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Creative Pool | #GettingToKnow Q&A

John features this week in Creative Pool in the #GettingToKnow Q&A series. Here John gives an insight into his path into the industry, his creative inspirations and some of the challenges he’s faced along the way. Read more of John’s thoughts, from his biggest career-related win to his secrets that help keep him inspired and motivated.

“I truly believe our industry is vocational as it’s such a diverse and interesting business. We meet new people every day, have new puzzles to solve and have to keep abreast of the ever-changing world where brands need to adapt and evolve to respond to changing consumer needs, whether that’s a tech start-up or a historic building”

Working at the intersection of different timezones, John Brash is a brilliant entrepreneur and the Founder & CEO of Brash agency. But few will know and realise how important his early steps were in the overall development of his career.

According to John, there is nothing as valuable as finding the right direction to then “help the trajectory of your career.” Working with the right mentors, finding the perfect team and the right roles as a young creative can put you on the path to great success.

But there is no way John’s extensive experience can be reduced to just this one piece of advice. In truth, his stories are many, and all incredibly fascinating and inspiring. Today we are Getting to Know John Brash, Founder & CEO of Brash, to learn more about his path into the industry and his deep love for anything creative.

Tell us a bit about your role! What is one typical day like?

The great thing about my role is that there is no such thing as a typical day! I am the CEO and Founder of Brash, an agency where new ideas are generated, validated and created every day. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ depend on the people I work with, the dynamics of the relevant industry, our resources, general priorities and deadlines. My strengths are ideation, providing new insights and creative input, disrupting and challenging the thinking, but you will also find me choosing the right notepads – every detail matters!

Life has changed from pre to post-Covid. Pre-Covid I would probably be on a flight writing this. My normality used to be probably 4-6 flights a week engaging with clients, attending strategic business meetings, ideation sessions and workshops. Whereas today, I started early with a cup of tea, Berocca and as many vitamins I can get my hands on. WhatsApp fever follows which has become the communication of choice these days – clients and agency alike.

Based in Monaco, I am on the front foot for the Dubai team starting off and ahead of the game for the London team. Generally speaking, I spend my mornings catching up and afternoons engaging with clients and partners. I’m always thinking of ways to improve our clients’ projects, our own product and team, new service modules, new ecosystem partners and exploring opportunities to expand and assess ‘what’s next’ for Brash and Hooper.

I can’t separate the core business (Brash) with the entrepreneurial start-ups or personal life, so I suppose it has become some sort of Brash lifestyle with a lot of cross overs. But it’s all balanced and working in perfect harmony: clients being friends and friends being in business with me.

 

What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?

To be honest, the biggest challenge which affects your whole career is getting the right job as a young creative that can help the trajectory of your career. Working with the best mentor(s) from an early stage, being given the opportunity to raise your voice and meeting interesting clients from the get-go is crucial to shaping your career journey. If this doesn’t happen, the professional creative agency life can and will be a real tough place.

As such, my challenge was to move forward and excel at every agency I worked for. I was never shy of a challenge, always optimistic at heart and unstoppable – so whenever I could add real value and ‘compete’, I would seek the next challenge – always progressing, always stepping up. In life, I have learnt that you don’t always get what you deserve, but by working hard, adding real value and simply being ‘nice’– you can go a long way!

What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

Optimism, bravery and boldness are qualities that are deep-rooted in the tents of my Scottish roots and are present in my style and approach to any business challenge. Coming from a small, former mining village in Scotland, I had to work hard for everything. I was a part of the community, so respecting others was crucial. And, of course, I had to deal with situations both good and bad, so it was all about surviving and thriving – nothing was taken for granted.

The three core beliefs at Brash are driven by my background:

  • BRAVE – You have to move forward on your own without support! From the night bus Edinburgh-London, arriving at 6am and going straight to an interview at 9am, getting the job and then starting to worry how you will survive until your first pay day – to 25 years later, opening up a new company in Sydney where we had no one on the ground but eager clients wanting to work with us.
  • SHARP – Surviving and thriving in the 70’s Scottish state schools means you need to be street-smart; you need to be adaptable and think quickly on your feet. I learnt how to cut corners and take calculated risks at times – it became a mindset based on ‘survival of the fittest’.
  • PERSONAL – This is at the very core of how I operate, I’ve been this way since childhood and have seen the advantages over the years. By being personal, you get closer to people, hear their stories and understand their motivations. You gain experience and begin to trust your intuitions; so, from handling a drunken stranger in a dodgy bar, to presenting to a King – I learnt how to adapt, communicate and engage with all. Being personal also makes the difference for employees and clients alike.

 

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

With over 30 years as a professional creative, I’ve had many wins and fortunately fewer losses. The creative world is extremely competitive, far more than anyone outside our industry would ever imagine. Some of my favourite wins were projects for McLaren F1 team, London’s luxury residential development ‘Chelsea Barracks’ and working directly with Mr Armani on his first branded residencies. To be honest, winning the Burj Khalifa brand (the world’s tallest building) including a last-minute name change has to be up there! Understandably, there were complexities in communicating the multifaceted story, but we managed to create a luxury brand and destination rather than a development brand, that excites the world, over a 5-year period, which was incredible. Being invited to join the top international advisory team was a true honour and privilege.

Losses are hard to take, especially if you genuinely think you are the right partner (we always are, aren’t we?!). The worst losses are the ones you win but then never kick start or get cancelled eventually. For one project, we actually developed the brand strategy, name and identity, and were then asked to hold as the new RFP implied that the agency had to be part of a major group from the likes of Omnicom and WPP, so sadly we had to decline.

 

What’s your secret to remain inspired and motivated?

I truly believe our industry is vocational as it’s such a diverse and interesting business. We meet new people every day, have new puzzles to solve and have to keep abreast of the ever-changing world where brands need to adapt and evolve to respond to changing consumer needs, whether that’s a tech start-up or a historic building.

I’m naturally curious and genuinely interested in all people and cultures, so I never think about it as ‘motivation’. Inspiration, on the other hand, is key – hearing about new ideas, fresh thinking, and meeting aspiring people helps preserve the eagerness to learn and create.

Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

I am not sure I have any heroes, but I respect and feel inspired by anyone who comes up with a brilliant idea or a great initiative, no matter the industry. For example, Marcus Rashford’s campaign around the school meals was inspiring and was born out of personal experience and ‘never forgetting’. The fashion and performance industries have always inspired me: theatrical, flamboyant and daring.

I’ve been blessed to work with so many talented people over the last 30 years in the creative industry. Some of the things that have truly inspired me were really about capturing a moment in time – from the Martini adverts in the early 80s, to the Cadbury’s gorilla ad in the mid 2000’s to Stella McCartney’s Team GB’s dark indigo blue Olympic kit.

How has COVID-19 affected you?

Covid-19 has affected all of us in so many ways, as it forces you to rethink every aspect of your life and your business. From basic business survival and having no clear visibility how things will turn out, to the personal challenges of not seeing your kids for six months. It provoked me to reassess what really matters, and as a result, I have a clearer view on my life than I’ve ever had before – and that includes the Brash brand. We have taken time to pause and reflect on Brash as a business, to look back on why I set the business up in the first place and realised we had to make changes to get back on track, re-connect with the vision and beliefs and invest in our culture. It’s true that Brash is nothing without our talented team and incredibly strong ecosystem.

What is your biggest hope for 2021?

Seeing the good that could come out of the pandemic! We could get out of the ‘rat-race’, restore some humanity and not take things for granted which will have a positive impact on our mental health in day-to-day life, and fundamentally transform the way we will all work and engage as people. This will be the ‘industrial revolution’ of my lifetime. I hope the innovation in technology, healthcare, leisure and wellness will enable us to leapfrog the rate of development in these sectors that – without the pandemic – would have taken decades.

What is your one piece of advice to aspiring creative professionals?

It’s never been tougher out there so let’s not kid ourselves – all young creatives need to work hard and work smart. It will be challenging, and they will need to show resilience as remote working could take its tolls on mentoring and personal engagement. The buzz of the creative studio life is currently absent. But being a born optimist and having gone through so many ups and downs over the years, I am hopeful.

Therefore, my advice for the aspiring creative professional is to work out what you want to do (vision), and where you want to be; become ‘self-motivational’ and don’t rely on others to make it happen! Never take no for an answer. Set yourself attainable goals and use all your talent and skills to get there. Be brave and believe in yourself – others will follow!

 

How do you recharge away from the office?

I think I’ve been blessed with self-recharging batteries. I have ADHD which actually helps me ‘naturally’ to keep going (God help those around me!). I’m a social animal and enjoy spending time with my kids (grown-ups but very social), meeting with friends, cycling, coastal walks (I need the sea!), and of course – cooking (thanks Keith Floyd, Nigel Slater and Jamie Oliver). I also recharge by helping start-ups and have invested in quite a few over the past 18 months. I find it exciting to learn about different business challenges and it’s amazing to see how much a creative thinker can bring (beyond brand) to different types of businesses – so that’s a big prompt to all creatives out there!

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

This is the toughest question yet! I honestly struggle to think of anything other than brand as this is my passion and vocation. I’ve been doing it for 30 years and plan to do it for another 30, but I’m an obsessive person so if I had to say something else, I’d pick being a chef. The more I shifted from actually ‘designing’ to overseeing – the more I need to use my hands, so that happened to be cooking as I can easily combine it with socialising, and it (almost) always translates into a delicious incentive! During lockdown, I finally mastered the art of the perfect broth for Ramen – it’s an obsession that takes days, weeks and months, and a freezer full of bits of animals!

What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

Recognition, recognition and recognition. Both in the commercial and creative value we bring, the sacrifices and crazy hours creatives make – all translated into adequate incentive packages and fair contracts.

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

At the moment I’m in ‘cooking mode’ so my recommendations include:

  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (what a man!)
  • Momofuku by David Chang
  • American Bar by Charles Schumann