Interview: James Hilton
Interview: James Hilton
We had the pleasure of meeting up with James Hilton, CCO at Native, Founder of Death Machines of London and Co-Founder of AKQA to chat about what makes him tick. James is a true world leader in design and one of the most influential and inspiring personalities in the industry. He took time out to share valuable insights into his illustrious career. He also shared advice on starting a design studio, what it takes to make a success of your projects and his views on how digital is changing our world.
You co-founded AKQA straight after college. What was your original ambition? And looking back would you have done anything differently?
You don’t start things for them to be rubbish, obviously. I didn’t really think we were consciously starting anything when we started AKQA. To me it was just very new, energizing and exciting to work with someone like Ajaz. He thought like me and was just as obsessive about the detail as I was, and didn’t mind working 24 hours a day because we were that into it. And I suppose the ambition was never to be the biggest, it was just to be the best. We saw the world at the time, certainly the world of advertising and digital, as entirely sub-optimal. Most advertising communications at the time were unbeneficial to the actual customer. It was all about ticking boxes for the brand, but it didn’t really help anyone or make the world a better place. It didn’t give anyone inspiration to do things with their lives. So we saw there was a clear path for that, using the internet and digital technologies, for brands to be able to have conversations with their audience and then to be able to help that audience to change, to give them the tools and services to enrich their lives. Not to end world poverty or anything like that, but simply to remove some of the friction from life. Just to incrementally improve you as a person. That was the ambition, but I don’t think it was a conscious ambition, it was just that we had to do it. People use the word entrepreneur which I hate. I’ve been accused of being an entrepreneur, but I’m not, I’m just irritated and naïve. Irritated enough to want to change something, and naïve enough to think that I can do it.
I wouldn’t have done anything differently. In the words of Emperor Palpatine “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen”. We grew as we were meant to grow, but you know I think Ajaz would probably agree that serendipity was probably our biggest business plan. There was just so much serendipity at AKQA, in terms of the right people coming to work with us and the right clients coming to us. Of course none of it was easy, it was incredibly hard work. My granddad always used to say “it’s 90% luck and 10% skill, but don’t try doing the 90% luck without the 10% skill”, so you know maybe that’s how it all happened. But I certainly wouldn’t change anything in terms of how AKQA was built and how AKQA worked. We went through periods of time that I look back on and think we probably could have dealt with all that differently, or we could have been more human, or we could have been more empathetic to individual people. We could have given feedback in a less aggressive way, but of course you have to do that, and you have to upset somebody to realise you’ve made a mistake and then you change and you get better at it. You don’t get better at running a company, you just get better at being a person.
For those looking to start their own design studio, what advice do you have for getting started and how to make a success of it?
Why are you doing it? That would the first question I’d ask myself. There are a trillion design companies out there, so why are you doing it, and what are these trillion design companies doing that they shouldn’t be doing, or more specifically where are they doing it wrong. How can you be different, and not just for difference’s sake? Remember, if you’re going to run a design company you’re going to be at the centre of the service industry. Don’t be confused that you’re becoming an artist, you’re not, you’re becoming a designer, and if you’re a designer you have clients, and if you have clients then you’re in the service industry. Clients have problems, which is why they’re coming to you. So how can you service their problems better than everyone else. When I started doing this little thing called Atelier Strange, which isn’t actually dead but on ice because I’ve just got too much other stuff going on, it kind of morphed into this design and branding consultancy. When clients came to us they always started the conversation with the same thing, that they’d been working with this big agency for 6 months but they just weren’t getting it. Every single client started like that, and I’m not talking about small clients, these were big clients working with big agencies who should have known better. And these clients were just pissed off with the amount of time and money that agencies waste in trying to sell them everything under the sun. Everything except the thing they’d wanted and the tools they needed to effectively shift the needle for their business and get them to the place they needed to be, rapidly. Not spending 3 months coming up with some strategic document, but helping them by being brutally honest about the problem. Not the brief, but the problem and actually speaking to the client about the core issue. Often times the core issue is a very inconvenient one and not something the client wants to hear. I was never afraid of telling the client the thing they didn’t want to hear, and it was often times the thing the agency they’d come from would never tell them, because they were more concerned about bringing in the revenue.
So my question to those starting out would be, why are you doing it and why are you more helpful? And how are you going to be more helpful and disproportionately assistive to your client? And why is anyone going to want to come and work with you or work for you? Money is not an honourable reason for doing anything. You have to have a drive and irritation in you that you need to change a part of the world. If you don’t have that and you just want to become a bit of a designer and do some logos and make some money, then it’s probably not going to be a success. You have to want to change the world, bottom line.
What type of projects do you enjoy the most and what’s the key to a successful outcome?
We used to say at AKQA that there’s no such thing as a bad brief or a duff project, and actually as long as the client is willing to be experimental and innovative then it’ll be amazing. All projects rely on the individual humans involved and it has to be collaborative. It’s not about agency and client, you have to be one unit, you have to be one team. Whilst the client may not be on the road that you are, they at least need to be wanting to go in the same direction. If you’ve got that collaborative experience with your client and you can take them on that journey with you then every project has got the potential to be amazing.
It goes back to the earlier question, if you haven’t got your values and you’re not being true to who you are and true to what you offer and you’re just going out there and grabbing every piece of business that you can then you won’t end up putting any real passion into what you’re doing. You’ll end up working with people who don’t share your passions or your values. Consequently, you’ll find that the work that you do doesn’t reflect who you are. So I think it’s important to be collaborative with your client, but it’s also important that you choose your clients wisely. If you choose your clients wisely then you’ve got a far better chance of having exciting, important and influential briefs. Every single project I’ve done I’ve enjoyed. There hasn’t been a single project I’ve done where I’ve thought “this is bullshit”. But I don’t think I’ve done my best work yet!
Last year you launched custom motorcycle brand Death Machines of London. What inspired this project?
I love bikes and I’ve been riding for 15 years, and I’d started tinkering with the idea of building a custom bike. So I’d bought some bits and asked Ray my mechanic if he could put these together on this old Triumph that I had. He looked at me and laughed. He knew what custom bikes were and I really didn’t. Anyway, he did it and rang saying he’d done what I’d asked but I needed to come and have a look, because if you tell anyone this is a custom bike they’re just going to laugh at you. So I went down and had a look, it was literally like we’d just put lipstick on a pig. I said ok, I understand, this is rubbish. He suggested I go and have a look at this thing called the Bike Shed, a motorcycle exhibition that happens in May, and luckily it was just 2 weeks away. So I went to see this exhibition and my mind was just blown away. I just couldn’t believe the level of craftsmanship, thought, design and talent that was on show from every single builder and exhibitor. And also the culture that surrounded it, I just thought it was amazing. So I kept the entry band and said to myself, we’re going to build a custom bike and I’m not going to take this band off until we’re exhibiting at the Bike Shed. I went back to see Ray and asked if he wanted to start a custom bike company, we could have some fun, build a bike, see if people like it and if they do we’ll do another one and just see how it goes, and we’ll do it 50/50. Ray was like, yeah ok cool lets do that then.
What’s the story behind the brand name Death Machines of London?
I thought up about 50 or 60 different names, printed them out and left them around the house and office so I could see them every once in a while. Nothing was really resonating with me, so I was kind of thinking back to my first ever bike ride when I was 12 on the back of my uncle’s bike. My dad hated motorbikes and was completely anti bikes, but my uncle used to rebuild bikes and race them. So after the ride we got back and my uncle asked “so how fast do you think we were going?”. I said “I don’t know, 40 miles an hour?” He says “a bit more than that, we were doing about a 110 down the motorway”. I was like “wow, this is amazing!” But he says “whatever you do don’t tell your dad because he’ll lose his shit”. So of course being an idiot I told my dad, and of course he lost his shit. My dad’s advice was “you know James motorbikes are death machines”. And so anyway, I just remembered this story. I was like, Death Machines, that’s quite funny. I wonder if we can get away with that. If people used the words Death Machines in this derogatory fashion, I wonder if you could own it and turn it into something positive.
There was also this correlation with the fact that we were taking these bikes that were essentially dead and giving them new life as custom bikes. So they literally and figuratively were Death Machines. And then I thought well Death Machines isn’t enough, lets put ‘of London’ on the back of it because I’m proud to live in London and proud that we’re doing it in London, but also because if you’re in America and you’ve got a t-shirt with ‘of London’ on it then that’s cool, it really wasn’t any deeper than that. It also sounded cooler like that, there was a kind of tempo to Death Machines of London rather than just Death Machines.
Often designers and agencies claim to be helping to create a better world. What are your thoughts on the way digital is changing our world, both positive and negative?
It’s difficult for me to think about it in terms of pure digital. I think you need to look at it from a holistic point of view. It is the work coming out of the design agency and creative companies that is effecting the world. There is always good and bad. I think there are lots of companies out there that try and justify what they do. Like advertising for instance, they try to justify the work as being in some way beneficial. But it rarely is, it’s just advertising and they’re peddling shit and they should learn to live with it rather than trying to make it out as something that it isn’t.
We are still a young digital society. We are still children. We don’t know how to use it properly. Lots of it is used inappropriately. Facebook’s former founding president says he’s a conscientious objector of Facebook and social media, simply because they knew what they were doing, they knew it was all about getting people obsessed with the platform. I’m not on Facebook, I stopped using it three years ago and I’m hardly on Twitter anymore. I’m on Instagram occasionally because its more fun, more about the pictures and its creative. But I look at my daughters, the 16-year-old is probably alright now but I worry if my 13-year-old is on social media too much. But I think its maybe just a phase and she’ll probably come out of it. But I don’t worry about it too much. I don’t think it’s going to turn her into some socially backward individual. I think kids deal with these technologies in an entirely different way to how adults perceive them. It’s like if you go back in time to when we were kids, we had our magazines and we had the TV on at the same time as we were listening to our personal stereo and our parents would shout at us “turn one of them off”. Or you were channel surfing, that would piss the parents off as well but it was kind of normal for us kids because that was how we were consuming that media and adults were consuming media in a different way.
I think we have lots to learn. I think brands have lots to learn about what being social means. There’s an awful lot of bullshit around social media. Most brands don’t understand that as soon as you close the gap between the brand and customer, the dynamic is exactly the same as it is between you and I. Its a social dynamic and brands need to operate in a social context, and most brands in a social context might as well be stood in a dirty raincoat across the road from a primary school the way most of them act. It’s not friendly, it doesn’t contribute and it’s not helpful. A lot of change will happen but I think it will be generational, and I think it’s a generational education about using new media and that’s all it really is. We’re still cave people. We’re not a very evolved species, even though we all think we are. We still burn dead animals to get around.
You’ve achieved so much already. What are your motivations for the future? And is there something you particularly still want to do?
I don’t think that I’ve achieved that much, I’ve just done the best that I can. Or the best I could do at the time. But I don’t really look upon it as achievement. I did what I had to do. In terms of the future, I’ve got no concept of it. I’ve got no plan. I don’t know what next week will bring, let alone next year or the next 5 years, or the next 10 years. I’ve never known and I’ve never cared. I think people spend entirely too much time worrying about the future, and planning for the future. You should live now, and be now and do the best possible thing that you can do now, and then tomorrow will look after itself.