WEST SIDE STORY
EARNING THE CONFIDENCE OF CREATIVE TYPES
"I love the excitement of knowing that you are playing a really key role – directly involved in something that makes a difference to people’s livelihoods."
It was on a performing arts course in 1997 at Worcester Tech, that the young James West, then an aspiring actor saw the power of using questions to help guide performance. “For a year there was a lecturer, Mandie Wright, from the Royal Shakespeare Company that sticks in my mind. She’d ask us: ‘How does that feel?’, ‘Have you tried this, or that?’ I admired that lack of intrusion and the empowering feeling to directing,” says James who later went on to do an Arts and Cultural Management BA at Leicester’s De Montfort University, followed by a professional diploma with the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
Despite his Dad’s long-time experience as MD with Alcan/British Aluminium James didn’t enjoy working for big corporations. “There was a tension inside an organisation, I can work there but I flourish much better outside,” he reflects.
Alongside this restlessness as an employee he’d benefited from his Dad’s practice of asking questions – both helped forge James’ business approach. “Dad was always curious about people. A lot of the style I’ve got is influenced by how my Dad made me think. It’s so much nicer to be asked a question when shaping your future than being told what to do.”
Eventually in February 2013, James set up West Creative. His business specialises in branding, marketing, market research and business consulting often working with large organisations delivering a level of social change or community focused services.
Right from the start James also wanted to offer business advice direct to creative professionals. For many years he worked in the creative sector – at the Leicester Comedy Festival, an opera festival in the Peak District and he ran an arts centre in a former gothic church to name a few. “I always knew I could connect business thinking with creative practices – I knew this skill had to be a part of West Creative somehow.”
The confidence my dad Alan gave me to have a go – and set up West Creative – was paramount. He was always interested in asking questions and fascinated by people.
The encouragement of my family was key. My dad inspired a lot of my business acumen, my brother Andy’s pride in what I’ve achieved means a lot and my mum kept me grounded… like mum’s do.
FIANCE & FRIENDS
It can be lonely running your own business, and while George and other close friends don’t know all the ins and outs, their support for what I do really helps. I think it’s being acknowledged, and seeing how they see me.
“Business advice can be anything from cash flow problems, to improved delegating, or product diversification. In the early days advice for small creative practices was around 5% of my turnover but 10 years on it’s now 30%,” says James wearing a striking pink and blue jumper – if it was warmer weather, he’d be in one of his bright patterned shirt designs that few people forget. “I love the excitement of knowing that you are playing a really key role – directly involved in something that makes a difference to people’s livelihoods. Giving advice is really fulfilling and really matters to me, but it’s also very concentrated listening, so a day or two a week is probably best,” he says.
Offering business advice covers a huge range of creative professionals, as you can see in this book. Of the 400+ businesses James has advised over the decade, stand-out sessions include supporting the 2015 community-run Pallet Paradise, which saw two of James’ friends from Harringay Warehouses District install an adult playground out of 750 pallets on an old car park in Tottenham. He offered comms support and looks back happily to helping them “generate press coverage in the Evening Standard, BBC Radio 3, and the most clicked event on Time Out London for all things happening that weekend.”
Then in 2022 James was thrilled to be involved with another voluntary-run group, this time the campaigning Friends of Joiners Arms.
James, 41, often works from his flat, bought during his West Creative time. His light-flooded office, where he’s often using Zoom, is in Hackney, and filled with his fiancé George’s plants. Today’s interview is at James’ kitchen table, accompanied by tea and delicious galaktoboureko (Greek custard pie) made by George who is a doctor. There’s also a box of treats from Claire Ptak, who runs the famous east London bakery, Violet, that’s just down the road.
To make space on the kitchen table James shifts a dish of porcelain vegetables and pineapple-based lamp. There’s not much room as every surface of the kitchen/sitting room is filled with quirky art and colourful ceramics, many collected by George.
Delicious food, style and exuberance are as much a part of James as good listening skills.
“I’ve seen people being directive with business advice and I don’t like it. People reflecting on past business advice will often say ‘it didn’t work’, because their advisor ‘didn’t understand me’. Unless you ask questions, you can’t understand people’s confidence, their level of resilience or test their pinch points,” says James who uses the first session to listen deeply to what his client really needs.
That’s why his advice is never one-size-fits-all.
“I’d say 98 per cent of my clients are on government-funded contracts/awards, so the funder will have some sort of expectation around value for money. It’s important to have that focus even in a limited amount of time. We quite quickly need to find things that they can change in the short and medium term, and potentially the longer term… but for impact, most of the changes require eight to twelve months to see if there is a green shoot, and I don’t have that relationship with the client afterwards,” says James. To tackle this he prioritises, “giving people the tools to resolve a similar situation, should it come up. Some advisers would say ‘what you need to do is XYZ’; I’d rather give a tool – like how to do a competitor analysis – so they can check on competition and can do that exercise again and again as they hit future hurdles.” Nearly everyone goes away with at least one tool that has longevity, such as magpie marketing, product diversification and even visualising success.
“We all jump to conclusions, so I write down my observations during the advice session rather than leaving them formed in my mind. Most people surprise me at some point in the journey. If people are nervous, they can become defensive and that’s hard. Sometimes that’s because they are trying to get affirmation of what they are doing. Advice is not like a teacher role, the first session is less about what, and more about why. Success has to be ‘is it working for you’, so when I spin that round it can be quite bewildering to answer,” he says adding that his own definition of success is quite simple, financial security – making an impact, being able to take time off and save for later life. He also works with eleven associates, including designer Richard nearly every day, photographers Rachel, Chloe, Jerome, Kimi and Chris, writer Nicola, film makers Will and Andy, web developers Gareth and Dan, he’s also got a longer list of specialist services he buys in as required, such as illustration.
“Running your own business doesn’t require less time, but you do get a chance to control the time. I happily start at 6am and that can dramatically change the way you use your day, so it could be OK to stop at 1pm. That shift was the hardest one to break from being an employee as when you are at a desk you’ve got to be at your desk. Now I can let go of the afternoon entirely if I think my flow’s going to better the next day, when I could have it done in an hour,” says James who might have a walk, nap or cook. “When frustrated I’ll do different tasks because that’s the best thing to do. Being actively occupied in something else – such as washing-up or cooking – takes pressure off the brain and that allows a solution to come…”
WHAT’S GOOD LOOK LIKE?
Starting a business or growing a business are two big questions. I think if someone is experiencing imposter syndrome and/or in the early stages of doing something then the questions to ask are, ‘where do you want to get to’, ‘what returns do you want,’ and to know your measures of success which might be more time, accolades, flexibility, the chance to travel. Too often we look at other people and make a judgment or measure ourselves against them. I could look at another creative agency and look at their impressive array of clients and feel a failure, but they might be working for free… knowing your own success factors is the only way to know how successful you are being.
That said, James reckons there are often two pathways for the creatives who want business advice.
“There are people who need resilience, confidence, empowerment – who might be in a pickle or a rut – and if they could pick up the phone, or go to a networking event, that emotional impact is huge, whether it results in a contract or not. People can stop being dejected, you see them relaxed and open up,” says James.
“Then there are people who need refinement, there’s something snagging that’s holding them back and where we can find solutions like pricing issues. For example, if they can change their price point or diversify their market focus, those sort of amends can bring a substantial level of change.
For James a lot has happened over the past 10 years running West Creative. Most obviously he’s “gone from being a single man in a warehouse living with 10 people to owning a flat with George.” Just as importantly James reckons that he’s got the success he wanted in head, heart and cashflow. “I’m still loud and energetic that’s my character, but I’ve just got more peace with the sense of satisfaction and security. Weirdly, I feel more secure in the insecurities of running a business than I do working for somebody.”
There’s a lesson in there too: as James points out to his business advice clients be cautious about “perception of success, because unless you have a conversation you can’t tell how successful a business is by what they are putting out on websites and social media.” Success is meeting your own goals for as long as you can. But as he wisely says, finishing off the galaktoboureko “let things emerge and embrace them”. And then he’s out of the door and off to his Greek class; next lesson covers the future perfect.
SECTOR SPECIALIST BUSINESS ADVICE
James West is a sector specialist Creative Industries Business Adviser and has worked with 400+ creative, cultural and heritage organisations across the UK.
James works predominately on government funded Business Advice programmes, where his expertise is focused on achieving targeted outcomes.
This article is part of a series of he has created recognising his first decade in business.