Opinion

‘The agency environment made me a professional but pet projects made me a creator’

Superson’s managing partner Antti Toivonen believes that agencies should accept that the most driven talent are not theirs to own, and that having a creative ‘side hustle’ results in happier, more productive and imaginative employees

Over my years in this creative line, I’ve noticed there are two types of people: those who are makers and creators outside of work and those who aren’t. And the people I have always found the greatest to work with are the ones with pet projects of any kind. And I’m not just referring to adland ‘creatives’. I mean everyone.

The ones pushing their boundaries – be it in gaming, art, eco-events, fintech, F&B or fashion – flex their creative muscle in a very special way. Being a maker means fearless thinking and practical ideas at the same time. And it teaches you to change a tire of a moving car, so to speak.

By day, they may be account managers, programmers or art directors, but at the same time, they are producers, essentially ‘entrepreneurs’ in their own right. You meet them in the freelance community, in small collectives and start-ups, and sometimes in bigger agencies too. 

Despite the cute name, ‘pet projects’ are serious business. Firstly, they require equally hard work, if not harder. Secondly, I’d argue that 50% of a person’s value comes from skills learned in their ‘business as usual’ jobs. The other 50% comes from more entrepreneurial endeavours.

To give a bit of personal context, before launching Superson Singapore, I was an independent creative director for years. I had the opportunity to work on great client projects through great agencies, but I also had the space to hone my skills in filmmaking – something I always loved, but knew little about.

Since then, together with my partners, we’ve not only learned how to tell stories and finance films, but we’ve gone on to have our films premiere at The Sundance Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, among others. 

We also wrote and produced a full-length Singaporean feature called Tiong Bahru Social Club, coming out next year – something I could have never dreamed of in a full-time agency gig.

I’ve also been involved in a very exciting fashion e-commerce start up, and if we rewind even further, I had ventures in bag manufacturing, released music on vinyl and starred in my own TV show. All while doing good client work, even if I do say so myself.

Now looking back, the biggest growth happened in areas that came from these ‘side-hustles’, and not ‘business as usual’. I could say that the agency environment made me a professional, but pet projects made me the creator I am. These two worlds feed into each other every day – storytelling is not a mere industry buzzword to us anymore.

Side-hustles expose creators to the real world, real audiences and real-life constraints. Unfortunately, agency environments are sometimes designed to keep creatives in a safe-zone detached from the outside. 

In my view, everyone with a creative itch needs the space to exercise their voice and seek genuine reactions. It sounds obvious, but traditionally our industry hasn’t really enabled it. Having these outlets means giving up on the idea that you can have someone sitting in an office for 40 hours every week, month after month. 

We need to be genuinely okay with the fact that the most driven people are not ours to own. Almost every creator I know needs an occasional week or two, and sometimes up to a month, to focus on their own projects, and our company systems need to enable it. Only then can we have the best people on our projects too.

Embracing passion projects is a way to fight institutionalisation, a slow but common and lethal poison in this line. “Doing things” outside of our “business as usual” jobs is a great way to stay relevant while pushing our boundaries in a rapidly changing world.

So let’s make sure we don’t put our people in a position where they feel they need to compromise their passions, because that’s a fast track to sinking into the depths of the mundane and the “meh”. 

Instead, let’s find more ways to support and enable everyone to play to their strengths inside and outside their day jobs. That’s the foundation of a future-proof creative ecosystem that keeps things fresh for all.Antti Toivonen is the managing partner of Superson and is based out of Singapore

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