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Heather Wright: Lessons in creativity and storytelling from 22 years at Aardman

30th July 2021

Heather Wright is an executive producer and creative industries consultant with 30 years of experience. She spent 22 of those years at iconic animation studio and Bristol Creative Industries member Aardman Animations.

In 2020 Heather left the company that has given us legendary characters like Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep to launch Springboard Creative. She also joined the Bristol Creative Industries board.

Dan Martin speaks to Heather about her career, the storytelling and employee culture lessons other businesses can learn from Aardman, what she is up to now and why is supporting the work of BCI.

You spent the first nine years of your career at advertising agencies. What did you learn?

“The 1980s and 90s was an extraordinary time to be working at advertising agencies. They made you feel like anything was possible. I worked at Saatchi and Saatchi which had the slogan “nothing is impossible”. Although that was sometimes frustrating to try and deliver to, it did mean you were always looking for a creative solution to make something happen. It wasn’t just acceptable to say “this can’t be done”. I also worked for Chiat Day and their slogan was “good enough is not enough”.

“It made me realise that if you have the confidence to know that there could be a way around a problem, you just need to find the right questions, understand the motivation or think about the other person’s point of view and what makes them tick. I learned a lot about creativity, both artistically and in business, during that time.”

After staff jobs at agencies, you went freelance and then joined Aardman. What was it like to work for such an iconic company?

“They advertised for someone to run their commercials team. I thought “animation, that sounds good because I know nothing about it so if they want someone to stay after six o’clock and do some animation problem solving, they won’t ask me. But I do know a lot about what Aardman should be doing in the advertising world!

“I applied for the job and got it. I grew as the company grew. My whole experience was growing from that starting point to becoming an executive producer and working on a breadth of different activities. I was instrumental in setting up their computer animation team, I ran their immersive team for AR and VR games and I worked on a big Wallace and Gromit concert at the Royal Albert Hall. 

“From not knowing about animation, I soon learned lots and I very quickly became an absolute devotee of the art form. I was lucky to be surrounded by other people who also absolutely loved it and because it is a world leader in animation, the calibre of people who came to work there was always high. You were constantly surrounded by great creative thinkers, problem solvers and technicians. Everybody grew together; that idea of a rising tide lifts all boats.

“Aardman is very good at making sure everyone feels involved in all the parts of the company. If there’s a new show being worked on, it is shared with the whole company. There were issues around secrecy but in the end, we decided we just needed to trust people because it is in all employees’ best interests for the ideas to be kept confidential. 

“During a big project, we were aware that employees’ families weren’t seeing them for months on end, so getting friends and relatives involved was crucial to maintaining the wellbeing of all the staff in the studio. When a big movie was finished, there would be a friends and family tour day, and after the production was released, we would take over all the screens at Vue Cribbs Causeway. 

“The business also encourages everyone to come up with creative ideas, not just the creative departments. I know of a couple of ideas thought up by somebody in the finance team.”

Was it that inclusive culture that led to Aardman becoming employee owned in 2018?

Employee ownership was a vehicle that allowed Peter Lord and David Sproxton [the founders of Aaardman] to step out of the day-to-day running of the business and to ensure its independence. It could very easily have been bought by a big channel or network and have just become part of somebody’s balance sheet. Independence has always been a strong tenet of what the company is about; the ability to make their own shows, make their own decisions and to run it as they want to. When Pete and Dave decided to take a step back, employee ownership worked well because the company had always been about everybody contributing. 

“It’s not a super easy ride becoming an employee owned trust, but I encourage any company that’s thinking about it to consider it very seriously. Everyone becomes a partner and there is a change in the culture because it makes people feel like they really do have ownership and they really do have a say. We set up a staff council for employees to be involved with strategic decisions and to have input on how things were done. It was much more than somewhere for people to go if they had a complaint.

“Companies that have that kind of approach with values that everybody should share in the success are proven to be more successful businesses.”

As executive producer for partner content at Aardman, you worked with some huge brands like Google. What advice would you give to other creative businesses for working with big clients?

“Nobody wants a yes man on board and everybody wants an intelligent conversation. All you can do is be your authentic self, know that your product is good, believe that your product is good and be able to explain why it is good. 

“Work with the client as a team and be open to their ideas as much as you expect them to be open to yours. Build a very strong collaborative working relationship with a shared vision. I always made sure that the vision of the people inside Aardman and the vision of the client were going in the same direction. The path to get there may be rocky and can take different turns at different times from either side, but that’s ok as long as everyone is heading in the same direction and knows where they want to get to. 

“Create cohesion, build true working relationships and be fun to work with.

“The other tip I would advise is if a big brand wants to work with you but you don’t think you can properly answer the brief because of time or money, say so and don’t take it on. If you do, you’ll end up doing a bad or half hearted job and not delivering something you’re proud of. The client will be disappointed in you and never come back to work with you.”

How would you sum up why Aardman has been so successful?

“They believe in quality of craft, excellence and humour. They believe in themselves and the stories are told from a very British point of view because that’s who they are. They don’t pretend to be American; it’s always about authentic storytelling,

“They also focus strongly on independence and collaboration. Those are the kind of things that attract people. It’s always about the quality of the craft, the quality of the thinking and the quality of the ideas.”

Why did you decide to leave Aardman after 22 years?

“It took me about two years to make the decision. The company was going through a change and I was starting to have ideas. I thought to myself “have I got anything else in me other than working for Aardman for the rest of my life?” I had an idea and I just needed to find out if it would work.

I’m still friends with them all at Aardman and I’m proud to be associated with the company.

What are you working on now?

“The main thing I am working on is an animation app called Magic Fox. It enables children to make animated personalised, real time movies of their own. It’s about developing creativity in five to seven-year-olds. I’m working with two partners and we’re currently seeking seed funding.

“I also still get involved in exec producing and I’m working on a couple of really big projects that I can’t tell you about right now! The other string to my bow is working with Innovate UK Edge, who support small creative businesses to get started with their strategy.

“I love helping people to fulfil their potential and that’s what all of my endeavours are about.” 

Tell us more about Innovate UK Edge and how creative businesses can benefit.

“The government has realised that the creative industries is a huge earner for UK PLC. The trouble is they haven’t really known how to invest in it because unlike most other industries where you end up with huge companies, most of the creative industries are small or micro businesses. The idea of how you actually support innovation in the creative industries is something that they are continuing to grapple with.

“Innovate UK Edge recently ran the new Creative Industries Fund which provided a small amount of start-up money. It’s very unusual to have such a broad funding competition that appeals to lots of people.

“That particular scheme is now closed but knowing Innovate UK Edge and the way they work, if lots of people applied and they got some good projects out of it, they will run it again. They will also run a scale up programme of some sort because they want to progress people from start-ups to scaling up to a growth phase and being investable. That proves that the innovation works.

“If you can kind of get into the system, they will support you through all phases of growth. Their ears are open right now and want to know how best they can do it. They are absolutely looking to have conversations with small and micro businesses in Bristol and the south west about what innovation means to them. It’s a unique time to get involved.”

Find out more about Innovate UK Edge here. You can also follow Innovate UK Edge South West on Twitter.

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way the government views the creative industries?

“The pandemic has been a disaster for performing arts venues in particular but I think the government has realised that there is huge value in culture due to the impact of having lots of places closed.

“People gain emotional intelligence and learn about how to be in the world through storytelling. The creative industries bring meaning to the world, whereas science and technology bring facts. The question is how do you quantify what that meaning and understanding is? Is it through storytelling, different types of apps, watching something on your phone etc? They are sometimes intangible ideas that are hard to grasp hold of, but that’s what people in the creative industries do; they make the intangible tangible.”

The Creative Industries Federation and Creative England recently released a major report that called for new funding schemes to encourage the setting up of more creative businesses. What do you think of those proposals?

“The creative industries rely on freelancers and small businesses. Anything we can do to encourage people to start their own business will lead to success for the whole of the creative industries and the UK. I’m absolutely in favour of those kinds of measures.”

Read more about the report here.

Why did you decide to join the Bristol Creative Industries board?

“I’ve always been really interested in the Bristol creative scene. At Aardman although we believed in supporting Bristol, most of our customers weren’t Bristol based but I was always interested in what was going on it the city and went to events like First Friday at the Watershed. 

“I could see cities like Manchester and Leeds getting ahead but Bristol has a huge amount to offer. I’m really keen to support Bristol to become a stronger creative industries hub than it already is. It needs to punch above its weight and I want to be part of making that happen. Bristol Creative Industries is a vehicle to galvanise us as a city and make sure that we have a strong ecosystem that supports each other to reach out beyond our city.”

How do you think the creative industries need to build a more diverse workforce?

“It absolutely needs to happen. You get a better quality of idea when you have lots of different windows on the world in front of you. Everybody comes with a different window and a different viewpoint. The more ideas you have in the room from different places the better. That’s the problem with the Westminster bubble; they talk to people like themselves all the time. The only way to break out of the bubble is to go further and have a greater diversity of ideas. That comes from a greater diversity of people including ethnic diversity as well as age, people who are less able bodied etc. It’s all about having people with something different to bring which is not the usual employing people in your image which is often the worst thing you can do.

“It will take time. Nobody wants to get a job just because of their ethnicity or age; they want to get a job because they are the best person to do it. It requires grassroots support from the industry. The creative industries wants to do it, but they sometimes struggle to know how to do it. That’s another area where Bristol Creative Industries can help by endorsing programmes that are working and advising on how you go about creating a more diverse workforce. 

“We’ve got such a diversity of people in Bristol and the wider region. We have the opportunity to test some of the ideas and prove that they work.”

Finally, Aardman is such a great storyteller. What’s your advice for how businesses can tell great stories?

Start with a character. Think about how they would do a particular thing, what type of issues that kind of person would have, who are their friends and where do they live. You will come up with a much stronger story that way than saying, for example, “wouldn’t it be great if our mobile phones could all talk to each other on the table.” That’s an idea but it isn’t that interesting. But what about a tiny little character that has a big nose who’s really good at sniffing out unusual smells or situations. Maybe he’s frightened so he hides a lot. Or maybe he just gets really huge so how does he deal with what happens to him. Starting from the point of view of a character is much better than starting from a plot or a set of circumstances.

“Tell stories that you know, understand and are authentic to you. There are universal truths such as love, hate, anger and jealousy that everybody in the world, no matter where they live, understand. Apply those to your own set of circumstances and those values will still come across. It will make the story interesting for everyone because they will recognise the love, hate, jealousy and anger, but they will see it set in the context that makes sense for the storyteller. If you start to tell stories from a place that you don’t really understand, that’s always going to be much harder.”

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About Bristol Creative Industries

Bristol Creative Industries is the membership network that supports the region's creative sector to learn, grow and connect, driven by the common belief that we can achieve more collectively than alone. 

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