This week, #Merky Books, the publishing imprint founded by Stormzy and Penguin Random House UK, is releasing How to Build It, a practical guide to brand-building and marketing for ordinary people.
Written by Niran Vinod (pictured above, right) and Damola Timeyin (left) – creative strategists who have worked with brands including Nike, Tesco, Weetabix and Clarks – the book covers subjects such as turning your side hustle into a day job, making your brand relevant, building a network and finding work-life balance.
Advertising is a notoriously elitist industry that is difficult to break into, so the book’s advice feels timely when some of those challenges have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recession.
Vinod and Timeyin wrote of their motivation: “It’s about time that advice normally reserved for the meeting rooms of advertising agencies and marketing departments is decoded and made available to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to these places”.
The authors spoke to Campaign about the future of work, how to expand your network in the era of social distancing, fighting against “hustle porn” and advice for starting your career now.
Why did you want to “decode” marketing advice for regular people?
Damola: The book is really for people who don’t work in our industry, for young people who are coming up and have ambitions to build something and need or want some advice.
I didn’t start in advertising and marketing, but I still did entrepreneurial stuff when I was younger and I wish I had someone to tell me how to navigate through this whole thing. If I had, I probably wouldn’t be working in advertising – I would have built the thing I wanted to build back then. But I didn't have the advice or experience, so hopefully this gives people a bit of that.
Niran: #Merky Books is also about underrepresented voices. In the [ad] industry in general, there is a clear lack of diversity, so we’re aiming to reach an audience that is underrepresented.
As we go through a recession and widespread job losses, do you think the future of work will be more entrepreneurial and driven by side hustles?
Niran: I think it will be a balance between the two [side hustles and salaried jobs]. Both Damola and I have had loads of side hustles. I always put my side hustles on my CV, because it shows an entrepreneurial mindset, motivates me and expands my inspiration and knowledge.
Damola: And it lets you flex different muscles. A lot of creative people are multi-talented, so to only flex the muscles required to do your job feels like you're not making the most of the talents you may have. Side hustles aren't necessarily about making money or trying to build an empire, it's often about how you express yourself, utilise other talents and pursue other passions. All my side hustles have just been an extension of something I’m passionate about. I was working in banking but had a passion for creativity, so I was like, right, I need to find a way of doing something else that allows me to express that. That’s how I started taking photos.
You write about the importance of finding your “iron” – or “that person who is sharper than you and can push your thinking”. In a more socially distant time, what advice do you have for expanding your network and finding “irons”?
Niran: The answer is the internet. There are so many virtual meet-ups, events, talks and discussions. My brother is a designer and signed up to find a mentor through Creative Mentor Network. There are many more opportunities like that to expand your network with CMN, Creative Access and others. It’s also finding people you respect at companies you like and reaching out to them. I always say: “If you don't ask, you don’t get." Ninety-nine per cent of the time they may not respond, but that one person may respond and change your life.
Damola: The idea of “if you don't ask, you don't get” is so powerful. We as a culture are quite reserved and we don’t ask enough. People ask a lot of you, but I found myself not really asking for much myself, even when I may have needed it. If you want to find that person who’s going to sharpen your skills and help you take the next step, you have to go out and look, and not just look but ask them how they can help you.
More recently, there has been a fixation in brand building on purpose-driven marketing – but is this really a new trend?
Damola: A lot of businesses in the past would have had a purpose for their brands, but only recently has it been codified and made into a thing we identify and talk about. I can’t with any confidence say that [purpose in business] is a new thing, but the way in which we talk about it is different.
I often wonder who purpose is important to. I’d love to have this conversation with my mum and dad – I don't think purpose is what they’re looking for. Is purpose important, who is it important to and is it the kind of thing people explicitly look for? Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.
How much should brands be attempting to build or tap into communities?
Damola: When a brand wants to tap into a community, it can be quite cringe. If you as a brand set out to build a community around your brand, it’s difficult. More often than not, communities emerge around the brand, and then it’s about how a brand engages a community to their benefit and to the community’s benefit. There have been some brands that have emerged from a community, such as [online radio station] No Signal. That’s emerged from a community, so it means they are connected and work within the parameters of that community, they serve that community, are inspired by it and inspire it in return.
How do brands avoid becoming “culture vultures”?
Damola: There’s so much potential in tapping into culture, but doing it right is hard. The cultures that are of the moment and making an impact now are of a certain demographic. Well let’s just be explicit: black culture, and offshoots of that, is making an impact in mainstream culture. People looking to that culture, to either borrow something like cultural capital or connect with an audience who have an affinity to that culture – there have been huge missteps everywhere.
If you look at agencies, you have to ask who are the people trying to make this work and do they actually understand the culture? Most ad agencies are middle class and the people in them probably haven't been exposed to the culture they’re trying to tap into, so their interpretation of that culture is just way off. I've seen stuff and cringed because I know it’s so off the mark.
You need to understand the culture you're trying to tap into. You can’t exploit it, you have to give back, and you have to give the people of that culture equity in the ideas they’re making. Otherwise it’s theft.
Niran: It’s about diversity [in companies] but it’s also having a space that’s inclusive and giving them a voice. A lot of the time people within the teams will know when these ideas are complete BS, but they just don't have the voice to shut it down.
You warn against “hustle porn”, which you define as “the fetishisation of extremely long hours” and “the idea that working longer hours equals success”. Do you think this is a particular problem in the ad industry and is it getting worse?
Niran: There's this culture I remember from when I was working agency side, where leaving at the time you're meant to leave is almost frowned upon. The longer you stay until 1am doing those decks and pitches, the more you’re perceived to be working really hard.
Damola: People are probably hustling more than ever for lots of different reasons, whether because they have to make ends meet or have to make sure they stay on the radar so work keeps on coming. Covid has made that kind of behaviour more common, and that’s just the reality of things at the minute. Also, when you’re working from home, work and life blends a lot more. The home has become the office.
That “hustle porn” culture emerged at a time when there was still the other stuff – you had the work hard/play hard idea. If you were working really hard in an agency job before, you were compensated with the kind of social life that came from working in that environment. But as time has gone on, that balance has shifted. You're just working, there is no play.
When we emerge from Covid, we’re probably going to see the result of businesses having to work harder to stay afloat, meet margins and under more pressure financially, which means there will be more pressure on people to do more work and work longer hours. It’s going to be harder because of Covid and will shift that balance again.
As a creative person, do you have to also build a personal brand to succeed?
Niran: Because of social media and the internet, there is more of an opportunity to get your name out there and build a personal brand, but I dont think it's necessary. Ultimately it comes down to the work that you do: the work is your personal brand.
Damola: Ultimately, that’s where the substance is.
It’s a really difficult time to get into the industry now – do you have any advice for people trying to do that?
Niran: Make use of your free time. The internet is full of tutorials. Start building things.
Damola: My advice would be to go the DIY route, because you can learn a lot by trying to do something. When I was at uni, in my second year, me and one of my best mates decided to build a web design company. We didn’t know what was going on, but through that process of building that up and at least trying to create a business, we learned a hell of a lot about what to do, what not to do and how to get something off the ground.
In this environment where there may not be as many job opportunities, my advice would be to try and create your own job. Try to do it yourself so you learn how these things may work and reach out to people to help you. Who knows, it could end up being a success. At the very least you will learn a lot of lessons you can take forward.
My advice to the industry is don't take advantage of people who are searching for opportunity. Young people need opportunity but that opportunity isn't necessarily free. Provide opportunity but pay equitably for that. Some people can’t afford to do side projects or side hustles – they need to work, and the only way they can get by is by earning their way.