Close-Up: Newsmaker - D&AD braces itself for iconoclastic presidency

New president Simon Waterfall is not afraid of upsetting the D&AD old guard with his agenda, Claire Billings reports.

That D&AD has appointed one of the digital industry's most accomplished, colourful characters as this year's president is a clear indication there is going to be significant upheaval in the charity's digital operations.

Simon Waterfall, co-founder and current partner at Poke, a founder of glue and the now-defunct Deepend, has, at 36, achieved more in 20 years than most professionals could hope to in a 40-year career.

Aged 16 and a student at Brighton College, he set up a business programming games for the Commodore 64. Then, while at the Royal College of Art, he set up Deepend.

Waterfall has a lot of energy, fuelled by a desire to look at things differently or turn them on their head. At Deepend, he developed a reputation for wearing wedding dresses and pearl necklaces in an effort to challenge client perceptions. He also sat by the toilets at the agency so he could meet all of his staff.

This disruptive streak manifested itself again when he was appointed vice-president of D&AD last year. His response was to announce that he wasn't going to be anyone's deputy, that he wanted to be president of vice. "I'm qualified for that," he quips. "I live in the East End."

Nowadays, he devotes any spare time and energy to his clothing label, Social Suicide, a range of high-fashion, Saville Row-tailored suits sold in the likes of Harvey Nichols. He also sits on the executive committee of Shoreditch House.

The suits, he explains, were developed after Deepend closed and he and his partners set up Poke, which was based on a new way of working and doing things differently from the way they had at Deepend. So Waterfall started wearing suits instead of dresses, and developed his own range, because he found existing men's fashion boring.

The agency's name came from the idea that if the partners caught each other repeating past behaviour, they would poke each other.

"We punch, slap, bite, kick - that's our sub brand. It's a very aggressive internal statement to us that says 'don't do that'," he says.

It's provocative, which is what Waterfall appears to thrive on, and what D&AD has bought into.

"You can't appoint someone like me and expect me to say that everything's fine," he says.

Unsurprisingly, he did not enter the D&AD fold quietly. When Dick Powell asked him to become the first president from a non-advertising and design background, the label "other" bestowed on this alternative year jarred.

"I've been described as 'other' all my life. I wore ball gowns and wedding dresses in a former life, possibly a chapter I'd like to gloss over; I've always been described as 'other' in what I do and how I dress, so I was appalled and angry. In my application to get on the executive committee, my manifesto began something like: How fucking dare you? There is no such thing as 'other'. To me, digital is a bridge between the beauty of design and its audience."

Such iconoclasm would have jarred with the D&AD of old, but no more. He was voted in and told by Powell that he had to be the first digital president. For the past 12 months he has served as vice-president of D&AD, working with the outgoing president Tony Davidson on the charity's long-term strategy.

The plan was meant as a remedy for what Waterfall describes as the schizophrenia D&AD suffered from having a new president with a new vision every year. Powell's 18-month tenure focused on reminding everyone of its charity status and establishing it in the regions. Davidson focused on global coverage; Waterfall's job is to build its online presence.

Next year, the current vice-president Garrick Hamm, a partner at the design consultancy Williams Murray Hamm, will tackle promoting D&AD to the wider world.

The scale of Waterfall's task is not lost on him. Only three of D&AD's 46 Annuals are available online, so one of his jobs will be to get the remaining 43 uploaded to create a comprehensive digital resource.

"It's all about sharing," he says. "Having access to the content in its truest form is what the digital world enables. Everyone uses the digital world, be it for communication, entertainment or sharing photos.

"The Annual is a reflection of the best in the year, so the D&AD year I'm lucky enough to curate is about how we share and talk to our audience now that we have the membership and are global? That is what I, as president, can do in my year."

But does this mean the end of The Annual, and what does he make of the charge that it might not be the best way of displaying the work?

"The Annual will never disappear. I love it. It's a record of all we do, and the best way to showcase the work; it's our brand. I believe there'll always be a book. I'd be mortified if there wasn't," he says.

His vision involves building a sophisticated content management system, so the site can be used as an educational and business resource, and the industry can research the best in design and advertising. He also wants to make available footage from events such as the president's lectures. And he's bullish about getting funding.

"We've got some amazing speakers who are either at the zenith or in the twilight of their careers. I'm desperate for a camera sponsor to help the charity capture these," he says.

"We've been going for so long that we've used all our favours and burned all our credit. We need a hardcore technical asset management and content management system, and it is not cheap. I'm looking for a digital sponsor to share the content with its network."

It's a practical vision, but is he the right man to see it through? His peers in the industry think so.

Flo Heiss, a creative partner at Dare, calls Waterfall's appoint-ment a "brilliant choice". "He is the granddaddy of digital," Heiss says. "He's seen it all. It's good news for our industry and about time. He's a man with lots of energy. He'll make this into some thing special, as he's a nice guy and very bright."

Andy Sandoz, the creative partner at The Work Club, agrees: "Here is a guy with possibly the most credible digital history in the UK, in a role that means the awards will move into a new era."

Given his design credentials in the fashion industry, he's known in the design community, too. Michael Johnson, the founder of Johnson Banks, says: "Simon's great. It's time we had a digital president."

If there's one criticism from the design community, it's that he's respected more for his ability to self-promote than as a designer, but it hasn't done him any harm. It's hard to think of a more qualified person. Given the task, only someone with his aptitude, experience and appetite for a challenge is suitable for the job.

Age: 36
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