In this installment of Inspiration – GSM gets up close and personal with contemporary creative influencers ‘For The People’ – and ask the question…How did you get here?
Creative agency For The People (FTP) was founded just eight short years ago in Sydney. The team has since grown—thanks in part to several high-profile projects (including the branding for Ball & Doggett), as well as winning some notable design awards. They now have a presence on both sides of the Tasman, and are one of the studios to watch. But, what has the journey been like reaching this point? GSM asked Mel, Jo and Jason from For The People to reminisce over starting up, growth, leadership, talent—and everything in between.
For the People, from the people who are still making it happen….
In the early days…
Jase: Eight years ago, we were small, we were ambitious but we didn’t have many clients. We were trying to find where the work was coming from, looking for office space, trying to figure out our name and offering, and all the legal and accounting side of things. Most importantly, we were optimistic and wanting to do things a bit differently. In those early days we were trying to challenge the norm and what we thought the industry was. Trying to not just be another design company. We were keen to work with start-ups, and get into that ecosystem. Our business would then be directly connected to clients at the forefront of technology. We were also heavily inspired by what was going on in Silicon Valley (rightly or wrongly), and had this desire to avoid the classic branding agency approach. It meant trying to integrate technology within the work, hiring people with different skills (like developers), and also avoiding traditional internal structures like the silo-approach of teams. We aspired to be a technology-led design agency. Only we failed to put in place the right person who could help shape that offering, and also help hire the right people. So that was where it all kind of fizzled. We never really made any money on that type of work.
Silicone Valley vs Tinkering
Mel: The funny thing is though, even if that didn’t quite pan out how you expected it to, the ambition of trying to put those things together attracted a certain type of person. People that perhaps were looking for something different as well. We retired this manifesto a while ago, but I know that when I read it—I still think ‘that sounds incredible’. I was also coming from a digital background, but was obsessed with branding. I was always of the opinion that those two things should live together, and yet nobody seemed to be doing it. FTP was talking about it. It looked like a place that had a bit more magic and was a bit more human.
Jase: It felt like we talked a good game but we just weren’t able to deliver on it. I can’t even remember the details of the manifesto. What was the gist of it?
Mel: It was ballsy and had a lot of confidence in it.
Jo: It felt like an Apple manifesto. It came from a Silicon Valley era, where everything was possible. And, even though it didn’t stand the test of time, and doesn’t reflect who we are today, it made the For The People of today. It also makes me think that no one in their right mind would have accepted Commonwealth Street house (Sydney) as a real office space, with all the mess and all the amazing things littering the walls, if it weren’t for Silicon Valley. The myth of the start-up garage.
Mel: It felt right at the time. That little terrace house in Surry Hills, where people were tinkering.
Jase: Yeah, I think that the tinkering was definitely something that we all loved. It was this house of experimentation and mess… Where in some agencies people dress up, it was like we were the antithesis of this.
Messy Kitchens, Good Vibes & Signage
Jo: I would usually come in from the back door, straight into this disgusting messy kitchen. Then stumble on Brady doing some random tech experiments with boxes and lights. Amanda and Bec arguing over post-its on the walls and people complaining that there was literally no more wall space left. You would see Damian slouched on his chair leaning backwards at a ridiculous angle. I have no idea how the man could work in that position. Miguel barking. It was chaos.
Jase: But I think that original office had such a vibe. We would all hang out in the back room playing Halo and Rocket League. We wanted to hang out there, not because we were working late but because other people were hanging around.
Jo: What made it legit for me were two things: The signage—I still find it odd that people would stop and take selfies in front of it. And the photocopier— we actually had a machine that printed A3 colour! We were a real business.
Mel: That’s a low bar Jo (laughs). All you need is a printer and some signage.
Jase: So that era was really cool. It felt like a classic start-up, that we were all building towards something. And then obviously, it didn’t stay like that.
On what the agency has become…
Jo: So let’s talk about today. What does the company look like now?
Jase: So we grew up and grew in size. We weren’t financially viable back then— some would say we’re not these days either. I think the company now is incredible. It feels like it’s a joyful place to work, even if most of the time it’s remote for many people. It’s a really supportive place, where you’ve just got a lot of great characters and different personalities, but zero politics, zero egos.
Jo: I find that fascinating that we’ve just spent all this time talking about the memories created around a space.
From Infancy to Teenage
Mel: That space was somewhere where we were all pushing through good times and tough times together. That space was totally us—FTP in its infancy. It was our wild teenage years, and now we’ve grown up. The thing that has stayed though, is the ambition. Everyone we hire has this drive to do good work. And we have become better at supporting each other through that.
Jase: Everyone wears multiple hats at FTP. But in the old days, remember, it was to the extreme. We didn’t have any client service. So, if you were on a project, you were the designer, the project manager, you had the client relationship, the project planning, etc.
Jo: But that was also a direct response to a very hierarchical industry back then, and the experiences that we had had previously. Therefore we all wanted to believe in the idea of a flat structure. Yes, it was a bad idea in hindsight, but we wanted to believe in it. I also learned so much from those days wrangling and planning for a project. It’s what makes my job today easier. I had years to practice.
Jase: You both had to put together estimates and proposals whereas most designers would never get to do that in their design role.
Mel: Every time something digital came in, that was always handed to Jo and I.
Jo: I’ll bring the magic ball.
Mel: I’ll just quickly text my friend.
Jo: I think the web lords have spoken.
Jase: Everyone was overworked, wearing multiple hats. And yet when we discussed bringing in project managers, nobody wanted to give it up.
All Grown Up
Jase: What else has changed? You have both left and been back from maternity leave.
Mel: We are definitely more organised than we’ve ever been. Sometimes we’re a little too organised. But—this is better than being a complete cowboy— which is the way that we operated for a very long time.
Jo: Cowboy dot com. I am so surprised it lasted that long and that we survived.
Mel: We still have a little bit of cowboy seeping through the cracks.
Jase: Like what?
Jo: Everything. There’s no templates, there’s no one way to organise and file things. Our Dropbox server is an utter mess. We have policies, but where are they? Slack is how we search for things. We have no HR. No IT.
Mel: Not to mention all the lost work that remains on our old server. Our first four years of work have basically disappeared.
Jo: So yes, cowboy.
Mel: I think the cowboyness is good in a way though. We’re not so rigid. And, we don’t allow the process to become overbearing and drive everything.
On growing with the business:
Dream vs Reality
Jase: Okay, so you’ve been part of FTP almost since its inception. How would you say our role has changed?
Jo: Well, let’s start with you Jase. From a creative director to owning your own business.
Jase: Starting your own company, you think you’ll have way more freedom and that your life is going to be this perfect balance of work and all those things you like to do in your spare time. For me I thought I’d surf whenever I wanted. But then reality kicks in, and it’s all work with a tiny bit of lifestyle squeezed in. Your work bleeds into your lifestyle more than ever. In the early days, there was my own personal ambitions for what I wanted the agency to be. Along with my own desire to prove that the company I set up was good enough, and that we, as a team, can do great work. I used to be heavily involved in every aspect of the business and all the projects. It took me a long time to not feel the need to participate in every project. It happened gradually as both of you took on more and more responsibility and then, eventually, became creative directors. We started to shift towards a creative trio and the trust and reliance on each other grew. I remember we had crazy deadlines around that time, and the only way we could manage the workload was if we just cracked the projects together. It was a conveyor belt of projects in quick succession, and whilst we could laugh about it at the time, the only way we could get through it was to rely on each other.
Relying On Each Other
Mel: I personally feel like we got to that place with the Sydney Film Festival. It was a pivotal project where I stepped up and started taking on significant responsibility at a time when we were all so stretched. You all had my back. And the project team just had to figure out everything, no excuses.
Jo: I think we work best when we can trust each other at the beginning, make decisions together, but then one of us takes the project through to completion. We have that understanding and mutual respect to lean on each other when needed.
Jase: That’s the relationship aspect I’m on about, trust, mutual respect.
It’s All About the People
Mel: One of the things that has changed for me, is the focus on the well-being of the people. In the first few years, it wasn’t a priority. Surviving was the priority. We also wanted to do incredible work, to be tech driven and brand driven. There were so many things that required our attention and space, but mental health wasn’t one of them. And now, finally we’re getting to a better place. I don’t think we’re there yet, but that’s one of the changes with the biggest impact.
Jase: What caused the change, do you think?
Jo: It’s not just three white male founders, but a more diverse leadership team. That’s the short answer. The full answer is more complex and nuanced than that. Like hiring the right people, identifying what we’re good at as a business, attracting clients that think like us, in terms of values.
Mel: Having that mix of people means we can also have more honest conversations. The team can come to us and tell us what they’re really thinking, how they’re really feeling—that they’re overwhelmed, need help, or even that they’ve had job offers. I don’t think you get to that place without building good relationships. Whilst I would never want the people I love to leave FTP, they can trust that we will always help and give them an honest answer.
Jase: Today, we’re hyper-aware of people’s skills, where they feel pressure, and where they need help developing. The feedback loop is way more positive and supportive versus the early days. Both of you have always been great at that—you’ve always tried to make the process fun, even when the pressure to deliver is high. The project Slack channels that Jo runs often lead to people who aren’t even on that project jumping in, due to the energy, fun and the banter taking place. In order to get to a great outcome, the process needs to be enjoyable. I’m always conscious that great work loses its shine, if the journey and process are awful. People won’t look back fondly on that work.
Mel: A project doesn’t belong to one person. It’s about team contribution. Everyone has an important part to play in the process. In the past, I’d certainly felt the pressure that I had to figure it out on my own and only come back with the answer. Versus how we do it today, working it out along the way, together.
Jo: We still have a long way to go on mental health, though. We’re on the right track, but we still have heaps to learn.
Jase: COVID accelerated our awareness and understanding of mental health and the desire to solve it. Or at least look out for people and try to minimise any negative impacts through better communication and support.
Jo: I don’t think it’s just COVID. It’s everything right? Black Lives Matter. Diversity. The type of clients we have. Working remotely. Losing talent. It’s everything which has accelerated.
Mel: It forced us to try and fix many things that, arguably, we’re still working on. Working with clients like Be Equitable, has us thinking about all the other ways that we need to be better, and the areas we still haven’t put enough investment into.
Jo: Mental health has certainly been an area we’ve developed greater understanding through certain clients, sure, but for me personally it has been through becoming a parent. Not only in the awareness of my own time, but also in the awareness of a woman’s role as mother—coming up with policies at FTP, such as parental care. And all of these things. But talking about clients and how they have affected our culture and business is an interesting aspect to cover. The type of clients that we’ve had at For The People in the last eight years actually reflects a really nice journey for us, and who we’ve become.
Mel: Are there any clients that have significantly shifted your view of the world?
Jase: I’d say Sydney Dogs & Cats Home—because of their purpose, who they are—as lovely people, and the animals which I love. Definitely West Coast, which was life-changing, even mindset changing. They redefined how we approach projects.
Mel: I loved Start-Me-Up Labs. It was fun to do and people loved it. It was very design-led and intuitive by the team.
Jase: And there was no real pressure, really.
Mel: The pressure was time-based, not creative-based. Definitely the Sydney Film Festival. For me it changed our relationship, Jase, as well as how we work together. Wagec was the same to a certain extent. I think it was more Bec’s baby but I loved seeing how she was so invested and one with this cause, so much so that she went to work with them after FTP.
Jase: When I first met Helen, the CEO, I knew we couldn’t say no to this project. After the meeting, she gave me this big hug and it totally disarmed me. That relationship with their team and ours was something truly special.
Mel: Culture Amp was also all about the amazing relationship with the client. It feels weird to even call them a client. That was a significant project for my confidence—leading the client and creative relationship for a unicorn.
On finding people:
There is no “Ideal Candidate”
Jo: Hiring has always been a bit cowboy because we do it very instinctively. We’ve tried to build in process, but at the end of the day it’s about being the right fit. Looking back I cringe at our version of the ‘ideal candidate’.
Jase: If I was interviewed by For The People back then, I would never have made it in—I wouldn’t have qualified.
Mel: I genuinely think that if I couldn’t design websites, I would have never worked here. And that’s the only reason I got in. I give myself the credit for finding that gap.
Jo: So Mel found a backdoor (laughs).
Jase: The notion that people had to qualify to work at FTP is way off. Thankfully, we’re way better than that. It’s about recognising that any individual who joins the company can kind of change it in their own way, and that it doesn’t matter what level they are. And so to bring it back to Mat, when we hired him, he ended up becoming the role model for what we look for when hiring people. He had his own interests outside of work—the Power Rangers podcast, he was into role-playing, and now he writes comics for the likes of Marvel, DC and Image. He brought his whole self into the workplace and culture of FTP. And he wasn’t trying to be anyone else nor fit into their expectations of what he should be. That was transformative, he directly influenced and changed our culture.
Mel: We probably looked over too many people.
Jase: Sometimes the timing or circumstance is just off.
Jo: It’s a matter of sliding doors On the secret sauce:
How We Work at For The People
Jase: I’m keen to talk about how we work at FTP. Do you think there’s a particular process or way of doing things that’s unique or special to For The People? Less silo/greater autonomy, and creatives involved in the strategy. But maybe it’s not as unique as I think.
Jo: Mmm… Most people and agencies talk about doing work in similar ways these days.
Mel: I’m not sure. Maybe that’s not as common as we think.
Jase: I don’t think it is. For the most part, designers don’t get to work on the research and strategy. They get handed a strategic phrase and a summary document as part of their briefing. They haven’t had any relationship with the client and they’re asked to design something based on a limited amount of knowledge. With the exception of a creative director, most creatives are left out of that phase. So that’s always been one of our differences. People say they are collaborative and use other buzzwords, but often that’s simply saying versus actually doing. Even the youngest designers on our team lead client relationships, and are involved in the research and strategic thinking. When we do place branding, we have a diverse team working with the local communities, hearing all their woes, and the various challenges of the region. And to participate like that isn’t normal. But maybe that’s going by my own experience.
Are we as unique as we think?
Jo: But how do we know it’s unique to us?
Mel: Maybe it’s not as unique anymore, but I’ve certainly had people tell me those things during interviews. And maybe that’s down to time and budget.
Jo: It just shows how the industry has evolved. We’ve changed from companies and studios being quite protective of their work, of their ways, of their clients to opening up. And I welcome this change. So I feel like that openness—being able to share the good, the bad and the hairy—has meant that many people borrow ideas from others, but all for a healthier industry. That’s why I think we’re not that different. But that isn’t a bad thing.
Culture & Growth
Jase: What do you see as the future of the company? What are your aspirations for it?
Mel: The two simplest things, and the easiest things to start with, are culture and growth. I want FTP to be a place where people really want to work, for reasons beyond the work. Great work is a by-product of how supportive we are, and that we embrace differences—you don’t need to change who you are. There’s undoubtedly some pressure post you leaving Jase, people will be on the lookout and thinking ‘was it just Jason?’ We need to make sure that we still push each other, and that we’re not afraid to have the tricky conversations to get to the really good stuff. Because if we don’t, the work will be… just okay.
It’s not about me!
Jase: I find it super bizarre that people often attach me to the work, when we have so many people. Obviously I wouldn’t be across all the projects and on the tools for everything. It’s always been about promoting the individuals in the business, attaching the projects to teams and individuals, giving them a voice and a platform to talk about their work. I’ve never seen the company as being about me. But maybe I’m wrong.
Mel: It’s changing, but the truth of it is that it’s been very much associated with you. But anyway, on the vision side of things, I want to be able to grow the team. I want to make sure that we’re still able to do work that is meaningful in whatever sector… I don’t feel we have to be working in tech or place, as long as we’re doing work that actually makes a difference.
Jo: I think you’re leaving the company at the best it has been, in terms of work and people. My priorities are that I would like the company to be financially successful. I want the freedom that comes with money and I want to do work that matters. Plus, I’d love to be certified B-corp. Those are the three. Can we just make those happen? Work that matters, work that’s worth it, paid well, and certified.
Mel: Parting question—What’s the one thing you would leave us with? Knowing all that you know about FTP. Any words of wisdom?
Jase: After all the years of running it, all the ups and downs, I’m leaving it at the best it’s ever been. The culture is everything. I love the way people are with each other… that’s the piece that needs to be maintained
Don’t F*CK it up!
Jo: So your parting words of wisdom are—‘Don’t f*ck it up’? Say it, just give it to us straight.
Jase: In the shortest way possible, don’t mess up the culture, in fact make it stronger. You two have always been the key to our great culture. Because of you, it is what it is. Let’s not pretend otherwise. And the other part is to ensure the work doesn’t become… ‘okay’, as Mel put it. The aspiration to always do great work, and to not stop at ‘okay’, is critical. I think that’s what has always defined us. That’s why you want to work on those projects. That’s why you want to work with those people. Because there is a shared ambition to not ‘settle’. The inevitable shift towards a more financially stable company, with greater systems in place and more people, means that things can become diluted. This can mean you end up in a generic space. I’m excited for the agency to not be what it is currently. For it to be something wholly changed because of the two of you. Don’t be afraid to change it. Don’t be rigid about what you think FTP is. Allow it to change so that in ten years it will be vastly different. Just like it has been from three, five, and eight years ago. And that’s a good thing. Don’t be afraid to make it your own. We’re a branding agency right now, but will it be that in the future? Evolve, but don’t lose what makes us special.
Mel: And keep fighting the fight for the good work.
Jase: Exactly. Is that the right answer? I think we should end there.
BALL & DOGGETT BRANDING
In 2017, Australian paper merchant K.W.Doggett merged with BJ Ball, creating Ball & Doggett—the largest paper supplier in the region (note the New Zealand entity remains trading under the BJ Ball name in New Zealand). A new identity was developed to support this merger and better reflect the combined entity. The result celebrates the tactile nature and diversity of the products, which, combined with imagined weird and wonderful manufacturing processes —is memorable, playful and fun.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL
Far from its humble beginnings in 1954, the Sydney Film Festival today attracts significant attention from a diverse range of filmmakers and viewers alike. Growth, however, has created a unique challenge; how do you engage with die-hard festival lovers—whilst also capturing the attention of casual or first-time attendees? Our solution was to create a flexible brand that captured the energy of a city alive with film: we asked—if Sydney were the backdrop to the opening credits of our film about ‘The Festival’—how would we do it? The resulting identity draws on the charm of old-school filmmaking, paying homage to historic production studio logos, credit sequences, intermission directives, and movie ‘playbill’ advertising.
START ME UP LABS (SMU)
Working in collaboration with Adobe—the idea of Start-Me-Up Labs was to make developing a new brand accessible to start-up businesses that might otherwise not have the financial resources to do so. The labs were set up and held at events and within co-working spaces. When visiting a lab, a start-up owner could choose various brand elements—spin the colour wheel and get your palette, pick a font sample sheet, or a shape—to form the basis for a new brand.
WEST COAST (TASMANIA)
The West Coast project was developed for the West Coast Council and its stakeholders, including the 4,000 local residents. The project sought to inspire people to investigate this less well-known part of Tasmania by showcasing the region’s uniqueness. The resulting brand suite included a bespoke typeface, iconography, and a photography library—all of which were free to use by tourism and business operators within the region. This open-source approach meant a robust suite of assets could be produced, which otherwise would be beyond the financial capacity of the many small businesses in the area.
WOMEN’S AND GIRLS’ EMERGENCY CENTRE (WAGEC)
For more than forty years, the Women’s and Girls’ Emergency Centre (WAGEC) has provided shelter and support to women and children at risk or victims of domestic violence and homelessness. And it is a growing problem—over twelve months (2015), more than 167,000 women sought help from homelessness services. Australian police deal with domestic violence every two minutes. This re-brand project was about women supporting women. The brand uses illustration, deliberately chosen over photography, to respect the anonymity of the people who have asked for help. Each work, donated by an Australian female illustrator, was used as part of the brand— produced in limited runs and sold as signed prints to support the Centre.
Founded in 2009, Culture Amp aims to improve people’s everyday working lives by collecting data and providing analytics about how culture drives companies. For The People collaborated with the Culture Amp team to overhaul their brand and deliver a new identity that matched the company vision.
GSM would like to thank Mel, Johanna and Jason for their time in providing such a candid and honest insight into their agency and navigating the ‘path less travelled’.