Chris Page is not a stranger to catastrophe. In fact, ‘catastrophe’ might be the defining word to describe the start of his career. After a string of mistakes and downfalls, he learnt that he is a 'terrible employee' but that things can get better. That realisation was enough for Chris to embark on his entrepreneurial journey, which led to him creating Three Blind Mice, known today as Think Artfully, and subsequently, production company and illustration agency Jelly.
Chris’ extensive experience in the industry, both as the underdog and as the adaptable entrepreneur, has given him plenty of food for thought that he was excited to share with us. From the mistakes that led to establishing Three Blind Mice, through the ways in which animation changed through the years, to what Jelly is today and what crucial role it fulfils in the advertising industry, and AI’s role as a frenemy to artists, Chris shared it all.
LBB> Chris, tell us more about the start of your career. How did everything begin for you and which sectors of the industry did you work in?
Chris> Most of my early career revolved mostly around mistakes or catastrophes. I won a place at Ravensbourne Art College right after school, but managed to get thrown out at the end of my foundation year. It took me a while to get my shit together after that, but eventually, I ended up with a junior design and illustration role, in-house at an advertising agency.
I soon realised (it helped that it was pointed out to me regularly) that I wasn't particularly talented. After a few more disasters, I found myself being pushed into more of a project management, client-facing role for the studio I was working at, which was less hazardous for everyone involved.
LBB> When did your entrepreneurial path commence? What were the first steps you took?
Chris> To be frank, I was a terrible employee and I honestly think I was running out of people who would hire me. Eventually, I realised that the only way to avoid getting fired was to set up my own thing. Even I couldn’t fire myself, surely?
I knew some very talented artists and designers and persuaded them to throw their lot in with me. I started Three Blind Mice in 1994, with Andy, my business partner at the time, and a handful of brilliant freelance artists and visualisers. Then I just hustled hard until we became successful. I just grafted and made as many relationships as I could. I spent a lot of time sitting in agency creative departments waiting for someone to give me some work, so that they could get rid of me. But most importantly, we were small, agile, good value and incredibly reliable, which was important as people began to trust us really fast. That is why Think Artfully, as Three Blind Mice is now known, is still going strong.
LBB> And how did you actually end up founding Jelly? What was the vision behind it then, and what is it today?
Chris> Jelly was born again, out of frustration really. Three Blind Mice was getting more illustration and finished animation from direct clients, but when we went to our ad agency friends and told them how we had expanded, we ran into resistance. They already had us pigeonholed as being the ‘concept and visualising’ guys and were reluctant to take us seriously as being capable of doing anything else. Charlie Sells (fellow founder) was already working with me at the time. She was getting frustrated too, and I knew she was ambitious to do more production work, so we started Jelly stealthily and I hid behind the curtain. I let it build its own reputation, staying behind the scenes. At that point in history, that side of the business was split between artist’s agents and animation production companies, but there wasn’t any single company that we could see that managed to do both well. Our ambition was to always do both things equally well. I think we did that, and I think we've continued to do that.
LBB> What are the pillars of Jelly and how do you upkeep them?
Chris> We represent brilliant creative talent, and we always think of them as being our clients. They are just as important as the people who commission from us, so they must be front of mind in everything that we do as a business. Our culture has evolved over time. It's based on a duty of care that starts with our staff and our talent - and now we have a commitment to a B-corporation goal. This encompasses the next generation of talent and young people who may feel that access to the creative industries is ‘not for them’, which we pay attention to via our charity outreach with ROK (Reach Out To Kids) and our other partners. All these things are as important to us as any of our commercial business goals.
LBB> Tell me about Jelly’s illustrators - what do they have in common with each other and what kind of work do you strive to put out?
Chris> Hmm, that's tricky as they are so diverse. Jelly is a heavily commercial creative business when all is said and done, so we primarily have a commitment to our clients and our talent to fulfil and deliver major projects successfully. Therefore, I don't think there is an aesthetic link, but there is a certain personality, enthusiasm and professionalism to our roster that works well alongside our commercial sensibilities. That means that our roster can do well for themselves and be happy, while our clients can always find a fantastic, reliable creative solution among them.
LBB> Talk about some themes you’ve seen in the animation sector recently - what has shocked you recently, or perhaps something has unravelled just as expected?
Chris> I guess the biggest shock in the industry has been some of the mergers and acquisitions recently, like Golden Wolf and Doodles last week, but I'm not sure I'm really shocked. The business is constantly evolving and developing, and this is just the next step. The metaverse and the media verse are bound to come together and integrate more over time. It’s progress and I'm all for it. What is unravelling as expected, is the commercial animation sector decoupling from its reliance on TV for income. This has been progressing for a long time, and again, I'm all for it. The creative freedom we can get in other sectors is a good payoff.
LBB> What do you think animation’s future position within advertising will be? (We’re talking 2023 and beyond). What has changed in that since you started?
Chris> In my experience, advertising goes through phases with animation where they embrace it for a while, then revert to mainly live action to create their stories. That's completely understandable and it will always be the case. But I think animation is treated more seriously now, it's not just a budget or other restriction-related option. It's quite the opposite. It's a chance to tell better, more expansive stories, without limits or barriers. It's not deemed to be ‘childish’ by clients anymore and that can only be a good thing.
LBB> What are the biggest challenges to the animation sector today? How can they be overcome?
Chris> There are challenges everywhere you look! Not just in animation. These are difficult and worrying times for us all, but each recession that I've been through (and I've been through a few) has seen companies that are agile, think creatively and transfer their skills into new areas survive and thrive. I think good creative businesses do this well, the key to it is recognising a new opportunity and making the jump as quickly as you can.
LBB> Is AI your best friend or your biggest enemy?
Chris> Both! The first thing to acknowledge is that it isn't going anywhere. Way too much time and money has been invested in it for it to ultimately fail. It's a shame that most of the tech has evolved with little or no input from creatives or any cognisance as to the consequences for artists, but it's here. Now we need to embrace it, and find a way to make it work for us rather than against us.
LBB> When it comes to using animation to its full potential, what is your message to agencies and clients today? How can they benefit from it most?
Chris> Please take some time out and learn how it works and what it is capable of. I'm always astounded at how little some clients and agencies know about the actual technical processes of animation. Our EP Sue is now offering a presentation which is basically a lecture on the various processes and watchouts for clients when commissioning animation. It's interesting to see how many companies are expressing an interest in brushing up on their knowledge, and that’s an encouraging sign. But when it comes to telling stories with animation, it's not like the sky is the limit - it can be even bigger than that.
LBB> And what are your biggest words of wisdom towards animators and illustrators working in the ad industry?
Chris> Well, this is going to sound boring, but learn everything you can about intellectual property and your rights. It's an IP arms race out there, and you need the right tools to survive and thrive if you’re going to succeed.