James Sommerville, former Coca-Cola VP Global Design: “Coming out of the pandemic, everything is going to change”

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James Sommerville

James Sommerville is an enormously experienced designer who, after founding his own design agency from a family member’s attic in the mid-80s, became Head of Global Design at Coca-Cola, and now runs consultancy Known Unknown.

At Coca-Cola, he introduced the concept of design thinking and brought legacy brand a spirit of entrepreneurship and agility. In his five years there, he felt more and more inspired by the idea of moving to creative communities as the future of creating content for brands, leading him to leave Coke and found Known Unknown, a networked platform connecting creatives around the world with brand challenges.

James will be speaking at the Future Focus event on September 16th, dialing in from Atlanta, Georgia where he lives now. Brought to life by the Creative Digital Industries (CDI), Future Focus will be a virtual one-day event marking the seventh year of the Visual Media Conference.

The event has speakers from the UK, US, Belgium, Germany, and Australia - and it will be promoted by graphics trade association Intergraf across its 20 European country members.

Free-to-attend, speakers will include Jonathan Geldart, Director General of the Institute of Directors; Lord Andrew Cooper of Populus; Mehjabeen Patrick, Chief Financial and Operations Officer for Creative England; and Sommerville, among others.

Robert McClements, President of the CDI, said: “The immediate response to Future Focus has been beyond our expectations. It’s clear we’ve tapped into a latent demand for constructive and positive informed opinion.”

Creative beginnings

Fresh out of art school, James and a friend “cobbled together a couple of hundred pounds, thinking we'll try and get some clients with no experience, no clients, and not much money.”

They got £2,000 from the Prince’s Trust, which James says was “a lifeline in many ways. The Prince's Trust read our business plan that was on a scrap of paper at that time.” With those funds they made investments and ultimately “launched Attik, a design agency, founded in my grandmother's attic bedroom in in Huddersfield.

“We opened in London, Leeds, New York, San Francisco, LA and Sydney. We rode the highs and lows of over 25 years of all the economic, social and political and entrepreneurial challenges... Around 2007, we were introduced to Dentsu. By that time, we'd got ourselves into a very strong position; we'd scaled, we'd reduced, but we were much more refined, and Dentsu were very interested in acquiring Attik.”

The acquisition was completed, giving James his first experience of working in a huge company - going from a place that at its biggest had “a couple of hundred” of staff, to one with around 20,000.

“That lasted about four or five years, and it felt like I needed to move on to something. I had a call off Coca-Cola, and they asked me if I'd join them at their headquarters in Atlanta in 2013."

Up To You

James went to Atlanta as VP of Global Design, to work on Coke’s ‘billion-dollar brands’ - about 25 global names. “It’s probably one of the sharpest marketing machines in the world,” he says. “It was like going and doing a degree in marketing, and learning the other, refined, strategic side of marketing you don't get when you’re just running your own design shop.”

He stayed for around five years, changing the way the brand utilised design, before feeling a pull to do something new, in a different way. "Now," he says, "I work with other organisations to really refine their identity, or really help them define design within their organisation and their culture. I call that Known Unknown.

“[It’s] fundamentally about giving unknown talent around the world an opportunity to work on known brands.” Instead of creating another competitor agency, James has created something entirely new. It decentralises creative talent - allowing for a specialist, wherever they are in the world, to show off what they can do, and complete exceptional work. “I'm not going to open offices in Atlanta or New York or wherever. It's going to be fully distributed and virtual from day one.”

James founded Attik at just 19 years old, with the backing of the Princes Trust. Could someone in the same boat do what James did today, in such a different world? “Absolutely,” he says. Things have changed - for better and for worse - but there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen.

“In many ways it's easier,” because you can stand out on social media channels, reach out to decisionmakers - “DM them, and say hey, we’re interested in talking.

“Having said that, it's more challenging today, because everybody can do that. While the barriers have reduced, the landscape and the competitive landscape has naturally increased, because it's reduced for everybody.

“Would I like to be 19 today? Definitely,” says James. “As a 19-year-old now I'm sure it's still very daunting, looking forward. But I'm still excited by the world in which we live in.”

Focus on the future

James will phone in from his base in Atlanta to speak at Future Focus this month, providing “a unique perspective of how brands and companies can differentiate themselves in the recovery from the pandemic”.

I ask James what the audience can expect to hear and learn at the session. “We didn't expect this year,” he says. “There's a great quote that I remind myself of from Lenin, of all people. And it goes: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’ 

“Everything has got faster - everything around is seeing this massive disruption. Change that may have taken three or five years - or may never have happened - has happened already this year.

“Coming out of COVID, everything will change around us - and we need to think about how our respective businesses will react, not just to survive in the summer of 2020, but rethink how we can go forward in the next three to five years individually.”

As an expert speaker, he can talk directly to a range of professionals regardless of their background and experience. He says of why people should tune in, “I’m a through-and-through Northern guy. I understand the mindset, the desire, the passion that people have. 

“On the flip-side, I've experienced things around the world that I wouldn't have got if I'd stayed in my hometown. I can share stories, lessons I've learned, mistakes I've made, insights that I've gained that might help people, and play that back to people in a way that I hope that they'll be able to take advantage of, [and] take something from it.”

Lessons learnt

When James joined Coca-Cola, what was lacking, like in other “large corporate organisations, [was] the sense of entrepreneurship, agility, design thinking.

“They did things the same every year, because last year it was successful.” Or they’d say “the last World Cup was huge, so let's do that again,” he says.

As someone who’d struck out on their own at the beginning of their career, James believes he brought many people at Coke “a breath of fresh air,” while he finally got a form of education from them. “I learned the nuances and the discipline of marketing. 

“I brought a more entrepreneurial spirit, and taught - in the face of a lack of a pipeline of innovation - how we can get a product to market fast, and if it fails, we'll pivot.

“That's one thing that any entrepreneur can take to any large organization, and it's a great skillset to take in because they will embrace it,” he says.

James tells me about the project he was most proud of from his time at the brand. Back in 2017, Australia was in the middle of passing the law to legalise same-sex marriage. “So Coke Australia created this can to signify their support, this limited-edition can, that was going to be out in the streets in two weeks.” Similar to the global line of cans and bottles featuring people’s names, this would have the word ‘love’ on it.

“It wasn't going to lose any brownie points,” he says, “but it wasn't really going to attract any attention. What we decided to use was the Spencerian Coke script.

“We quickly redrew it and wrote the word 'love', but in the famous Coca-Cola wide script. And it's never been used for any other word, legally.”

He had to fight with the “very friendly” lawyers at Coke to get clearance to use the font, which had never been used for absolutely anything else, except in bootlegged versions online. James explains, “I lobbied the legal team, we created it, sketched it, artworked it, and it was on a can in Australia from ideation to consumer's hand, in 11 days. 

“We'd never write 'World Cup' or ‘Olympics’ in Coke script, because they're not worthy of that script. But love, and the cause that Australia was driving towards, represented what the company has always tried to stand for.”

The future of the agency model

Having spent time at a fast-moving, lean agency in the form of Attik, before being “poacher turned gamekeeper” by moving client-side to a brand behemoth in Coca-Cola, James thinks he can see the future for the agency model.

Traditional models need to move to creative communities, or otherwise they won’t survive, he believes - and that's why he founded Known Unknown. “The agencies of tomorrow need to collaborate with each other, now we all need to perform.” 

Instead of a highly competitive pitching model, James can’t see why there won’t be agency collaboration, rather than the winner taking all. And while in the past, agencies have always been protective about retaining their talent, there’s a future where they use the freedom of that talent - freedom to create their own work and websites, for example - to reach new clients. The agency takes the contract, the creative gets the chance to do work on an exciting brief.

See it like a player loan from a football club. Agencies could market themselves “through their talent. Like, ‘she's great, he's pretty good - look at the talent, look at the work this guy's done. Where does he work? Oh, he works in this agency in Manchester, London, Paris. All right, I'm going to call them.’ 

“I come back to talent as a way to promote the agency - it's a win-win. Because you're promoting the individual, they're gonna love that. And the win for the agency is that they might win the account.”

COVID-19 and beyond

This year has been a challenge for everybody in the creative industries - and James’s talk at Future Focus is intended to shed a little bit of light on how business owners can stand apart in the post-COVID period.

The pandemic has had an enormous effect in the creative world, and it’s been observable. Sommerville says, “What I didn’t like for the first four or five months was every ad on TV.” Brands started out with irrelevant ads - “when COVID hit, they were playing their existing ads like it didn’t exist, because they hadn’t had the time to make COVID ads.”

But once they had the time to respond to the crisis, he feels, most ads turned out very similar to one another.

“The communication was 'we're in this together'. It was like, we're not really in this together, are we? They're all shot on iPhones, people at home doing their own little thing” - quirky for a few weeks, but “everybody was essentially creating the same content. It blurred into one long COVID brand ad.

“Change the logo, and it could have been anything from a toilet paper to an automotive brand.”

On the other hand, it created a range of opportunities - and, as James mentioned before, created the kind of change that might otherwise have taken years. As a consequence, things have sped up for James’s business model, which “was about finding talent, wherever they may be - not based on their geography, not based on their experience, but based on who they are and what they do as a specialist.”

This was the initial plan for the company when it was launched two years ago. Then COVID hit. “All of a sudden everybody's distributed - people are starting to rethink their lives and think, ‘I could get used to this.’ It’s accelerated everything, because the pool has got bigger. People are now looking for those opportunities to work - permanently - remotely.”

But the COVID “honeymoon period is over,” says James. For the first few months, people enjoyed not being on the motorway or on public transport, commuting. Now “people may start to think ‘OK, I’m not sure I can get used to this.’” In 2021, he says, we’ll need to start thinking more and more about loneliness, health and wellness.

Above all else, lockdowns and isolation have created a unique time to think for businesses - and one that it was important for them not to squander. “I’m working with clients who are completely rethinking their identity.”

There are new models at play, and Known Unknown hopes to be at the forefront of change.

Hear from James Sommerville about what brands are doing - and need to do - to keep up with the rampant rate of change by joining the Future Focus event on September 16th.