“You’re our boss!” was my greeting after a two month absence from a project I was only assisting on. Lauren was the material designer that I’d offered advice to but I was nobody’s “boss”. I was just the old guy in the room.
Turns out that I’d been offering advice to more than a few folks on these random projects I was undertaking — each with the commonality of being home to young talent that wasn’t ready to go ‘corporate’ or didn’t have the ‘experience’ to land a corporate position.
As you can imagine, a number of folks who fit that description looked like me.
So one by one, I found myself juggling my random consultancy jobs, my own business projects and a collection of talented creatives that somehow thought of me as their “boss”.
There Will Always Be Work
This not so random collective assortment of creative started with creative needs and conversations. Projects that I didn’t have the right expertise (like camera work) or mindset (like women’s fashion) for were better off in the hands of folks I knew. The fact that people called me didn’t mean I needed to take the job, but I could contribute in other ways — strategy, operations, budgeting, etc. So I introduced a wider team to projects.
But we were not an agency.
I was more comfortable calling us a collection of creatives.
My grandfather told my older brother not to look for work — get a job. “There will always be work,” he’d say. My brother told me not to look for a job — find a career.
Now that I’ve had a career, I was ready for a business.
AndThem was taking the Them seriously.
The creative needs and conversations went from production to storytelling, nonprofit to commercial, food to footwear, Roppongi Dori to 145th Street. The random projects turned into strategic partnerships with opportunities to tell the stories we wanted to see and build the products we wanted to have.
Along the way I’d been introduced to folks that had skills but couldn’t find the right fit. The collection of creatives needed some guardrails but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what that meant. I just knew what I wanted to work on and how I wanted the team to interact — with each other, with clients and with the work. All equally important. So someone stepped up to be the Project Director. Someone stepped up to be the Production Director. Someone stepped up to handle Color & Graphics.
Someone always stepped up.
But the there were people missing.
“I need a Black woman,” I said to another creative in Harlem in line at the FedEx on 125th.
“I have the perfect person,” Ashley responds and texts simultaneously.
Two days later a talented Black women nervously showed me her portfolio and two days after that she joined our collective.
Feed the Team
For six years there was no office. My laptop is my office and my phone is the breakroom. But I always needed a place to talk shop with folks. When I wanted to look ‘professional’ I’d camp out at my financial advisor’s spare office, but for the most part you could find me at Il Posto Accanto with Beatrice & Julio. Restaurants in NYC are a different animal and if you’re a creative they are your lifeline to reality. The hardships and uneasiness predates COVID by decades, yet the creative energy is magnetic.
So my team exercises their craft with folks we’ve broken bread with because they literally make the bread.
Sometimes the bread is infused.
Bless the Block
We spend as much time giving away our work as we do creating it. Surrounded by creatives in every direction, we have an unlimited supply of folks that want to help us do what we do. Those conversations get contracts when it’s needed and handshakes when it’s more relevant. And the goal is always to put money into the community. Exposure doesn’t pay the rent.
But we want to share the shine at the same time. It’s a balance. We run a business but the business doesn’t run us.
Talk Some Shit
This Dan Wieden quote is memorable, not because of how true it is, but because of how little it’s known.
While our ability to go to factories and build products from scratch is the beginning of our creative stance, we equally want the opportunity to tell the stories in our own voices. No translator needed. No code-switching necessary. Unapologetic.
With both product creation and storytelling we’ve met resistance because we aren’t the norm or we charge too much. But life is short and the old adage of truth is — not everybody deserves you.
Make Some Friends
Over the years we’ve collectively built relationships with folks that were on their own path. As they’ve found success they’ve also found themselves alone in rooms full of people. We all understood that feeling. So they’ve asked us to help however we can.
Other folks were just out being great, so we asked if we could be great with them — for no reason other than being great is contagious.
Show You Care
When I was about 7 years old, my mother called me into the house to eat dinner. I was playing with a friend, so that friend had to come eat too. My father was already at the dinner table with his plate of food when my friend and I sat down to eat. My mother was in the kitchen making plates for us while my father talked to us.
“You’re food is getting cold,” my mother barked at him after she’d spent time preparing a hot meal after he hadn’t eaten all day.
“I can’t eat while they don’t have any food in front of them,” he replied.
My father wasn’t being polite. He wasn’t waiting to say grace. He wasn’t that interested in our game of tag in the front yard.
My father simply couldn’t eat when he knew we couldn’t eat either.
Again, the business is a balance. And we don’t take on charity because it’s charity. We invest our time and effort into projects that we believe will make a difference with our help.
Most folks look at the make-up of our collective (I can’t say agency, sorry, maybe one day) and assume we are only about youth culture — sports and fashion and music and cool. So they are understandably confused when we discuss urban farming, the sunk costs in mergers and acquisitions, fintech investment solutions and clean energy development projects. The CEO or VC head with a white tee and Common Projects became the alternative business uniform that CNBC let sit amongst the suits and ties.
We probably won’t ever fit those descriptions. Our community will look at us different. The next generation won’t see themselves in our positions.
So we will enjoy being us.
If you find any of this interest and you've got work for us, please head over to AndThem.com and let us know how we can assist.