Stink Studios London’s Managing Director on starting from the bottom, hybrid talent and the value of a wrap party
Stink is undeniably one of the most dynamic companies in the advertising industry. Since Daniel Bergmann founded the company almost 20 years ago, Stink’s turned out some of the most exciting and groundbreaking work for global brands. For the past 10 years, Stink Studios (formerly Stinkdigital) has been handling the more futuristic end of that work, from Philips ‘Carousel’ to Honda ‘The Other Side’. And for nearly seven years Jax Ostle-Evans has been an integral part of this machine, helping them innovate and create all this cool stuff.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Jax soon after her promotion to Managing Director of Stink Studios London to talk about her meteoric career and her role in one of the world’s top 50 companies that creatives would ‘kill to work for’.
LBB> You started your career as a Runner and then as a Production Assistant at Arden Sutherland-Dodd. What was that like?
JO-E> Starting as a runner, I completed very basic tasks like going to Berwick Street market every day to get the fresh fruit and flowers… a bit like Nancy from Oliver Twist. It was before the Internet really became a ‘thing’. We were online but a lot of the tasks were done the ‘old fashioned’ way. I would go out on location, take Polaroids, scan them back at the office and send them by international courier (many directors lived globally) – big envelopes full of casting and location pictures. We’d then wait for a call the next day to receive the shortlists. It wasn’t quite the days of typewriters, but it was pretty manual.
I really enjoyed the role of runner and production assistant, and I look back on my time at Arden Sutherland-Dodd very fondly. There were some great directors there – like HAPPY (now Guy Shelmerdine and Richard Farmer), Zak and Dan, and Paul Arden – really good people who all pushed and encouraged me into production.
Arden Sutherland-Dodd was a family-run environment so I pretty much avoided the runner clichés of being shouted at, although a CD (who will remain anonymous) once lost it with me when I gave him a Coke, apparently he’d specifically requested a Pepsi. It was 10pm on a Friday night - I’ve always wondered why he didn’t just have a beer. There was also a situation when I made the executive (runner) decision that peach toilet paper was better than none (it was midnight and we’d run out)… apparently none is in fact preferable to peach.
At this time I was a runner with Will Bex (who’s now a DOP). I had studied English Literature at uni, so I was absolutely clueless. I was asked to “buy a box of U-matic tapes” from PEC; I had no idea what that meant. Will on the other hand had studied film and was fortunately very patient with me. In total, I was a runner for eight months and then moved onto PA’ing and PM’ing before a very emotional departure to agency, Glue London, six years later.
LBB> Did you learn anything there that still helps you in your role today?
JO-E> Nick Sutherland-Dodd was a great mentor, and to this day a very dear friend. He was (and is) always very calm, clear and fun. Nick taught me that making great work can be an enjoyable process. Yes, sometimes things get stressful and difficult, but production isn’t about having all the answers. It’s about calmly figuring out, with a great team, what the best solution is. Whenever I take on a new role I always look back and think about the key lessons he shared with me - most importantly keeping it together when things become challenging and whatever happens, always have a wrap party.
LBB> What lesson do you wish you'd learnt earlier in your career?
JO-E> Not to sweat the small stuff. It’s a generic answer but it’s true. Production is an addictive career. You’re working with great and talented people. The highs are high and the lows are low, and it’s important to remember that rollercoaster.
In the early days, you don’t take time to step back and recognise that every pitch and project goes through the same journey. It’s impossible to know everything up front – even if you think you do, it will change. It’s about being flexible, being open to change and recognising the journey. You get the best creative output by being open-minded.
I’d also add, learning not to be too hard on yourself, and to keep things in perspective; give yourself and your team time to deal with those challenges.
My six years at the digital agency Glue taught me a lot. I was fortunate to be surrounded by an incredibly supportive management and working within a really talented team I was exposed to the bigger picture. You can be so focused in the detail of production that you forget the other specifics that have got everyone to that point. I loved building relationships, understanding the role of strategy / planning, how that’s then briefed into creative and all the digital processes which happen agency side.
LBB> You've spent much of your career on the production side of the advertising industry. Now your role is more managerial, do you miss being on the front lines?
JO-E> We’re very hands-on here at Stink Studios. I love being in the trenches and I’m fortunate that I can still keep my toes in the ‘doing’ waters. I still work with our clients, who I love spending time with – I’m always available at the end of a call or in a pitch, but I also love being there for the team as Managing Director.
I’m fortunate that I’ve worked my way up from Runner to MD, across digital, content and film, so I’m able to understand many of the challenges the team face. They know that they can always come to me with questions because I’ve been there, so I can help overcome those challenges. I have a different perspective now, which means I can help them prioritise and rationalise. I really enjoy being able to support them with knowledge and experience rather than just listening to them.
LBB> Stink Studios was set up to tackle the changing landscape across production, digital and advertising… What do you see as the biggest changes affecting the way companies like yours must function?
JO-E> Stink Studios (then Stinkdigital) was set up almost 10 years ago to ensure the same level of craft was applied to digital experiences as Stink was applying to commercial film-making. The business was set up to cater for the changing landscape in advertising, the internet was here to stay and the now was digital.
At the beginning we were creating big filmic interactive websites with Stink directors. That changed pretty quickly. Technology moves fast and we learnt very early on that we needed to keep up. Only four years ago we were discussing the need for websites and online experiences to work on mobile and finding ways to tackle that challenge. Less than four years later we’re exploring not only how far we can push AR and VR but also AI. The pace at which technology moves is excessively fast. It’s crucial we ensure we have the right people to cater for the needs of our clients. What we know one day, we can’t rely on the next. Allowing the team dedicated time for R&D so we’re on the front foot with applying innovation technologies to client briefs is integral to how we operate.
As such, it’s important to remain agile and allow the team time to keep alert to what’s coming next. This way you never find yourself in a position of ‘we need to change’, which is wise, because by that point it’s already too late.
LBB> What projects have you worked on recently that you are particularly proud of?
JO-E> I’m proud of the Pinterest work that we created, from strategy all the way through to delivery, across TV, social, digital OOH, advertorial and a pop up in store. It was the first time Pinterest had advertised in the UK so it was a great opportunity to develop new ways of working and thinking. We adopted a phased approached which allowed us to see what was and what wasn’t working and pivot the production work and campaign accordingly. We built a great relationship not only with our clients but with the media agency, MediaCom. Without this respectful relationship, the idea and most importantly the creative execution would’ve suffered. Consequently, we’re very proud of the results and celebrated our Cannes Lion win last June.
I’m also really proud of our work with Twitter, which is a DOOH-focused campaign that is powered by our proprietary software ‘Switchboard’. Again, we have a great and mutually respectful relationship with our Twitter clients and what’s great is that we enjoy spending time with them. We’re proud of the work, which is reflective of a great group of human beings working hard and pushing boundaries.
Finally, I love the work we put out every year with Strava, with whom we’re always able to push our two favourite things: technology and creativity.
LBB> I loved October, the online craft beer magazine you created with Pitchfork. I think it says a lot about how large corporations like AB InBev can plausibly contribute to culture. Is that something you're interested in?
JO-E> Yes. Stink Studios and the Stink Group are an independent global company - diversity and culture are in our DNA. When Daniel Bergmann founded Stink almost 20 years ago, he did so with the idea that talent could come from anywhere in the world; that it wasn’t limited to just the USA and the UK. Being different, being ourselves and celebrating that is what makes us who we are.
We’re always looking for talent. A lot of the team here are hybrid - they don’t just think in one way. We’re always interested in people with different backgrounds. We will look at how we can bring them in and develop them, either with skill sets that they already have, or by offering them the chance to learn new ones. Whether it’s people, culture or work – diversity is at the heart of everything we do here.
LBB> A lot of the work you've done straddles both film and digital craft. How do you tie the two together?
JO-E> If we get to a place during production where we need to tie film and digital together then something has gone very wrong. For a successful outcome these two disciplines must be born together out of a strong idea. We’ve learnt the hard way with this, but now, everything we do always comes back to the idea and whether it can support the creative and the technology.
For us, having been formed out of Stink, craft is in our DNA. We developed our digital craft in the same way, insisting on the best possible output regardless of the final touch-point. This way we retain the best team for our clients, if you have the film and the digital craft working closely together everything else will follow - consumers will follow.
LBB> Considering the hybrid nature of the work you do at Stink Studios, how do you find the best new talent to bring on board?
JO-E> We have to be patient when looking for talent. It’s a time-consuming process. For senior roles it can take up to three or four interviews to really ensure we’re right for the candidate and vice versa. It’s an entrepreneurial spirit at Stink Studios and that doesn’t suit everyone. We avoid quick hires, we would rather find a solution to that short-term problem, with a long-term plan of finding someone who is brilliant and wants to stay with us. We really trust our team, so we’re always keen to meet people that they have been recommended, and we reward our team for their suggestions.
LBB> Stink Studios work across so many disciplines. Which stage in the process do you love the most?
JO-E> I love the briefing to pitch stage - obviously assuming it’s then awarded to us! That feeling of sitting in a meeting being briefed on a project you know the team will love and get excited about – that feeling is addictive. Likewise pitch day, I love the emotions of a pitch day. Those butterflies in your tummy, which still flutter in the same way they did 16 years ago, they’re a great reminder that you care and we really do care at Stink. We don’t have pitch teams at Stink Studios, the team who work on the pitch see the job through to delivery. Too many integral details are discussed at the pitch stage and we strongly believe that swapping out the team has a detrimental impact on the project. This makes the pitch win celebrations and the launch relief (wrap party) emotions all that more special – those are my favourite bits.
LBB> What's your dream brief? Is there a particular idea that you'd love to work on that just needs the right client?
JO-E> The briefs that cover all bases – the ones that take you from strategy to creative to production to full delivery, with touch points across multiple outlets - content, digital, OOH, VR, AR, online. The chunky ones with a nice challenge to crack, they’re my favourites. That said, there’s so much creative potential with our proprietary platforms, Switchboard and RITA, that we’d love to explore further so we’re thinking of innovative ways these could compliment brands and consumers alike. These platforms allow us to do things which have never been done before and that’s always terrifyingly exciting.
LBB> What are your passions outside of work? What do you do to relax?
JO-E> KNITTING! I go to a knit club run by family friends every Wednesday in Bow. Sometimes we double it up as a book club. It's the most amazing bunch of eclectic and inspiring women (and a man) of mixed ages. It’s a breath of fresh air. As such, I’ve become a bit of an enthusiast. That said, it’s 100% enthusiasm and 0% talent - they still laugh at me for taking six months to knit a tie. I love that time and I try to always go, even if it’s a busy week.
Travelling is another big passion. Visiting new cities and countries helps me balance the London lifestyle.
And spinning! It’s addictive, I try to go a few times a week, I wouldn’t say it’s a relaxant, but it helps me focus on the day ahead. I’d like to be addicted to something slightly calmer too, like yoga or meditation, but it doesn’t work. It would appear that I have to actively relax, it’s not something that comes naturally, I have to consciously make myself do it. I also find a large G&T helps.