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Finding the perfect balance between art and money with James Callahan | #GettingToKnow

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With a background in art, design and advertising, James Callahan is one of the Owners and Directors of FutureDeluxe; an experimental creative agency driven by visual research, art & technology. Futuredeluxe are based in London and Los Angeles. Opening their third studio in Sydney this year!

James is passionate about growing FutureDeluxe, but in doing so while making sure the studio always stays close to the values that were so important to the company at the very outset: Experimentation, Quality, Collaboration and People First.

To learn more about the man behind the agency, we caught up with James this week to discuss finding the perfect balance between art and commerce.

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

I’m a 38 year old, married, father of two, co-founder and CEO of FutureDeluxe. I oversee the operational, financial and strategic side of our studios.

Today I'm working from my home office and tomorrow in our London Studio. At the home office I'm able to focus and its where I do a lot of my thinking and planning. In comparison my time in the  London studio is based around collaborating with the team, clients, interviews - and arranging all those meetings that are just so much better done face to face rather than via a google hangout.

It feels as though we're currently at one of the most exciting times in the journey of FutureDeluxe. We're collaborating with some truly incredible brands on a wide range of exciting design projects, product releases and installations.

As a brand ourselves we're also going through a bit of a transformation - Our aim is to create a collective of some of the world's most talented artists, creatives and studios. This is currently at the  initial stages of building a global future family of like minded individuals, businesses and brands that have a collective passion and value. It's an incredibly exciting journey.

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

Andrew Jones (founder and CCO) and I have been running FutureDeluxe for just over ten years and I have found the biggest challenge as a business has always been getting all the various balances just right.

That’s the  balance between creating outstanding, experimental and artistic work whilst also maintaining a stable and profitable business. The challenge is always what is the perfect balance between the art vs the money - without one you can't create the other.

What I have observed across the industry is if you get that balance even slightly wrong, focussing more on one side versus the other, you’ll see the alternate part quickly slips away.

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

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As a child I suffered from dyslexia, even today my spelling isn't great, truth be told it's bloody awful! I can just about hide it using a number of spell check tools but it still manages to pop up from time to time. I've had to get much better at asking others for help, supporting me with proofreading and the occasional grammar check on key documents.

However it's not all bad as my lack of ability to communicate via the written word forced me as a child to get really good at communicating visually. I learnt to use art and design to get across my ideas. That, I believe, kick started my interest and love of the creative industries.

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

I’m not one to look back and congratulate myself. For me, my biggest win is always the one I’m currently working on, the one just out of reach.

I am however rather proud of the fact that we managed to secure the backing and support of our investment partner QPE who provide capital and expertise to entrepreneur-led businesses. Within our niche in the industry PE backing is pretty rare. The typical route is to sell to one of the big agency networks but this just didn't feel right for what we wanted to achieve. Being able to secure that deal and generate the kind of backing we need to create our vision for the future, that felt like a pretty big accomplishment.

What’s your secret to remain inspired and motivated?

Collaboration is often my biggest source of inspiration and motivation.

We have built a pretty amazing team. When I’m feeling uninspired or unmotivated by catching up, discussing the issues and working through these as a team, bouncing ideas and solutions around usually seems to get things right back on track.

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

I’m a huge admirer of what the team at UsTwo have managed to create. They have built an incredibly creative and successful business whilst seemingly maintaining a great culture, all whilst sticking to their core values. I’m inspired by what they have achieved.

How has COVID-19 affected you?

I escaped to the countryside during covid. We moved out of a terrace town house in the city to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The aim was to give the kids space to run around and for me to have a proper home office that would allow me to fully focus on work.

My commute into London takes a little longer but my productivity working at home has skyrocketed. The internet is blindingly fast too. Who would have thought me and the sheep can get faster internet in the middle of nowhere than in central London!

What is your biggest hope for 2022?

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FutureDeluxe has some pretty big plans for this year. We’re looking to open new overseas studios as well as kick start the creation of our ‘Future Family’, a global collective of like minded artists, creatives and studios.

We plan to work with some of the world's most talented individuals and creative companies, all with the aim of creating some truly incredible work for our clients. I honestly couldn't be more excited about the opportunities we have coming up this year.

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

Kill it with kindness. Being a nice, kind person and caring about others should never be seen as a weakness. As well as technical and creative skills, compassion and empathy are equally valuable skills.

Young creatives coming into the industry often overlook and dismiss the 'softer skills'. People leadership, Business acumen, public speaking are all skills that will help hugely as you progress through the industry. Those with a combination of creative, technical and 'soft' skills are the ones that seem to really excel. That and ... learn to master ‘unreal engine’. - do that and you can pretty much name your day rate!

The other is never wait for the work to come to you. Too many young designers create a portfolio and wait for the clients to find them. If you go out and target the people you want to be working with you’re in way more control of your destiny. Never be afraid to ask for what you want. Nothing I got in my career just happened, I asked and pushed for everything.

It's the same now with the brands we want to work with, the designers we want to collaborate with or the conferences we want to talk at. Never think you're good enough that people will just somehow find you, that very rarely happens, and even if it does,  it takes way too long.

How do you recharge away from the office?

I have two young children, so there is no opportunity to recharge! I do however listen to alot of podcasts, everything from culture, news, business totech. I find them great for relaxing without having to look at another screen.

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

I’ve spent so much of my career helping launch, market or explain other people's products. I’d quite like to create a product of my own. I have no idea what that would be yet, at present I’m currently too focussed on what we’re doing at FutureDeluxe,  but if this all ended tomorrow, that's likely what I’d start to explore.

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

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I still think more needs to be done to make it easier for young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to pursue careers within the creative industries.  The high cost of software, training and/or university degrees can be a barrier to entry. At FutureDeluxe we are currently exploring what we can do to make it easier for people entering the industry to get that training and those skills .

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

I’ve just started reading ‘Let my people go surfing’ by Yvon Chouinard, the Patagonia founder. I find what Yvon Chouinard has built and the values he has managed to maintain throughout just inspirational!

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