Steve Austen-Brown on knocking down walls

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It is quite universally recognised and understood that siloed approaches are more harmful than not.

On top of that, you may be the greatest architect of them all, knowing all about your theory and with a perfect understanding of the craft – but if you shut your brain away from external inputs, you are never going to fully grow. This is the mindset that creative director Steve Austen-Brown fosters at Avantgarde: being curious, loving stories, "blurring boundaries and knocking down walls."

This week we are Getting to Know Steve, a passionate leader and a secret lover of the guilty pleasures of a neat spreadsheet.


Tell us a bit about your current role!

I head up the creative studio at Avantgarde London. I have always favoured a diverse studio made up of creatives and designers, blurring boundaries and knocking down walls wherever possible. So, at Avantgarde we are a creative stew of architects, print and digital designers, thinkers, creative strategists, art directors and copywriters – all blending together to develop unique experiences. I guess my role is to stir the big wooden spoon.

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

I had previously worked with Avantgarde London’s MD, Stuart Bradbury, when he was as Ignition (now Wasserman). We clicked. A year later he invited me to review a big pitch that needed a change in creative direction. That client went on to become a key global relationship for us. That was nine years ago, and there were just three of us sitting around a big table.

The challenge was, and continues to be, to define a clear and distinct creative process. We are working in a very nebulous marketing sector. We create experiences. The challenge is an exciting one, especially with the big push into digital and virtual over the last months. What exactly is an experience? How do we measure it? How do we create it? How do we sell it?


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

My background is varied, though I like to think there has been a consistent thread throughout! I started out as an architect, though one who was more interested in writing the story of the building experience, rather than detailing the window architraves.

I made the conscious decision to explore more temporary architecture projects, which led me to designing museum and gallery spaces and the world of exhibitions. This included some pretty large pavilion-style experiences, notably the Millennium Dome here in London. This world of immersive experiences satisfied my storytelling inclinations, combined with the inherent design challenges.

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

I’d like to say I’d be writing novels or producing music. In other words, finding different ways of telling stories. But there is also something curatorial within me and, I have to admit, the year after university spent working in a bookshop was incredibly satisfying, being surrounded by and sorting out the stories. I would have perhaps continued this passion and opened and curated a boutique ‘story’ shop – books, magazines, music, film. Still might… One day.


What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

I have always considered my ‘work’ as one of my passions in life. The creative urge to make something, tell stories, conjure up worlds, collaborate with great people – this has been my driving desire since the very early days of designing and mapping out the settings for adventures with my sister on family holidays. As long as everything creative that feeds into my life experience – arts, theatre, film, music, design – finds a resonance with the work I’m doing, I will stay inspired and motivated.

What is the one advice you would give to creatives looking to be successful in the industry?

I’ve been lucky enough to have met some of my creative heroes and even work with a few of them. What has always struck me is that they have a clarity of vision and a laser-like ability to focus on the stuff that matters. I have been inspired by this confidence in ambition and expectation and would encourage anyone starting out in this industry to have their own vision. Combine the passion for creating, with a passion to make a difference. I would also encourage all creatives to collaborate with others, especially with people very different from yourself.


Tell us something about your professional life we don’t already know

I secretly like a good spreadsheet. Not only is there something quite cathartic about plugging in data, but it is also useful in creating order from chaos and giving a clue to others about the all-important process that drives creative and design into fruition.

What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

It has to be the third national pavilion project I have had the pleasure and honour of working on - The UK Pavilion for the Dubai Expo, now opening in 2021. On receiving the open tender, I had a strong strategic ambition to put an amazing team around one of the UK’s leading designers and creators of immersive theatre and experiences – Es Devlin. I had spoken briefly to Es at a Google event a few months earlier and got in touch to see if she’d like to collaborate on the creation of a unique UK installation at the next World Expo. The rest of the story will hopefully be history. Es came up with a powerful vision for the pavilion, and we won the competition. It is now being constructed and the dream is steadily being realised.


How do you recharge away from the office?

I have collected vinyl – that’s the music medium rather than floor covering – since I was a teenager. Something about the tangible and tactile quality of the object has meant I have stayed faithful to the format through digitalisation. I now have a far too large collection which gives me hours of escapist freedom. It is the abstraction of music that allows me to engage with my creative side in a very distinct perspective to my ‘work’ and recharge.

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

I really do think that we, as creatives, need to start effecting a positive change of attitude within the business of selling. We need to have more of an agenda around the important things in the world from environmental to societal issues and need to apply our particular art of persuasion to delivering responsible yet inspiring creative visions of our potential future.



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