Learning from each other: business and creative partnerships

  • PwC 2014-2015 launch

High Aldersey-Williams on lessons learned from the RCA/PwC mentoring programme, which pairs business mentors with emerging designers

The presentation of self in business life

As the noted sociologist Erving Goffman points out in his classic work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the very word ‘person’ originally meant a ‘mask’. We are all the performers of our own lives.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the world of business, which seems to require that we play up to certain personas. If we agree that business is basically the making and selling of products and services, it clearly embraces a wide range of roles. One of the most obvious contrasts is between those who are ‘creative’ and those who insist they are not creative. Both can play up to their roles in unhelpful ways. The ‘creatives’ sometimes adopt a lofty disdain for the ‘boring but necessary’ aspects of business – little things like actually finding a market and making sure the figures add up. The non-creatives or uncreatives, meanwhile, condescend to the creatives by conveying the clear impression that it is they who have the key to the important stuff.

The the RCA-PwC Creative Business Mentoring Programme, a two-year project pairing Royal College of Art graduates with mentors from the global professional services firm PwC, provides opportunities to confront these stereotypes. The first phase of the scheme concluded last year and showed how the involvement of those literate in business affairs, far from stifling imagination, can empower creators, as well as demonstrating the importance of their acquiring some of these skills for themselves. And the mentors found that they too were learning valuable new things.

The altar of creativity

In today’s commercial world, creativity is praised, sought after, even worshipped. This generates expectations for those on both sides of this ‘divide’ – those who see themselves as creative, and perform to that self-image, on the one hand, and those on the other who tend to see ‘creatives’ as a species quite alien from themselves.

Robin Levien, one of Britain’s most commercially successful designers, believes that what he calls ‘creative currency’ is set to gain in importance in all areas of business, even traditionally ‘conservative’ sectors. Creatives may find themselves in greater demand. “I used to think art colleges should train people to survive in business, but no longer. Now it’s all about the creativity,” says Levien. But it will also have consequences for ‘non-creatives’, who will have to acquire enough of the creative language to at least get by.

The contemporary drive to understand creativity is evidenced by the sort of research cited by Andy Penaluna, Professor of Creative Entrepreneurship at Swansea Metropolitan University, and an advisor to FuelRCA, in which MRI scanning is used to identify those parts of the brain that are more active during creative processes. What this will really tell us is a moot point for now. Some might think that the problem is not so much knowing where creativity is located in the brain, as knowing how to deal with it when it emerges. In business, much of the difficulty is in recognising creativity, and in finding ways to talk about it so that others recognise it too.

Exposure to this unfamiliar world struck the mentors in various ways. One welcomed the insight he gained into the approaches of creative people. Another was reminded that her own daily stock-in-trade is of “huge significance to others”. The atmosphere of uncertainty that the creative mind often thrives on – not knowing what the next collection or design will look like, but having the confidence in one’s creative reserves that it will look like something – was initially entirely alien to the mentors. So too was the question of beauty. Penaluna asked mentor Sam Waller about the aesthetic dimension of the project he was mentoring. “That’s almost like my worst question ever – what are my emotions,” he says. For his mentored graduate Birgit Marie Schmidt, though, this is something that comes naturally. “It’s almost like a force.”

By the end of the programme, more than one of the graduates felt they had seen the pitfalls in thinking, “I am creative, I can do anything.” But the mentors, too, had given new consideration to the opposing mindset that says: “I’m not creative. I can’t...”

Culture clash

The contrast between these two ways of looking at business were perhaps best exemplified by Lauren Bowker, who dispatched her failed first business with a ritual funeral. The event created the occasion for a dramatic relaunch, and drew attention through its macabre novelty. It inspired the thought that one day larger businesses might benefit from a more imaginative treatment of the ups and downs of commercial life. But not yet. “Such non-conformist activity makes you ‘weird’ as a business person,” admits her mentor Nick Tilley. But, “In our world,” Bowker rejoins, “‘weird’ is what makes people turn up.”

The clash of cultures was felt in more everyday ways by others. Rachel Philpott and Katie Gaudion of Angles Between Curves recall feeling uncomfortable under tough questioning from their mentor, Annabel Millet. “But it turned out to be the most useful session of all,” says Gaudion. Such probing can make both sides look at a problem differently.

The best atmosphere was one where there were “no stupid questions” and no jargon-laden responses. Mentors need patience to explain to creators just starting out why certain things need to be done in certain ways in the world of business. But as Annabel Millet says, there is a benefit to the mentor also in finding simpler ways to express business concepts. 

Mentors can feel just as ill at ease in a ‘creative’ presentation, where all the impressionistic verbiage doesn’t seem to express the nub of the designer’s idea. Here, suggests mentor Harriet Aldridge, it’s essential that the creative concepts be shown visually – “because accountants can’t understand them explained.”

Often, the graduates’ first priority with mentors was to seek advice on specific areas such as registering a company or cold-calling. But it is in looking at the big picture that the greater gains are to be made – thinking about the broader social or economic context in which one is participating, for example. It was this that enabled designers such as Florie Salnot and Smith / Grey to begin to look at their businesses in a more mature way. Focusing on ‘creativity’ above all can be a burden, says Joanna Brassett. Working with her business partner Lisa Johansson and mentor Harriet Aldridge, they were able to analyse the business in new ways that lifted this burden.

In a few cases, though, it was the designer who had the broader vision, and the mentor had difficulty grasping the big idea. This was especially the case where the enterprise was social rather than commercial, or was explicitly not-for-profit. For Robin Levien, in these cases the very mention of money can be a hindrance. “It’s helpful if you enjoy making money, but it doesn’t motivate me. Become good at something, and people start wanting you for that,” he advises. Then, success becomes what you do every day.


A business mentor can go a long way to giving a starting-out designer credibility and self-confidence. “It gave us the motivation to take an idea seriously,” says Kerimol. “We felt supported and animated by our mentor,” as well as by the group, agree Smith / Grey. In practical terms, mentors gave the graduates what they need to know in terms of ‘business etiquette’ or how to balance what might be a wide portfolio of activities, including for example both making and consulting, in their own best interests.

Lisa Johansson and Joanna Brassett’s INTO aims to help companies communicate more effectively with their customers as well as internally to agree a consistent message through a focus on social impacts. “Our mentor told us we need to do for ourselves what we do for our clients,” explains Johansson. “We were too close to see it.” The mentor also talked to the pair about aligning their business and personal goals, and finding a sustainable development plan, rather than feeling they had to rush to do everything immediately.

Mentoring also served to cement creative partnerships, as well to pin down real objectives or deadlines to reach certain goals. Both for Kerimol and his partner Ottilie Ventiroso and for the Angles Between Curves duo, this marked the moment when two people who happened to like working together became far more like companies.

Having a mentor at one’s shoulder was especially helpful when dealing with large clients, who could seem, as Lauren Bowker says, “simply overwhelming”. On the business side, too, her mentor Nick Tilley adds, “there is huge merit in allowing creatives to be as creative as possible. Making a living will impose its own constraints. That comes soon enough.”

When you’ve got your big idea, you’ll still have to go out and find your market. Here, too, the mentoring programme was invaluable to many of the graduates. Rachel Philpott was typical in finding that her mentor was able to offer advice on identifying and targeting key customers as well as on making the relationship with those customers as ‘natural’ as possible. Florie Salnot found her mentor was able to help with ideas for gaining greater visibility for his project so that it might attract more funding.

Shaping the possible world

For those graduates whose work is in great demand, the mentoring programme has been useful in helping to set priorities, keeping in mind the overall need to establish a business direction consistent with the creator’s values. Often, this means balancing consultancy work that will earn an income with time spent on what will ultimately be the more important personal project, but which for now needs that transfusion of funds. Emma Shipley was one who benefited from a conversation with her mentor Anne Brisbin about what her time is worth, both in monetary terms, but more importantly perhaps, also in terms of what she really wants to be doing as her career develops.

For Lev Kerimol, there is a similar balancing act, between advising others, or being part of a group that actually does things. The choice is important, but it’s not a completely serious one, he points out. There is an element of play about it, a liberating sense of many possibilities; it’s not a struggle. It also involves achieving a reconciliation within oneself of the sometimes Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of setting out in creative business. “Being someone different in different contexts is something that’s been quite hard to achieve,” he says. 

As students, the graduates have been accustomed to doing ‘jobs’ for free. While the mentors themselves sometimes found this hard to grasp, they were nevertheless able to advise their charges on how to strike a sensible balance between paying work, work done for free as a kind of loss leader, and work done for free with no expectation of a return other than the fun of doing it.

The sense of possibilities at the outset of a creative career can seem fundamentally at odds with the concept of a business plan, which seems to rule out so many options by focusing on one direction. But the designers have learned that business plans need not be set in stone, and can be made responsive to changing circumstances and unexpected opportunities. Bowker took two years to be persuaded of the merits of writing a business plan. Now, though, she says, “Having a master plan is great, but don’t be afraid not to follow it religiously.”

Two-way traffic

Mentors were surprised in many cases to find that the mentoring relationship was not as one-way as they had supposed it would be. They became aware of how their graduates were willing to keep their options open, to stay alive to all possibilities, even the most unlikely ones – perhaps even especially the most unlikely ones. This often meant that the advice required had to change too.

Several of the mentors were impressed with the sheer nerve shown by the graduates in making approaches to people who might be in a position to help them in one way or another. As mentor Oliver Wilkinson was reminded, “Taking advantage of opportunities when they arise is a key part of success.” Nick Tilley was inspired to see Bowker’s growing network of A-list contacts. “It leads me to be bolder, to look for different things from work, for distractions that bring you back refreshed,” he comments.

Waller admits that he finds “incredible and inspiring” the hours that the designers are willing to put in in the service of an idea. This was just another aspect of what was at times a fascinating experience for the mentors. Anne Brisbin sums it up: “I don’t think any of us wants to walk away. It’s just so interesting.”

The RCA Mentees

Angles Between Curves - Katie Gaudion & Dr Rachel Philpott (PwC mentor: Joanna Ahlstrom)
Professional services business consulting on people-centred design and materials innovation. Projects include consultancy on tactile, interactive and high-performance textiles for adults with autism and educational workshops exploring material invention.

Apeel - Alkesh Parmar (PwC mentor: Oliver Wilkinson)
Innovative material development where orange peel is used to create a sustainable and durable new material with a multitude of potential uses. Patent pending on original material and interest from retails and drinks brands.

Emma Shipley - Emma Shipley (PwC mentor: Anne Brisbin)
Luxury brand offering a range of beautifully designed silk scarves. The range is stocked in high-end designer shop, Browns.

INTO Ltd - Lisa Johansson & Joanna Brassett  (PwC mentor: Harriet Aldridge)
Professional services business that provides consultancy on design and innovation, with a focus on helping companies make a positive social impact. Clients include Lego.

Our London - Lev Kerimol and Ottilie Ventiroso (PwC mentor: Catherine Little)
Our London works with boroughs and landowners to help groups of people jointly develop their own housing and local facilities. As a social enterprise we help to arrange and establish the right conditions for community commissioned neighbourhoods on particular sites, and promote these opportunities to prospective residents.

Plastic Gold - Florie Salnot (PwC mentor: Jonathan Holmes)
Social enterprise and micro-financing business. Providing aid-dependent women in the Sahara with an independent income stream through the production of jewellery made from waste materials and sold to a European market.

See The Unseen - Lauren Bowker (PwC mentor: Nick Tilley)
Head Shaman at material innovation and consultancy business. Development of heat sensitive material with multiple applications. Research and consultancy into varied and very exciting new product applications.

SMITH/GREY - Birgit Marie Schmidt & Sofus Graae (PwC mentor: Sam Waller)
High-end jewellery studio offering a range of luxury products designed for a discerning market. Recipients of several industry awards and shortlisted as 'New Designer of the Year' at the UK Jewellery Awards 2013.

A second RCA-PwC Creative Business Mentoring Programme started in March 2014