MEET BULLDOG PROBLEM-SOLVER CYRUS VANTOCH-WOOD
With over twenty years of experience in the industry, London-based WNW Member Cyrus Vantoch-Wood, who runs an independent consultancy called Head, Heart & Power, is often brought in as a hired gun to solve problems for brands. His past collaborator list is a directory of the biggest brands and agencies both in the UK and stateside. As Cyrus puts it in our interview below, "I’m a designer, not an artist. I try to follow the problem through to the right solution, having fun along the way with all the tools and styles available to me." This scrappy approach, with an eye well-trained in surveying and maximizing the resources available to him, is clearly working.
But Cyrus also offers an honest and resonant portrayal of what he's had to put on the line in pursuing his particular creative path. "We all go through issues in chasing your ambitions. I’ve had to make some powerful choices: The choice to be a designer instead of an artist (solve someone else’s problems rather than my own). The choice to move countries and leave friends and family. I’ve chosen morals over money on occasion."
Since there's much to be proud of in his rearview mirror, and as he readies his next new business venture, we asked Cyrus what the idea of a dream project means to him. "It’s not about a title or a vertical for me. It’s simply about great collaborators, a shared ambition, access to the resources, and clients that will give us the permission."
Tell us a bit about your creative background. Who is Cyrus and how did he get here?
I’m a working class bloke from Yorkshire who always liked to tinker with things. I’ve been a geek since my ZX Spectrum. I loved computers and testing what you can do with them creatively. What ideas you could bring to life on them. It led me to graphic design, animation, and coding, which in turn got me passionate about design methodology. Then somewhere along the line I started writing things. Scripts and articles. Running teams. Presenting ideas. I’m still a geek though.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
I’d like to think I don’t have a style. I certainly don’t aspire to have one. I’m a designer, not an artist. I try to follow the problem through to the right solution, having fun along the way with all the tools and styles available to me. But ultimately I want to create work that is unique every time and answers a brief.
What do you see as the turning point in your creative development and career?
When Dare started back in 2000 I was the third employee to join the agency. Dare definitely helped evolve my work ethic and specifically a man called Mike Williams. Mike sat next to me and mentored me (reluctantly) for a few years. He showed me that you can tackle any problem with obsessive passion and some grit and grunt. Teaching yourself as you go. I’ve always taken that bulldog-like belief and approach to whatever I do. Picking up Mike’s methodology and bravery was a turning point in me becoming a real creative maker versus a creative talker.
What were some of the challenges in launching your creative career?
We all go through issues in chasing your ambitions. I’ve had to make some powerful choices: The choice to be a designer instead of an artist (solve someone else’s problems rather than my own). The choice to move countries and leave friends and family. I’ve chosen morals over money on occasion.
Which of your projects are you proudest of and why?
I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m rarely ever fully happy with a project. I’m often more proud of what the team has achieved for the money. Or what social impact a campaign has had. At R/GA in New York, I was working on a notorious, multi-national retailer, who had approached the agency with a brand problem: looking for a better perception in the world. We jumped at the challenge, researching, theorising, and gathering insight from many sources. In the end we came to the simple conclusion. If they wanted people to have a better perception of them, they had to start actually being an ethically led company.
A number of different initiatives were implemented but there was one that resonated with me: The economic crash in America had resulted in a food crisis for lower income families. The company had lots of excess stock that was essentially being binned when it passed sell-by-date. After teaming up with various charities, we began a program to start donating the leftover food, raising awareness via ATL, driving participation via social and being a partner in changing internal corporate behaviour. The results were tenfold: We saved millions in the disposal of food waste. The food donated was a tax write-off as a charitable donation. There was a big perception change for the company across the US. And most importantly we made a real impact on supporting those going hungry. In the two years following they’d made approximately a $2 billion donation to charity (one of the biggest in history).
What would be your dream project or job, or is it already on your resume?
Tough question. I look at it as about where can I contribute to making the best work.
It’s not about a title or a vertical for me. It’s simply about great collaborators, a shared ambition, access to the resources, and clients that will give us the permission.
Either that or travelling food photographer. Which I’m working on.
Where are the best places to work in the UK?
For agencies, I think it’s like Indian restaurants on Brick Lane. They go through peaks and troughs - one day Cafe Bangla will be the best place to eat. The next it will be Sheba.
Surprisingly, I really enjoyed my time at Cheil London, which had quite a bad rep. But it had the collaboration, ambition, and permission I mentioned earlier. I loved my experience there and made some great work. Unfortunately, the tectonic plates of business meant they have gone through some real changes, and that culture, I’m told, has gone.
How would you define the London creative scene?
I’m not totally sure I’m cool enough to answer that. I don’t go to that many industry events. I suppose I’d describe my friends and acquaintances as all creative, and we have a lot of fun mostly going to twisted music gigs and interesting restaurants and getting drunk at art openings. If that’s the creative scene, I’d describe it as blurry.
How do you see the creative landscape shifting in the UK from when you first started your career?
It’s much harder for young talent. When I started you could get a job if you could use photoshop. Now, the way interns have to spend years trying to land a role makes me feel very lucky. In the same breath, the work ethic has changed. At the end of the 90’s doing an all nighter in the office was the norm. Now I think younger creatives don’t have such a “trial by fire” experience and have trouble with the harsh critique. It’s a genX / genY difference I think.
If not here, where would you most like to live?
I’m lucky that I’ve lived in a few countries already. I love LA - would happily be there. I am also interested in China or Korea. Maybe at some point.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
They vary so much and are from a real diversity of places. I love singularity. I’m always amazed by Hollywood and the different ways in which directors can collaborate with so many, or dictate and come out with something so pure and pointed. I suppose I love all kinds of people who have that ability. Kubrick, Guy Bourdin, Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister, David Ogilvy, Yayoi Kusama, Nina Simone… you get the idea.
One book, one album, one movie, one show. Go.
Hmmm, not a fan of these questions. So restricting. So I’m going to cheat.
Books: For entertainment - Money by Martin Amis. For professional thinking - John Maeda's The Laws of Simplicity.
Albums: For warming up the night - Hustle, Reggae, Disco on SoulJazz Records. It’s a set of rare reggae that covers disco. For reminiscing - Primal Scream's Screamadelica. For feeling weird and twisted - The Cenobites' The Cenobites ft. Kool Keith & The Godfather Don.
Movie: Blade Runner
Show: I have to say Game Of Thrones because Kit Harrington lives a few doors down from me.
What is your most treasured possession?
Has to be my Canon 5D MK IV. I’m a camera geek, and I love it.
What do you do when Not Working?
Photography and cooking. Plus the occasional cycle to somewhere nice.
What’s your motto?
Wave automatic guns at nuns.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever heard or received that all creatives should hear?
Don’t be afraid to be Marmite.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new business venture with an ex-colleague from R/GA. I can’t say much, but it will be called WoodCutters.