Mind Your Business: Nick Armitage On Caring For Culture At Nonsense
7 minute read
Creative agency Nonsense believes that brands have to stop drinking their own Kool-aid and start being honest with their customers, if they want to cut through the noise in today’s congested marketplace. By being genuine, and bringing meaningful stories rooted in human truths to life, businesses can gain trust with consumers and build longer term relationships.
What Nonsense does differently happens behind the scenes, before its content meets its consumers. Where necessary, this company believes in making the bold move of challenging the business objectives of projects it’s presented with – choosing to start right rather than to stumble upon issues of authenticity later down the line.
Thinking laterally about the marketing questions it’s asked to answer, and when called for, being willing to turn down briefs because they’re asking the wrong questions altogether, has garnered Nonsense impressive clients like; Cancer Research UK, AXA, Adobe and Sky.
Nick Armitage is Managing Partner. He’s taken it upon himself to make sure Nonsense puts its money where its mouth is, creating a work culture worth waking up early for. Ever honest of course, he says it’s a work in progress.
He’s also just a really nice guy, who took the ‘love thy neighbour’ saying and ran with it – over to ours, at Glyphics, just a couple doors down, looking for some signage. So we decided to go for a coffee together and have a frank chat, from one family business to another…
What’s all this Nonsense about?
We’re a creative agency, originally set up by two creatives 13 years ago. Today, we are an integrated full-service creative agency that offers Strategy, Creative, Design, Video and Motion, plus client services and project management to hold it all together. It’s run by myself, Creative Partner Rob Mosley and Content Partner Will Savage, and we’re under-pinned by an incredibly talented team of individuals who all work insanely hard.
We’re seeing a growing gap between what brands say and what they do. We call this The Credibility Gap and we believe the bigger the gap, the more damaging it can be to the value of a brand – because the more pronounced a customer’s experience of this gap is, the less trust they have in the brand. We argue this can hurt brand performance over time and so we work with our clients to close the gap and win the race.
How was the agency christened?
The name Nonsense came about as a narrative to all the other meaningless names that agencies and brands were coming up with around the time we started.
Creating work that is credible and helps brands build credibility with their customers is central to everything that we do. A brief that isn’t being true to the values of a brand or is simply asking us to create something ‘nice and shiny’ that lacks in substance isn’t really something that we want to be involved in. Most brands think that they have a right to talk to their customers for any good reason. But we disagree. They have to earn the right, and build trust. And we believe that to be successful, you need to have ideas of undeniable authenticity.
And how do people receive the name?
That’s a good question, when we were just a bunch of kids in a small Soho office we were concerned that people wouldn’t take us seriously with a name like this. Running a business and offering a good client experience was brand new to us and we would worry that people would see through the cracks. But over the past 13 years of trading, we’ve grown into our name. It represents everything we stand for as a creative agency and the purpose of our existence and we now have work that backs up our story.
To track back, who is Nick?
I moved to London fifteen years ago and have been based mainly in Shoreditch ever since, which is why it’s so great to have the new studio bang in the middle of it all now too.
I came here to study Graphic & Media Design for Advertising at the London College of Communication and got completely immersed in everything that was happening in Shoreditch at the time creatively. Street art was getting really exciting with artists (that are now huge today) popping up new pieces all over the neighbourhood, the UK hip hop scene was (in my opinion) at its best and the parties were awesome. Not a stag do or hen party in sight!
During uni, I was selling my own art online and in a couple of galleries, DJing/promoting nights at clubs and bars, running a monthly radio show with good friends and working a couple of days a week in retail for brands including Fenchurch and 55DSL. In the stores, I was given the opportunity to get involved in design and music projects with the brands, in addition to my part-time shop job which was an incredible experience for a youngster that had just arrived in LDN! My time in retail and music is where I met some of my best mates in this city. So many of them have gone on to do amazing things and I’ve had the pleasure of being able to collaborate on creative projects with many of them too.
Since graduating, Nonsense has been my only job! I was 23 when I joined forces with the guys. We were a bit like glorified freelancers at the beginning, but quickly established ourselves as a creative studio in our own right. We bought in two additional business partners within the first eighteen months, and formalised a partnership, divvying-up equity and departmentalising based on our skill sets spanning Client Services, Design, Video and Creative. Being from a design background, I headed up the design department which over time grew to include user experience design and web development.
Outside of Nonsense I have founded a number of music, art and design led projects with highlights that have included DJing at Glastonbury Festival, running a number successful club nights that stood the test of time, exhibitions, and a pop-up shop in Soho selling a line of t-shirts we created in collaboration with sneaker boutique, Foot Patrol and Normski.
Mentorship is another important thing in my life now. As well as being lucky to have some incredible and successful mentors supporting and guiding me, I directly mentor the founders of a couple of other creative businesses. I am also a proud member of The Friday Club. A place for some of the UK’s most exciting start-ups to workshop and troubleshoot challenges that they’re facing in their first three years of business. I love spending time with energetic founders with big ideas, and to have the chance to share my experience and learnings.
Is your role creative? What does your day-to-day look like?
My main passions lie in art, design, music and business, and whilst a lot of my role now isn’t deep in the trenches of creative work, Nonsense provides the opportunity for me to be surrounded by creatives all day. I also ensure that I always have a creative outlet in some capacity to keep the balance right.
At Nonsense, right now, that’s in focussing on our own brand and ‘shop window’, building our profile, building and developing the right mix of team, meeting new exciting brands to work with and exploring ways to partner with other creative individuals and businesses as part of our mission to grow a worldwide network of creatives.
As Managing Partner, I treat many of the challenges I’m faced with every day, and the processes we implement, as design challenges in their own right. From designing the right shape of team, to establishing our internal delivery processes – I believe that the principles needed in management are exactly the same as those that are essential to creating good design. Solutions must be frictionless, practical, stand the test of time, detailed, thorough, honest and most of all, simple. Any time in our past that we’ve made mistakes (and trust me, there’s been plenty), over-complication and a lack of simplicity has more often than not been the root cause.
Would you say you’re a risk taker?
I’m quite risk averse by nature, but to succeed in business you have to take the right kind of risks. One of my biggest learnings of my professional life is to follow your gut. I can say that every time I’ve made a decision against my gut it’s not worked out. Your gut is what your heart and head tells you before being battered by external points of view and influence.
“As Partners, we really are like family and we try to extend that to the team and our clients. We’ve failed if we haven’t created an environment where people want to be, our clients want to hang out, and where we feel that we can create our best work.”
How does that manifest in your workplace policies?
I don’t think that unlimited holiday policy is right for every business but is certainly something I’d love to consider for Nonsense at some point. I think that policies of this nature are important in general because they are progressive and the people taking the lead in this space are helping push things forward. Building flexibility around working hours and placing ownership of time management into the hands of the team contributes to building a culture of trust both between the team and the business and between colleagues.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is a four day week. I’ve been reading about it a lot and speaking with friends running other businesses and think that it could be a great idea. When you have a task to complete in a fixed period of time, more often than not you tend to use all the time you have allocated. I believe that a four day week model pushes teams to find efficiencies that they may otherwise not have looked for. A 20% drop in hours doesn’t necessarily lead to a 20% reduction in output, in fact I believe that it could help us find ways to over-deliver and increase the volume and quality of work that leaves our studio, and everyone gets to spend more time with family and friends.
What are the business questions that you’re asking yourself everyday?
How do we stay relevant and valuable to our clients?Maintaining relevance means continuing to adapt and evolve as we scale the business and to not get too comfortable. We should be excited by changes ahead of us, seek them out and treat them as an opportunity to learn, evolve and ultimately create more awesome work that pushes boundaries and delivers results.
We add value in part by providing a great experience for the brands that we work with. This includes bringing them on the creative journey with us and giving them a consistently high quality service. Value’s also achieved by keeping one eye on our processes and ensuring we remain open to adapting them in the spirit of greater efficiency and a stronger end result.
This all comes back to culture. Mindset and attitude of the team is key to being able to achieve these things. We are only as fast as our slowest team member, so unless the whole team is engaged with our ambition and is pushing forward with us, we won’t achieve what we’ve set out to.
How do you get the creative spark going within the team?
By not having a culture of ‘throwing work over the fence’. For us, it’s important that our process is inclusive and non-linear. I’m not saying it’s perfect, and it’s an ever evolving challenge, however by constantly pushing a culture that encourages collaboration, has no room for ego and always shares a mutual intent to create the best work of our lives, then we should be able to create the sparks.
Culturally, we’re winning when we have an environment where the best ideas, no matter where they have come from, surface to the top.
After so long, friendship must be inevitable?
Yeah, me and my two partners Rob and Will actually knew each other from school. I am mates with Rob’s younger brother and Will actually helped me learn to ollie a skateboard when I was about thirteen (shortly before I got much better at it than him!) I’m giving away my age now, but we’ve known each other for a little over 20 years! Rob also officiated my wedding, which was a pretty big deal!
Something we’ve worked very hard on is maintaining a true friendship alongside being business partners. That’s not to say that things don’t get intense and stressful at times, but we have to remind ourselves that there’s a bigger picture and as one of my mentors always reminds me, “we’re not packing parachutes”. Friends and family first.
I’m also proud to say that friendship exists beyond just us three as well. We love hanging out with our team and out of the 100+ team members we’ve hired over the past thirteen years, I am proud to say that we remain close and good mates with a chunk of them too. Past employees that we keep in touch with have often told us that there is something special about the culture at Nonsense and I believe that it’s born out of the fact that the business was created out of friendship and family.
What are the challenges of working with friends/family?
The biggest challenge is that it’s so easy to let each other off when it comes to the commitments we make to one another. To grow, businesses need a clear and direct roadmap of goals. As leaders, it is important to drive that roadmap at all times, but as mates it’s very easy to let each other off without consequence when goals aren’t reached. For us, agreeing that the business comes first, tracking our roadmap and meeting to review regularly helps us build momentum and hold each other to account.
The success of the business means we can continue celebrating team members getting onto the property ladder, having kids, going on awesome holidays or whatever else they want to get up to. It’s not about us anymore it’s about our team and our families – so we need to keep pushing each other and remaining focussed on the business’s growth.
“I don't think we'd moved the team into the new place yet when I was in the office firing out some emails about some signage, I hadn't really done a recce of the street, so once I was done and heading back to my car, I walked past Glyphics. 'Oh.' So I popped in, had a chat, the guys were really nice, they'd done quite a lot of signs in our building already, it was a no brainer.”
Why did the agency move to Shoreditch?
We’ve been in East London for the past 6 years after relocating from Soho. Most of our team live around here and a lot of our clients are close by too. I personally moved to Shoreditch fifteen years ago and have a personal connection to the place. It’s changed a LOT over that time, but remains buzzy and inspiring and I feel is the right place for a young creative agency like ours to be.
Do you feel part of the community?
Yeah we’re quite used to the street. We love the area and it’s great to have the studio back in the thick of it all. I used to hang at the first Dragon Bar just around the corner and DJd at a load of places around here too, including Book Club a few doors down. We celebrated Nonsense’s third birthday in a derelict pub that Designers Block were occupying over by the Hoxton overground station whilst it was being built, and our tenth birthday party was in Kachette’s arches just around the corner on Old Street. I have mates with agencies in Shoreditch too so it’s good to all be together and always a short walk away from a supportive chat and a beer! There are some awesome businesses on Leonard Street. Some competitive, others not, but all creative and that’s the main reason I’m excited to be here again.
Okay some quick fire questions – since you were a DJ, favourite song?
Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up (Extended version). I’ve probably played it at every gig I have ever done, but more important now because it was one of my wedding songs. The second half of the extended version is just pure jamming in the studio. Everyone gives me a hard time about this song because I play it too much, but I love it. Pure positive energy.
Describe your digital agency in five words…
Ambitious, creative, hungry, talented, friendly.
Go-to creative resources?
I hate to say it, but, Instagram. It’s loaded with incredible creatives doing all sorts of amazing stuff.
I had this huge cull of who I was following a while ago.. The rule now is that beyond family and friends, I only follow accounts that inspire me. I use bookmarks and if anything really inspires me, it gets added to Pinterest too!
Most ‘we’ve made it!’ moment?
I’d be a bit worried if we ever felt like that as we should forever be evolving and growing. That’s not to say that there isn’t time for reflection and celebration along the way though. With that in mind, one stand-out moment was our tenth birthday. We hired a big East London archway, put a billboard up in the middle of Shoreditch and we just had all our friends, family, clients and anyone else that had supported us over the years come and party with us. It was an opportunity to step away from the office and celebrate everyone and everything that helped us reach that milestone.
An artist, designer or bit of branding that has caught your eye?
I’ve really enjoyed following Daniel Arsham over the past few years. He has an architecture practice over in New York called Snarkitecture, and I came to know of him after they did a shop fit out for a NYC based clothing brand I like called Kith.
Despite running Snarkitecture, he’s an artist first. I had the pleasure of attending his show ‘3018’ at Perrotin NYC back in 2018 which was incredible. There was a full scale decayed DeLorean he made look like an old artefact with crystals and jewels growing out of it, and Disney characters tied up with white rags over their heads like captives, it was a bit dark but really powerful and visually beautiful.
For me, he’s a true creative, not restricting himself to any one medium and he’s top of his game across the lot and with his own distinctive style – everything is immaculately crafted and the compulsive side of me gets satisfaction from that too. To me, he signifies pure creative freedom, he’s my age and I have to respect him for reaching that point so early on in his career. More recently you may have seen his collaborations with Kim Jones @ Dior or his collaboration with Porsche in creating a fully functional Porsche 992 which is currently on display in Selfridges Corner Shop.
How else are you compulsive?
I am a serial list writer. I’ve been on quite the journey with this over the past couple of years. After nine years of using Things app, I got to the point where every day was so meticulously planned that my list would load up at 8am each day and I’d just start ticking things off until the day was over. In theory that’s great as it makes you super efficient and reliable as nothing can get through the net. With everything being in the app, my brain could be left clear for solving problems and not feeling cluttered with things not to forget. The reality is however that you get so focussed on ticking off items that you risk not prioritising the right things and more often than not set yourself up with far too many things to achieve in a day.
I read a book called ‘Only 10s’ by Mark Silverman which talked about this challenge and the stress related to list-making. After reading it, I added a new step to my daily routine – to review and revise my list each morning so that only items I considered ten out of ten were allowed my attention. An item could only receive a ten rating if it was critical to that day, couldn’t be delegated and was aligned with my core life objectives. Applying that layer had a positive impact.
That said, I have recently stopped using daily to do lists all together. The only lists that now exist are collaborative roadmaps with members of my team. It’s been a big turning point as it’s meant accepting that some things will fall through the net and I might forget some stuff too, but the pay-off is that I’m allowing my brain to do some natural filtering and prioritisation meaning the important and critical stuff surfaces to the top more naturally and the less important stuff either gets shared out to the team, or drops off the radar all together because it wasn’t important enough in the first place.
It also means that I have to rely on the people around me more – which probably means I relinquish more control too which can only be a good thing as a leader.
No.1 tip for telling a story?
Cut through the bullshit. Be authentic. Be honest.
Helping launch the Eric Koston II skate shoe in Europe for Nike. It was a small project but my favorite because it was sneakers, skateboarding and I got to meet Eric who was my absolute hero skater growing up! We partnered with an action sports aganecy run by Phil Young (coincidently another resident on Leonard Street!) who used to host a snowboard show called Board Stupid with a mate and co-collaborator of mine, Normski. A fun, fast project, but a stand out one for me for sure!
Another significant project is one named ‘Own Your Fears’ for AXA PPP Healthcare. We created a content series spot-lighting success stories from people that had tackled their fears and changed their lives whilst encouraging others to share theirs and make positive transformations in personal health, fitness and wellbeing in their own lives too. We got to tell the stories of some really incredible and inspirational individuals who’d changed their lives for the better. It went so well that we ran a second campaign in which we had a chance to feature celebrity chef Tom Kerridge who has completely changed his relationship with food and exercise for the better. What Tom has achieved is totally inspirational and it was awesome to have the chance to tell that story with him.
What do you think your fear would be?
As a dad with an 18 month old daughter, I’d say my fear would be not seeing her grow up. To fix that, I’ve got to focus on my physical and mental health to ensure that I’m around for as long as I can be.
So what’s next on the list!?
We’re really excited about 2020. We’ve settled into the new office but still have things we’d like to do including a little more internal signage, some art on the walls and so on. We look forward to on-boarding a couple of really exciting new clients in the coming months. We will be continuing to build, develop and utilise our global network of creatives on projects. We’ll be welcoming some new faces to the team. Lastly, we’ll be continuing on our mission to own our point of view on the importance of brand credibility through a series of talks, events and digital content.
We’re really excited about 2020! We’ve settled into the new office which feels like a fresh start and we’ll continue to put our mark on it with more signage, art on the walls etc. Our core team and wider global network of creatives continues to grow so we are looking forward to collaborating with more amazing talent this year. We’ve won a new big client this month – onboarding and kicking off projects with them is a focus.
Lastly, and most importantly, we’ll be continuing on our mission to own our point of view on the importance of brand credibility through ongoing work with our clients as well as a series of our own events and digital / social content on the subject.