A design for life

How singing in a rock band prepared me to start an agency.

For many years, after initially starting BRND WGN, I was very secretive about my dual role as a singer in a band. I would quickly change the subject, or play (pun intended) it down if somebody mentioned my alter ego. 

A decade later, I can honestly say that if there was one thing that really helped me build character and prepare me for running an agency, it was probably all those hours singing my heart out behind a microphone. 

Besides helping pay my bills in the very early days, covering songs from Bob Dylan to the Foo Fighters introduced me to a very different part of myself whilst training my endurance levels… especially crawling home in the early hours, knowing I had to look sharp and be ready for action by 7:30 am. 

What I realised was everything we have done becomes part of the life we design. Our only choice is whether to embrace it or deny it. Here are my top ten ‘a design for life’ concepts: 

1. It’s show time, whether you’re ready or not. 
Neither the crowd nor the boardroom have time for time-wasters. When you’re on stage you better be ready to live up to expectations. Play to your strengths, but be aware of your weaknesses because when the lights go on, you need to be ready to put on your best show.

2. Singers (like entrepreneurs) can’t afford to get sick.
Whether you wake up hoarse or your three month-old didn’t let you get any shuteye, you’re still expected to get up on stage and perform. Take care of your health and you might be lucky enough to get through everything on your agenda. Our industry waits for no-one.

3. You need to know how to read your crowd.
No two audiences are the same. Just because one song went down well last week does not mean it will work this week. You need to read your crowd as well as your lyrics, and know which song will work when. A CEO crowd is very different to a CFO crowd. Sometimes you’ll need to punk, sometimes you’ll need to funk.

4. You're only as good as your band (team).
Everyone needs to be in tune and on beat, and it’s your responsibility to keep spirits high and the machine well oiled. If someone’s taking down the tempo, take the time to find out why.

5. You need to put in the passion and also the hours.
Passion alone is not enough. You’re going to need to put in the hours, seek the inspiration, and rehearse till the neighbours send over the cops if you want to stay at the top of the charts. As Thomas Edison said, genius is 1% idea and 99% perspiration. Running an agency is more than just about your crusade to change the world.

6. It might not start with much, but it will put food on the table.
When you’re starting out, take care of your pennies. Every gig and every job is an opportunity to put your name out there; one thing always leads to another if the crowd leaves humming your tune.

7. For you it might be just a gig, but to someone in the audience it might be the most important day of their life.
There’s no excuse to giving less than your best. Music has the power to change people’s moods, in the same way that brand experiences shift perceptions. Change is constant, it’s up to you whether you’re managing that change or being affected by somebody else’s. 

8. You never know who’s listening.
I met my wife at a gig, our Head of Client Services used to DJ after our set, and I met my first designer (who is now a partner) and our COO whilst at a soundcheck. It’s the same in the boardroom, you’ll never know who’s really listening and where that impression will take you. 

9. Everybody has and needs an alter ego.
The most interesting clients, colleagues and partners I’ve ever met all had another passion on the side - a role and space where they can let their inner lion come out. Be it mountain biking down a gnarly descent, sky-diving or flamenco. Our CFO plays football for the National Team and even nutmegged Wayne Rooney; an old CEO client ran 27 marathons in 27 days for charity, and one of the softest spoken UX designers on the team used to slap bass guitar in a new-metal band in London. Be true to yourself and unleash your lion.

10. The show must go on.
Shit happens - more often than you might want it to, but that’s just part of the deal. Whatever happens, there’s a skill in holding your head up high and ‘just keep swimming’. It’s what you’re expected to do.

Ten years later our Creative Team decided to make the rock symbol our brand stamp, and today I embrace every one of those belted choruses and air guitar moments as the brutal honest truth of my good old rock ’n’ roll life!