Episode 1: Nathan Cooper — On Becoming a Creative Swiss Army Knife

We’ve come charging out the gates for the first episode of Design Work. This episode I’m speaking with Nathan Cooper, the founder of CorpStudio. Based in Auckland, Nathan is taking on the ad industry with his nimble model, putting together teams of freelancers to collaborate on projects, working with brands like RedBull, Uber and Sony just to name a few. Before founding CorpStudio Nathan worked in London, New York, Stockholm and Amsterdam at the likes of R/GA, Wieden+Kennedy and Mother. He can also be found running his own radio show or making his own film.

This episode Nathan talks about what it’s like to start a business as a creative person, how he runs a full service agency with only himself and one other person on staff and why side projects are the place that creativity is really hiding.

http://corpstudio.co/

https://www.xero.com/

https://www.dovetailx.com

Music from: https://icons8.com

Transcript

0:00

NC: I think a lot of people expect to get experience from just sitting around, but actually experience is just something you have to get for yourself.So many times you do websites of people and they go, probably going to launch their website on the 25th of the month. And it's going to be finished. You’re like, no it’s not. It’s never going to be finished. Because it's a website. It’s the thing you have to get over.  And the thing that I learned, and the thing that most creatives might have to get over is yourself. I've also learned that the process is actually more enjoyable than the finished product.

0:29

KD: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the first episode of design work, a podcast when we learn from creatives who are designing their work lives and everything in between. I'm your host, Kate Darby. You'll also find me designing brands at my own studio and being co founder of Dovetail X, a platform to discover and curate epic creative talent. Go check it out at dovetailx.com. We’ve come charging out of the gates for this first episode of design work. This episode I'm speaking with Nathan Cooper, the founder of Corp Studio. Based in Auckland, Nathan is taking on the ad industry with his nimble model, putting together teams of freelancers to collaborate on projects working with brands like Red Bull, Uber, and Sony just to name a few. Before founding Corp Studio, Nathan worked in London, New York and Amsterdam at the likes of RGA, Weiden & Kennedy and Mother he can also be found running his own radio show and making his own film.

This episode, Nathan talks about what it's like to start a business as a creative person, how he runs a full service agency with only himself and one other person on staff, and why side projects are the place that creativity is really hiding. Because it's our first episode, make sure you hit subscribe to hear the next ones coming. And trust me, they’re going to be good. Okay, let's get on with it.

Hi, Nathan. Thanks for joining us on the inaugural design work podcast. It's awesome to be chatting with you today. So I thought we could start off and just hear a little bit about the kind of work you do and where you got started.

2:18

NC: All right. I have a hybrid agency, studio and production company. I've worked in advertising for 20 years and over that time learnt a lot from lots of really big companies, and I decided to build my own little model at that and it seems to make sense to reduce the people and have a lot of freelance and reduce the overhead by the amount of people you hire - and therefore you can be much more cost effective and still have a lot of fun and do all the things an agency does  and just do it in a much more useful and defined manner, particularly in the current climate where lots more stuff is going straight online and budgets don’t warrant doing really big shoots. Yeah, it's working really well.

3:01

KD: Awesome. And so you guys do a lot of work in things in production, video. What other types of skill sets are you finding you’re needing these days?

3:10

NC: So we go across the board, we do a lot of video content obviously. We're doing full advertising campaigns for a number of our clients. So that's print, poster, online, radio the lot basically. So what I'm finding is that I'm increasingly looking for people who have multi skills but also at the availability of people who've got core discipline to come and help with a specific role on a project. So rather than have a copywriter in house all year I’ll bring them in and out as I need them, and and then depending on what the job is, that person will be adept at a certain way or a certain skill and I do that all the time here basically. So there's only two full time but we run like effectively running for some brands of what a full agency would run, so doing full video shoots with print campaign. It’s all freelanced out.

4:06

KD: OK and how do you look for those freelancers? And what are you looking for in those people? Are they coming through from recommendations? Are you just seeing people online that have some really cool work.

4:20

NC: I’ve always kind of searched around wherever I’ve been, just to try and find good people. And if I see work that I really like, I find out who did it, and I talk to them and I’ve got a really good collection. What I'm also finding is because the more traditional agencies are much busier because they're trying to deal with companies like me that do stuff much cheaper, and much more effectively, they're really busy. So they're basically putting that business onto their staff and the staff are getting really bored of it. And they're leaving. So there's loads more freelancers in the pool, which is great, because it just feeds little companies like me who use that model. But the talent levels are still high. Yeah, and New Zealand is quite small. So it's quite easy to find and ask people who’s good. I've done all my business by word of mouth, I've done no PR and not really tried that hard to push or promote myself. I’ve just been doing a really good job and then getting recommended. So yeah, it's quite easy to find out who’s good just by asking some friends.

5:21

KD: And so you've worked in agencies and London, Europe, how have you seen the industry change from now to then, and I know that's a big question? But I mean, even in the past five years, what are some of the the big shifts that you've seen in the kind of work you're doing and the way that you're doing that work?

5:43

NC: I've actually worked in London, New York, Amsterdam, and Stockholm and then Auckland over 20 years, and I’ve luckily avoided big agencies, so I largely did small boutique set-ups, I’ve got a couple on the list like RGA I worked for, I set up their London offering. So it wasn't a big company. It was kind of weird for me because I didn't really spend much time in big lumbering agencies I spent all my time in little boutiques like Weiden or Mother or you know, and that's where I learned all the little rules I’ve now implemented into my own company. The shifts I've seen it I kind of saw coming early on I had when I started out I was a runner so I just made tea and sandwiches, and then I learned a bit about business and I became a copywriter and I had ta creative partner and it just didn't seem to make any sense to me I couldn't understand why we do you would put the same two people on this continuum on different bits of business, why not mix it up so I luckily the agency I worked for enabled me to split from that that kind of working relationship and then basically link myself on to any number of different people who would be great right the job so if I was doing an animation project I would work with an animator, not an art director. If I was doing a film project I would work with another copywriter. So I just learned as much as I could from those people

7:05

NC: because I saw that that model of creative team and then, the campaign people and strategy people and all these numbers of people was going to become very expensive. And as digital technology evolved, the channels were becoming wider, there's many more channels and therefore you know, you can't be precious and fill all those channels with one single thing. So you have to do more stuff, which we can then be everything to consider also that the ubiquity of technology has really changed the industry like when I started out I could never think of editing or filming or anything, you would just have to ask a professional to do that. But now, you know, I've got an edit suite on my computer. I can use that and that's democratized what we do massively because

7:52

NC: you know, the skill sets that you can content you can have now are across the board. So I’ve learned how to edit. I’ve learned how to use cameras, I just couldn't do that 10 years, 15 years ago, but now I am going to shoot my stuff, and I edit my own stuff. And also, not only that, but when I'm in a meeting and we're talking about anything I know what I'm talking about whereas before, we'd have to go hang on a second I’ll have to ring the editor and ask them that question because I don’t know how that works.

8:14

NC: It's kind of like what's happening with the internet - it  just invades things that aren't particularly good and makes them better. And as a result, you know, that my skill sets have grown massively, which I love because one one day I'm taking photos and the next I’m filming something. I write ads. I do all these different things. And it's just so much more fun than just being an individual in ana agency.

8:39

KD: Yeah, that's really exciting. And so for younger creatives coming into the industry now, do you have any advice for them on do they go and specialize in a particular area or keep themselves open to being a generalist? What kind of area do you think they should be starting to focus on there, or do they just throw that out the window altogether?

9:03

NC: No. What I've learned is that I think you need to have a core discipline that you can rely on. So be a copywriter, that's great. Don't only rely on that, I think it's really important that you have a really good solid foundation. But what I've learned is through doing all these things is, the more you do within the area of this advertising, marketing communication the more each of those skills start to fuse together. So for instance, I did a children's magazine for 10 years, I did three  year, I worked with a friend, she did the magazine, I just did the story. And I just did it because I liked it. It was fun. And then after the 10 years, I stopped doing it. But I realized that it taught me how to storyboard properly, because I've done all those things. And then you go out and storyboard now, and then let you learn how to edit. And then so when I'm thinking about when I'm writing a script, and kind of thinking about the Edit already. And also, then when I'm shooting, I know what the edit is going to be, so it cuts down my shoot time massively. So they all start to really bleed into each other. I started to DJ and then the beat thing with the DJ and starts to like the falls and the 1816s, which had now there's all sorts of fit into your edit. And all of it starts to come together. And it just means that is so much more efficient, all the way down the line. So when you're actually coming up with an idea, having been a producer and produced my own stuff. I know from writing a script, I know exactly how much that script is going to cost when I write it. So if the client comes to me and says we’ve only got X amount of money, I'll never go back to them with an idea that wouldn't fit into their budget. So I've been in an agency with it's happening, you write an idea and the client says they say we can’t afford it, and you say Oh I’m sorry, which is really dumb and which means you waste time. So having all of those like having that foundation skill is really important. But also just learning as much as you can about the other stuff will do you no bad. It's a really good thing to do. Because you just know what you're talking about.

10:50

NC: in this subjective industry, you can't really be that good at it, you can only have the experience. And that's something that you can't be given. I think a lot of people expect to get experience from just sitting around but actually experience is something you just go out and get yourself, you don’t need someone to teach it to you.

11:05

KD: Yes. So side projects and things like that can be a really great way to teach yourself those skills. You might not be being paid, but getting in there and having to DIY stuff. So do you find that you're quite often doing side projects and things that might not be directly related to the job you're doing at the time?

11:25

NC: I’ll argue that I only realized that I was a creative person, when I started doing side projects. I think advertising is so full of cones and routes that you have to take and barriers that you've never really get to be truly creative. And also that can be very frustrating life. Because if you really believe in in your work at the office, and your client doesn't believe in you, then you're just going to have a fight and it's just really just miserable life. That's just really dumb. So until I actually get went out and did my own short films, I've written of movie,  all that stuff that I've done, that was the place that I could truly be creative and do what I wanted to do. The thing you have to get over, and the thing that I learned and I think most creatives would have to get over is yourself. Because like when you work in advertising, you’re kind of expected to do stuff at a certain level. And I can't be the best director, I can't be the best at everything. So you have to just get over the fact that your first one are going to be shit - they’re going to be rubbish and that’s OK. It’s the only way to learn is to make it go wrong. So you have to show people that this thing that's actually good that you did. Whereas in an agency didn't really do it, loads of people did it. So it's more easy to it's more easy to get away with it. Whereas if you're showing your actual true self and piece of work done, it's much harder. But the learning is so much greater because you realize how to change it the next time. And by keeping banging your head against the wall is the only real way to move forward and be satisfied with it. Because otherwise you're just obviously working for someone else. Yeah, you don’t get paid for it. You know what this is love or money. You either do it for love or you do it for money. Very rarely do you get to do both, right? So you should make time I have I mean, I've got a family and a radio show. And I have this business. But I still make time to write a film and do my own projects.

13:12

KD: Yeah. So you do actually finish packing quite a lot to your life. It sounds like so how do you keep on top of all of that stuff? What's your productivity tips and hacks, or is it just about priorities?

13:26

NC: I don't spend much time watching TV or consuming.  I spend a lot more time making and I don't worry too much about. So I have an 80% rule

13:44

NC: So basically, once you get it to 80% it’s pretty much done. You can fiddle around on the next 20% for weeks and months and waste all your time doing that there's no point because in six months, the thing you’ve made is gone anyway.  And you don't really remember, I don't remember any like really the things I like 20 years ago. It's not important if you look at in the shit anyway. So you just have to keep moving. And I've also know that the process is actually more enjoyable when the finished product. I think if you really worry about the finished product then you'll never be satisfied because you will never make it perfect. Whereas actually, if you what you do is take enjoyment at the process of getting somewhere or learning

14:23

NC: you know, something like so many times you do  websites for people and they go, right we're going to launch our website on the 25th of the month. And it's going to be finished. You go, no it’s not, it’s never going to be finished, because it's a website. It's the same with creativity, it's never really done. It's never really finished. So if you think that you're going to end it, and just going to be perfect, it’s never going to be. There’s so few people I know who are absolutely 100% happy with every single thing they did. They just they hate to work harder, but they let you know the color’s wrong. So I think you’ve just got to take the pleasure from the process, rather than really waiting for pleasure to come from that hundred percent thing. It’s never going to be.

15:02

KD: And so working for yourself and starting your own business here, what have been some of the surprising things that you didn't expect to happen or how things would work, some of the learnings that you've had from doing that.

15:18

NC: It's been really hard like I really had no idea about running a business. I just had to do it myself. And I've literally done it myself. The other things that you kind of learn is when you're working in a company that’s busy and there’s lots of people when you get a brief you get it on the day and then you  work on it. Whereas what you don’t realise takes like two years to get that brief in your hands. First you have to smooze the client and then you have to prove yourself and then you have to get something off them and it actually takes forever. So actually that's been I've been in business for three years and I’m only now starting to get those briefs.

15:51

NC: it's taken me that long to build relationships with people. And, you know, just get to a point where I'm getting a brief for a campaign and also budgets don't come out at a good time you know, it's all of that stuff that you just don’t have any idea about. But I again I’ve really enjoyed learning it. I use Zero right which is amazing, just to run my day to day which I really like, so I’m pretty much on top of it. I have an accountant who does the really hard stuff that I don't know but I can run a company.

16:16

NC: For a person like me I would have had no idea three or four years ago what what it is today to be like what I'm doing just have a handle on how to run a business. It’s hard. It's really hard. But it's so rewarding.

16:29

KD: Do you think it's something for everyone? Or do you think it's something only some people really can enjoy doing? Or have the guts to go out and do, or do you think it's something that people can learn over time, or should they just take the dive and just do it?

16:46

NC: I think yeah, I think everyone’s got capacity to do it. I don't see why there's any reason why you shouldn't think you have to do something you enjoy. I mean, I'm lucky in the respect that I learned all of this, so all the things that I offer in my company I can do. So like write a brief produce something, come up with an idea, film, edit, I can all those skills. So at the end of day, if there's no one else in the room, I can still do the job and I can still take the baseline jobs to keep my business going jobs to make enough money to keep my business working. So I think that's a really important thing to think about. Because I think if you have to employ lots of people to do that, then it’s really hard. I have had employees and it hasn't worked out. So I've just literally kept it real simple. And then my overheads. So part of the reason I've got a studio as part of my business is that I can rent that studio out. So even if I've got no work I can still pay my rent by letting the studio out which is working really well. So I don't really have any overheads. I’ve got a studio manager who does editing for me as well. And then it's me, but apart from that it’s just freelance. So if it's if I've got enough work for me I’ll do it, it's too much for me.

17:51

NC: I think I honestly think that if you've got something you're really passionate that you want to do, give it a go. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll still be able to eat.

KD: So with the freelancers you bring in, how do you find the team dynamics with bringing in different people every time? Are you finding that maybe takes a little bit of onboarding to start the process? Or are these people that are pretty good at jumping into projects already?

NC: That's a kind of initially difficult but I have a roster and I know you start to learn who's good with who, and who does what really well.

18:30

NC: So yes, but you know, you can never tell, I think the thing you have to accept in this industry is if people are really really good then they’re really really crazy

18:38

NC: I think that a lot of a lot of people don't anticipate that when they own businesses in the industry. I think the really good people are a bit crackers and you have to let me have to be sympathetic to that because that's why they are good. You can’t just be a really regular person if you’re really good at this. It just doesn't happen, there's something going on somewhere. So I think that that's another thing to be sensitive to. And just make sure that the expectation of personal stuff isn't as high as the expectations of work. But it's never been I've never had an issue I've had like teams of 30 people.

19:14

NC: I think having the ability to understand the disciplines I think that really helps me because I can talk to an editor and I can talk to a DoP and I can talk to them all on the same level. Because I know the thing and it's not and I can also talk to the client.. So I take a lot of that stuff away if it's necessary. I think having that knowledge and learning stuff is really key to be able to then manage people and then be able to manage projects and outputs.

19:46

KD: And how do you think the industry is going to be changing over the next five years? Or what are some of the skills that you're going to start to maybe try and add into your repertoire that you've already started to build up?

20:02

NC: I think it's going to get much the same. I think the big agencies will still be around they’ll just have less and less clients and they'll be the bigger ones, like McDonald's and Coke will always need a big agency. I think there will be many, many more shops like mine

20:16

NC: startups that just don't just do Advertising work. I have a studio I do film, production of film, There's lots of like, really interesting angles and different things a creative business can do. And I think that will continue. I don't think there's necessarily a serious skill set I see I need to add.

20:33

NC: I went through the whole time it was a digital CD at RGA and I went through the whole digital thing. I find it quite amusing that people saw that it was different. Yeah, it's just creativity. And those things are channels, so the repertoire that I've got, there's always some market getting if I don't understand something that someone I just literally go on YouTube and what I literally just I’m building a SquareSpace for friend at the moment and I wanted to drop downs, so I just went on YouTube and within three minutes I knew how to do it. Anyway, it's just amazing. So

21:07

NC: I think it's just like to continue to explore and be adventurous and make them just make stuff and that's the way to learn your strengths and your weaknesses, and then when you find your weaknesses, you just go flat out trying to make them a bit better. Because it is subjective like is there isn't a right or wrong, there’s never been a right or wrong, and no one's still been able to prove to me which part of this process is the bit that sells the product. like is it the media, is it the culture? Like it's never been proven, it's not scientific. So therefore, just the more I learn the more I become useful to people and therefore the more my business will succeed. I don't really want to make a load of money.

21:45

KD: And one final question:  you've already done some pretty cool projects, but what would be your dream project right now? And who would you want to work on?

22:00

NC: I don't have that anymore. It used to have like, dream clients and projects, but I now it’s just the people - like it's just having really nice clients that really want to do exciting things and I think this is specific thing. I want my film to work, but I don't really mind if it doesn't, because I wrote it. And that's the only thing I really wanted to do. I never thought I'd actually make the film.

22:24

NC: Yeah, and I find some of the most rewarding things are just little things. They don’t have to be a massive big thing, and the advertising thing can chew you up so quickly.

22:37

NC: Get you all involved and excited about it, and also I think because of my age, you sort of get over that you sort of see it for what it is not to say it's not brilliant and it's like, like, not an amazing journey.  But I think there's a point where you - it's like movies - you like I've seen the movie so many times now that I struggle to get excited about Avengers like I've seen it so many times. I think it's the same as anything you do. Do it over and over again and it starts to become something that's just a day job. And I think that like the thing that I've learned to get round that is to to learn to do more stuff. But now I don't have a specific big thing that I want to do.

23:14

KD: Well, thanks so much for chatting with me. And yeah, it's awesome to hear about your experience and your learnings along your journey and best of luck for the film and everything going forward.

23:30

KD: Thanks for tuning in to the first episode of DesignWork. If you enjoyed it, give us a rating to help spread the word and subscribe to get your fortnightly fix.  DesignWork is brought to you by Dovetail X. Find epic creative talent and assemble teams for your next project. Head to www.dovetailx.com to get amongst it. See you back here for more interviews with trailblazing creatives on how they design, work.

Kate Darby