What I Learned From Interviewing James Hilton of AKQA

Photo of James Hilton interview

The spread in the magazine

Back when I attended every networking event I could find, I saw a talk by Ajaz Ahmed, one of the founders of media agency AKQA.  AKQA is one of the most respected and successful agencies of the last decade, producing work for Nike that revolutionised how they engage with their fans, and integrating apps, digital and marketing in ground-breaking ways.

Fascinated by how they had driven innovation, I interviewed James Hilton, who was then the Chief Creative Officer of AKQA, and wrote this feature for Etihad Inflight magazine.

It’s still one of my favourite interviews, and I learned plenty about Creative Leadership, Inspiration, and innovative thought.  Check it out.

Interview With James Hilton of AKQA

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The Creative Heritage of Paris: An Article I Wrote for Etihad




In 2013 I visited Paris to do some research about the city’s heritage, and the personalities that lived there. I discovered some remarkable stories about Paris’s creative past, and how it echoes in the city today. Check out the article below. It features photos by my mate Levison Wood – before photographers were taking pictures of him!

The Creative Legacy Of Paris

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Doing Digital Properly: Top Tips From BBC Worldwide’s Alex Ayling

Screen Shot 2015-12-23 at 12.22.18

Today, anyone can broadcast through platforms like YouTube. With amateurs producing incredible content, and organisations like Vice creating films specifically for online broadcast, where do traditional broadcasters like the BBC fit in?

“When done badly, digital for TV amounts to a Twitter hashtag and crap microsite,” says Alex Ayling, Head of BBC Worldwide Digital Studios, and the man responsible for online elements of the BBC’s most recognisable shows, including Top Gear, Dr Who and Sherlock.

“But it doesn’t need to be like that. With a little planning and awareness, digital can add a huge amount of value to traditional television.”

As an alumnus of Ones To Watch (the Edinburgh TV Festival talent scheme) I was lucky enough to hear Alex speak at an alumni event in London. Here’s a summary of his key points, but follow him on Twitter @alexjayling to get tips directly from the man himself.

Stop Broadcasting, Start Conversing

In the old broadcast model, the viewer has no involvement until transmission, but with digital, they can be involved at every stage.

For Dr Who, Alex and his team created a YouTube channel (Dr Who: The Fan Show) to complement the TV series.  A few innovations made it more relevant to online:

  • Hired a fan as a researcher for Development (she became the presenter).
  • Asked fans to send in ideas for Pre-Production.
  • Found (and paid) fan experts to Produce content (such as a Minecraft version of an episode).
  • Kept fans updated during Post-Production, using relevant platforms (Twitter, Snapchat & Instagram).
  • Asked for comment, interaction and feedback during online Transmission.
  • Curated and shared fan content, such as YouTube channels that feature reviews of the show, encouraging conversation.
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Dr Who: The Fan Show

Storytelling hasn’t changed; Methods of consumption have

Online, the storytelling structure is shifted:

  • TV magazine pieces need an intro, middle and ending.
  • Online viewers search for a specific topic and select a video based on its Title and Thumbnail.
  • That’s the intro done, so jump right into the meat of the story; the video itself is the “middle” requiring no intro.
  • The “ending” is the online conversation afterwards, rather than a summary in the video.

Hire (or be) the right people

If digital deliverables are planned from the start, they are quick, cheap and easy to produce. Check out “Move” by STA Travel. All it required was one minute of identical filming each day. But to make that happen, the producers had to know what they wanted and plan locations. Just like regular TV.

Self-contained opportunistic content can work really well. During filming of “The Hunt,” a polar bear ate all the crew’s food, but left the Marmite. It made for humorous content that wouldn’t work in the main show, but which connected with viewers and generated lots of PR. Making the most of these opportunities requires someone who is thinking beyond the main show.

Find people who love what you do, and they’ll do your marketing for you. Get them involved at an early stage, so they have a sense of ownership and excitement. Dr Who The Fan Show is a brilliant example of this: enthusiasm and authenticity is essential, but technical skills can be taught.

You don’t need to be an expert at everything to make ephemeral content, just good enough to make it happen: be a “digital Swiss Army Knife” – producer, editor, presenter and researcher.

Be Curious

Use different platforms to reach different audiences, or to have different effects.

  • Google Plus is great for special interest and technical fields
  • LinkedIn generates massive shares and referrals in finance and professional services
  • Snapchat is good for behind-the-scenes updates
  • Instagram works better for heavily-posed PR-style updates
  • Periscope is good for press and marketing
  • Twitch works well for Livestreaming
  • Whatsapp data is impossible to track, but results in lots of traffic through referral
  • Facebook pages need to be long-life. For documentary series, make it part of a broader “fan page” – such as the BBC Nature series.


  • Stop broadcasting. Start Conversing
  • Storytelling hasn’t changed; Methods of consumption have
  • Hire (or be) the right people
  • Be curious

If you haven’t already, apply for a place on Ones To Watch or The Network; they’re completely free and give you an all-expenses pass to the Edinburgh Television Festival, and access to monthly alumni events, such as the one at which Alex shared his advice. It’s the best thing I’ve done to develop my career in TV.


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Buddhist Festival in Ladakh

Girls in Ladakh

In the summer of 2015 I visited Ladakh for the first time.  It’s like nowhere else in India, as the barrier of the Himalayan range means it is both dry (because it’s in the rain shadow) and culturally distinct.

The area is much more akin to Tibet in environment, people and culture.  Whilst I was there, a Tibetan lama came to the area to give a blessing and sermon.  It was a day out and festival for the people of Ladakh.

Have a look at the Flickr album I put together of the festival.

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How To Ace Twitter

Barney Ace TwitterAs a producer, I like to use Twitter to share my work.  But I’ve always felt that I could be doing it better.  Last November, Dr Rhiannon MacDonnell (Marketing Professor at Cass Business School), Barney Worfolk-Smith (Director at creative social agency That Lot), and David Levin (Creative Director at That Lot) gave their expert advice on how to use the micro-blogging tool at a City Unrulyversity event.  The chance to learn about Twitter from an academic and commercial perspective was too good to pass up.

This isn’t an exhaustive blog of their talk, but some of the tips that I found most useful for me.  Be sure to Tweet Rhiannon, David or Barney directly to find out more, on @Rhiannon @DavidLevin123 and @MightyBarnski

Be Human

When you’re interacting with people on Twitter, remember to be human and speak to other humans.  After all, that’s who’s behind a Twitter account.  Think of the metaphor of a first date: what’s an appropriate way to interact, and what would be a disaster?

Here are some common mistakes.

  • Moving too fast and being demanding (will you marry me?!)
  • Moving too slow (not speaking at all)
  • Not answering questions (being unresponsive)
  • Only talking about yourself
  • Only talking about one thing

What's In It For Them?

What Works

  • Be interested in your followers and people you interact with. Ask them questions and put THEIR experience first.  Make them feel special.
  • Talk about a range of topics and ideas – not just what you do.
  • Express emotion – the more emotive something is, the more it will be shared.
  • Continue real-world conversations online. If someone has a project or work that’s interested or excited you, mention it.
  • Help promote others
  • Look at what regularly features in your followers’ bios – if there’s a common theme, you have common interests, so tweet on those subjects.

What To Do

Well-received Tweets tend to contain one of three things: Information, Insight or Humour.

  • Have recurring formats, themes, hashtags or “features” that you regularly use – like in a magazine, such as quizzes or Top Tens
  • Use more images. Tweets with images get 1/3 more Retweets
  • Jump on opportunities – check out the Douwe Egberts conversation with @The_Dolphin_Pub for an example of this.

Rhiannon - Twitter
This barely scratches the surface of Barney, David and Rhiannon’s advice.
Follow them on Twitter to find out when one of them is speaking next – if Twitter, Social Media or Digital Marketing has an impact on what you do, their advice will be invaluable.

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Sparking Your Fire: Ian Wharton on Creativity

Cloud I’ve wanted to write an article about creativity for a while: how does one nurture it; what working environments help; what blocks it?  But until a chance encounter one winter’s eve, I was at a loss about how to approach such a vast topic.

In December 2014 I was invited to talk at Kingston University on the subject of creative careers. The speaker that followed me was far more qualified to do so: Ian Wharton is an award-winning Group Creative Director at innovation and ideas company AKQA.  His career has spanned every creative field you can imagine: film-making, animation, art directing, publishing and writing.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he spent his free time developing modern dance interpretations of Icelandic sagas.

He has even written a book on creativity, “Spark for the Fire,” which I picked up the next day. Ian’s key message is that, as children, we’re naturally creative. But conditioning, discouragement and misguided education, gradually eliminate some of the skills essential to creative success.

I met up with Ian after reading the book to ask him a few questions. Below that are my notes from the book, and at the very bottom (if you don’t want to read the whole article) are my top take-away points from our conversation.  All the same, I’d recommend reading the book yourself, as his ideas are much more powerful within the context of the narrative that he skilfully weaves.

1. Embrace The Ridiculous – don’t let reason and experience determine “a good idea”

Youthful creativity is good because of a lack of “mental furniture”.  As we get older, we second-guess our intuition and rationalise good ideas away.  Initially, at least, there are no wrong or stupid ideas in creativity, so we must have the confidence to say illogical, fun and outlandish things.  Because reason is based on precedent, it can reduce innovation into repetition and mediocrity.

2. Creativity Is Transferable – do lots of different things

Sticking to one skill doesn’t necessarily generate mastery: there’s a world of difference between 10,000 hours of passion and 10,000 hours of tolerance.  Setting ourselves challenges and stepping out from our comfort zone is how we improve, whilst being good at a single craft suggests we’ve found a good process and learnt how to repeat it. A skill is a launchpad, and a platform to perform on: it might not be the end-point, but a catalyst to achieve something else.

For Jamie Oliver, a career as an educator, TV personality, entrepreneur and writer came from a willingness to explore beyond his primary skill. Cooking was the catalyst, the platform that allowed him to explore other fields, and the approach he brought to cooking could be applied to those other fields.

Don’t just “do one thing and do it well,” but do whatever your imagination and desire demands of you.  Then you can’t help but do it well.

Do Something 3. Beware Invisibility – sell yourself

Ian defines “selling yourself” as two things:

  1. To make known the things we have already achieved (showcasing our talents & ability in the work and things we have done)
  2. To communicate the things we have yet to achieve (Expressing our goals and vision of where or who we want to be)

Self-promotion begets recognition, which builds career momentum. But you have to put yourself under the right spotlight to be recognised. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, but a habit that is essential to building a profile. It’s something of a myth that great creativity is discovered and awarded: you have to enter competitions (even the Oscars have a submission process!).  Too many people believe that “if I just do good work, they’ll find me.” Unfortunately, unless you are very lucky, you may be waiting a long time to be found.

Recognition also leads to collaboration. A large part of Ian’s career has been shaped by opportunities and advice from AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed. They met during an award ceremony for Solar (Ian’s first animated film). Had Ian not submitted an entry to a competition, they may never have met.  Serendipity favours those who create opportunities for it.

And tell people what you want to do next because, if you don’t ask, you don’t get: Arnold Schwarzenegger was told he couldn’t go straight to serving as a governor, but should serve in lower offices such as city council and the mayor’s office first.  He broke the rules and found a way to become the Governator.

Be ambitious. When pitching, don’t make it a multiple-choice scenario and offer different choices. Why would you dissipate your energy on developing ideas you don’t fully believe in? Pick your best idea and pitch that.

4. Curiosity And Purpose

Compare the Purpose of a business leader: “To generate profit, grow the company and reward shareholders” to the Purpose of a surgeon: “To use the skills and knowledge I have acquired to save and improve lives.”  The surgeon’s reply comes from a long-term belief.  It denotes Purpose, rather than outcome.

Purpose is the sense of “Why” we do things. In business and creativity alike, it’s more rewarding and fun to create products, content and services that start with a why.  This requires curiosity, or having a sense of wonder. And appreciation, that process of continuously noticing, which provides a master-key for unlocking creative potential.

There are 3 muscles of creativity that we must exercise to stay creative:

  1. Curiosity: Our capacity to learn relies on asking questions.  “He who asks is a fool for five minutes.  He who doesn’t ask is a fool forever.”
  2. Appreciation: This is the ability to step into the shoes of others, to understand who they are and how things work. By listening and understanding to what people need, we could solve many problems by creatively adapting existing technology and solutions.
  3. Imagination: Question your behaviour.  Challenging the habits that helped individuals and companies grow is scary and uncertain.  But diversity, rather than conformity is what makes us thrive.

5. Learn Forever and Play

Because we invest so heavily in our self-image, drawing attention to our weaknesses feels dangerous. But it’s only by asking how to do something that you’ll learn and grown.  Listen to, learn from and be inspired by those who are successful in your field.

Becoming good at a job can mean your time is too precious to be spent exploring unknowns. But there’s an innate hunger to learn new things, which must be fed to allow continuous development. This requires a playful work culture, where people aren’t afraid to look a bit stupid.

Over the long haul, when these two things (play and desire to learn) are missing, it stops becoming a labour of love, and we miss out on our true potential.

6. Dare To Fail

Creativity is just being stupid enough to not realise that you can’t do something. Nearly all of us have been struck by a great idea that we felt had to be pursued. But most never fully executed it. Is is fear of failure that we succumb to. Creatives have an obligation to put their ideas into practice.  It challenges the way things are, and results in breakthroughs and evolution.

Adam Bird of McKinsey & Company points out that “failure” has negative connotations and we should instead consider “experimentation.”  Dyson says that he made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum cleaner before he got it right.  There were 5,126 failures.  But he learned from each one, which is how he came up with a solution.

It would be inhuman to have no self-doubt, but it’s easy to see people at the top and think that they have no fear of failure.  They do.   They’re just courageous enough to carry on in spite of that fear.  If you have an idea driven by a passion that you are not sure you can achieve, do it anyway.

Ian’s book, Spark for the Fire, is available from Amazon

60-second summary

  • Back yourself
  • Don’t worry about those older than you or above you in the creative industries.  Just because they have spent more time in the industry doesn’t make them better than you. People often become more conservative with time, so their ideas become less innovative. And given the pace of technological change, you might even have more relevant experience than they do.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a certain practice. Be happy to try things that you want to do.
  • Don’t make or do things that you don’t want to be known for.
  • Be careful of the notion of the 10,000 hour rule. Passion trumps tolerance.
  • Sell yourself and get agencies to represent you. No-one will notice you if you quietly beaver away in the corner. Enter awards to raise your profile
  • Be careful to not do things purely for the money, or you’ll hate the work. Pitch big and pitch creatively.
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The Area Boys Of Lagos

Filming sunsets in Lagos

Filming sunsets in Lagos

We cross the Third Mainland Bridge at dusk and ask Okey, our driver, to stop so we can film the sunset. “You got two minutes, make da shot snappy,” he says in Lagosian Patois. Slightly bemused, we jump out and start filming. Angry shouts drift up from the mud flats below. Groups of young men have taken umbrage at our presence, even with the camera pointed away from them and an armed policeman at our side.

Okey, our driver in Lagos

Okey, our driver in Lagos

More men emerge from shacks, thrusting chests, pointing finger-pistols like 90s rappers and stalking menacingly towards the ramps that will bring them up to us. It feels precarious. I have World War Z-style visions of them clambering over the side of the bridge. We finish the shot, jump in the car and roar off before they get any nearer. Thus went our encounters with the Area Boys of Lagos: young, unemployed men who engage in coercion, drug-dealing, odd-jobs and (at the extreme end) robbery, kidnap and murder. Their favourite tactic is surrounding cars that have stopped at night and extorting money to ensure the inhabitants are “safe” (if you don’t pay, you won’t be). Whilst they have a passing resemblance to the racketeers of other cities, they are less organised or influential.

Mark with Elkana, our police escort

Mark with Elkana, our police escort

But these disenfranchised young men might influence the future of a nation. They are cheap labour for the political organisations plastering posters all over Lagos. They also undo the work of their opponents: we see APC boards torn to shreds and PDP banners daubed with black paint. When rival groups meet, it can turn to violence. Military coups have overthrown several civilian governments (and a few military ones) since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, but civilian rule has survived since 1999. Goodluck Jonathan, of the People’s Democratic Party, is the incumbent President. His opponent, General Buhari, looks a strong bet to win the country’s forthcoming elections. As his title might suggest, Buhari is an ex-Army man, who briefly ruled the country following a coup in 1984. Having converted to democracy, he is the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, a coalition of Jonathan’s opponents tired of perceived nepotism, corruption and squandering of resources.

The LIRS Team

The LIRS Team

Nigeria is federal, so individual states have control over most spending and taxation. Lagos is run by Buhari’s allies, and they have overseen vast Public-Private Investment: roadways thrown across the lagoon, slums cleared and houses built in their place (not always a popular move). At the forefront of this change is the Lagos Internal Revenue Service, LIRS, which claims to have increased tax compliance to 99.5%. Taxation now provides 80% of Lagos State’s revenue, up from 25% in 1999 (the remainder comes from the Federal Oil Fund). We spend a day in Aladea Market with one of LIRS’ “Tax Education & Enlightenment Teams.” Wearing polo shirts emblazoned with “PAY YOUR TAX”, they are the front-line in compliance: teams of three approach traders in a convivial fashion, to explain how taxation works for them. I spot an old woman in a fabric-shack using her laptop to complete an Excel spread sheet of profit & loss.

The vast land reclamation project at Illubiri

The vast land reclamation project at Illubiri

We are taken see the fruits of LIRS’ labours – apartments available for sale with a 30% deposit and a mortgage, backed by the state, at 9.5%. Demand is so high that they are allotted to buyers through a monthly lottery. The scale of construction at a new site in Illubiri, Lagos Island, is phenomenal. 250,000 square metres of former swamp will become a self-contained community of 1500 homes, with its own police station, power station and water treatment plant. Beyond the security fence and freeway is the other side of Lagos: the vast slums of tin-roof shacks that encroach on the Lagoon. Whilst filming back towards the construction site, we are surrounded by a group of young men who request 3000 Naira (15 USD) to “keep us safe” whilst we are filming. They are led by a man whose bare chest displays a scar the length of my forearm. Okey suggests we pay. I agree. The Area Boys smile and return to their task of painting over PDP posters.

Slums of Lagos

Slums of Lagos

The presidential election was scheduled for February 14th, but the Independent National Electoral Commission has delayed the election until March 28th. Security chiefs insist free and fair elections require troops to prevent violence. Troops that are currently taking the fight to Boko Haram. The opposition accuses Jonathan of political scheming – the delay means the APC might run out of campaign funds – but no-one really knows who the delay will favour. Ordinary Nigerians just want it to be over. In the meantime, business and funding decisions will be paralysed, Lagos will be wallpapered, and the Area Boys will be occupied.

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