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5 Minutes with... Ross Taylor



The Iris group creative director on playful car advertising, becoming an expert on a strange variety of subject and how he encourages his creatives to “push beyond expected”

5 Minutes with... Ross Taylor

From motorsport to makeup, reducing blood pressure to removing stains, Iris group creative director wears the diversity of his career’s client list as a badge of honour. Having started as an art director with an interest in design, his fascination with human behaviour has driven him to work on a series of campaigns that have gone beyond a simple communications brief into the realms of changing how people act and think. 
Passionate about and dedicated to delivering intelligent ideas and bringing the best ideas out in others, Ross has always taken a hands-on approach to creativity – ever since a childhood spent making his own toys and outfits – and he enjoys getting stuck in a variety of maker disciplines. From conceptual thinking to direction, filmmaking and photography to creating his own fine bone china range, he’s a consulate creative. You can see the fruits of that both in his day job at Iris and in his business with his partner Chris, The Curious Department. Together they design and sell a variety of interior design wonders, from lampshades to cushions and wallpaper.

LBB caught up with Ross to hear about his journey and perspectives.

LBB> Your recent work for Suzuki was a lot more fun than most car advertising. What fed into that?

Ross> I sometimes think in advertising we take ourselves a bit too seriously. Or we get stuck in an executional echo chamber, where you see the same stuff over and over again. Suzuki has always been a very fun and playful brand. As soon as I got the opportunity to work on the new brand platform, I thought it's really time to crank this up and make it live and breathe playfulness. The cars are playful themselves. 

The thing that I loved the most was being able to ideate on the platform that we'd already sold to the client - 'Good Different'. Because when you have that as a line, you can't do executions like anyone else. You have to express yourself differently. It felt like a massive win to start at that point. And it made it very easy to show things beyond what you usually see in car advertising as ideas to the client. They were completely receptive to that because they believed in the platform. So it made for a very joyful, fun experience around the creative process. 

That's really why we do this because it's an enjoyable job. I remember being at uni and someone saying to me you can get paid to sit in a room and dream up what brands are going to do next. That appealed to me. So I've always tried to make sure we have fun when we do it. 

LBB> Before you had that moment at uni hearing about advertising, what sort of kid were you?

Ross> As a kid I was difficult. If things weren't as I imagined them, there were meltdowns. I remember a lot of things that probably made me a horrible child when I think about it. I couldn't go into a shop and try on new shoes, for instance, to the point where my mum had to strap me in the buggy and pin me down to put the shoes on. They were never the ones I wanted. I remember I asked for toy soldiers once for one birthday from my auntie. In my head I'd imagined plastic army soldiers, and she'd got me Queen's guards. I just couldn't cope. But I was very young and didn't have communication skills. I passed through that stage. 

We didn't have a lot of money growing up at all. So me, my mum and my nana used to make a lot of toys and fancy dress. We were always around the sewing machine creating. Those are some of the best memories I have of being a kid.

LBB> What were you studying at university before you heard about advertising? 

Ross> I started studying Ergonomics and as part of that I did psychology modules. I moved into my halls and there was a guy doing an Art Foundation. Every single time I saw what he was up to in his room, I just thought, "I should be doing this."

I went home after the first year. My dad asked how I was doing. I was like, "It's good, but I'll never do it as a job. I think I'm more interested in the graphic design side." And he said, "Well you need to change course right now." I was really shocked. I thought I was letting them down because it costs money to go to uni and I thought that he would force me to finish the degree. But he forced me to call up and get myself on that course. 

The Art Foundation was brilliant, a bit of everything. Then I studied Visual Communication for three years. 

LBB> Who helped put you on the path to becoming a creative?

Ross> A tutor came in who'd been a director on ads called Johnny Hardstaff. He was amazing. He was the first person at uni that taught me to be provocative. If someone was saying you should do that black, then he would do it bright pink. And every single project you knew you had to bring something no one else would bring. It was him that really told me advertising was an option.

Once I went up to him and asked how I get an awesome placement in London. He was just like, "My heart bleeds for you. I feel sorry for you that that's your level of ambition." I was really taken aback. And he was like, "You should be aiming higher. You should just want to live and breathe creativity." I was thinking, "But I do kind of need money to move to London…" But nevertheless, we had a useful chat. 

Then I won D&AD New Blood which meant I had a few eyes on me. And got an internship at M&C Saatchi with Graham Fink in charge at the time.

LBB> What was your first agency experience like?

Ross> I was a bit sheltered back then. I grew up in a little village in Cheshire. And then I went to uni in basically a town just full of students. Then I came to London, moved in with this guy I found on Gumtree and then was travelling to Golden Square every day and sitting in an office with loads of people that knew what they were doing. And I had literally no idea what I was doing at all. 

I did actually write a script. You used to have to book in a meeting with Graham to go and present what you'd done. I went into the office and handed it to him. He read it and he went, "Do you not know how to write a script?" It was good I knew nothing about the industry because I didn't really know who he was either. I was just like, "No, I don't. I've never done this before. I've literally just graduated. We didn't write scripts at uni." I'm really glad I was honest. Because he said "Oh... alright then." He helped me and I learned how to do it. 

Soon I got the job at Profero, which was really awesome actually, because it gave me a good foundation in digital at quite an interesting time.

LBB> At that point did you have a copywriter partner?

Ross> No. I didn't for the first two years. Then Elspeth Lynn joined as ECD. She’d sold her own agency in Canada and came over. She is an incredibly disciplined craftsperson. But also she worked us really hard, in a good way. You have to prove yourself to Elspeth. She could see that I had something but she felt I needed a partner. And she paired me up with a partner called Kathryn. We actually became best friends. We called each other ‘soul sisters’. Her surname is Topp so together we became Topp and Taylor. People liked having us around. Kathryn's a big ray of sunshine. Every time she walks in the room, everyone smiles and wants to talk to her. 

We made a commitment to each other. I wanted to learn how to become a better writer, and she wanted to learn how to become a better art director. So quite early on we invented this plan to use each other to learn. Because she always knew she'd move back to Australia, when that day came, we wanted to be able to go off and be our own entities. Looking back it was quite a clever thing to commit to quite early on in our career. That was the pact we made and it worked.

LBB> Are there any important projects early in your career that helped you to understand what was important to you in creativity?

Ross> One project that really did help me learn is getting the opportunity to work with Asos. We noticed that a lot of people were selling old Asos clothes on eBay, or even Etsy. This is quite a long time ago. We created a platform so that Asos could own that trade rather than people going elsewhere. So we set up Asos Marketplace. 

It was a big project. We created a load of rules of how you had to photograph the clothes that you wanted to sell on it. And we adopted a street style approach because everyone else was just taking pictures of clothes on the floor that looked like a pig's breakfast. We also enabled people to open up their own boutiques on the marketplace. The thought was that we democratise fashion. It wasn't about Paris, New York, Milan anymore. It was about Goa, it was about Leicester. It was about these designers all over the world that you could now access and it was a really beautiful big idea. It excited me and I learned a lot because it was very strategic and a lot more business focused. I think that's where I learned about rather than executional-level thinking, thinking more at a business level – how you can change a business or create a business. 

Another similar project was for Tenna. Using that knowledge, we won the account for Tenna Lights, which is an incontinence pad that no one wanted to work on. If there's ever a brand that no one wants to work on, I put my hand up, because I know there's always hidden gold within it. 

Tenna wanted a bunch of banner ads to promote Tenna Lights "oops moments", which normalised the fact that one in three women have light bladder weakness. I felt like we could do something better than these banners. I mocked up a user journey for an app called My Pelvic Floor Trainer. I thought it would be good if Tenna could help people strengthen their pelvic floor, we could give them a bit more peace of mind as well. Obviously potentially doing ourselves out of sales, but I think if you're a good brand nestling yourself in culture, you're there to support. I was allowed to present it to the client and they bought it. And that still exists today. I enjoy that problem solving that can take you into unexpected places.

I've had a lot of good bosses, but Elspeth was very pivotal in training me to be about the bigger thought that you don't usually get exposure to at that time in your career.

LBB> When did you become a creative director? It's always such a strange transition for creatives.

Ross> We worked as ACDs on Dove at Havas Helia. It wasn’t right for us. So we went and got a freelance gig to work with LBi on a project for the World Health Organisation and AstraZeneca. They had a mission to reduce high blood pressure in East Africa by 2025. They assembled a team of creatives, tech people, project managers, to go there and create a hothouse business idea to enable people there to engage with factual information about high blood pressure, because there's a lot of misinformation. We were essentially CDing that. 

Then we went back and worked for the guy that hired us, at Havas Helia, who now worked at Havas Worldwide and had the Rimmel London account. “Do you want to come and be creative directors on Rimmel London?” And I was like, “Hell yeah, I do.” That was the first formalised CD job that I did in advertising. 

LBB> I see what you mean. And going from that to a makeup brand like Rimmel is a very big shift.

Ross> I find it funny when people are cautious about working on certain brands and when they say things like, "I'm not sure I'm interested in that." Make yourself interested! I think the best creatives are the ones that can flex and be a chameleon across all sorts of different brands. That's the thing I find most fun about it. I like that down the pub I can talk to someone about football because I've worked on Barclays' football sponsorship; I can talk to people about makeup; I can talk to people about incontinence; I can talk to people about high blood pressure – all sorts of different things. And you get paid to learn this. I feel really grateful that I'm in a role where I get to learn about things that you know nothing about one day and the next you get to be an expert on them. That's a privilege. When people elect to work on only one brand or sector, I feel a bit sad for them. Everyone's different, but I don't relate to that because I don't understand why you wouldn't want to discover a new brands and everything that comes with it.
The same happened on Formula E at Iris. My inner saboteur was saying, "You know nothing about motorsport and you're not that interested in it." But I knew that I could become interested in it, I could learn and enjoy learning. I said yes; I enjoyed it. 

Over four years, we completely transformed that. We won all their social business, did a few hero content pieces, won a load of awards and had a great time. It was like a university of motorsport. I did four years of it. And I would say I know quite a lot at this point.

LBB> You’ve been at Iris about five years and for the past year you've been group creative director. What are your priorities in terms of the creative team that you oversee? 

Ross> My biggest priority is to help everyone get to a point where they can create something they thought they could never create. We have this mantra within my department, which is "push beyond expected". That's the creative vision we work to every time we get a brief. I don't want to see just the banner solution to something like a Tenna Lights project. I want to see the app. What else can you show that we could go to our clients with? 

LBB> Are there any bigger conversations within advertising that you’re often talking about these days?

Ross> We often find ourselves talking about DE&I. I know a lot of agencies talk do. It is something that I'm quite passionate about, being part of the LGBTQ+ community and not really ever having a role model myself within the industry limited where I thought I could go as a junior.

There's so much more about representation beyond me, being a gay man, but that's my experience. With however much time I have left in this industry, I would like to leave some kind of legacy behind that helps with representation, even if it's a few people seeing things a little bit differently from someone else's point of view, that would be meaningful. 

LBB> What’s exciting for you in culture now?

Ross> I'm a massive reality TV addict. I love it. I've always had a fascination with psychology and understanding people. I think the reason I get so obsessed with reality TV is because it gives you a window into quite different types of people and what makes them tick. ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ is a luxury world that I'm not in that's so extreme. But if I want to work on a luxury brand, I could have more of a point of reference by spending a bit of time with the Real Housewives. Same for Married at First Sight. It shows you people that you wouldn't otherwise know in advertising because you just end up in your weird privileged little bubble. 

I'm also an obsessive interiors person. So I have my side hustle.

LBB> Yes! You have The Curious Department, the interior design studio which you run with your partner Chris. What have you taken from that over the years?

Ross> It gives me an edge that's definitely come in very useful Iris over the years.

Our business is all built pretty much on Instagram. And we built it partnering with interior style bloggers and content creators. So you learn a lot about the way to handle those conversations and the expectation of a brand collab, for instance. Being sure you're very clear about what's in it for the partner.

We've done quite a lot of brand collaborations. We've got quite an unusual business model in the sense that we're makers, but we're hired as influencers sometimes. Lick paint, for instance, did a miniseries on us and they sponsor us to use all their colours in our house. We've done a collaboration with a bank. And we're doing another thing soon that's top secret.

We didn't set it up with that being our intention. We set it up as a way to create stuff that we couldn't find out there in the high street. And now I'm surrounded by it. But loving it. 

It's good to look around and see all of these things that we've made. And obviously I've done that with Chris as well. I couldn't have done it without him. He's the brains behind it all and the person who can actually make it happen, whereas I'm just coming up with these designs.

LBB> Couples are often like that. The organiser and the dreamer.

Ross> Right! I'd definitely hate to date myself! Absolute nightmare.

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Iris, Fri, 30 Sep 2022 12:56:09 GMT