Leaders

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Putting on some Podge with Creativepool Annual Influencer of the Year - Phil Jones

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Podge is a funny word that could feasibly mean anything to anyone. But if you were born in Manchester, it brings to mind that most British of physical features - the beer belly. Mancunians have always referred to putting on weight as putting on “a bit of a podge,” so when Mancunian creative legend Phil Jones was thinking up a name for  a decadent lunch he was putting on back in the early nineties where thirty legendary designers would meet to eat, drink, be merry and discuss their ideas. 

Podge was based around some simple principles: a fabulous venue, fabulous food, plenty of wine, all wrapped in a brilliant theme, and with great company from arrival to departure. Nobody gets to choose who they sit next to and halfway through the lunch every guest changes tables and mingles with another table of guests. Those that don't obey the rules don't get to come again. The only aim is to encourage great people to swap stories and experiences, meet old friends and make new ones.

25 years later and the tradition still holds true and whilst COVID-19 might mean the future of the event might be in jeopardy, the spirit of the event lives on in its creator. Fresh from being named the Creativepool Annual’s People’s Choice Influencer of the Year, we caught up with Phil to discuss his various leadership hats, how the Podge idea grew further than he could have ever imagined and how the pandemic has affected him as a creative leader and the events industry at large.

Tell us about your current role?

I have two distinctive roles, or three if you count being Chairman of The Drum’s DADI awards which is an honour I have had the pleasure of doing since it began 14 years ago. But as with everything I do, it all overlaps rather nicely. I’m very fortunate that I enjoy what I do immensely and as I reach retirement age, they are the things that keep me young, fun and interesting, even with a bus pass!

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I founded the Podge lunch back in 1994 when my day job was MD of Real Time Studio. In my previous life as co-founder of type studio APT my clients were the leading designers in the country and had been through a torrid time with the 90s recession. I thought it would be good to organise a lunch that they could all attend on neutral territory. This was before email and the internet so every invite was by phone or fax. 

That idea grew and www.podgeevents.com now consists of a collection of invitation-only events for the sports, digital, design & music industries. Just like the original over a quarter of a century ago, they exist solely to allow the clever, interesting and important folk who are really making things happen and shaping their industries, the chance to get together once a year with no agenda whatsoever other than to chat, have fun and realise why they do what they do. I just have the pleasure of making it happen alongside my amazing daughter Clare with huge help from son PJ and wife Babs.

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My other roles are as a consultant/mentor for agencies, and organisations providing key services to the creative and digital worlds. It enables me to put some of the things I’ve learned over the years to good use. I love the energy and diversity that comes with working with a whole host of different people and businesses, all with different challenges and goals. I’ve worked with specialists in branding, digital marketing AI, R&D, Visual communications, Education, M&A, New Business, and the best thing about this role is that I get to pick who I work with and I only work with nice people, so every day at the office (or remotely right now) is an enjoyable one!

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

Well, it has all happened very organically but I suppose all my jobs exist because I’ve always made sure, right from when I first started out in my early 20’s in type, that I spent time building and nurturing a trusted network and making a concerted effort to be out there, meeting and getting to know people and in particular having time for students. 

The first Podge lunch happened because in the 1980’s I was running my own Typographic studio, APT. We worked with some of the best design groups going and I got to know the owners well on a personal level.  They trusted me in the midst of the recession to organise a lunch that bought them all together so they could talk openly about their situations, and how together they might work better together to survive a future recession. I was a neutral and trusted middle-man that just so happened to be well connected so of course, I said YES. It went down so well it then became an annual thing. I had myself another job albeit unpaid!

With my consultancy roles, well they have all happened very organically too. Over the years I have run my own business and a large group agency business but now I am very much part of the team of the companies I work with on a consultancy basis. And most of the jobs I’ve had over the years have in some way stemmed from conversations I’ve had at the various Podges at the bar! Getting to know people personally.

Listening to their challenges, their worries and exciting plans, and just having a chat. It all stems from good old-fashioned conversations. I was very sad to hear of the death of legend Terence Conran this week as it was his restaurant Quaglinos who hosted our first lunch.

I suppose my biggest challenge is ending a relationship with a great company. Some I have worked with in a consultancy role for over a decade. I see their businesses flourish, adapt and change over time. It’s at this point, when change happens, that I can see what they need to achieve the next set of goals or face another set of challenges, and often, I am not what they need. 

I know what I bring to the table and know when I need to hand the baton over, but it is often hard as you become attached to the people. Babs and I attended 4 weddings last year, we become part of the family. So yes, the challenge is knowing when you have done your bit and can walk away happy knowing you did the best you can for the people you worked for.

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

My background was very much TYPE related for the first 20 years. I did a 5-year apprenticeship as a monotype keyboard & caster operator in my home town Manchester before moving to London and in the 1970’s where I met Ken and Derek, the two guys I would subsequently set up in business with (not to mention meeting the amazing woman I married 45 years ago). 

In 1979 the three of us mates set up APT which became one of the most successful typography studios in the UK.  And we had a lot of fun along the way. We ultimately sold the business on a three-year earn-out and learned a lot of lessons along the way. Some bad but mainly good. I became chairman of The Typographic Circle for 5 years and got to do some great things and hang out with my friends, who in those days were from the design, advertising and typography worlds. When I was inducted to the Digital Hall of Fame it was about as far away as is possible to get from my apprenticeship in hot metal.

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In 1990 at the end of the earn-out I left my two partners in charge of the type business and I left to do something else and that is where my digital story began, back in the very early days of digital and pre Internet.

I became MD of Real Time Studio, a small business of around 10 people in the early nineties and over 300 when I hung up my footie boots in 2004. It became EHSrealtime and then EHS Brann (now EHS 4D) and we had some amazing digital firsts. Amongst them the launch of The New Mini on and offline, the first websites for The Premier League, Sport England and Canon, 10 years worth of Diesel fashion sites and much more.  

When I left I was then vice chairman & operations director of EHS Brann in 50,000 square foot in Clerkenwell. It was a different era. I wasn’t sure what I would do next. For about 5 minutes I thought I’d retire. But Babs (my wife) told me she’d go mad if I was under her feet all day. Luckily for her, at the next Podge Lunch, over a chat and a bacon butty with the three young owners of a cool digital agency in Shoreditch (Mook), I realised I had just agreed to become their non exec!

Everything I had learned along the way allowed me to help them as they grew their own business and got it ready for sale. It was my first consultancy role and the start of what I didn’t realise then would be the most enjoyable and fulfilling part of my career. Helping others enjoy what they do and make it a success. I am pleased to say the trio that kickstarted the next chapter of my life are all still friends now and they still return to have a drink and a catch up at Podge!

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

It would have to be in football or music, both have played a big part in my life. Music was one of the original reasons I left Manchester for London, I had written a book of song lyrics and teamed up with a London based musician and we spent many a fine hour up and down Tin Pan Alley.

And football was probably responsible for far more than I realised including playing against the guy whose agency bought mine many years later. I always played football Saturday and Sunday during the seventies and made many great friends and in the 80s I sent up my own 5-a-side football league at the Elephant & Castle for design agencies, art colleges and advertising agencies, both male and female. 

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During that period my contact list expanded beyond all my expectations, these days social networking is mainly done online but I was able to use something I was passionate about to bring people together for a fun activity. I followed on from footie with an initiative called Bladdered by Fax which ran for five years and involved a different agency every month choosing a pub, hosting the evening and faxing everyone who had been to the previous one as well as the newbies. We ended up booking Camden Palace for the Xmas one.

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

Well, I built two teams of people from the ground up between 1979 and 1990 and then again from 1991 to 2004. I am a firm believer in surrounding yourself with people who are better at what they do than you. I had the best copywriters, designers, photographers, tech guys, account directors, PA’s, receptionists. They also had personality and were allowed AND encouraged to be themselves. My right hand man in the 90s was Trevor Chambers who was a massive help to me.

We talk about diversity or the lack of diversity today in the industry and I know it is on the agenda of all of the companies I work with, but I can look back to the team we built in the 90’s and say that it was as diverse as any team could be. Just as much time was spent on nurturing the team and the work environment as it was on the clients and it paid off.

We won A LOT of work and nearly always, it came down to the team dynamic and the fact the client could clearly see how we all worked together. No egos. Just talent with a big dose of not taking ourselves too seriously. 

My advice to those I work with now and anyone who asks is to remember one simple fact. You MUST enjoy going to work. The job and the workplace. Its where you spend most of your life. So my secret I suppose, without realising it was a secret at the time, as it just seemed normal, is to value your staff. Know them as people. Know their strengths, quirks and hobbies. Let them know you.

Make your company a company that people want to be a part of. A community. Great work follows. I would recommend using Strengthsfinder which will help focus on people’s strengths rather than weaknesses, Gill Garrett & Gavin Cargill played a big part in re-energising me when my batteries were low.

How has COVID-19 affected you as a leader?

Well, with my Podge Events hat on its been a shocker! We managed to squeeze one event in the first week of March for 180 people in Manchester which was cracking, check out the video above to see 100 of them living this year’s 10-year stretch theme. But then it all went downhill after that. 

We are unfortunately in one of the hardest-hit sectors. We are all about human interaction. No Zoom alternatives for Podge I’m afraid. We need real-world gatherings to be possible to get Podge back up and running, so we’re hopeful for a better 2021 but we are like many, anxiously waiting to see what will happen to the live events sector. 

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As a consultant, it has also been more of a struggle. My strength is connecting people. Looking for opportunities and joining up the dots. Bringing people together. Most of that either stems from or results in human interactions. This year has been all about the virtual connection. It has been a learning curve and although I miss much of the world pre-COVID, I have adapted like most. 

I’ve been doing Podcasts with one of my agencies, Wonderful, and getting to interview some brilliantly interesting people (soon to include Creativepool's very own Michael Tomes), whilst working much more intuitively with the team at ForrestBrown to help our friends in the digital world ensure they get the most out of their upcoming R&D claims. Something I didn’t know nearly enough about before and now do! I have been helping GreenSquare for 10 years and they have helped many agencies finding buyers and maximising their earn-outs when selling.

The most positive thing to come out of this is the quality time I’ve spent with family and friends (even if it was 2 meters apart and over a garden hedge). So as a leader I’d say what I’ve learnt or rather been reminded of, is the importance of a good work/life balance. 

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I’ve spoken with so many people over the course of the past few months there has been one common thread that has prevailed. Everyone has appreciated the time they’ve had with their families, so as business leaders, acknowledging this and working hard to try and address this is something I think we can all do once the tide turns and we can all finally start to get back to a new or different kind of normal.

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

I would encourage them not to rely on emails all the time and to try and get out there to meet potential employers, peers and people they aspire to be. Get out there and get involved, offer to help organisations like BIMA, D&AD, Typographic Circle, the DBA etc, attend events, meet people and learn how to communicate in the real world and it is amazing how many doors will open over time. 

One of the students at The School of Communication Arts, where I am a Mentor, won a black pencil last year which was an incredible achievement and her tutor Marc Lewis was hugely influential in giving her the confidence to even enter. There are great people out there willing to support talent, but you need to give a little in order to receive a lot. Pay it Forward.

How do you recharge away from the office?

One of the undoubted benefits of building and selling my own agency is that it now allows me the luxury of hopping over regularly to our villa in the Algarve, reading a good crime thriller and often falling asleep in the garden. I’ve done a lot of the latter since lockdown in March! But these only come a close second to being cuddled by my two grandchildren. I am in Portugal writing this and have to quarantine for two weeks before I can recharge with a big cuddle from them when we can see them again. Family makes everything worthwhile.

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

It is a big question. My son runs his own digital agency and has minimal space and has digital staff in multiple countries producing great work for him. He has much less of a problem than I did when I was his age when I invested heavily in space, equipment, staff (24 hrs back then) and giving over our houses as security to the banks.

Watching him tap into global talent, often from his home, with minimal property costs and no potentially life-changing personal guarantees I think it’s a lifestyle I would be much happier with. Commuting will hopefully become less of an issue having seen how people coped during the pandemic. 

I do hope that the future of the creative industries (and many others) will factor in a better work/life balance. Although I have had a personal success story in my career it did entail a 13 year period where my wife and I lived apart during the week so that I could focus 100% on work in London and our children could be brought up in a more normal country home close to grandparents and surrounded by normal people and with space for animals, in our case two Great Danes.

It was a big sacrifice and in hindsight too big a sacrifice. Technology has transformed the ability for people to work from their homes and I think that will make a huge difference going forward.

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