Allow us to introduce you to Adam Rix, Creative Director at Music, a design agency in Manchester that boasts Universal, British Cycling and Dr Martens amongst its many international clients.
Adam has been at Music for over six years now, having previously experienced a premature mid-life crisis (his words) and a trip around South East Asia following a brief stint at freelancing, which he didn't enjoy. Prior to that, he was at Manchester design studio LOVE where he was Creative Head.
But it all began growing up in Norfolk, "Land of Alan Patridge", where he discovered a passion for graphics and went on to study Graphic Arts & Design at Leeds Metropolitan University. From there, he secured his first job at Brahm in Leeds and won a prestigious award that would launch his career. We spoke to Adam about his career so far, why he didn't enjoy freelancing and why agency life is the right path for him.
Did you always know you’d end up working in graphic design?
When I was growing up, my dad worked at a garage called Holborn Tyres, and my mum would clean the offices every Friday night. I would sit at a desk in while Mum was cleaning, doodling my own versions of the Holborn Tyres logo with a pen on that computer paper with lots of the holes down the side. I’d make the O a tyre, and the L an exhaust pipe (and I hadn’t even seen the book, A smile in the mind, at this point), so I guess I must have been fascinated by design, or at least letterforms from an early age.
Then, I had a great art teacher called Mr Phelps (who incidentally drove an amazing pale blue classic VW Beetle). I once told Mr Phelps I liked both CDT and art, and he told me there was this thing called graphic design, so that’s what I decided I would do. I didn’t really know what it was, but I made it my plan and worked towards it regardless. I guess the rest, as they say, is history.
You grew up in Norfolk. How has your childhood shaped who you are today?
If you know Norfolk you’ll be aware that no motorways lead there and it's incredibly flat. Growing up there it felt pretty devoid of culture (only one shop in Norwich sold Creative Review). As a kid, it's somewhere you wanted to escape.
Looking back though, I realise it's an absolutely beautiful place and I was lucky to have the childhood I had – we were able to build dens, consume copious amounts of White Lightning in fields with our mates, and be able to eat fish and chips by the sea in any number of amazing coastal locations.
What I’ve learnt quite recently is that the rural boy still exists within me – and in order for me to function properly, I need to escape to the country pretty regularly. However, I also know I need to get back to decent coffee and concrete pretty soon after.
After graduation, you got a placement at Brahm in Leeds. And that turned out pretty well – tell us more!
I won the incredible niche title of ‘Yorkshire Student Designer of the Year’ – which meant I won a paid twelve-month work placement at a place called Brahm, who I’d never heard of. Frankly, I thought I’d got a bum deal – second place was an Apple PowerBook… but it turned out the design team was full of great people. I learnt a lot, won awards and even had a piece of work exhibited at the Design Museum.
With that in mind, what career advice would you give to people graduating this summer?
My advice to anyone fresh out of university is to keep an open mind. Absolutely bang down the doors of your favourite agencies – but experience is everything. Great people and mentors exist everywhere, and sometimes in the most unexpected places.
At Brahm, a lot of the clients were public sector – and we had to push and work really hard to get creative solutions through. Often, when interviewing creatives for positions, I look for examples of this, as I think it speaks volumes about their spirit if they’ve pushed boundaries with brands that wouldn’t typically be considered the "dream client". But, we all know from experience, there’s no such thing…
Is there anyone who has helped you over the years? Who? And what valuable lesson did they teach you?
I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of friends who are photographers, other designers, and writers – and we all push, inspire and help each other out in different ways.
In my career, all of my creative directors have been a strong influence (sometimes learning as much about how to do things as how not to). But my current boss and ECD, Dave Simpson, who I’ve worked with, on and off, for about 13 years now – has been a strong influence on me.
Dave was the person that gave me my second job in the industry, over the road at LOVE, and I’d say he helped me find my talent, and grow in confidence.
It’s easy to think you need to fulfil some kind of stereotype to be a great Creative Director; flamboyant, loud, full of self-confidence, wear the right shirt, grow the right beard, and be full of industry bullshit.
Dave flies in the face of that – he’s softly spoken, quietly confident, he constantly has thoughts you wish you’d had yourself, has great commercial acumen, and he’s incredibly entrepreneurial. All of which has given me a really good reference point and starting point for how I want to operate and go about my work.
Dave has been a mentor to me throughout my career, really. Whether that was meeting for a lunchtime kebab when he’d set up Music and I was still at LOVE, discussing job offers, when I was freelance, or offering advice (and even work) when I briefly started my own studio.
You, of course, went freelance for a little while but didn't enjoy it. What happened?
One of the things I love about my job is going into a room with a bunch of people, all with different talents, talking for an hour, going off on a tangent on occasion (or many) and coming out with a brilliant idea for a project – not really knowing where it came from.
In my experience of freelancing, and this might be different for others, this didn’t happen. I would be brought in to work on a specific project, often alone, that the studio didn’t have the capacity to deliver – or to work on a pitch. I have my own talent and skill set, but if I look back at any project I’m proud of, it’s always been one where the ownership has been shared. I’m not naive enough to think I can do it all by myself.
I also think that in an agency you have the opportunity to add to the overall culture of the place – which in turn can influence a spirit and approach to projects that you don’t even work on – and that’s something I get a lot out of being part of.
I think the real sticking point with freelancing was that I always felt like I had two clients – the agency and the client that has commissioned the project. When you work at an agency you’re part of the "agency brand" – you know how far that company is willing to push things, how much they’re comfortable challenging the brief.
Over time, you get to know how the client operates, what their pressures and agendas are. With freelancing, you’re trying to work out all of that – and deliver by the end of a very concentrated period of time. And when you invoice for every day, you’re not allowed days off.
I enjoyed work more than I did direct to clients, and whilst that often gave me the chance to collaborate with my friends – I still missed the culture of an agency.
What did you learn during your sabbatical?
By that, you must mean my pre–30s crisis. When I was 27 (feels like a very long time ago), I took three months off to go travelling to South East Asia.
I hadn’t been enjoying the freelance life, I’d just had an excruciating experience with a project for a band I was working on, I’d just turned down a trip to San Francisco to interview at Apple (we all get the call eventually it seems) because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – and I’d always had the itch to travel.
In all honesty, I learnt that there’s more to life than design. I’d always been very ambitious and career focussed, and I was constantly thinking about the next thing – should I freelance? At what age should I start my own thing? Should I be in London? I’d probably never given life, in a broader sense, enough thought.
There are a lot of books out there about "The Art of Not Giving a F***", and whilst that’s not a mantra I’d recommend to all up-and-coming creatives, I do think having an objective view on what any given project means in the context of life is important. It helped me learn when to pick my battles and probably motivated me to find a better work/life balance.
I remember being in a boat travelling from Vietnam to Cambodia on the Mekong Delta, and whilst the wooden plank under my arse got pretty tiresome, the kids running to the river bank laughing, smiling and waving at me never did. It made me think that money, job titles, possessions and career goals aren’t the only things that lead to happiness – and I vowed to try and hold onto that. Did I manage to hold onto that 100%? I’m not so sure… but it certainly had an impact.
What does your role as Creative Director entail?
The journey from a senior member of the team to Creative Director is a very tough process. I’m sure most of us started off on this journey to make great work, not become part of a management team.
Learning to manage people is a constant journey, and one I don’t think I’ll ever feel that I’ve got right. For a while, there are some things you think you can do quicker and better, but you have to remind yourself that investing time in mentoring someone to deliver work benefits us all in the long run – and getting the best out of people and helping them develop is now what I enjoy most.
I think the role of a Creative Director varies from agency to agency and is largely based on size. But my role at Music has developed to include a degree of new business. Essentially it’s my job to find new business opportunities, win clients and then oversee each account to the point where it can be run more independently by our Associate Creative Directors and their teams.
I tend to be very hands-on in the strategy and initial creative phase of any project, and then I try and give the team room to do their own thing because they’re better at it than me. But I’m always involved as they present the various stages back to me for review.
Moving on... Is there anything currently bugging you? How would you like to see things change?
The only annoyances that would make me sound like a grumpy old man are things like Love Island, Brexit and the overuse of social media. Free pitching is a constant quandary, but I think we’re all bored of talking about that.
What I would like to see is more work pushing the boundaries creatively. I can’t help but think that as marketing budgets have shrunk, and the role of marketing teams has become more precarious – we’ve seen a drop in "I wish I’d done that" projects. I want some of the risks back.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us
I burnt the family kitchen, and a small part of the garage to the ground (by accident, of course) when I was sixteen. I cocked up big time. I’d lied to my parents for sixteen years about what really happened until my best man revealed all at my wedding. Will that do?
That just about does it... What are you currently working on?
I’m currently doing a lot of work for a property developer – a regeneration specialist called U+I. One of the projects we’re heavily involved in is the redevelopment of Mayfield, a disused rail depot in central Manchester, and the 27-acre space around it. The project is set to last 10 years, which is pretty unusual in my experience, and it’ll have a real impact on the city.
Whilst the part we play in that is only so big, it's great to be a part of something that will leave a lasting legacy. The work has involved branding, film, print design, interiors, and creating experiential consultation spaces that talk to the public about the plans there, so it's really varied. I also have a keen interest in architecture, so being exposed and close to the process, understanding how it works and seeing the plans develop is a real privilege.
At the same time, I’m working on a nice mixture of projects (many with NDAs I’m afraid) from global brands, right through to a startup independent clothing brand. We have proposals out with craft beer brands, theatres, museums, place and tech brands – for digital projects, packaging, branding and interiors – so the range of work is only set to get richer… and that’s how I like it.
Finally, as we love to help our community, what pieces of wisdom can you share to help our creative audience?
Don’t chase "dream clients" – try to build great relationships. I really believe that the best clients – and the most fulfilling creative projects – aren’t always for the predictable big-name brands of this world.
I was working on Nike at a previous agency, and then got "lumbered" with a client that made prams called Silver Cross. It ended up being a brilliant relationship and we won more awards for the project than anything else.
The best clients, for me, tend to be "challenger brands" – ones that aren’t the best in their sector and need to take a risk to cut through. That’s when your creativity can give them an unfair advantage... and that’s what I get out of bed for every morning.