Kelly Smith

[00:00:00] Caroline Beavon (host): Hello and welcome to Tales from the Engine Room where we meet the people who make up the Skiff, a coworking community in central Brighton.
[00:00:08] Kelly Smith: We may be invited to compete in a pitch process, but in in that case, we try to disrupt it a little bit and bring it back to, well, what's actually needed here.
[00:00:16] Caroline Beavon (host): I'm Caroline Beavon.
I'm a digital storyteller, and I'm a member at the Skiff too. Across this series of interviews, we'll meet freelancers, remote workers, solopreneurs, and small team leaders. Asking the question, what are you working on today?
This week we meet Kelly Smith, a partner at the innovative agency Neo, who are taking creativity to a whole new level.
[00:00:40] Kelly Smith: A Monday is a, trying to gently re re-immerse myself into the projects unless I've got a particular deadline and then it's very much focusing all my time on that project today. Yeah, it's been going between, between projects,
[00:00:58] Caroline Beavon (host): kinda checking in on everything.
[00:01:00] Kelly Smith: Checking in on the team, looking at, yeah, what needs to be done, responding to a proposal opportunity for a new project, which is always exciting and it's always something that we have to squeeze in between working on current client projects.
So that's, that's quite challenging.
[00:01:16] Caroline Beavon (host): Actually. I'm the same as you. I'd love to be able to dedicate a whole day to putting in a proposal, but you almost go, oh, well, let's just get it into, in between other things because obviously you need to keep the plates spinning, don't you? And trying to keep all those different levels of work.
So the work you're working on now and the work you want to be doing in Yeah. Months time, it's how do you manage all of that in your, in your head when you are running your, your agency?
[00:01:38] Kelly Smith: I think I'm a natural organizer, but I over organize as well. And one of my pitfalls is to be too optimistic about what I can fit into a day in a week.
And my calendar, my Apple calendar is just full of blocks of things that I end up pushing onto the next week, which I'm sure sounds familiar to many skiff mates.
[00:01:59] Caroline Beavon (host): So, so do, do you block time to do a task or is it just events involving other people, or is it all kinds of.
[00:02:04] Kelly Smith: I do. Yeah. And often I don't even need to block that time. It's, it's a kind of, it's almost a manifestation of self-doubt because I know what I've got to do. I have a notebook as well, I like to use pencil and paper, but somehow I've got into this habit of filling my calendar with, with stuff, right? I'm a no, I'm a prolific, an obsessive note taker, and I've got notes ever. I've got Miro, I've got Evernote, I've got, yeah, so that's something I could, yeah, it's turning into a bit of a, what could I do better workshop here,
[00:02:34] Caroline Beavon (host): but I've been on, I think, a similar journey to you where I still, I have Miro and Evernotes and Notion, and it's one, I'm paying for all these tools, which is ridiculous, and I still also have a mole skin and a pen.
And that's the one thing that never lets me down.
[00:02:47] Kelly Smith: It's the anchor, isn't it? It's more instinctive, but it doesn't, you can't find things as easily. I guess what, and what I'm looking for is something that could just bring everything together in one platform and I'm, look, I'm hoping that a developer hears this and comes up with something because we we're always looking for a really collaborative agile, agile to use that overused term in the sense that is really creative and adaptable for us as a, as a creative team. Yeah. Um, something that allows us to bring together things like Slack into a space that's expandable to working with other people on the outside our, our client partners, where we can use timelines and shared goals and things like that, but without it feeling too prescriptive, which is very much what.
Um, project management tools feel like they're not, and they're, they're just not flexible enough.
[00:03:40] Caroline Beavon (host): So you mentioned teams and clients. So let's f first of all, find out about your, your team. So you, you have a, a small team. Tell us how that works. Are they here at the skiff with you? How does it, how does it all work and how do you work together?
[00:03:53] Kelly Smith: So my team, uh, we are a, uh, a creative agency called Neo. Based in Brighton, but since, but over the past, say 10 years, and especially during the pandemic, we became a little bit more spread out in the uk. So the founding director, Nick, he's in Wales, he set up, um, a small holding. So he wanted to, he wanted to kind of see what the country life would bring.
He used to live in Brighton, so he's there. Um, one of our
[00:04:21] Caroline Beavon (host): how's he finding it?
[00:04:21] Kelly Smith: He tried a flock of sheep and it was seemed like too much hard work.
[00:04:25] Caroline Beavon (host): Well, so you just have one sheep, imagine he just one sheep now.
A lot easier to manage just one.
[00:04:29] Kelly Smith: Yeah. He had some chickens, but they got eaten by foxes. Oh. It's been a learning process, but he has got some really cool permaculture stuff going on there and um, yeah.
And it's a completely different way of life. Yeah. And so, I'm based here and so are some of our design team as well. We definitely use the Skiff as a base because during the pandemic we lost our studio. We had to give our studio up. We had a really nice space over at Beaconsfield Workshops, which is around Preston Circus area.
It's kind of hidden away, but there's really, there's a really eclectic bunch of small businesses and creatives there. Everything from photography to illustration to mechanics going on there. But, uh, it was quite a big space and represented a, a large overhead for house.
We did have a co-working space there of our own. We created that nice. Again, it just became a bit too much during the pandemic. So yeah, the context is that I was already working at the Skiff when I moved to Brighton about 10 years ago. I was freelance, but also a consultant attached to a digital agency. Mm-hmm. In the Midlands. I'd helped to to build.
[00:05:34] Caroline Beavon (host): And what were you doing? What was your particular role? In, in,
[00:05:36] Kelly Smith: I was a, like a Head of Content. Um, so I had before that I had a background in journalism and communications and a bit of brand, and I kind of brought all that into the digital space right. When that was really taking off. Yeah. But it felt like, you know, with my move to Brighton, I was, I was feeling like I was moving into a different workspace.
I wanted a different working environment where, I was working on projects with more purpose, socially. Environmentally. I began to feel. Like I was untethering from this digital agency in the Midlands, and I wanted my work life to reflect my personal life. I wanted that to align more. I wanted to feel like, um, I was working with more like minds and people with whom I could share similar worldview.
I wanted that creative excitement that I could feel bristling about Brighton. Yeah, I loved it.
[00:06:30] Caroline Beavon (host): So what came first, the, the needs or the wants to change the way you worked and the people you worked with, or the move to Brighton, or was it... Was chicken and egg space.
[00:06:38] Kelly Smith: Well, Brighton was a catalyst. Definitely. Brighton was a catalyst. It kind of pulled me away from where I needed to be pulled away from, if you know what I mean. Yeah. Um, and introduced me to new relationships. Nice. And the Skiff was a big part of that I think. Um, I found in the Skiff a very non-traditional, non-commercial space where, People didn't really put profit first. They were thinking about, you know, the, whether it was the purpose of what they were doing and bringing innovation to, to, to an industry or purpose in terms of having a real social and or environmental cause to the work. Um, so that did help and I was also looking outside and just trying to meet up with people and someone recommended me to Neo to this agency that seemed like a true pioneer in the, in the creative space. So a brand and communications agency, but who worked solely with charities, not-for-profits, environmental businesses. Um, and they were also one of the first B Corps. Yes. Um, B Corp is for anyone who doesn't know, like a, it's like a kind of fair trade membership or mark for any kind of business, um, where you have to identify and live by certain, um, measures of impact. So yeah, reducing your impact on the environment, having a really positive impact on, on, on things socially as well in in the community. Yeah. For example. So, so I just felt really drawn to this and I, I met up with Nick, um, who was, and, and they were, A period of transition and looking to, to bring new people in. And, um, it was just a case of really good timing.
And so I became a partner. Um, I was very resistant to the idea of employment at first cause I was a staunch freelance. I felt really quite anxious about that. Like I was giving something up that was, that seemed, you know, felt very important to me. But in the end I realized that I wasn't, I didn't need to give anything up.
I could gain and I could share in an idea of what it is to work together and co-create that. Yeah. And that's what we're trying to do. That's, we're trying to do that with our team so that, you know, we share decision making, we share what we see as an evolutionary purpose of what we're doing, and and I think that's the way forward really. And that's, that's a big part of our work.
[00:08:58] Caroline Beavon (host): Imagine for people coming in to work for Neo, that must be, obviously they're made aware of it when they start, but that's quite a culture shift. You know, normally there's hierarchies are still very defined in most agencies, and it sounds like this is just throwing all out out the window in a good way.
[00:09:13] Kelly Smith: It is, yeah, it's, it can be a really good creative catalyst, I think to, to help sharpen the initiative of any of of people at any level. Whether they're just starting out, whether they're later in life trying to model good leadership to, to everyone else. It's, it's a, it's a shared responsibility. It's, it's being able to have difficult conversations to, um, bring your voice to the table without feeling like you're gonna be judged.
So it's about rethinking leadership. Is leadership a few people making all the decisions based on what they think they hear people want? Or is it a case of everyone feeling like they can lead in a particular space and bring a particular kind of expertise, experience, or even for someone inexperienced, a completely fresh perspective, a creativity to something.
[00:10:10] Caroline Beavon (host): So how do you encourage, you know, the new people who come in, or the people who are more inexperienced perhaps, or less experienced rather. Um, how do you encourage those and, and make pe everyone feel safe enough to be able to say what they, what they need to, or what they want to in meetings? Is that just they just realize through time or how do you, how do you encourage that, that spirit that you've got?
[00:10:31] Kelly Smith: Think the first thing is being transparent about how we want to organize and facilitate the business together. So we we're calling it an evolution towards, uh, self-organization or co-organization. So yes, there is a natural hierarchy in terms of experience and, um, I guess most of the responsibility for the business lies on, um, my business partner and me, but at the same time, we're trying to bit by bit, sort of share that responsibility. So it's about asking questions. It's about inviting people to participate. It's modeling that it's. Being brave, bringing our whole selves, just being very open and showing that others can do that as well and, and making mistakes and, and, and owning those, yeah,
Owning our feelings as well having emotional check-ins before we, you know, start talking about work is something that we do. We have, you know, facilitated sessions quite regularly on what's coming up for us, what's been difficult in a in a meeting with a, with a client, uh, in a, in a client relationship, in a project. And the issues are usually human, human, they.
And so we provide that space for those, for those to surface really. And we ask the right kind of, you know, coaching style questions for people to feel like their driving their input. They're not answering a question that has to be the right answer. They're, they're bringing something, um, that will be invited and not judged. Yeah. So I think that's how we're creating that, that safe space, which is, I think it is more conducive to, to creativity because people can see they can make a mistake within that safe space. Mm.
Um, and when it comes to the quality of client work, well that's, that's a case of understanding what the implications are of making mistake. So it's, it's not like we just open the whole thing out and everyone just, you know, we invite chaos. It's more about, um, yeah, understanding what the parameters are and how we can learn and share our learning, and then translate that into really good work.
[00:12:43] Caroline Beavon (host): I imagine from trying to run a company like this, is that just a whole lot of extra work that is, you know, I imagine there's. Agent, people who are in agencies listening to this now and going, how do you have the time to not only run a business which is difficult, and bring client work in and lias with clients because we, clients are the hardest part of running any business, but also making sh checking in with everyone within the company itself.
It suddenly feels very, it feels quite complicated and quite a lot, a lot on your plate as
[00:13:13] Kelly Smith: A small team. It doesn't feel overwhelming. Um, yeah, sometimes it feels like an extra task, but actually what's gonna be more time consuming in the long run? Someone feeling like they have a bit of autonomy in decision making and being able to share those tasks and hold those tasks in their head.
It's not just about doing the work, it's holding something. When you feel like you're holding a lot in a business, it's difficult to focus then on, on one thing. If the team share that responsibility, then that's gonna save you time because you can trust them and know that they'll, they'll be holding that piece of work.
Yes. So it's the case of, so what's gonna take longer? Creating that environment or where people take the initiative or constantly having to check up on people and check their work and, uh, you know, write briefs for absolutely everything. Or, or do we have that more?
And I think the more collaborative approach may take more time to invest in it. We, you know, you have to create the right conditions for that, but we see it as being worthwhile in the long term. And I think the bigger the organization, the less complicated that or it needs to be.
So I think that in introduces this way, this self-organization model introduces a simplicity and actually breaks down a lot of the, uh, the convolutedness of hierarchy. Some of that bureaucracy that I think you see a lot maybe in, um, we see it across the board, but perhaps especially in public services. Where you feel like, hmm, is that, you know, do we need a hundred roles for this particular area? And how much money is being spent here, there, and everywhere? Are people being very protective of their roles and are they losing sight of the bigger picture of, of the purpose of that organization?
And, and, and things can become very divided and, uh, detached from the core and siloed. Uh, so yeah, we, we see there's a lot of benefit in it, but it is, it does feel maybe quite left field and, um, a bit scary, uh, when traditional ways of working are so ingrained. Mm-hmm. And we've being conditioned to work in a certain way and, and to, to look for that, you know, singular leader.
Yeah. who's going to make everything okay. That's just a myth really.
[00:15:40] Caroline Beavon (host): That's almost a security, isn't it? You know that there's somebody above you in the hierarchy that will. Make everything okay
[00:15:46] Kelly Smith: and secure your job Absolutely. Experiencing the freelance life taught me that, that, that, that you have to really take responsibility in whatever role you take and, and being part of a team.
You share that, it just seems natural that you share that responsibility. That's fantastic no matter how experienced you are. So in terms of the projects that we bring in, we do try to, you know, we, we talk about it a lot. We talk about what we want to work on, what we've learned from previous projects. Mm-hmm. What opportunities are they coming up where we can have some really good conversations and start to build some new relationships rather than follow the old pitch process, which we don't believe in, which we don't believe is the best basis to start a a project. Mm-hmm. Um, you know, impressing with ideas that may not be grounded in good insight and getting under the skin of an organization, understanding the problems and building that trust to be open and for insights to emerge creatively and naturally and that, so that's what we're trying to do, and it's, it's an uphill struggle, you know? Yeah. So, so organizations look for that certainty of idea. Yes. And we are saying, well, no, we want to, we want to follow a, you know, we want to bring our explorative investigative process where we listen, where we research, we, we build a picture of the landscape, um, and then, we start to look at recommendations on creative ideas and communication strategy and strategy for internal culture and things like that.
[00:17:17] Caroline Beavon (host): Is is it that you don't do pitches at all, or the nature of your pitches is much more, this is the process that we bring this is not what we're going to do for you. So you'll still, obviously you are still going to pitch meetings, but you'll say, you are getting us as, as you know, this process and we'll work out the best result for you.
[00:17:35] Kelly Smith: Yeah. Often, yeah, we may be invited to put forward a proposal or to, we may be invited to compete in a pitch process, but in, in that case, we try to disrupt it a little bit and bring it back to, well, what's actually needed here. And you feel like, you know, there are some, and, and we try to ask useful questions that maybe shine a light on some of those needs and maybe some of the gaps because we never start with the brief. We start with. Part of the brief. Mm-hmm. And then, you know, we, we like to work with the organization to really unpack it and, and then rebuild it together is something that's actually gonna answer their, answer the problem and, you know, help them achieve the best possible impact from us.
[00:18:20] Caroline Beavon (host): That's fascinating.
Do you love it?
[00:18:23] Kelly Smith: Yeah, I do. It is quite challenging cuz not everyone's convinced that that's, you know, it takes a leap of faith to, to work in that way, to, to let go of, um, maybe older ways of. Old ways of working.
[00:18:37] Caroline Beavon (host): It's very Brighton. It's, I think it's one of the exciting things about, about this city is the, the ideas and the people, and it's no surprise that, you know, an agency like this was, was birthed in this city because it's a creative, interesting place.
But I guess your clients are not just in Brighton, they're further afield, right?
[00:18:56] Kelly Smith: Yeah. Um, It's usual for us to be working on a, a range of projects with different client partners locally as well as globally. So, um, just to give you an idea, in the last year or so, we've worked with, uh, a really forward thinking homelessness charity in London, um, where we help them to, um, Rename, reposition, reshape their culture around helping each person, helping to solve homelessness one person at a time.
So helping to, um, provide a kind of space to grow and a space to, um, build that self-belief again to. To then reenter society. So it's, it's quite a sustainable solution.
And then, so there's a, uh, another charity that we're working with at the moment, which is really interesting. They harness the relationship between humans and dogs to enable people to.
Make their lives, their everyday lives possible. It's quite, maybe it has its roots in guide dogs, but it's very different. It's very progressive. Um, it's kind of completely changing how people see dogs. Yeah. And, you know, elevating them as part of a partnership rather than, A tool or, or a pet. Mm-hmm. So that's really exciting.
Wow. We also work with, uh, brands in the commercial space, but who are very centered on sustainability or our social enterprises. We've just finished a collection of microfilms for the South downs National Park. Started off as a, what was meant to be a three month project. And that was in January, 2020, I think a couple of months before the coronavirus hit us.
Yeah. Yeah. And so that really stretched it out to what has been two years of filming in different locations around the South Downs, recording people's stories. So people who've got really interesting connections and relationships with the landscape. They might be working on it, they might be living in it, might be going to school there.
And so it's been a, a kind of, unearthing of what the South Downs is really about, but to lots of different people and to as diverse a group of people as possible. Yeah.
One of the ambitions is to shift the view that it's a white middle class domain. Mm-hmm. Playground. Yep. For, for privileged people and to show that it's really a living landscape and not a, a national park that's kind of untouchable and where people don't live and work.
Cause that's really exciting. That's. Hopefully coming to conclusion, um, in the next month or so. And wow, we hope that there's gonna be some kind of screening, at least locally, where we can share this, this work that feels, you know, it, it's become a lot bigger. It's a lot bigger than a, a campaign or a project.
It, it feels like, and it's taken on a life of its own, which is one of our favorite kinds of projects.
[00:21:47] Caroline Beavon (host): So how about, uh, you personally on your journey? So you were, we, you touched briefly on the fact that you used to be a freelancer and you were background in journalism as well. Now you are with Neo. What about future? Do you see, for you personally, this being a sustainable role? Is it something that you'd like to keep doing for as long as possible, or do you have an itch to scratch somewhere else? Is there something that you'd like to go and do something for yourself?
[00:22:10] Kelly Smith: I think always there's, there is a creative itch there and I think that could be around writing. Um, I like to write poetry. I've had ambition to, to write a book one day, although, you know, I never get round to really starting it, and that will demand some headspace and so, Just some freedom away from, um, projects. What we'd like to do is kind of work towards having a four day week. Uh, it feels like we got there during the pandemic and, um, at least for the rest of the team, maybe not for me and, uh, Nick, um, that could be one of the keys to freeing up a bit more time.
Again, I need to break away from my overly optimistic approach to my diary where I think that, oh, the weekend is much bigger than it is, and there'll be plenty of time then for, for writing and mm-hmm. Meeting up with people and doing all the household jobs.
Of course there isn't and time to rest.
I think what I'm getting wrong is, Is the idea that that creative time has to be spent doing when it could just be being, just taking in something fresh, seeing some art, listening to some podcasts, walking around in the countryside,
[00:23:23] Caroline Beavon (host): feeding your creative well,
[00:23:24] Kelly Smith: Wandering about with a camera. Exactly. Yeah. It's, it's the feeding part that, yeah, I think I could do better. I think the team could do a bit more of that, and that's maybe one of the pitfalls of working remotely. Is that, that the focus on the work becomes even tighter when you're not in person. And we try to spend as much in person time together as we can, but we need to break out of this tendency to, or my tendency at least, to, to squeeze too much in and just allow for that space, allow for that discomfort.
I feel when there's. Space and, and perhaps not a clearly defined purpose for that space and time.
[00:24:05] Caroline Beavon (host): I have three quick fire questions just to wrap things up, if that's okay for you. What was for lunch today?
[00:24:10] Kelly Smith: Uh, sometimes I'm terrible and lunch isn't until 4:00 PM uh, today I had just a sandwich.
[00:24:18] Caroline Beavon (host): Okay. Homemade or bought from one of Brighton's many cafes.
[00:24:21] Kelly Smith: Bought from one of Brighton's many cafes,
[00:24:23] Caroline Beavon (host): which is your cafe of choice.
[00:24:25] Kelly Smith: Um, Coffee. 33 is my favorite. It's just on our doorstep here. Mm-hmm. Run by a couple of great guys from Italy and Ukraine, and they do. It sounds like an ad for them, doesn't it? Sure.
But they, they did an amazing coffee and a, and a great toasted sandwich.
[00:24:41] Caroline Beavon (host): So coffee 33 is your, your cafe of choice. Nice. If you, if you didn't live in Hove, where would you live? Anywhere in Cuz remote. Obviously we can all work remote nowadays. Where would you live?
[00:24:51] Kelly Smith: Whew. It would have to be a abroad, I think. I'm not sure I could stomach anywhere else in, in the uk other than maybe. Bristol, but I'm not sure. I think we've got a nicer coastline here. I'd be open to ideas somewhere warm, somewhere that's maybe culturally vibrant, that's quite open-minded where there's good food and drink. But that could be quite problematic post Brexit.
[00:25:15] Caroline Beavon (host): Yeah, it's harder to get anywhere nowadays, isn't it? And final question, if you could earn the same, doing any job, what would you do?
[00:25:23] Kelly Smith: Any job.
[00:25:24] Caroline Beavon (host): Any job in the world. But your financial situation would not change.
[00:25:28] Kelly Smith: Maybe to write then and edit, like edit books, stories, compilations of poetry, but also on the, on a completely different note, I've got this romantic notion of being, um, a lifeguard.
I think it's a childhood thing. I don't know. I love swimming and. I'm quite vigilant and I'm always looking out to see if people are okay on the water.
[00:25:52] Caroline Beavon (host): So I'm sensing a, a caring attitude, but also a lot of Baywatch when you're Yes.
[00:25:57] Kelly Smith: Blame the Baywatch. Blame Baywatch. Yeah.
[00:26:00] Caroline Beavon (host): And you can find out more about Kelly and her work at Neo at
And if you are interested in working alongside people like Kelly and myself, then head to the
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Kelly Smith
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