JAMES BROWN Interview

Interview by Lauren Critchon

James Turner discusses Glimpse and why giving young people purpose through doing good might be the answer to the current crisis in confidence in Agencies.

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WHO AND WHAT IS GLIMPSE?

The best way to describe it is a collective for creative people from all walks of life who want to use their existing skills on meaningful projects. We created it because I think there are a few things that are lacking at the moment. I worked at Greenpeace for many years and a lot of people came to me during that time saying, “can we do a project with Greenpeace? We’d love to work with you”, and for all the times I could say yes I had to say ‘no’ ten times more. And that seemed like an opportunity. And the second is that i believe that there’s room for a more positive form of campaigning, because we need to inspire people with the future that we could have, rather than constantly scaring them about the dystopia that seems to be looming for everyone at the moment. So it’s about helping people imagine positive futures and helping people work towards them. And then finally, the other aspect that I’ve been thinking more about recently is what we call ‘Theory of Change’ in the NGO world, which is how you get from where we are now to where we need to be. And I think, for most of my life I’ve been focused on big corporate and political levers, so get company X to do Y, or tell this politician to do that. But I believe that many of these problems are rooted in psychology, and whether that’s collective or individual, people’s hopes, fears and dreams are just as important to effect change. I have come to believe that change is non-linear, and if we can map out a clear route between something we do and an outcome, then we’re probably not being ambitious or imaginative enough. So we’re trying to be experimental and we’re trying to operate in that realm.

‘WE NEED TO INSPIRE PEOPLE WITH THE FUTURE THAT WE COULD HAVE, RATHER THAN CONSTANTLY SCARING THEM.’

ON THE TOPIC OF BEING EXPERIMENTAL, COULD YOU GIVE A BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE RECENT PROJECTS THAT GLIMPSE HAS DONE? COULD YOU TELL US WHY YOU THINK THEY’VE BEEN AS SUCCESSFUL AS THEY WERE?

We have had two major projects so far. The first one was looking at the level of advertising in public space. It was a crowdfunded campaign to replace all the ads in a London tube station with pictures of cats. And it was very playful by its nature. It had no commercial imperative behind it. It also had no clear campaign message. It didn’t say ‘advertising is evil’ or ‘stop buying stuff’. It just said ‘hey, imagine a world where we had cats instead of adverts’. And I think that was very provocative and interesting for people. Who knows why it was so successful? I think cats are pretty big on the internet, maybe that’s one reason for it.

The more recent project we did was called Choose Love, which was a collaboration with a UK charity called Help Refugees. It was a pop up shop and online site where you could buy real products for refugees, so everything from emergency blankets to child coats and food, which we put into a central London location and allowed people to come in and browse like you would do with a normal shop. It was a boutique pop up shop in Soho that allowed people to do something practical but also really challenged the notion of consumerism at Christmas. Why was it successful? I think it was charitable giving in a very different frame. It was very uplifting and sort of celebratory, and we deliberately tried to make sure that the imagery and messaging helped make you feel like part of the solution, rather than “this is an enormous problem, and whatever you did will be insignificant”. Perhaps that’s part of it.

HOW IS GLIMPSE CURRENTLY FUNDED?

Firstly, the vast majority of people are volunteers. Recently myself and Zac, my business partner, have started taking on some consultancy work to pay the bills. And then during our spare time we continue to build the network. In the long term we want it to be a membership organisation where it’s funded a little bit like a cross between Netflix and Greenpeace–an entertaining source of content that also does good things in the world. But in the interim we are working with companies, agencies and charities to help them come up with these sorts of ideas and make them happen. So it’s a kind of work in progress.

WHAT KIND OF A REACTION WOULD YOU SAY YOU’VE HAD FROM THE INDUSTRY ITSELF TOWARD GLIMPSE?

Broadly positive. The majority of my interactions with the industry has come via people from within it who have volunteered their time with Glimpse, and obviously they like it because they’ve come on board. In terms of at an organisational level, there are people like D&AD who have been very supportive and I’ve spoken at their events, and we applied and didn’t quite manage to get an award last year but I think that’s been very positive. And we’ve had conversations with agencies, but at the moment they don’t quite know how to approach us, or really know what we are. Because we don’t call ourselves an agency and we do independent projects that are either crowdfunded or we find partners to work with us on them, and we are trying to avoid being a traditional agency in that sense. I think when you’re something new, there’s that state of either you’re ignored, laughed at, or people simply don’t know how to respond, and I think that’s where we’re at right now.

HOW HAS THE COLLECTIVE ITSELF EVOLVED SINCE THE CAMPAIGNS HAVE COME OUT? WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE FROM THE INDUSTRY ARE VOLUNTEERING THEIR TIME TO WORK ON PROJECTS WITH GLIMPSE?

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One of the best things about running Glimpse is seeing the emails coming in almost every day of new people signing up. And it’s clear that we’re at a moment in time where a lot of people in the creative industry are questioning the nature of their work and seeking something different. And we’ve tried not to be judgmental about that; we’ve tried to be a sort of welcoming hub for those people and say ‘come over here. You may not work on this full time but here’s a little glimpse of what your work could be like if it was different’. The CATS project brought us hundreds and hundreds of new members, slightly fewer with Choose Love but still people joining every day. And the tricky thing is how you give them all useful things to do. It’s very hard to run an organization of 1500 people, so in reality we tend to work on a core team with each project who does most of the work, and then other people can come in and do an hour or two here and there, or share it with their networks, or provide ideas and connections to us which is just as valuable. So I think what we’re trying to do at the moment is figure out how to most effectively use a large amorphous network of talented people towards a singular goal. Which is a fun challenge to have.

HAVING SEEN SO MANY PEOPLE KNOCKING ON GLIMPSE’S

DOOR, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR PERCEPTION OF THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES AT THE MOMENT?

I’ve never worked in an agency so I really feel like an outside observer. I read a lot of publications and I speak to people but my perception is that there’s something of a crisis of confidence happening, and more than that a crisis of role: what are agencies for? Where do they stand in relation to clients? How forceful can they be in terms of asserting their own identity? I think that’s a really important one. To what extent can you stand up to a client and say ‘actually this is who we are and this is how we want to run a project’. But I suppose I feel in some ways, like all of us, that the industry is in a transitional phase because the world is changing so fast that it’s hard to know whether to continue with the models of the past (which are still just about profitable and in many ways the only way to continue to pay your employees) or to try and embrace something new and which is risky. And it’s much easier if you’re small and new like we are, than if you’ve got 2000 staff. So I sympathise with people in senior positions, but what I do know is that younger people coming in and people across the industry are desperate for a new way of doing things, and indeed a new focus for the work, and that’s really exciting as well as being confusing.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE INDUSTRY COULD LEARN FROM GLIMPSE IN ITS INTENTION AND WAYS OF WORKING?

I wouldn’t presume that the industry could learn anything from us because we’re so new. But in a more general sense, what we found is that when you tap into people’s personal passions and allow people to voice them in a professional context, to work on things that matter to them, the quality of the work goes up. As does the application, the focus and the dedication, so if you want to do the best work, work on stuff your employees really care about, it’s as simple as that. And also really take the time to learn what they really care about, even if it has nothing to do with your existing clients. It might seem like a distraction but it will deliver both motivation amongst those people and also potential avenues. Who knows if someone on your accounts team has a personal passion that could be applied to one of your accounts that you’ve never thought of before. I think from what I can tell of brands these days, they are looking for that kind of work more than ever before, so take the time to find it.