“We made a ‘rash’ choice to leave London and set up by the sea”

Erika Clegg founded consultancy Spring in Southwold, Suffolk after a decade working in London for Bell Pottinger and Attik.

As Spring turns ten, we talk to her about getting started in design, running a business and the challenges of setting up by the sea.

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When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

I grew up with it, since Dad was a marketing director who was completely passionate about his work and brought it home with him, as well as people from his agencies whom I idolised. What I learned was more on the advertising side, and my original ambition was to work as a copywriter in an ad agency – I was a wins and ratings geek in my teens – but over the years I found myself increasingly drawn to the design studios in which I gained work experience.

What was your first job? 

I had the misfortune of entering the job market in the middle of a recession when writers were losing their jobs, not being recruited, so took work selling large-format digital print to agencies. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise since it taught me a heap of useful lessons about sales, financial management and production processes, not to mention humility, which have of course been invaluable in launching and growing Spring. I soon headed off to an agency but it was a great experience with which to start my career and I have been just as conscious of clients’ business realities as their creative ambitions ever since.

How would you describe what you currently do?

I’m a finely-tuned mash-up of conductor, inventor, teacher, seer, mentor, rebel, ring mistress, inquisitor and mother!

What has been the biggest change in design since you started?

Well, in a practical sense it’s the digital revolution. But if you move beyond the basics – the change from hand-made to digital – the impact of this has been that our industry has had to create value in more ways and has moved increasingly into consultancy territory. I find the ability to get under the bonnet of an organisation, and articulate our vision creatively, extraordinarily powerful. I’m very proud that we can use original thinking to create demonstrable economic impact and social change.

What is your favourite project, that you’ve worked on?

A current favourite is Look Sideways – East, an Arts Council-funded project to raise East Anglia’s profile as a cultural destination. It’s the perfect blend of long-term strategic vision and an opportunity to be properly creative in our approach: this focus on changing perceptions is something we’re also tackling for Morocco, well known for souks, and less so for surfing, seaside family holidays and being one of the world’s most welcoming places. I also love working with DanceEast, a world-class organisation with whom we have a fantastic creative partnership. 

What is your favourite project, that you haven’t worked on?

Two projects that still knock me out are Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder – an extraordinarily bold and beautiful celebration of what makes Britain great – and the Savage Beauty exhibition, which demonstrated that craft and imagination leave an indelible mark. I get goosebumps thinking about them even now. Closer to my world, the brand project I most admire from recent years is ITV’s – I think it’s very beautiful, and clever too.

What was your biggest mistake?

When we launched Spring, we made a – some might say – rash choice to leave London and set it up by the sea in Southwold, where there were no other agencies. We had an ambitious plan to grow nationally. Our location brings something very special to our work and the Spring brand, but still I will probably never know whether it was the cleverest decision of my life or foolhardy! Being based on the east coast is not without its complications, though I reckon the benefits far outweigh them. 

What is your greatest ambition?

To prove that basing ourselves in Southwold was in fact the cleverest decision of my life by keeping growing, attracting great people, working with fascinating clients and winning awards for our work. And if in doing so we help to create a new reputation for our part of the world as creative and innovative, so much the better!

Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?

I have worked with some extraordinary people – from Kate Percival, who ran a ridiculously successful agency in the ’90s and gave me serious tough love, to Jim and Si at Attik who shattered so many rules. Now, Greg Quinton at The Partners is a perennial inspiration and manages to combine huge creative talent with being one of the nicest people in the business. But without wishing to state the obvious, I am phenomenally proud of The Springers, who never take no for an answer and always find new ways round a brief. They are extraordinary and a daily inspiration: this studio by the coast contains by far the best team I have ever worked with. 

What piece of advice would you give to people starting out in design?

If you’re a true original, you will have to store Gandhi’s words in your heart to draw on when times are hard:  “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”.

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  • Michael Dale January 14, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    I agree with your sentiments Erika. We’re Firebrand, a brand agency in Eastbourne. In terms of lifestyle, to be within walking distance of the sea and the South Downs is priceless. Housing is more affordable plus it’s a ten minute ‘commute’ to work. I agree one can never know the impact of ‘not being in London’ but thankfully we work with regional, national and international clients to whom our location is not important. We can be at Gatwick within an hour and London in a little more anyway.

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