'Bits on the side' sharpen creativity

Side projects encourage creativity, sharpen the strategic mind and develop business skills. So pursue them - and during working hours.

Six years ago, when 101 was just a conversation, we talked about what company we’d like to build. A company that makes creative dents, yep. Working with clients with a twinkle in the eye, yes. And with best-in-class partners, yep. A company where every department is involved in the creative process, yes. A company that embraces colleagues working on "side projects" in our time, not their own… We wanted all departments at 101 to have side projects, not just the creative one. We wanted 101ers to be able to bring in their "bits on the side" and we’d try to help in any way we could.

Creatives (the good ones) have an entrepreneurial spirit that extends beyond the day job. Most have something they can’t quite make a living from but nourishes their souls in other ways. At 101, Augusto Sola writes music promos. His successes include the amazing Rudimental Feel the Love spot. Joe Bruce works for charity Calm and has just launched Bubble Bros, a Prosecco van business. He also runs a tent-hire company – there’s no stopping him… Ryan Delehanty writes a comedy show called Hinterland. Ben and Joe Williams run Pretty Weird, an experiential design business. Phil Rumbol is launching a non-alcoholic wine. Victoria Ellis is a Samaritan – the best kind of "side project" but not an office-based one. Side projects aren’t exclusive to the advertising agency creative department, though. The client side of our industry is now full of them too. A recent pitch win revealed that a new client of 101 does a four-day week and dedicates the other day to jewellery-making. 

Allegedly, when you’re hired at Google, you only have to do the job you were hired to do for 80% of the time. The other 20% can be spent working on whatever you like, provided it advances Google in some way. 

I agree with the theory that these projects help, not hinder, our business. Why? Because most help you extend and learn skills beyond the day job, enabling you to see the bigger picture of running a business. They can help presentation skills and business/brand/design strategy. They can give confidence if you’re not selling work during the day job (it happens). They can keep you sharper creatively.

My side project is helping Paul Weller run a clothing brand. It’s called Real Stars Are Rare and is designed by him from sketch to final garment. I basically work on his side project and it has taught me a lot. Paul is a very successful musician and is beyond passionate about anything sartorial. He loves clothes – the cut, the fabric, the details, the creating and the wearing. He treats this job with the same integrity that he does his "day job" of writing and recording music. He only produces clothing he would wear. Nothing just for commercial gain. He could knock out polo shirts to his existing fans and make a few quid, no problem. But he has chosen a different, steeper path. To produce quality clothing at a high price point that could and has alienated some fans of his music, but that’s not what it was about in the first place.

He wants the project to not be about him, the musician, at all. It’s all about the clothing. It needs to stand on its own two feet. Product first. This has been the challenge from day one. We don’t have a big budget (this is a business, not a vanity project) and we need to reach a new audience in 2017. A real challenge lies ahead that will be familiar to most start-up brands and we’re currently looking for investment (let me know if you’re interested). Fashion is just as hard a business to break into as advertising. Even with a famous name, an existing customer base and some cash behind it. 

What have I learnt from Paul along the journey?

Don’t be afraid to put all the influences you’ve picked up along the way into making something fresh and new. Craft is everything – pressure on budget and time means this can be lost. There are always improvements to be made – the details are so important. Fight for everything. Be single-minded in everything you do. Say "no, let’s go again" more than "yes, that’s good enough". Only put something out when you’re totally happy. And, lastly, don’t ever do anything you won’t put your name to. These all seem like great reminders of how to do the day job to me.

Mark Elwood is joint executive creative director at 101

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