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"You have to make yourself indispensable" - With Partner at Nomad Terry Stephens | #GettingToKnow

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Partner at branding agency Nomad Terry Stephens certainly isn't short of great stories, starting with his own. Used to wearing many hats in any given day, and with over 20 years of experience and contacts under his belt, Terry has learned to make himself indispensable – not only to his team, but his corner of the industry itself.

Terry learned about the sheer power of the human mind from a book about a long distance runner – a life-changing moment which set him running (pun intended) on the right path to a successful career in design. With ambition and empathy, Terry now leads his team, and secretly dreams of a side career related to food.

Today we are Getting to Know Partner at Nomad Terry Stephens, a much inspiring leader in many a respect.

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Tell us a bit about your role! Is there a “typical” day?

It sounds like a massive cliché, but there isn’t really a typical day. As a business owner you’re constantly wearing many hats, so I’m just as likely to be organising team/studio related things, as I am looking at brand architecture, naming or copywriting as part of a project in the studio, or meeting prospective new clients. The thing I don’t tend to do any more is actually design – I luckily have a much better team around me for that.

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

Time and Experience. It’s super simple to set up a studio; buy a Mac and some insurance and off you go – the latter being the part a lot of small studios forget about. 
What’s not to easy is having 20 years of experience and contacts to start building a client base from. 

I learnt that the hard way. After leaving Why Not in 2011, I set up Assembly, the studio side of the design blog Design Assembly, with my close friend Matt Judge. We were both designers with good studio experience, but it became quite clear within 12 months that we lacked the deeper understanding of the value of design to really make things work. We did some lovely work with Apple, Royal Mail, and furniture company Hitch Mylius – but we realised quite quickly that we weren’t ready to land the bigger and more complex branding jobs.

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

I became an avid runner in my late 20’s which included travelling the world with an amazing group of friends, running races and partying. For the best part of 10 years, it became a way of life.

Boozy Friday nights were replaced with early nights in preparation for Saturday morning threshold runs or cross-country races.

A friend of mine bought me a copy of the book “From Last to First” by Charlie Spedding, which is a long-distance runner’s story about resilience and achieving goals. While the book was clearly about running, it taught me so much more about the power of the mind. And in truth, the principles I learnt in that book helped me to define my career in branding and design.

The lightbulb moment in the book came when Charlie set out answering three simple questions about his running career:

What do I want? – What short, medium, and long-term goals am I trying to achieve?
Why do I want it? – If you can’t answer why then maybe you don’t want it after all.
How much do I want it? – In the heat of the moment what lengths will I go to, to make it happen?

After completing my first two marathons within 3hrs 5mins, I put this mantra into practice.

It got me thinking a lot about my career in design.

For a long time after breaking into the industry, I didn’t think about a longer-term goal. My one and only goal was learning everything I could from the super talented people around me. Graphic Designer and godfather of branding Michael Wolff once said to me “Think of yourself as a sponge and absorb all you can from those around you”. His point was to soak up the very best of Simon Elliott and Garry Blackburn, Partners of Rose Design, and of Michael himself. Be the super designer combination of the three of them. 

That advice took me through the formative years of my career, and I still stick to it today. I’m still learning from the amazing people around me just as I did back then.

In leaving Rose, it gave me the opportunity to spend some time in a few different studios to try and work out what the right next step might be. And just as Charlie mentioned in his book, not only the next step, but what my next few steps might be.

Rather than just continuing to do more of the same, I was challenged by Steve Bonner at GBH about whether there was another level to my thinking that I could work on. For me, that extra level was a more holistic view of branding, taking myself out of the minutia detail of graphic design and learning more about how design can help businesses succeed.

Using Charlie’s 3-question mantra, I plotted a route towards developing my knowledge and understanding beyond graphic design. I was surrounded by talent in so many different areas – design yes, but creative technology, strategy, and business design as well. I made sure, for the next five years, that I learnt all I could from the talent around me.

All of this provided me with the skill, contacts and experience to take the leap and set up Nomad with Stu Watson. And here we are now!

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

Biggest win?
It has to be the Sky Sports job. I remember when the message came through from them about meeting up. Four of us were sitting in our space in Second Home and we were joking about how it could be a rebrand, but not believing it for a second. A month later we lived up to our Nomadic name and moved in with Sky Creative and partnered with them to deliver their biggest rebrand in 25 years.

Biggest loss?
We pitched for the FA cup rebrand and ended up going toe-to-toe with Wieden+Kennedy on it. To this day I still think the work we created was whole-heartedly the right approach for that job and the challenges the competition was/ is facing. But we didn’t win it, and the rest is history. Booooo.

What’s your secret to remaining inspired and motivated?

Exercise helps me a lot. I don’t do it anywhere near as much as I wish I could nowadays, but that helps me clear my mind, focus on what’s right, and thrash out a plan for the day/job/task at hand. My best work has come from thoughts started on morning runs.

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

A lot of my inspiration comes from outside of our industry. I often find unexpected and interesting colour combinations from studying photography or even going for a walk in my local park – especially this time of year, there’s so much rich inspiration to be had if you can think laterally on how it might be used.

Heroes is a tough one. I love what Lisa Smith is achieving. Blockbuster brands with so much love and craft in the thinking and execution. I know it was well-covered, but some of the touches in the Burger King rebrand were just beautiful and so very rarely seen in massive consumer brand jobs.

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How has COVID-19 affected you?

It’s been tough from a work perspective. I love our studio and our team. And I’m a million times better when I have them around me. You lose out of so much of the spark that happens in-person when everything is done on a video call.

But in some ways, it’s also created some real positives for me on a personal level. My daughter, Minni, was born in January 2021 and the work-from-home/lockdown situation has meant I undoubtedly have a much better bond with her than I would have had ordinarily. I’ve been here for bath and bedtime every night and have been around when the first smiles and the first rolls happened. All those little things that I would have missed out on if I was travelling to and from Dalston every day.

If you could go back to your teenage years, would you have done things differently? Do you have any regrets?

I regret giving up Karate, big time. I did it for nearly 10 years, holding a brown belt, and making the England team twice. I hit 16 and wanted to be out with my mates, not training twice a week and competing at weekends, so I packed it in. Much to my parents’ dismay.

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

I really enjoy cooking, so I’d say something relating to food.

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

Given my unorthodox route into the industry, I do think there needs to be another way to break in – even more so now. Tuition fees are at the insane levels they are.

With the greatest respect to my tutors, I learnt a million times more in the year in industry than I did at university. University was about living on my own, learning to fend for myself and generally growing up. It was a life lesson more than a design one. 

If you’re staring down the barrel of £50k+ worth of student finance debt, imagine what you could do with that budget, or half that budget?! 

Imagine the life experience you could have travelling the world and working with the best of the best in different cultures and environments?

Or even beyond that, there are people out there that have had all the life experience they need, why shouldn’t they get a chance in the industry?

Some of the larger and more established agencies have started to try and make inroads with this kind of thinking, but I think it needs a bigger group to put the structure in place. Someone that has the right connections and infrastructure across the world to help make it happen. D&AD, are you listening?

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

“You have to make yourself indispensable”. That stuck with me, and I’d build on that by adding the word “hustle”. Talent gets you so far in our world, but attitude, character and personality make the difference.

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

 “From Last to First” by Charlie Spedding. It might be a tough read if you’re not into running, but as I mentioned before, you can get so much out of it beyond that. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Try to look beyond design and graphics for inspiration. I often find value in referencing architecture, photography, or fashion/culture.

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