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M.AD Insighter Series

All the Shit They Didn’t Tell You (with Paul Woods)

Oct 06, 2021 - 04:00pm

Speaker

Paul Woods

Overview

Having a successful career in the creative industry: It’s all about making awesome work and having a great portfolio, right? Wrong. In this talk, Paul Woods, CEO of global design agency Edenspiekermann, outlines key tips every student should know before they graduate. Hank: Hey, everybody. Welcome to our insiders broadcast today, the very first one […]

Paul Woods

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Having a successful career in the creative industry: It’s all about making awesome work and having a great portfolio, right? Wrong. In this talk, Paul Woods, CEO of global design agency Edenspiekermann, outlines key tips every student should know before they graduate.

Hank:

Hey, everybody. Welcome to our insiders broadcast today, the very first one of the quarter. Today, we have two stories for you and all in one story from our guest, Paul Woods. The first story is the creative industry riddle. That's the story of the CEO and the COO who's head of a major agency in LA with offices in Berlin, Amsterdam, LA, Singapore, San Francisco. And in this story, the protagonist leads Edenspiekermann's creative and technology teams, building products, brands, service work, the things you're studying for clients in industry, such as editorial, sustainability, and transportation. In this first story, Paul has been at the helm of projects for companies like Red Bull, Google, Faraday Future, a crazy company, amazing company, and Morgan Stanley amongst others. But there's a second story and that's a story about fresh graduates planning their careers in the creative industries.

Hank:

That one is about a little book authored by Paul and just out last month, called, "Sh*t They Didn't Tell You to Succeed in the Creative Industries." It's one of the best little books I have seen on this subject by anyone anywhere. The creative advice that is found within pages of this little green book can power the best and the smartest students in the world. And trust me, it will. It's plots and it's subplots are overflowing with practical tips that you, as you kickstart your career, will be able to absolutely use. Paul's Irish. He's a masterful storyteller. He has a recall of amazingly well-crafted thoughtful observations, and he's truly a quilter at heart who'll weave a story from mere scraps. And today, he's going to weave one for you. Let's welcome to our first insiders series of the quarter, Paul Woods. Paul, welcome.

Paul Woods:

Thank you very much, Hank, and a pleasure to be here and to speak with you all today. Apologies in advance, if you hear me coughing a little bit, I've just been traveling a lot and I seemed to have picked up a little cough, but it won't detract too much from today. So as Hank mentioned, my name is Paul Woods. As you can tell from my funny accent, I'm not from the US originally. I'm actually from Ireland, which is a little island in Europe, and I've been on a world tour of sorts for the past 12 years working in London and Berlin, New York, and now in Los Angeles. My day job is as CEO of a company with a very funny name, let's be honest, Edenspiekermann. And before you ask, if you haven't ever heard of that name, which I can definitely understand, there is a Mr. Spiekermann and this is him here, Erik Spiekermann, and he is a guy from Germany who's a very well-known typographic, designer, entrepreneur.

Paul Woods:

We always joke about sometimes the name Spiekermann isn't as popular in the US as it is in Europe, but if you don't know Eric's name, you probably are familiar with some of his work and some of the work that Eric has been known for, and that also Edenspiekermann is also known for his some iconic projects and things like transportation, Hank mentions, clients like Red Bull, Google, Faraday Future, the city of Santa Monica, all sorts of things. Eric's been doing a lot of iconic projects throughout the years, including the city of Berlin's first unified transit system when the city was united in then early nineties, working with brands like Economist, shaping their digital and brand language. Today, doing a lot of work in the automotive space. We've just done the whole in-car experience for Faraday Future a couple of years ago. Similar project for Mercedes-Benz. Doing cool stuff for Red Bull, launching their first streaming platform, Red Bull TV, working with them for about eight years now. I'm also working here in the US with a lot of municipalities, the city of Santa Monica, helping them launch their digital town hall.

Paul Woods:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, today is not going to be about Edenspiekermann. What I wanted to talk to you guys about today is something that is somewhat of a myth, dare I say, in the creative industry. That is something we see a lot when we're starting out, something when we're studying out as junior creatives when we're just graduating, et cetera. I'm going to give you guys a caveat, of course, that this is going to be a very boring talk for you all today sadly. I wrote a little book, as Hank said, on this very boring subject and this little boring subject, is this: the myth of the creative genius?

Paul Woods:

So what do I mean by that, Paul? What is the myth of the creative genius? Why is it relevant? Why am I sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon looking at this? Well, when we start out in our careers, a lot of the time when we think of the pie chart, you're going to see a lot of charts throughout this presentation, there's nothing more I enjoy than a good chart or a good infographic, we think of our career progression and what defines career success a little bit like this. We produce great work. You have a great portfolio. All that other shit? That doesn't really matter. We say things like, "It's all about doing amazing work." You've got a great portfolio. You're guaranteed to be successful. As you get a bit more bold, you might say something like, "I am a mystical Christ of design of creative direction." You might hear sayings like this, "My mom says you can't get rich by doing this because design is art. It's a vocation." So all of these things today, I want to say bullshit.

Paul Woods:

Now, don't get me wrong. This is going to be a boring talk, but I want to touch on some topics that will hopefully enable you guys to talk about the things on the fringes of great work, things that will enable you to do great work in great companies throughout your career. Don't get me wrong. I care a lot. I care a lot about making work that melts faces, that produces awards. This is me getting an award for something there, very happy. Care a lot about this, the Benjamins, and for all of these reasons, we need to think beyond the work.

Paul Woods:

So when you're starting at your career, I think there's four main components to success, and that sliver that we talk about great work when we looked at it on our pie chart and it was maybe 95% and all the other shit was 5%, actually looks a bit more like this. Sure, your great portfolio is probably 25%. business basics, knowing how to get into companies is another, at least, a quarter. Hard work is another quarter. And the last one, which I think is actually the most important, not being an asshole, is another quarter. And these four quarters, you got to check these boxes to be a success in the creative industry, especially when you're starting out.

Paul Woods:

So it's a little bit lofty. What does that actually mean? So today, I wanted to share seven different topics with you that I wish I had had known in art school that are certainly for anyone that's been in the industry a couple of years, I would say this is not none of this is rocket science, none of this is proprietary knowledge, but it's things we just don't think about because when we're starting out, we're very, very focused on making work. So the first thing I wanted to talk about is the work itself and knowing what sort of work you do. So I think early on in your career, it's very important to think about what you're really good at. So I always use this example of everyone who studies photography wants to be Annie Leibovitz or some other big name. Everyone who wants to study design probably has an icon of Stefan Sagmeister, [inaudible 00:09:24] or some other icon they want to be.

Paul Woods:

I think, early on in your career, especially you want to think about, where do I actually sit on this? Where am I really good at? And where can my skills excel? This is pretty fucking tough, right? So I would say one of the first things that you want to do, one of the first things that you should do immediately after leaving school is find a mentor. I was very lucky early on that I found a mentor in Erik Spiekermann. It's amazing as a young designer when you reach out to people directly and are not afraid to reach out to an Erik Spiekermann or a [inaudible 00:10:06], or whoever that might be your idol that you look up to.

Paul Woods:

How often they'll reciprocate and come back to you and say, "Yeah, you know what? I'm happy to look at your work once every six months and put it on our side." This foundational nugget of finding a mentor and not being afraid to reach out to people directly is one of the most important things you're ever going to do in your career and it'll set you on the path. Every other decision and every other thing I'm about to share with you can always be checked against this person.

Paul Woods:

The second thing I say is, well, if you want to find out what you're really good at, you want to start finding your way, is to experiment as much as possible. For some people, that means doing a post-graduate course. For some people, it means doing side projects figuring out where their real passion is because pretty much every design course out there or creative course, you're studying a mixture of things, probably copywriting. I don't know about all the specifics of what you guys study, but you're probably studying a lot of things and you want to experiment. You want to try different things, different mediums to find out what that nugget is that you're truly passionate about.

Paul Woods:

Find your creative voice. Once you have an idea of what you're passionate about, find your creative voice. And then last, but certainly not least, making a plan. This is the one that I think people get very stuck on from the start is, what do I want to do in my career? And that's an open ended question. It's impossible to answer when you're a student, but maybe what's the first two things that I want to do? Do I want to work in the film industry in Los Angeles? If I'm filmmaker, do I want to make commercials? Do I want to travel to Europe? What's very important, I think, as a student is you have, what I call, a golden ticket right now. You have a golden ticket where you can up as much as you want, where everyone is on your side, where everyone will support you. When you write to an executive at a big ad agency, a creative director, they want to help you. They want to support young talent. They want to help people.

Paul Woods:

Everyone remembers what it's like to be a student and how tough those first couple of years are. Now is the time to think big, and this is what I say to every students. You have unlimited license to do things. The vast majority, you probably don't have a mortgage on a house. You don't have things that are going to stop you traveling and doing things beyond just getting a local internship at a small design shop on the corner. Guess what? The person who starts the career in that small design studio that's down the street is probably going to be there if they start their career there and it gets a lot harder as time goes on. When I started, I actually emailed all the shops in Dublin in Ireland. Dublin is a very small place. And I thought, "Well, maybe I'll get an internship here," and I was rejected from every place. I don't know why.

Paul Woods:

Then I thought to myself, "I should absolutely... Why am I even looking around this small town, this small country? Why not talk to people in London, in Berlin, the people I really want to work with?" And that's what I'd done, and I was amazed. I was expecting to hear nothing back. In the space of a month, I had offers at Edenspiekermann in Berlin, working with Erik Spiekermann, and I'd heard from multiple other agencies in New York, et cetera. Think big, make a plan, plan the first couple of steps. No one can plan five years when you're starting out, but do look a little bit bigger than just getting an internship in the shop that's closest to your school.

Paul Woods:

All right. Who here is still working on their portfolio for the last six months trying to perfect it, rewriting every word? We've all been there. I always say, you start on all the good intentions. This is going to be the best fucking portfolio that any of us have ever seen. Then maybe about six months later, you've edited about a thousand times, you adjusted every image. Every possible decision, you've second thought about, second guessed about 10 times. Let me give you some advice. You are not alone. There is no task in life, probably getting away with murder, probably hosting a dinner with your in-laws, there is no task, more difficult than making your portfolio except making your first portfolio, which is the toughest... I Think it's the toughest project you'll ever work on.

Paul Woods:

There is one piece of advice I would always give and this is the one that transcends everything I'm going to say about portfolios afterwards, better done than perfect. Make the portfolio, ship the damn thing out, finish it, launch it, and then improve it the next week, the week after. It makes it a lot easier. There is no such thing as a perfect portfolio. You spend a year working on it and you're going to hate it anyway in about three weeks after you've launched the damn thing. Get the thing out the door. That's the first and foremost thing. In terms of what's in your portfolio, the most important thing I would say to you is focus, focus, focus.

Paul Woods:

And I always say, especially when you're studying a lot of things, your portfolio is not a unicorn. Don't try and make it a unicorn. Don't put a bit of everything that you could possibly do if you do photography, if you're writing, if you're illustrating, if you like to paint pictures of your dog on oil canvas on the weekends and then you put all this into a portfolio and say, "I'm very clear on what I can do." The first task is to edit down. Make it simple. If you want to do photography, have a portfolio that just has photography. If you want to do illustration, have a portfolio that just has illustration. If you want it to UX design, if you want to do brand design, focus on the thing that you want to do in there because the real secret of your portfolio is that your portfolio is one area of your career that you actually can shape.

Paul Woods:

When you go and work at an agency, you're going to have to work on every God damn project to kind of throw at your desk. When you're creating your portfolio, you get to choose the path of your career. Keep this statement in mind. Whatever is in your portfolio is exactly what you're going to do more of. If you want to do illustration, but you only show photography. Guess what? No one's going to hire you to be an illustrator. It doesn't have to be commercial either. And we're going to talk a little bit more about commercial work in a moment. What matters at your point in your career is showing your own personality, showing work that you can really own, that you've worked end-to-end on that has your creative stamp on it and it's focused. It's focused on the sort of thing that you want to do more of.

Paul Woods:

Secondly, quality costs money. Your portfolio is the most important asset that you are going to spend money on in the first years of your career. Spend money on it. You spend so much money on... It baffles me. Students spent so much money on student loans and doing these colleges, and then they want a free website to host three or four years of work at the end. I'm not going to mention names, but there's a couple of those free platforms out there that are just horrible. Spend the money. There's plenty of platforms out there. I am not sponsored by any of these. There's great ones. I often use Semplice or Squarespace. There's another one. Carbonmade is really great. If it's free, it's probably crap. Spend money on your portfolio.

Paul Woods:

And lastly, I mentioned this before, but be careful of commercial work. What do I mean by commercial work? I mean it's maybe the first year out of the gates. You've just got a project maybe with a big brand, maybe a, who knows maybe a Nike, but you're maybe just out of school and all you've done is a banner ad and all you've done is maybe [inaudible 00:19:28] ... a little bit. Don't do that sort of work in your portfolio. Mention that you work for Nike in your bio, but it's amazing how many times we get applicants for the same job, a design position, and you'll see the same work again and again in people's portfolios. And they've all maybe worked on a tiny sliver of this. I'm looking at all of these projects and I'm like, "You're a year out of school. You definitely weren't the creative director on this global Nike campaign."

Paul Woods:

Then someone else says the same thing on us and they said they were also the creative director of this global Nike campaign. Be careful will commercial work. There's different opinions on it. My opinion is that when we look for designers or creatives, at least we want to see work that expresses what the person is truly good at. We want to see their passion. We want to see what they're uniquely talented at. Maybe it could be art direction, or it could be a certain style of illustration depending on the project, but we want to see that reflected. We don't give a shit if it's commercial work or personal work. What's important is that it's their work and it's good work.

Paul Woods:

All right. Next tip. So that was seven tips, but there's a lot of sub tips nested in these tips. All right. Be smarter when applying for jobs. Every day, I get at least two emails that look exactly like this. Now, that's too small on your screen. So I'll read it out, "To whom it may concern. I am interested in applying for a job at your company, as well as the other hundred companies in CC on this email. Attached is a hundred megabyte PDF of my portfolio to clog up your inbox." Now, this is really an email that I get twice a day, and then I get a up email from someone that's pissed off that I didn't reply to this email. We're a small company. We've got about 120 people or so worldwide. Imagine a big company, some of the agencies you guys are going to want to work for the, [inaudible 00:21:58] ... et cetera. They're getting thousands of applications a month for jobs.

Paul Woods:

Typically, we would send any email that starts with, "Dear, Sir or Madam," goes to the trash. Okay? Not rocket science, but let me let you in on a little secret tool to research these companies. It's called the internet. On this place called the internet, what you can do is you can research the creative director and find their name. You can find their email address. You can find out what sort of work they're interested in. You can ask them directly if they will be interested in maybe meeting for a coffee or doing a one-on-one chat about your portfolio. This approach is going to get you a hundred times, a thousand times more responses than any sort of general, "To whom it may concern..." email that you blast to 20, 30, 40, 50 companies all around the US.

Paul Woods:

It touches on a larger point, is that when you're doing a job search, I said smarter, it needs to be curated. You need to look at what companies, again, you're focused on. Is it art direction, design, et cetera? And then talking with them, finding the people that are relevant to the company, and then finding a way to start a meaningful conversation with them. Maybe it's the creative director that launched a new campaign and you're a big fan of that work. Write something about that. Flatter them, and then try and get in there. When we advertise for jobs, I don't have the exact percentage, but I would say 75% of people that we hire are the ones that don't just go through the system, the HR system. They actually reach out to me or our design director directly and it's like, "Hey, Paul," or, "Hey, Hero. I really liked that project that you guys done for Santa Monica or Faraday Future. I'm really interested in in-car digital experiences or city branding. Could we chat about that for 10 minutes?"

Paul Woods:

We'll always find time, and most creative directors will find time to find 10 minutes, and then you have an in, and that allows you of course, to take an internship to apply for a job, et cetera. My advice to you guys is do an internship, do two, maybe do three internships. When we go back to the idea of talking to the creative director, internships are a lot easier to get into and you're going to get into a company that maybe you wouldn't have got into otherwise. To give you context, in our company, the three partners that run this company, two of them are ex-interns that run this global Edenspiekermann company. And lastly, please no 25 megabyte PDFs and link to a nice website that works on a mobile phone is mandatory in 2021. All right.

Paul Woods:

No one likes to talk about the boring shit. What's the boring shit? The boring is money. Money. Let me dispel myth and make this more interesting. You can get rich being a designer, being a creative, being an art director. There's a lot of money in this industry. There's never been more money in this industry. I know there's a good mix of people on this call across art, design, et cetera. I can speak for the commercial arts and design. Especially anything with technology, there is an enormous amount of money to made in design right now and the creative industries.

Paul Woods:

So how do you do this? Well, first and foremost, learn how to price your work. Never low ball yourself. Get a good accountant, get a good lawyer, start a side hustle, shape your career. One of the things that I always tell designers as well, an agency will give you a certain set of projects, but it might not be exactly where you want in your career to go. So you'll start a side project that maybe is more in line. If the day job is not where you want to go. There's always a way to shape your career. Last, but not least, on the topic of mastering the boring shit, get paid to travel. It goes back a little bit to what I said at the start. Right now, you guys have a golden ticket. It's the golden ticket to do to fuck up as many times. Everyone is open to having students or young graduates in their agency.

Paul Woods:

Getting paid to travel is the most underutilized perk of this industry, and it's amazing when I... I'm baffled at not everyone takes advantage of this. I'm from Ireland and I've lived in London, as is Berlin, New York, now in Los Angeles, and this has all been paid by a company. The spoiler alert here is that I'm not really the best designer that was in my class. We weren't even at the top five designers that graduated in my class. We're getting paid to travel. It's just a matter of reaching out to companies and being fucking persistent.

Paul Woods:

Okay. Another topic that we don't talk a lot about when we talk, I'll go back to that chart around great work, is clients. Fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to look at that, most of you are going to have to figure out how to manage clients. Clients get a bit of a bad rap, right? Let's be honest. You probably see them a little bit now in this disfigure here, this fellow here then is this shroud. That's almost this nemesis. The reality of working with clients is clients are pretty simple to manage. [inaudible 00:28:39]. Clients care about getting projects done in budget and on time. It's pretty simple how to do both of these things.

Paul Woods:

If you don't have a brief, you don't start work. That's something that we always talk about. No brief, no work. There's so many times that you're tempted to just start a project without a written brief, and this is especially as you guys start in the creative industry or at creative jobs starting out, you'll find out that's the biggest difference from college. You're going to get a lot of briefs at work. I knew a creative director in New York, [inaudible 00:29:16]. His mantra was no brief, no work. And you don't have a brief, you end up on the spaghetti process. You start a project, no guidance. You end up through this whole mess. No one really knows what they're doing. You hear these excuses, "This project was too small for a brief. It was only a banner ad or it was only a flyer. It was only a small ad that was going to run a newspaper." You need a brief.

Paul Woods:

They're not very hard to write. If you ever get assigned a project and there's no brief, you can share them this. It's very straightforward. When it comes to clients, I also want to tell you no big reveals. And I know this is very hard for the ad people there. This is something that, at least us as design- I'd even speak around a more design focused, we find a big reveals, which is the idea here that the creative director goes up on stage, presents background. This is team kind of shoveling this big idea that the client never sees until the last minute, and it's very, very similar to the last chart and that when you do big reveals, there's this big risk that the client disappear for six months and you come back with something that the client may or may not like.

Paul Woods:

We're big fans of doing things this way. Every two weeks, we're checking with our clients. We show them progress. It's very German. They don't see a big reveal, but the reality is they can shape the progress. One of the things you guys are going to notice, which is maybe very different from when you graduated 10 years ago, is that your clients also have design teams. Part of our work now, especially on the agency side, is figuring out how to work with them, how to integrate them into our process and that's something that maybe you probably haven't taught anything about, but it's something that you'll notice that the designers, the traditional clients in the suit isn't very, very rarely the case anymore. It's usually a designer that's just like a designer in your own team.

Paul Woods:

Insist on clear feedback. Again, not rocket science, but I want to share an email that I have got. This is a real email. I had to obviously remove the client name. This is something to think about when you also give feedback to someone is a non-constructive subjective feedback. This is a real email that I got from a client as part of a very long chain of emails, a client that we subsequently fired. Obviously, this is useless. There's no examples. Insist on clear feedback. If you don't have feedback. Sorry, I can't continue this until I get feedback in a proper format. Lastly, when you do your first internships, there are two secret tools that you must use at all times. To take feedback, this is them, this pen and paper. It's amazing how many interns that start don't take notes and it still baffles me.

Paul Woods:

Don't work for free. What do I mean by this? Well, there is this idea in the creative industry that as a designer, as a creative, that design is an art form. And design is creative. It's the commercial. Arts are certain creative. They have the word art in the title. But the reality is, is that getting compensated is something you should always get, whether you're an intern, whether or not you're working for someone on Instagram that promises you exposure for your work, or whether or not you're a junior doing projects. You should never work for free, and I mean that from the day you graduate out of the gate. It's one of the most important lessons.

Paul Woods:

I was very lucky to learn that from Erik Spiekermann at the very start that no one should work for free. It's something that will fundamentally change your mindset when you undervalue yourself and your work from the start and you don't think. Maybe you don't think because you're a graduate, your work should be paid. Your work should always be paid from day one. Right now, if you do a project for someone, your work should be paid. These are some of the things you are going to hear or maybe have already heard. "You'll get great exposure." This one pisses me off. "It'll look great in your portfolio." Maybe you've heard that one before. "There'll be more work in the future." The worst one, "We don't pay interns."

Paul Woods:

Thankfully, a very smart gentleman, called Mike Monteiro, you should read one of his books, he's a very good writer and designer, has a great slogan for this, great response for this and that is simply, "Fuck you. Pay me." If I don't work for you, "Fuck you. Pay me." Last, but certainly not least, I want to give you a little heads up that some of the people that you might meet in the coming months after you graduate, now, the creative industry I should forewarn as someone who has had in the past a bit of a checkered reputation about assholes. And these are some that you will probably see and thankfully, I think are getting less and less of them. The account director who promises the clients a six month website project in three weeks, or the creative director that takes the credit for the work of the designers, the project manager that says, "Hey, I'm going to give you the feedback at five o'clock on a Friday, but the deadline is on Monday." And again, the CEO that decides not to pay their interns.

Paul Woods:

Now, I know most of you guys aren't CEOs right now. In fact, you guys are probably just starting out and you're thinking, why is this relevant for me? Why do I need to think about this? Because this is one of the most formative messages that I can give you right now, is that being nice matters. This is a very small industry. It's a little goldfish bowl. Everyone knows everyone. You guys have probably heard of Glassdoor. These are some actually well-known ad agencies. You can see all the reviews there. This website's where you can go and see how certain... You see it every day and certain publications around which agencies now have a shitty culture and which ones don't. So keep that in mind.

Paul Woods:

I have found over the course of my career, there is nothing that has stood out to me more than genuinely trying to be generous with your time. The screen is not moving. There we go. Not burning bridges. Remember that this is a small industry. What do I mean by it's a small industry? There are people that interned in our Berlin office that now are clients of ours companies like Google. There are people that have interviewed me at other jobs that where I was working alongside a couple of years ago. It's early days for you guys, but it's never too early to be generous with your time.

Paul Woods:

I always say what goes around, comes around. And above everything else that I've told you today, I'm going to leave you with this wonderful poster from the graphic artist, Anthony Burrell, that is, "Work hard. Be nice to people." What goes around, comes around. It's the most important tip that I can give you. I know you guys are going to be focused on your show. You're going to be focused on creating great work, but keep in mind this chart in the next weeks and the next months as you guys work towards graduation. Your work is one very important piece of the picture, but being successful is about a whole lot more. That's it. Thank you very much for your time.

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