Things I wish I’d never known

Things I wish I’d never known

20 November 2018

Simon Forster, our Executive Creative Director and intrepid founder is a man who’s not shy of taking risks. Public speaking, however, was one risk that he had chosen to avoid. That was until Glug, an initiative hosting creative events across the world, finally persuaded Si to break his silence and deliver a talk to room full of industry peers and newcomers. No pressure then…

‘Public speaking is not my thing. Give me a one-on-one with a fellow petrol-head and I can talk Ducati till the Kawasakis come home – but an organised, ticketed event in front of a room full of people is a new circle of hell.

Robot Food has been around for almost 10 years and in that time I’ve managed to completely avoid any form of public speaking. That said, I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge so I decided (against my better judgement) to say ‘fuck it’ and agree to participate in my first Glug event.

Then I received the theme, ‘Things I wish I’d never known’, and I remembered why I don’t do these kinds of things.

What a ridiculously difficult theme to kick off my public speaking debut. Mainly because there really wasn’t anything in particular that I wish I’d never known. There was no poorly taught lesson or bad piece of advice that caused regret. Generally, if my gut doesn’t agree with something then I tend not to do it.

But then I thought about it.

I’ve always been driven, on a mission and challenged what’s ‘expected’, or to put it another way, I’ve been difficult, stubborn and awkward. When I was young, I was always a bit of a misfit. I was that kid that others thought wouldn’t amount to anything. For the most part I felt out of place – it was drummed into me constantly by teachers, family and figures of authority that my way of thinking was wrong. And this is what I realised to be ‘what I wish I’d never known’.

How things ‘should’ be done. How you ‘should’ behave. ‘This way’ of thinking, not ‘your way’ of thinking. It’s all the microbial social norms that are projected on to us in one way or another; the expectations that we’re supposed to live up to and mark ourselves against – even if we don’t intend to. At some point we’ve all questioned ourselves based on what others say or do.

I started Robot Food in January 2009 but in the years leading up to this point, (as my friends went off to uni and got ‘grown up’ jobs) I chose to move to California and snowboard. So, when I finally decided to grow up and start my career in design, my mission was defined but riddled with the usual self-doubt. I had no degree, no portfolio and no clue really. It was just me and my mate from art college sitting at my dining room table with very little experience and a lot of big ideas.

But self-doubt and snowboarding does not a good talk make, so I thought about how I overcame the voices of others in my head and how I could pass this ‘unlearning’ on to help those paying to listen to me (because much like my professional snow-boarding career, my self-doubt now is pretty much non-existent.)

It all started with two little books that I consider to be the most important I’ve ever read. They might also be the only books I’ve ever read the whole way through: ‘Whatever you think, think the opposite’ and ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be’ by industry legend Paul Arden. These books told me that my way of thinking wasn’t wrong, it was just different. They taught me to tune out the crap that holds us back and makes us boring.

So, with that said (and back to the topic in hand), here’s where I impart my ‘unwisdom’; ‘The things I wish I’d never known’:

1) Experience is everything

It’s one we’ve all heard before. On returning to Yorkshire, I was hell bent on doing something creative, but who would hire someone who’d never even stepped foot in an agency, let along worked in one? And then I read about a kid who left his job to become a drummer before he’d learned to play the drums. His name was Ginger Baker and went on to form Cream with Eric Clapton.

Something far more valuable than experience is sheer determination (or blind ambition in my case). So, when a client asked if we could design a website, or write copy for a campaign, we did it regardless of whether ‘on paper’ we could. To this day, we’ll never say we can’t do something because we’ve never done it, because if Ginger Baker can bang a drum, so can we.

2) That’s the way it’s always done

This one, in particular, has always bothered me. The instruction manual for starting an agency would go something like this: get a good degree, work at an ‘established’ London agency for years, become disillusioned, team up with a like-minded colleague and go it alone, raise some funding, then wine-and-dine some clients and convince them that they are also disillusioned and to ‘come with’.

But that wasn’t me. I didn’t go to uni, have the floppy quiff or the Ralph Lauren shirt and, until some business came in, I had to fund both mortgages with a credit card. More worrying than our lack of funds was the lack of portfolio to win any clients. Arden wrote that ‘if you can’t solve a problem, it’s because you’re playing by the rules’, so we solved our ‘lack of portfolio’ problem by making one up. We created clients and brands and sent them to press as if they were real. At the time, I’m fairly sure we featured in Design Week more times than we didn’t.

We are now in the lucky position to choose our clients, not make them up. But our ethos remains the same; paying too much attention to the known rules and what we should be doing will only ever churn out the same result. The problem with knowing, is that it destroys naivety, meaning that the outcome is expected. For us, the ability to unlearn is essential to what we do and having the freedom to question everything means we can deliver work that actually stands out in the market place.

3) Win Awards

There can be nothing more restricting that the expectations we put on ourselves. As Paul so succinctly put it “Awards are judged in consensus by what’s known. In other words, what’s in fashion.” I’m lucky to have learned this early on.

We don’t pay to enter awards – they’re costly, take up a lot of energy and their shine only lasts until next year when the new winners are announced. We prefer using our time more effectively by working on what really matters – our work. Two years ago, we spent the time and resource we could have spent on an industry award application process, on creating our own brand; Electric Ink, whose world-wide commercial success (I would argue) is more credible than any award.

4) I can do this myself

This was never learned through negative external influence but perhaps was the result of it. It’s very easy to fall into this way of thinking and, for me, there were no wise words to remedy it. No man is an island, as they say, and it’s a realisation I’ve come to with help from the 20 equally challenging characters that I’m proud to call my team.

When you find great people who share your way of thinking, embrace them, listen to them and learn from them. Value real and raw potential not ‘proven’ experience.

Which brings me to the most important thing I’m glad I never learned: The Rules. They’re so much easier to break that way.