10 things I have learned working for Sky

So there it is, a little shy of 7 years under my belt at that most divisive of entities, the corporate media empire.  My time at Sky has been characterised by a mixture of emotion – huge frustration, great passion, an organisation that is capable of the most amazing leaps of imagination and sharp business acumen and yet cannot address it’s own, relatively simple internal problems.  Most of all, a lot of lessons learned.  As I prepared to leave Sky to take on the role of Technical Director at Grand Union, I put together a short presentation for my team, reflecting on my time there and the great many things that we achieved, failed to achieve and aspired to.  Here, then, are ten things that I learned working for BSkyB.:

1. Everybody is an artist

In any production-centric environment, there is a tendency to put our discipline before our ideas.  We come into each pitch, each presentation, each milestone with our particular angle on the project, borne from our experience, our training and our knowledge. In the creative environment, it is essential that we can step away from how we self-identify (I am a developer, a designer, a ux) and even more so, what we presume about other team members by their discipline.  The very second you introduce yourself as your discipline you are bound by that.  Be a creative first and collaborate with your fellow creatives to find the best ideas.  Use your discipline to give perspective on the project.  Creativity is a culture, not a job title and in the creative environment, no matter what your skillset it, it should be a standard core value.

2. Creativity creeps

Creative ideas emerge, they are not born fully formed.  They evolve out of conversation, dissent, influence, failure (more on that later) and experimentation.  One of the nastier cultures that I encountered at Sky was the tendency in brainstorms to back the idea that shouted the loudest, or that appealed to our assumptions of the client or creative director.  This is, I am sure, very common.  The pitch might be discussed in terms of parameters and scope, but the creative tended to be bound by a sense of ownership.  The originator would spend valuable exploring time selling their idea to the rest of the team (this sometimes even before it went in front of the client).  Ideas wouldn’t be able to evolve because the originator would be holding it’s strings down, keeping it within the bounds of his/her vision.  Bad news for anyone expecting innovation…

3. Hire people much smarter than you

As a manager, hiring decisions are just about the most important you will ever make.  The team you place around you need to challenge you and surprise you – they need to be the practical arm of your vision, testing it and demonstrating it.  In technical teams, they are the do-ers.  The single most important task for a manager is protecting their team from undue interference, creating the space for them to develop and work their way and to advocate for their work.  One should not be intimidated by hiring smart people.  Only an arrogant boss wants to be in a position of dominance over his team.  Hire smart people and give them the space and resource they need to shine.  and seriously, if you think managing people effectively is making sure they get in at 9am every day, then you’re doing it wrong.

4. Stand on the shoulders…but understand how they got there.

A deep and varied gene pool is essential in your creative development.  Ideas don’t come from nowhere, but neither should they just be lifted and implemented with a slap of branded paint on them.  Taking direct inspiration from your competitors is to execute their strategy from 6 months ago.  Pull it in from well outside technology, media, television and digital.  Go to galleries, read blogs, use open source frameworks…but understand why these works succeed and expand upon it, remix it, make it your own.  It sounds obvious, but in the stark light of deadlines the path of least resistance can seem tempting.  We use other people’s work all the time, mostly as reference points to help our client’s understand our intentions, but all to often that turns into the execution as well.  Avoid this at all costs.

5. Allow it

The deep hierarchical structure of a corporate organisation can lead to the creative teams feeling a lack of empowerment,  waiting for our “seat at the table” or the right reporting line, or the right structure or the right paygrade to make things happen.  They rarely do.  Carve out the space you need.  As I’ve mentioned already, creativity, research, exploration are all cultural things – they are the very core of our practice as creatives.   Experiment and don’t wait for permission because you won’t get it.  On a speaking engagement last year, a fellow delegate described this approach as ‘organisational hacking’ and it’s easier to do it within complex organisations than on your own.  Carve out the space and, as above, if you’re a manager protect your team’s ability to do this.

Make it part of your culture, not your job description.

6. Technology is a toolkit

You know, we are blessed in digital.  If we want to FULLY realise an idea, we can do so without requiring budgets, crews, staff or a whole range of other things that other forms of creatives require to see their ideas realised.   We have all of the skills at our disposal to explore ideas entirely within the heart of the medium.  This probably isn’t the place for polemic about hybrid skills or prototyping processes (clue – to prototype is to build, so build it), but our form of technology should be as much a part of the creative palette as a pencil and pad.  Designers shouldn’t learn to code so that they can build what they design.  They should play with technology as it’s an extension of their own discipline, another tool in their arsenal and a method of exploring the medium in which we work.  Web technology has never been more creatively-focussed, accessible and friendly to use.  Find makers clubs, workshops or a friendly geek and get your hands dirty.

7. Fail beautifully

Josh Davis’s talk at FOTB a few years ago referenced worrying about failing as a symptom of status anxiety.  Successful people fail all the time. Failure is rarely empirically measurable. Failure is an indicator of progression – you don’t generally fail at something you already know how to do.  If you are failing, then you are pushing out into unknown territory.  Embrace this.  If you innovate, you will fail, learn and grow and this is precisely what innovation is borne of.  There is a huge pressure in the corporate environment not to fail, particularly in agile where breaking the code is addressed with immature shows of shame and denigration.  This largely explains why innovation has been so rare in those teams.  The creative mind fails beautifully and strives to do it better the next time.

8. Sky is not a meritocracy

When people ask me ‘why are you leaving’ my response was often because it didn’t feel like it made a difference if I was any good or not.  This is misleading, however, because how I might perceive recognition in an environment like this should have nothing to do with my own standards.

Most of our frustrations have  been borne of a failure to work effectively with the rest of the company.  We say ‘if only we could just do things like this…’ as if there is a magic switch to make a business of tens of thousands of people think like we do.  We have to work out how to implant new ideas into the business without seeming like we’re in control.  The good news is, that’s *exactly* what creative thinking does – it takes complex or abstract problems and it builds ideas around them so that people can understand or relate to them.  The reasons for a decision, good or bad, being made are often nothing to do with whether or not it’s right, but are more likely motivated by positioning, politics and the aforementioned ownership culture.  The trick is to use the creative process not only to deliver against the brief, but to ensure that the creative integrity is maintained (even if by stealth).

9. Collboration is key

What the politics of a large organisation makes nearly impossible is effective collaboration. Sky’s culture of ownership is such that clients feel that they have to own budget, resource, ideas, thinking and success.  They seem, however, to do a remarkably good job of shifting failure back onto the creative teams…and of course the benefits of learnings from them.  Perhaps that’s why they are often doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again.  Learning to collaborate means a removal of the individual ego from the project, acknowledging that centre’s of excellence are more effective when given their own space and an implicit trust in the professionals that you are working with (see hiring above).  With collaboration also comes collective responsibility and it’s this sharing of both the burden of the work and the responsibility for it’s successful completion that makes for the best types of collaboration.

10. Inspire yourself

Inspiration is our lifeblood.  Do it every day.  It might not be everybody’s style to stand up in front of people and talk about what you’re passionate about (although I strongly recommend it as it’s a great way of ordering your thoughts), but send links, talk, explore, try things out, prototype, sketch, blog and argue.

Go to conferences, connect to the industry, bring back new energy from the wider industry into the team and share it – share your thoughts about your work and your professional and private passions, your ideas and your motivations.  There isn’t a lot of vision at Sky when it comes to Digital and passion does, eventually, cut through.  If you feel that the culture of your workplace is suppressing any of this, it’s time to make a change.  Reaching out to the wider industry doesn’t mean that you’ve got a foot out of the door, it means that you’re an active participant in global digital culture and you’ll be a better creative for it.

Author’s note:  These thoughts were aimed primarily at an internal audience, but they also take into account wider thoughts that I explored when speaking at events about common problems that the digital creative finds working in a large organisation.  Sky is far from unique in this respect and it’s innovation in many other fields is self-evident.  Incidentally,  whilst proofing this today, I came across two quite amazing articles from Mark Pollard at Big Spaceship (a major inspiration for me ever since hearing Josh Hirsch speak a few years ago) which should be considered essential reading when considering how to bring about a culture of innovation to a politicised organisation.




About Andrew

I am a technical director, creative technologist and digital strategist who has been working in the web industry for 15 years. An early online user from the days of Prestel and BBS systems, I am a self-taught technologist and developer who has been immersed in the creative possibilities of digital technology from childhood. My career path has taken many turns, from the heady dot-com agency days, through the corporate world and the variety of experience which freelance brings. Throughout, my goal has been to help organizations and brands realise the potential that the art and science of being digital can achieve, and to help them create opportunities to better use the most important emerging medium of our time. I am a strong advocate for digital as a multi-disciplinary medium, with an enviable record in building and retaining teams, and in the importance of the creative disciplines of collaboration, vision, practicing and failing in order to push things forward.


    1. Thanks Hoss, I should have noted in the article actually that the talk was partially suggested by your ‘these things I have learned’ talk at #fotb a few years ago. A lot of things in that continue to resonate with me. Thank you.

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