Founding partner of Deepend and Poke, trustee of the Design Council CABE and an ex-D&AD president, creator of bespoke suit company Social Suicide and now Creative Director of Fray. CS went along to have a chat with the one and only Simon Waterfall.
CS: How did you get to where you are today?
Simon: I’ve always been very focussed and I’ve always known what I wanted to do. Ever since a very early age, I have always been moving forward, sometimes zig zagging, but always moving forward. One of the hardest things to teach a graduate, or someone new to the business, is that you have to keep on moving forward.
Nothing stays still; nothing has ever been given to anybody. The amount of tenacity, energy and patience it takes, especially today, is immeasurable. Skills and passion are a must, and of course you would have those because it’s such a hard journey that you wouldn’t try and do this without them. Just keep moving forward, that’s how I’ve got here, one foot in front of the other.
CS: Why was Fray created?
Simon: Fray was created as a vessel to allow me to learn new things. My past companies have always had open statements at their surface level. Poke was about never repeating yourself; it’s a very internally aggressively creative company, so it struggles with itself rather than the client to do new work. I wanted my next steps to be in new directions with people in different territories.
Design is like a big loom, weaving together different threads of skills. You mix advertising, design, communications and PR to build this beautiful single piece of work. But as the industries have developed people have expected constant improvement, they expect silk, but sometimes that’s not appropriate, and I think today’s brands and behaviour is much more about being appropriate rather than shiny or new.
If you want to carry potatoes, carry them in a hemp bag not a silk one because that wouldn’t be appropriate or honest. To stretch the metaphor, Fray takes all of skills and connections in my career and unpicks it until it’s just threads that I can re weave into new things, make new connections and wear that for a bit. It allows me to be honest again, which is good.
CS: Both Fray and Social Suicide have broken the mold when it comes to the way that they work. Which other industries do you feel need a rethink?
Simon: There are so many industries that got away with a lot of things because communications used to be one way. Now that there’s a lot more conversation, maybe not amongst the brands, but amongst its audience, you are finding that their behaviour needs to be appropriate.
Those brands that over reach or over claim, are the ones that are falling by the wayside, they are the ones that need to behave with different manners. They need to be more appropriate to their core reason. For example, why are you sponsoring a French film? Is it because you’ve got a French sounding name? Or do you really care about film? Because it doesn’t make sense – I know, you know, we know, you’re buying this association. That cheap sponsorship dollar doesn’t work anymore.
When you say that particular companies that I work with work in different ways, we work in a way which I hope is more connected and more honest. A suit is just another kind of uniform and it is too serious sometimes, it is something that men hide behind. You need to play with that and that’s exactly what we did.
I think that it’s fun to take systems and try to pull them apart. I am hearing the word ‘truth’ at board level more often, and I think that that’s a very good thing to happen to this industry.
CS: What in your opinion are the major changes that we can expect to see in the digital communication industry in the near future?
Simon: I’ve been lucky enough to work with one recent client exploring the future of technology. It’s very interesting when you look to the future how far you want to jump forward. If you look at the field of 4G networks, my last clients were the biggest 4G network in the world and what they’re doing today is our future in 2013.
So, is it a future? or are we using them as a test bed? In the late 20th century the world used the UK as the test bed for interactive television. We had 4 set top boxes, what came out of it? We are still seeing echoes of those competitors in our interactive TV today.
In the very long term future, there’s some horrendous statistics out there, some big dangers. I read that on 2nd September scientists told NASA that they had lost control of the environment, the amount of junk up in space has got to a tipping point where one more collision, which will create lots more space debris, might wipe out our satellite network, all of it. In the last ten years we’ve launched 76 satellites a year, and from 2012 to 2020 we are going to launch 1145, these cost billions each, a piece of space debris travels at 17.5 thousand miles an hour.
A flake of paint will go through both sides of a satellite, or a spaceship, and that’s really worrying, seeing as our technology, our GPS, our banking system is all connected through it, our entertainment is downloaded through it, everything is tracked by it.
We could lose that tomorrow – you could wake up tomorrow and that’s gone. Those are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. Is that the near or far future? Well unless we change it now, that will definitely be our future.
CS: The last CS Presents was titled, Creative Looting: Whose Idea Is It Anyway? What have you stolen?
Simon: There’s a fantastic website called youthoughtwewouldntnotice.com, check that out. The amount of different stuff that’s been stolen by communications agencies is disgusting. There are some very large pieces of work, highly awarded, that we all know have been ripped off.
The person you should ask is Joel Veech, with his singing kittens. He found that his song about these fantastic singing kittens had been completely ripped off by an agency, they had just replaced the kittens with Coca Cola bottles.
The agency wouldn’t answer, he tried to speak to Coke and they wouldn’t answer, the only person who would actually listen to Joel Veech was the BBC, because he has won five Webbies, and the BBC News service had also won a Webby that year. So he spoke to the people at the BBC who put it on their site. Coke then of course had to talk to Joel, – you think we wouldn’t notice? We fucking will.
CS: Creative Social recently had its first Fanboy event. If you were to do one, what would it be on?
Simon: I was at it, and I’m sure I will try and do one. The Fanboy thing for me is about something that you are so passionate about but maybe not totally involved in. Obviously I do fashion, and I’m known for that, so it would be nice to do something that was new for the audience. I do a lot of talks and I speak a lot, I love the sound of my own voice, so what is it I actually do?
For the last fifteen years I have bought flowers from the same flower seller on Columbia Road market, every single Sunday for fifteen years. His name is Karl, and everyone who goes to the market knows him and he knows them, their name, their family their lives, my wedding present from him was the flowers for the big day.
Every single Sunday I arrange flowers, at my sink, and then read the paper. I’m not very good, but I’ve been doing it for fifteen years now and I have learnt a little bit. That is the kind of stuff, the hopeful amateur, the average hobbyist, rather than just launching into something that once again is sell more T-shirts or make more brands.
CS: What is the best mistake you’ve made in your career?
Simon: I’ve made shit loads. There’s no such thing as the best, they’re all genius. Failure is always really good – I failed my maths A-Level, I hated the teacher, and because of that I went round Europe in a 1966 split screen camper bus. I went surfing, hung out, and when you’re that far away from home and you’ve only got a socket set and a vague idea of the mechanical, when the bottom of the van falls off, you’ve got to fix it.
You can’t phone anyone because it’s a 1966 so there are no parts made anymore; you’ve got to fix it. Stuff like that, when you know it is an accident at the time, but, that you are the only one who can dig yourself out the situation, that changes you forever. That was good.
CS: If you could change one thing for a day, what would you do?
Simon: I would like people to see themselves in a more human capacity, and make a few more things. To actually physically make, rather than making information or making pixels, I’d like people to be much more involved with their hands and with a craft, they don’t have to be particularly good at it, but if I could have an amnesty on competition and give everyone a day off if they made something, i’d love to do that.
CS: Creative Social’s new book is called The Best Piece of Advice Ever, what piece of advice would you give to somebody just starting out in their career?
To be consistent, and also don’t partner with somebody like you, try and find the absolute opposite. It works in the short term and in the long term, because there should only be one of you in any company and the differences make the partnership rather than similarities. That’s why I married a lady from Manchester.