Leaving Clearleft (again)
9 years. Or 3,287 days. Or 78,894 hours. Almost a decade spent with one company in Brighton. I went from a fresh, wide-eyed and hungry, ambitious designer to a board member and design leader. I’ve made good friends and had some excellent experiences, faced many challenges, and grew both professionally and personally along the way.
As of December 2021 I said goodbye to Clearleft again. Having left in 2018 to go back to freelancing (and specifically going ‘behind the curtain’ to product), I got lured back for an interesting experiment: to help win clients as a practicing designer, but for an incredibly well-regarded, industry-leading agency that I knew inside out.
For 2019 I helped win new business as a freelancer, back with the team and agency I left the first time. New business is the lifeblood of any agency, and as we won more business, I became profoundly aware of how much impact the type and shape of work can have on the future direction of an agency like Clearleft.
Then in late 2019 myself and Andy Thornton had a meeting in Meat Liquor with Rich and Andy B (Clearleft's founders and owners). We discussed succession; the scenario that would see them step away from agency leadership to take a back seat as founders. It was in all honesty what I was waiting for. Having been so familiar with the agency I knew what was needed, what needed fixing and what had to be done. We discussed what the future of Clearleft should look like, and we were asked to play an instrumental role in the next chapter of Clearleft.
So at the start of 2020 I went back to Clearleft full-time, this time as Design Director.
Between myself and Andy T ( as Strategy Director), our remit was no small task:
- Plot the direction of the company for the future
- Produce a strategy that would get us there
- Win work that played to that strategy
- Provide the foundation for our world-renowned events to grow and prosper.
- Manage our respective teams of strategists, researchers, designers and developer to grow and prosper as an industry-leading team.
I relished the opportunity, and grabbed it with both hands.
Around the same time as our new appointments Clearleft became an employee-owned company. Selling the company’s value to a Trust — which was to be overseen by both the board and a trio of Trustee Directors — meant the agency was more in charge of its own destiny. The ‘partners’ (employee owners) could ostensibly impact the company’s direction and the steps needed to get there.
All change 🦠
Then the world turned upside down. As of March 2020 we had multiple face-to-face events in play that had to be cancelled or postponed. What was normally a hugely profitable and steady side of our business disappeared overnight. The agency’s client services had to over-compensate as budgets shrank and lockdowns hit. We all found ourselves in an odd, unusual and frankly brutal situation.
As part of the leadership team and Board, myself and my board colleagues were thrust into the deepest of deep ends. Trying to secure work to secure the jobs and livelihoods of Clearleft staff was a challenge onto itself, as agency procurement nosedived around the country. Our revenue took a substantial hit, yet we kept all staff without any redundancies. We pivoted our events online to accommodate the hundreds of ticket holders for our postponed face-to-face versions. Though successful, the stress and anxiety these circumstances had on everyone was considerable.
With some relative but growing distance I can safely say that going remote had probably the largest impact on everyone at Clearleft.
The interactions, body language, non-verbal cues and feelings of spirit and camaraderie from being in the same physical space as your colleagues are incomparable. Yet their loss isn’t fully realised or understood until they’re taken away. The lack of these things we’ve all taken for granted for so long has had profound impacts on the morale, mental wellbeing and overall health and culture of any company. Clearleft was no different, and its genetic code has always contained close collaboration, personal interactions and excellent client/practitioner/peer relationships. Take those things away and replace with Miro boards, Trello and Slack and you lose something intangible, and very real.
Managing a highly-reputable agency such as Clearleft though a worldwide pandemic will, with hindsight, be a formidable achievement; both a high and low water mark. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done so far in a professional context.
I also learned that in a leadership position, your accountabilities and responsibilities mean you put yourself last.
The past 24 months have had a significant impact on my own wellbeing. In trying to accommodate the needs of staff, the brand, new business, culture, morale, company reputation and more, I sacrificed a lot more than I cared to realise. And once realised it was too late. Burnout hit, mental welfare got torpedoed, yet you need to keep going.
Add to that list of Covid-induced factors some significant and ultimately fatal side acts. Ongoing and dysfunctional founder dynamics. Hierarchical challenges. Toxicity, ruinous empathy and manipulative insincerity. Real-world events tanking. The changing landscape of work. Managing upwards and downwards. EO-enforced debts to be repaid. A purpose-built office space unused for 18 months, and many more. The situation over time became untenable.
Onwards and upwards
Though some of the above may never be resolved, leaving Clearleft now means I’ll leave it in a good place.
The timing is never perfect, but it’s as near to ideal as it could be. We created a solid strategy on which to build, and the pipeline is buoyant. In-person events in the UK look more and more likely, Omicron notwithstanding.
The staff will also be in more capable hands with a new MD at the helm, and so now is a good as time as any to say goodbye (again) and look ahead, not behind.
I’ll miss the agency that shaped much of my career, and I’ll miss those I worked with. If you’re reading, I’m sorry we couldn’t spend more time together face-to-face, and I’m quite certain that had Covid not happened, this might not have been the case.
The last few months have witnessed many ‘Covid Casualties’; part of the Great Resignation, where people re-assess what they’re doing, where they are, why they’re doing it and (IMO, crucially) who they’re doing it for. The situation for me is no different.
I wish Clearleft the best of luck for the future.
January 24th, 2022