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Collaborative creativity: when artists meet agencies

Our R+D season continues with an exclusive interview with Tom Sharp from York-based agency The Beautiful Meme. Tom’s agency is pioneering an intriguing interdisciplinary experiment – hiring an artist-in-residence to interpret their client briefs alongside the creatives.

Can you explain what The Beautiful Meme is?
The Beautiful Meme is a creative agency. We create brands and do advertising. Some of our most recent projects include the rebrand of English National Ballet, plus an advertising campaign for the dance company in collaboration with Vivienne Westwood, the creation of a new global energy sector brand, and an international advertising campaign for AkzoNobel selling paint for aircraft. We’re rarely bored.

What does it mean for you to have an artist-in-residence, and what was the thinking behind the experiment?
The idea of having an artist join the studio for five months came from thinking about the written briefs that are the beginning of all the work we do. Like an uncertain quantum wave, these briefs contain all possibilities until we collapse them into a singularity and take one idea forward. I wanted to bring someone else into the team who could create an alternate universe of ideas from the same brief. While the ideas we create must make commercial sense, an artist working parallel to us wouldn’t have this constraint, so I wanted to see what would arise. We also wanted to work with a young, new artist so that the experience, contacts and potential profile could help someone at the start of their career.

Did any other projects, people etc inspire you in this?
I think any point at which creativity and commerce meets is fascinating. There’s always a tension and a struggle and the line where an idea has sold out is entirely subjective but still important to try and draw. I’m obsessed with what Warhol and latterly Damien Hirst have done, and there’s an inspiration for this project there.

What sort of results are you hoping for – what would make it a success?
Beyond producing five pieces of art which will be interesting enough to exhibit to our clients, I expected the experiment to be fun and that we would learn from our artist and she would learn from us. Which is the case. We’re going to continue to run this project with new artists, certainly for the next year, but I only really measure the success in terms of what our artists get out of it. For them to make contacts and receive commissions because they are part of this would be very rewarding.

What do you see as the value of this way of working?
Anything that nudges you to remember that ideas exist without form until they are forced into a medium – be it a six sheet advert or a video installation in a gallery – is worth doing.

What do clients make of the idea? How has the response of “culture sector” clients like the ballet differed to clients from other industries?
It is certainly our clients in non-cultural sectors who have responded with most engagement to the project so far. That is no criticism of our cultural clients, just that this project isn’t so unusual to them. Our clients in other fields have been fascinated. AkzoNobel Aerospace must be mentioned here, although their product, aircraft coatings, is not the most romantic, as a company they’re incredibly progressive and have gone to incredible lengths to help our artist on their piece, which is a digital work based on the raw data flowing through their business over the course of one year.

Have there been any surprises along the way?
What has repeatedly arisen in the conversations between our studio team and our artist, is how much looking for identity is at the heart of so many briefs, ideas and creative works. Our job is often to bring out an identity to answer a business case, but the creation of the artworks have shown us that this search runs much more deeply and on a much more personal level.

What are the next steps for the programme?
We will hold a private view of five works on April 11th in Battersea, inviting each client whose brief has inspired a piece. We will then begin to search for new, young artists to do it all over again with.

See the blog of artist-in-residence Clare Nattress at, the agency website here and follow them on Twitter.

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