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Etty Flynn: “I’d Rather Be Laughed At Than Yawned At”


Co-founder of Fail Better and art director at VMLY&R Commerce shares her best failures, why International Women’s Day is not what it should be, and her endorsement for “a big ol’ slice of humble pie”, writes LBB’s Zoe Antonov

Etty Flynn: “I’d Rather Be Laughed At Than Yawned At”
Back when she was younger, Etty Flynn wanted to be both Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Realising she “couldn’t illustrate for toffee,” this multi-talented art director quickly came to the conclusion that hybrid creativity was the answer to her dream of writing and visualising her ideas. 

Born in Cyprus to Irish parents (who now live in Belgium), Etty’s life has been “nomadic,” to say the least. After Cyprus, her family moved to the UK, only to later relocate to Italy. “Funnily enough, learning Italian really helped me refine my English, as well as giving me a much wider appreciation for language and culture in general.”

Her big break came while studying graphic communication design at Central Saint Martins, when she applied to the D&AD New Blood awards. After winning a Graphite Pencil, she landed a place on their highly competitive New Blood Academy and “wangled” herself a job through the award scheme’s network. “I definitely owe D&AD a beer for kickstarting my career.” 

It was only when she started working as an art director that she really began to hone her craft and develop her skill set. “The best way to get good at what you do is to cut yourself a big ol’ slice of humble pie – and take on any constructive criticism you can get.” At the beginning of her career, however, she’d sometimes be picky about which ideas she’d share with the team. “If an idea felt a bit too off-the-wall, I’d just keep it to myself.” But things changed when she learned how counterproductive that approach could be. She says: “Ultimately, I realised I’d rather be laughed at than yawned at” – a motto she’s fully adopted that’s helped her take on the industry.

Experience came thick and fast. Her first big project – “It was a pitch for a large beer brand we ended up winning – a pretty affirming moment for me. We’re still reaping the benefits from that win now, three years later, and it feels great to have been on the journey since day one.”

One big lesson learnt: no matter the size of success – personal pride is key. “I strive to make the kind of work that I’m proud to show my friends, family and your average Joe. When you become totally immersed in adland, it’s easy for your work to become a little esoteric – so, I think it’s important to ask yourself, ‘would my mum get this?!’.”

What does the shape of our industry look like through the eyes of this up-and-coming creative star? Surprisingly International Women’s Day could do better.

“Most agencies run talks, workshops, and events for the women in the office – which I really appreciate and cherish – but there’s an irony there. Guest speakers are preaching to the choir and, for that whole day, we’re being stripped of our productivity.” Flipping the event on its head, Etty believes International Women’s Day should be an annual training course for men – “us women can focus on our work and, while our male counterparts listen to talks by female renegades, we can call the shots.” A mindset that rings true across this generation of creatives. 

It’s no wonder then that her generation and the global cultural shifts brought on by its rebellious zeitgeist is what excites and inspires her every day. “Their savviness and zero tolerance for inauthenticity is exciting, because it’s forcing brands to rethink how things are done – which makes our job more interesting too.” 

Beyond gen z, Etty is a big admirer of the group ‘Ladies, Wine and Design’. “They run networking events for female creatives – and the women who run it are total badasses.” Etty also finds inspiration outside of the world of advertising.  She raves over the animations of Anna Ginsburg, the illustrations of Jean Jullien and the words of Ben Lerner. 

The young creative star is fascinated by “the most raw and stripped-back forms of expression,” such as stand-up comedy, indie theatre, short films and books. “One creator whose work spans across all of these is writer, comedian and poet, Rob Auton. I saw him for the second time at Edinburgh Fringe in August and I just think the guy’s an utter genius.”

Alongside her flourishing career, Etty has co-founded the brilliantly successful talk series, 'Fail Better'. “It’s a platform that gives gutsy creatives the counterintuitive task of presenting not their best, but their worst ever work,” she explains. “We all make mistakes – so why not learn from each other’s cockups?” Designed to help creatives overcome a fear of failure, the talk series is dedicated to all things imperfect. “We originally wanted to call it 'Shiter Tuesdays' – but Nicer Tuesdays asked us not to. So, ironically, the series began with a failure of its own.”

Four years on, and 'Fail Better' has attracted a raft of creative genius speakers – including designers from Google, Penguin Books, the BBC – along with Sir John Hegarty, Mark Denton and Sarah Boris.

Etty is quick to share some of their own best fails. “In our opening night speech, we accidentally called our partner, Chrissy Levett, the ‘failure’ of the Creative Conscience Awards instead of ‘founder’. We used so much paint to print our lino-cut thank you cards that they stuck to their envelopes and shredded to pieces when speakers tried to open them. Last but not least, we drafted a speaker invite to a well-known designer, before finding out they’d unfortunately passed away about 10 years prior.” Happens to the best of us.

So, what’s next for Etty? "I’ve been creating a lot more above-the-line work lately, which I’m really excited to see go live. I’ve also been busy organising the next Fail Better event (follow @failbettertalks for updates) and, lastly, I’m chuffed to share I’ve been invited to be a judge on an advertising award panel. More to come on that soon!”

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VMLY&R COMMERCE UK, Mon, 13 Feb 2023 17:35:16 GMT