Gentleman Scholar co-founders on how their partnership was born from rivalry, twin-speak, and crafting a hotel in space
William Campbell and Will Johnson may be business partners today, but they weren’t always so close. Back when they met at Savannah College of Art and Design, they were locked in a classroom rivalry; a rivalry triggered by the fact they both laid claim to the same first name. But soon enough that competition wore off once each realised that the other was a talented (and nice) dude.
Nowadays, they run Gentleman Scholar, the design-led creative production company that they launched in 2010. The business works across live-action, animation, digital, print, VR, AR, and even dabbles in physical fashion design thanks to its sub-brand Scholar Manufacturing.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with William and Will to find out more about the birth of their duo and business, how their communication is like twin-speak, the difficulties of crafting a hotel in space, and, would they not work in adland, why one of them would work in the rap business and the other in a kitchen.
LBB> Where did the two of you initially meet? And what inspired you to both launch a production company together? When did it launch?
Will Johnson> We met at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and went through our final year together. First day of class together, everyone introduced themselves, and we found out we are both named Will – and naturally, there was some competition there. But, after a little while, I came to find out that the other Will [Campbell] was actually a gifted dude, and a pretty nice guy as well. Essentially, that experience drew us together. From there, we both ended up working at the same studio, where we wound up pitching on a project for Target where both of our boards won the job. That job was the beginning of everything.
William Campbell> I think what really brought us together was our shared values of wanting to make good work, and to have fun doing so. Through our experience in the industry, we knew that if we made this the bedrock of our business that other talented artists would want to join us. So with that as our mission, we started Gentleman Scholar in 2010, and out of it grew a culture and a collection of work we are proud to be a part of.
LBB> How did you both get into this field in the first place?
WC> I started out in film and photography and built a pretty solid foundation in those areas. At some point, I started working a lot with computers. I came to the realisation that some of the work I was getting done on my computer by myself would require a full team of traditional artists. That’s when I really started leaning into design. I always liked films that were design heavy, and where live-action blended seamlessly with animation and visual effects. Those interests compelled me to study motion media design at SCAD, and ultimately to pursue work as a director.
WJ> Initially, I went to school to study architecture. But, like Campbell, once I got to SCAD I saw all the amazing things you could do with computers, and started to apply my existing knowledge of architecture into other spaces. It was at that time I decided to pursue graphic design and typography which in turn lead me into motion media design.
LBB> What’s the story behind the Gentleman Scholar name?
WC> It’s not the most thrilling origin story. Truth be told, it was a response to other companies, and our experience in the industry. We knew if we were to start our own studio, we would class it up a bit, introduce more of a family environment and create a place where people are inspired to do great work. And several years later, I feel like this remains the basis of Gentleman Scholar, and how we choose to do business.
WJ> It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, and it’s safe to say that from where it started, the idea of Gentleman Scholar has taken on a life of its own. Still, at its core, it has a lot to do with how we treat our clients – the process of collaborating every day and the respect we have for them, our peers and our business.
LBB> The range of the company’s work is vast – there’s animation, live action, highly stylised design, VR. Why is it important for you to explore all skill sets and formats rather than honing in on one?
WC> We view this approach as both an initiative and a subconscious need to continue learning. It’s always about applying our craft in a unique and innovative fashion, while ultimately serving the story in the most effective way possible. We want to understand and apply new technologies to our work, but at the same time, we don’t want to be defined by any one genre. And it goes beyond just knowing what’s on the horizon, it’s about pushing that technology in different directions, and finding new and unique ways it can help us tell a story.
WJ> While it may occur naturally over the course of a project, we never specifically set out to surpass technical hurdles on any given project. Storytelling has been around forever, and the ways we choose to get those stories across depends on the situation and the message. At GS, we consider all the available tools, and we surround ourselves with artists and producers who are committed to creating great work. If we do these simple things, the natural progression is that we are constantly challenging each other to try new things, evolve and grow in an effort to create the best work possible.
LBB> How do you ensure that skills don’t get lost within that mix and that you’re at the top of your game for all?
WJ> We are lucky enough to be surrounded by very bright and talented folks who are constantly challenging each other to take it one step further. Each person brings their own area of expertise to the table, creating a steady flow of teaching and learning amongst our team. This mentality, paired with the fact that this business has a great, natural way of raising the bar for performance every day, makes staying on point a lot easier.
LBB> As you share the leadership of the company, how do you split your duties? Does one of you tend to focus on a certain part of the business and the other on a different part? Or do you cross-over and get involved in all aspects?
WC> Most of the time, we cross-over on everything. Truthfully, we normally spend a lot more time with each other than we do even with our significant others. With that time spent together, comes a crazy level of collaboration. Our brains are almost one and our communication is almost like twin-speak. No one day will be the same in terms of who handles what, but we embrace all aspects together.
LBB> Which pieces of work are you most proud of from the company’s history and why?
WJ> I would say our ‘The Misfit’ project for The Cosmopolitan Hotel, for a number of reasons. For us, it was a great jumping-off point. We were able to draw upon all of our past experiences, break some new ground and come up with something that was very well received all around the world. It put us on the map and gave us a voice in the industry.
WC> It would have to be our ‘#sportsalphabet’ project for Bleacher Report. With a different treatment for every letter of the alphabet, and some others for transitions, everybody here brought everything they had to that project. By every measure, it has to be one of the most successful projects for GS to-date.
LBB> I thought your recent Space Hotel project with Cisco was totally bonkers (in a good way). Can you tell us more about it? Creating an outer-space location that doesn’t even exist yet must have quite the challenge…
WC> It was indeed quite the challenge, but a blast as well. There were two major aspects to the piece. First, as documentary directors, it was our job to interview a team of experts, and gather all the information necessary to visualise our Space Hotel – which was new for us. Second, we were tasked with creating a 360 VR tour of the hotel, and finishing it in 4K – which was a serious technical hurdle, but something that gave us an incredible final product.
LBB> You worked with experts from all sorts of specialisms on that job – an interior designer, a space explorer, an astronautics professor. How was that experience?
WJ> In our work we are lucky enough to meet a lot of very smart people, of many different professional backgrounds. This project gave us a chance to learn a lot of amazing things about a world that truly fascinates us. It was an experience that went well beyond filmmaking and storytelling, and I can honestly say, by the time we were done, I had a very different view of the future.
WC> It was so cool to hear how perspectives differ from industry to industry and the common threads that connected us. For me, it was an honour and enlightening to talk with an actual astronaut about things they experience in space and how that changes their perceptions and experiences of living on Earth.
LBB> That project involved virtual reality, but I know another technology you’re exploring is augmented reality. How can you see it evolving in the near future? And what kind of opportunities does it open up for brands to really influence people’s everyday lives?
WJ> We’ve had the chance to delve into some really cool AR projects. AR adds a whole new element of flexibility to the world around us, and how we reimagine and embellish that world. It has the potential to be a really valuable tool, allowing us to paint the everyday, expected things in a different light. Most recently, we’ve been designing a collection of masks that allow people to take on a variety of looks and personalities – it’s been incredible to see the level of engagement and interaction they create among users.
WC> It’s exciting because there is still so much to be discovered in AR. Right now, the experiences are very much dependent upon devices. What’s going to be especially awesome is when we get to the point where we can push the experiences beyond today’s various devices, to more natural, inherent experiences.
LBB> I’d love to pick your brains a bit about Scholar Manufacturing. Firstly, the products really are beautiful! What inspired you to extend your multimedia design to something more physical?
WC> I think SMFG was born out of the inherent rhythm of working in the advertising industry. So often, you pour everything you have into the project at hand… and before you know it, the project is completed, and shipped out the door. That process of grind and then reset, while we love it, sometimes leaves us wishing that our work had a little more permanence. Working with leather and metal to make something that will only get better with age, and never go out of style is an idea that many of us here can appreciate.
LBB> What are your long term plans for that section of the business? Would you like to see it become a brand of its own?
WJ> We don’t necessarily see ourselves dedicating a ton of resources to this, but rather, continuing to tap into it from time to time as a sort of cultural connection. We have a lot of artistic people under our roof, and it’s a good thing to encourage other outlets like this. And most importantly, when it comes to the need to design and create, nothing should be off limits.
LBB> What is your approach to young talent – both scouting it out and nurturing it?
WJ> We have an amazing core of talented young people here. They are the lifeblood of GS – what makes us tick. We seek out refreshing, hungry, talented artists who are pushing their own abilities beyond their limits. People who are extremely passionate about creating meaningful, lasting, important work, and who are open to learning to do things in new ways. We embrace that this is the quality of talent that propels us forward and sets us apart as a company.
WC> This is really the most important, kind of ever-burning question for us. How we evaluate and cultivate the talent that comes through the doors has an enormous impact on the work we ultimately produce. We gravitate toward individuals who have well-rounded, generalist skill-sets. People who are genuinely passionate about what they are doing and push boundaries – constantly exploring through various side projects. These kinds of artists tend to bring a fresh perspective on work, and are never afraid to present an alternate line of thinking when finding creative solutions.
LBB> What would you both be doing if you weren’t in advertising?
WC> I’d have to say, a rap music producer.
WJ> Definitely something that has to do with food. I eat a lot and still dream of becoming a chef and feeding everyone amazing meals someday… so I would probably be aspiring to be out there doing something along the lines of Anthony Bourdain, meeting awesome people and eating. Lots of eating.