportunity to do that is pretty exciting.

Go on, then, tell us a joke…

OK…what do you call a man with no shins?

I don’t know…


Oh, God, shut up! Right, next question: where can you be found when you’re not here at AHOY?

Playing football, tending to my cats, Moss and Lily. I love going out to eat, exercising, seeing friends—all the usual stuff that contributing members of society undertake!

Tell us something about yourself people might be surprised by.

I was a UK dodgeball quarter finalist in 2006. I’m absolutely terrified and fascinated by great white sharks. My great-great-granddad was in India and discovered a diamond mine but didn’t have the funds to mine it, so had to sell the rights. My grandma was born in India and came over here in the years of the Raj—her mum died on the voyage over to England and was buried at sea. So that’s quite interesting!

Oh, and my old cat has been in the FA cup—my dad used to work at Everton and, when they won the cup in 1995, he brought it home for the weekend. He snapped the lid off the cup, and had to take it to a silversmith to get it fixed…actually, should we say this?!

Any final words?

I have diem to carpe.