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Finding a new energy: The story of Tag's Chief Creative Officer

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Admittedly, Tag Collective Arts had their work cut out for themselves back in August. Reuniting all the companies under the Tag umbrella into Tag Collective Arts was no mean feat, especially in the middle of a global outbreak. The business needed to find "a new energy," and a new identity as well.

Hence, the role of Gary Szabo, now Chief Creative Officer at Tag Collective Arts, was born, to ensure consistency across all of Tag's portfolio, building a unified identity for the company as a whole. To someone who, in his own words, "survived" 6 months as a runner in the production industry, even such a gargantuan task must have surely felt like a walk in the park.

But with all jokes aside, there is much to learn from a leader like Gary and there is much that he was willing to share about himself, his motivations, his leadership, his heroes and dreams. Today we are Getting to Know one of our shortlisted influencers of the year for the Annual 2020 awards.

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Tell us about your current role!

We’ve been thinking for some time about how to get Tag to be perceived more like Smoke and Mirrors is in terms of its attitude to creativity and its importance in everything we do. We had also grown to such a scale that clients were becoming confused by the amount of companies we had. We therefore took the decision to put all the production talent we have into one place under the Tag umbrella and calling it Tag Collective Arts, hopefully making it much easier for clients to navigate. My role as Chief Creative Officer is primarily to ensure our output is of the highest possible standard. Whether it’s winning awards or winning new business I’m now responsible for the quality we provide.

How did you get to your current position? What was the biggest challenge?

It’s a bit strange in that we’ve wanted to bring all these companies together for a while but it was always just an idea. When COVID hit one of the most appealing things was to come back out of this with a new identity and a new energy. There’s been a lot of awful news and we wanted to be a positive, new story. The biggest challenge personally was defining a role that didn’t previously exists. It’s not like somebody quit and I got the job, it’s a totally new role to get my head around.

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

I studied American Literature at college and then started as a runner at a post-production company, Complete Video in 1989. I still firmly believe that if you can last 6 months as a runner you can pretty much handle anything the industry throws at you later on. Also, if you make it through running then you must have a passion for this business, you wouldn’t do it otherwise.

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

As a business then becoming production partner to The & Partnership on Toyota was a game-changer. Working that closely with a creative agency and seeing their challenges first hand gave me a much a deeper appreciation of the creative process.

Biggest loss, in terms of taking it personally was in 2009 when we lost our place on the Reckitts production roster. I was in the middle of a Christmas lunch when I heard and decided not to tell my boss until the next day as he’d be angry and it would ruin my afternoon (sorry Steve).

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

I never cease to be inspired by creatives. Watching them give birth to some amazing work is a privilege. I work with too many agencies to pick favourites but as a director seeing Amy Becker-Burnett in full flow is a real joy right now. She’s such a positive and upbeat person but is able to conjure up some really powerful and sometimes dark imagery, yet always gives it hope. Looking back through my career I always loved working with Jeff Stark. When I saw myself booked in to work with him I just knew I was going to enjoy the experience and be really proud of the result. Likewise Steve Lowe but I’d just be more tired at the end.

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

I’ve honestly tried to picture this and I just can’t. However, if this all ended I’d look at teaching as I think professional footballer has passed me by.

What’s your secret to keeping the team inspired and motivated?

Be there with them. You have to always keep people challenged so they feel they are growing but if you abandon them then they risk drowning and ultimately failing. Always be aware of how and what people are doing and make sure they are not afraid to ask for help. As for inspiring I suppose you just try and be the person they need. A tab at the Star and Garter also helps.

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How has COVID-19 affected you as a leader?

I like periods of pressure when decisions have to be made quickly and this was the ultimate test of that. I really hope nobody ever has to go through this again but the speed with which we have all had to react means you can’t fanny about and I like that.

What is your biggest hope for 2021? 

On a selfish note, I want to be able to walk into a pub, stand at the bar and order a pint. On a broader point I hope the fact that even a right wing government has realised there is a need for society stays with us permanently. This pandemic has brought out the best in us at times so let’s focus on that and not the negatives. I felt a greater sense of collaboration this year and a greater appreciation for each other’s work.

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What is your one advice to aspiring creatives looking to be successful?

If you think you’re good enough then just keep knocking on doors until they open. Once one does, and this is the most important, try and find somebody to mentor you. Everyone I know who succeeds in this industry always has someone they feel they “owe it all to” and who inspired them (thank you Jim Hogan and Steve Parish).

How do you recharge away from the office?

Family, family and family. That is of course providing the family want to come to the pub or go to watch Everton (and fortunately they do).

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

That we find the right balance between profitability and creativity. The dumbing down of the creative industry is always a reaction to recession, creatives need to fight back but find a way to work with the bean counters. Once they see the value in creative work (and it has to be explained) you’ll find you get to do the work you want much easier.

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

This year I’ve started to really enjoy all the industry community sites like Creativepool. Seeing how other people are coping has been quite uplifting. I’ve really benefited at times from the sense of community. Socially this year has been all about TikTok. Having two teenage daughters has allowed me to have a total crash course as well as improve my dance steps.

Outside of work theguardian.com and bbc.co.uk are my go-to news portals. One thing the Trump experience has taught us is that news needs verifying so be very careful where you get it from. When I need cheering up, then I buy myself something on Wiggle.

Take a look at the winners of the Annual 2020 awards!

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