How to utilise your team to help your studio grow with James Kape

In the first of a new series with Mailchimp & Co, the creative director of Omse shares his experience on building a studio with the aid of like minded clients and team members.


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Movers & Makers, in partnership with Mailchimp & Co, is a new series on how to nurture an authentic business within the creative industry. Led by the voices of industry leaders, we’ll discuss not only how to kickstart your own company, but how to grow with creative integrity. If you enjoy these articles and are looking to grow your agency or freelancing business, learn more about Mailchimp & Co here.

When you first launch a creative business and need to find clients, it can be hard to know where to start. It’s something James Kape has experienced first hand as founder of Omse, the Shoreditch-based design studio behind the identity for newly-restored St John at Hackney Church. Here James explains how to attract and keep doing the work you want, from making the most of every brief to building the right team.

Any organisation can have an impact and make a difference. This is one of our core beliefs at Omse, and I think this attitude is particularly important when you are starting your own creative business. In our first year, back in 2016, our biggest challenge was finding work and getting our name out there. Most founders I’ve spoken to agree that for creative startups, there are two ways to get started.

The first way to win work is by doing good work. This is why it’s so critical to make the most of every brief – and if you don’t have one, create one for yourself. One of our self-initiated projects led us to create an AR exhibition to promote our Gattica typeface, for example. The project ended up attracting a real brief from Printworks.

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It’s not enough to just do the work, you have to document and promote it properly. Whether it’s on your website or during a meeting, you need to have a strong story behind what you present. Spend some money getting good photos or renders of the work. And then get that story out there, through social media, a newsletter or the creative industry press.

But bear in mind you’ll likely win the same type of work as whatever you promote, so be mindful of the work that you want to attract. In the past, we’ve promoted projects that were outside of our speciality. This led to new business opportunities that weren’t quite the right fit. You should focus on things that you want to do even if it means you have a smaller portfolio, otherwise you will end up doing what you don't necessarily want to do. It’s better to be curated.

The second way to win work is through referrals, where you are recommended by someone you worked with in a previous role. This is how we started working with St John at Hackney Church. In 2018, the organisation received a grant to complete a multi-million pound restoration supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. After being recommended by a former colleague from Wolf Olins, we ended up working with the church to create its new visual identity.


Nicko Phillips

It became clear early on that it wasn’t like any other church. The building's restoration design was to be led by John Pawson Architects, the firm behind the new Design Museum building. Meanwhile, the entrance would feature an installation by renowned set designer Es Devlin, famous for her onstage sculptures for Beyoncé, Kanye West and Adele. The church itself doubles as a gig venue and charity.

Because we believe in the potential of any organisation to make an impact, we decided that a church doesn't have to look like a church. Based on the idea that St John at Hackney is a “cathedral of creativity”, we came up with an identity system that was inspired by the building’s main stained glass window.

The project was more drawn out than usual, as the restoration took over two years. When it comes to long projects like this, the main challenge is in account management. The work itself happened in quick bursts, but the account management needs were constant – especially as we had to adapt and refresh our strategy to make sure the work remained relevant. Having a strong relationship with your client on long-running projects like this can help take the pressure off.

Luckily, we had enough time to expand and plan for work as it came up with St John at Hackney Church. But this is not always the case. We’ve behaved a bit like an accordion over the years, expanding and contracting. We quickly dropped from a team of six to three in 2019, after my co-founder Briton Smith left, followed by two of our designers who went on to set up their own thing.

We responded by bringing freelancers in when we needed them. It worked really well for a while. At one point, we had an intern in China, a UX designer in Sydney and a graphic designer in Brazil. But by the end of 2020, it became too hard to manage.

We were having to turn down opportunities because we didn't have the capacity to take them on. I didn't know what to do. So I started reaching out to other founders and people I admired to ask for advice, both within and outside of the creative industry. These conversations led me to hiring a business coach. They helped me form a plan and figure out the steps I needed to take to make it happen.


Nicko Phillips

One of the first things we established was that I needed another leader within the business to help me run and manage Omse. I created a job advert online, pushed it through my network and asked my friends for recommendations. It took about three months, but eventually I found Pedro Messias, who I had actually met at Wolff Olins in New York eight years ago. He joined us as creative director in August. Since then, we’ve also hired a 3D designer and continue to bring different freelancers on board with each project. Now that we have more core capabilities in-house and more hands, we’re able to say yes to more opportunities. And I don’t miss the stress of having to recruit for every project!

One of the big problems I had previously was feeling that there's not enough of me. But you have to learn to let go and give your employees opportunities to step in. This isn’t an easy thing to do, and I found it tough for two reasons. One, because I never expected to be in this position. I never chose to be a leader, it just turned out that way.

And then secondly, especially after doing everything I could to not let anyone go during Covid, I ended up taking on this sense of responsibility. And before you know it, you’re used to things being done a certain way and it can be tough to take your hands off the wheel or let others step in your shoes.

Learn James’ top tips on running a creative business

Find out how he’s expanded his team over the years and why he prioritises storytelling when promoting his work.

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The advice I’d give is to remember that you’re working with great people, and that it’s okay to have different approaches to solving problems. In fact, it’s a really good thing! You have to remind yourself that sometimes other people will have better ways of doing things than you.

It also helps to accept that things will go wrong. At some point there’s going to be a wobble, whether it’s with the client or over a piece of work. You just need to have a chat about it and figure out a way to move forward.

Having a bigger team can affect the type of work you're able to take on, but we don't want it to. As much as possible, we're trying to continue working on cultural projects where the budgets might not be as big. This can be tricky, because as your team grows so do your overheads.

We’re trying to find the right balance, to continue growing the business while finding time for self-initiated projects and giving back to the community. So six years into the business, it’s still vital to remember that any brand can make a difference, whether it’s an up and coming tech company, an eclectic music venue – or even a 200 year old church.


Nicko Phillips

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About the Author

Kate Hollowood

Kate Hollowood is a freelance journalist covering a range of subjects — from mental health and female empowerment, to art and design — for titles like Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, the i paper and It’s Nice That. Based in London, she also creates copy and content for brands like Flo, Nike Run Club, Laced and Ace & Tate.

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