I have long been inspired by the work of ‘creative content studio’ Stranger Collective, headed up by my very talented sister Clare Howdle and her business partner Helen Gilchrist. Having worked with them on a few projects, I have frequently been impressed by their creativity and energy. They put this down to something they call ‘feeding.’ As the year draws to a close, and I start to think about how I can work better next year, I was keen to find out more. I grabbed Helen for a coffee in Falmouth’s Espressini to pick her brains…
What’s the most important thing to know about Stranger?
Our vision is to help people harness the power of words. We’re a fervent bunch of word junkies driven by the difference the right words can make. Creativity drives everything we do – whether it’s capturing the personality of a new brand or bringing website content to life, we always try to find a fresh perspective that will make people sit up and take notice. As we say on our website, “We don’t believe in business writing. We just believe in writing that makes people care, talk, act, share, laugh, cry – or all of the above.” It’s better for our clients – because they get words that really do make a difference – and it’s better for our writers, because it pushes their work forward in new and exciting ways. Being based in Cornwall may mean we’re outsiders, but that helps us stay original and keeps us hungry to find work that fits with our values. And as the Norwegian proverb puts it, “the hungriest wolves hunt the best.”
Can you tell us a bit more about the concept of ‘feeding’? I’m keen to see if it’s something I could integrate into my own working practice…?
Sure. Because creativity is our currency – the foundation of everything we do – we wanted to make sure we nurtured and encouraged it in our business. So we don’t just talk about being creative, we actually make sure everyone in our organisation has regular time and space away from client and project work to develop their creativity to be inspired and sharpen their skills. It’s fundamental to our working culture; everyone at Stranger Collective feeds in proportion to the time they work, from our partners and full-time staff to our freelance writers. By staying well fed, we do our jobs better – it’s as simple as that. We use our feed time to explore, experience, think, read, create, connect, experiment, learn – anything that gives us a fresh perspective and helps us when it comes to sparking new ideas and crafting great words. It could be going to conferences on storytelling or content marketing, exploring the world of immersive narrative, doing a film editing course, attending a poetry workshop, trying locative gaming, researching a new trend online, reading a book that’s been waiting for our attention, writing for a charity, giving a lecture, or just meeting up with a contact to find out more about a possible collaboration. Or anything else for that matter.
Sounds great! How did you come up with the idea?
When Clare and I were planning the new agency, we both had a lot of creative side projects we were working on during evenings and weekends, squeezing them in around our own client and project work. We really felt that these ‘passion projects’ were benefitting our client work – whether it was writing programmes for an independent arts centre or running a monthly creative writing night – they were drawing on skills and thinking that helped us bring more to the table for our client work. So we started to think, “Why should we have to squeeze them into our ‘downtime? And what if everyone who worked for us had that creative space too?” The possibilities really excited us. What we needed was more time rather than more money – so decided to build time for self-directed creative work and exploration into our business model, even if it meant we took a hit on our profits. We believed that creativity, originality, staff and client satisfaction, and continual improvement were just as important.
So how does it work in practice? And can you tell us about some recent feeds?
Each member of the team gets 10 hours a month, which is usually a day spent feeding, and then some time to write a blog post about their experience for our website. Nicola’s actually out of the office today feeding on Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point – she’s aiming to read the whole book in a day – for a series she’s doing on trend forecasting. She did a great one recently on brands’ quest for authenticity. Amie’s just done one on what copywriters can learn from performance poets (see below). Caitlin and Amie recently fed together at the Happy Startup Summer Camp, and Caitlin did a great series on user personas and really getting to know our audiences. Anna fed on curating real world experiences versus search engine suggestions at the Port Eliot Festival. Alfie did one on the gap between advertising and art. Clare’s recent feed on the game Her Story, and using search to shape storytelling, is fascinating. I’ve fed on everything from creative brainstorming techniques to immersive theatre. We’ve also done bigger team feeds – like our Raft event and Bait magazine.
How do they impact your business – directly and indirectly?
Some have a very direct and immediate impact, feeding into current projects (like Clare’s on brand architecture, mine on content strategy or Nicola’s on authenticity). Caitlin’s feed on user personas helped set the theme for our first Stranger Happening event in London: Talk to Me. Sometimes the benefit comes months or even years later. Lucy did one in May 2013 about Virginia Woolf’s ‘marriage of granite and rainbow’ – and this idea became the basis for a popular writing training workshop we’ve been rolling out this year. Generally speaking, feeding means we are all better informed and have more interesting examples to share in client meetings, pitches and creative brainstorms. We’ve also made some great contacts and new collaboration opportunities – it’s a nice excuse to reach out to people whose work we admire. And the indirect – but just as important – benefits are that it keeps the team feeling inspired, energised and able to balance their own interests with client and project work.
It’s quite a brave move – what gave you the courage to implement it?
When we first started talking about it three and a half years ago, people – from our business mentors to our other halves – thought we were crazy and said it would never work. It hasn’t always been easy – and sometimes we do have to bump feeds back a little if deadlines demand – but we always come back to them. And our commitment has paid off. It’s a real USP, helping us win work by differentiating Stranger Collective from the competition, and helping us to attract and retain the best talent.
How have your clients responded to the idea?
They’ve been really positive about it. It means we often over-deliver, giving them added value and insight over and above just delivering to brief. We also share what we learn by ‘drip-feeding’ content that we think will be useful for them.
How do you feel about agencies like Venn Creative taking up the idea too? Are you keen for others to follow suit?
It’s great! As we’ve experienced the sense it makes and the benefits it can have, we’ve become positively evangelical about encouraging others to do it too. We spent a bit of time with Venn answering their questions about how it all works, and are happy to talk to anyone else who’s interested in exploring it. Plus our events like Raft and Stranger Happenings are a way of feeding others.
What are you most proud of?
That we’ve managed to really ingrain feeding into our culture and stuck with it even when it’s been hard.
What’s next for Stranger?
We’ve got lots of exciting things in the pipeline for next year. We’re going to be ramping up our training offer, working in partnership with some great people like the Happy Startup School as well as some experiential courses that make the most of our beautiful Cornish location. Plus we’re planning another big team feed in a similar vein to Raft and Bait – watch this space!
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.
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