Director, Lu Mansell talks about an early part of our company's journey, and one of the elements that underpins the company's success'.
Although it feels like not long ago that Will and I used to answer the phone to the enquiries....it probably is! Over the years we have produced a lot of different types of work, for a lot of different types of client. We used to get a lot of calls that would go something like this:
Caller: Hello! I have a project that I need a costing done for....
Me: Sure, what are the details?
Caller: Well, we need 17 giant dinosaurs produced and installed overnight in central London locations, soon.
Me: Ok....what sort of materials do they need to be made from?
Caller: We don't know, we were hoping you could tell us.
Me: Sure, what do they need to do? Can they be for example inflatables, or do they need to be solid-skinned, or do they need to move?
Caller: We don't really know.
Me: Ok... how big do they need to be?
Caller: that depends on what they cost.
Me: Ok, what is your budget?
Caller: We don't know, can you give us a range of budgets, sizes, construction formats and installation methodologies please?
Caller: And can we have that all by tomorrow, - I have to brief my client on what their options are.
Me: So to sum up, you have no defined brief, no budget, no firm dates (but it is 'soon'), and you need me to scope all that out for you by tomorrow for a project that you are clearly only just pitching to client?
Coming from the theatre world, we weren't really used to people (I won't call them clients, as it was so rare that these projects were actually real rather than concepts) trying so blatantly to use us to develop their client pitches for them, for free. It took us a while to know that if there wasn't at least some sort of concept design document, we were simply spending our time making others look good at our own expense. But learn we did, and the resultant filter got applied to new enquiries, especially if they came from people who were in the world of Marketing Agencies.
At the very least, the hours and days that we spent looking at these 'projects', for free, was fantastic practice for developing very loose ideas into actual design concepts, construction methods, project scopes, and proper budgets. There was a certain amount of our experience as makers that informed our ability to work out a construction method, how it might work structurally, what it would cost in time and materials to produce. The really interesting ones were the ones where we had to self-educate in some aspect of the project in order to understand it properly: new materials or methodologies were researched with gusto.
Fortunately for us and the business, not all of the enquiries were just for other people's client pitches, and we still had plenty of unusual requests from real clients. I once answered the phone to someone who said 'my client wants a polar bear puppet the size of a double decker bus'. 'Here we go again', I thought to myself. But this time when I asked if they had a budget, a delivery date and an outline design, they actually did. We got to deploy all of our skills on producing their job and they got something magical in a very short space of time, but that is a project that I will go into another time...
In all of these projects the challenge wasn't just about working out how to construct things- it was about how to get the resources required (information, materials, people, transport, finance, and everything else) into the right places, at the right times, with the right decisions having been made. Essentially: project management. And we still had a business to run and grow. We were not doing this alone, we had a team of course. So there were people to manage, recruitments to be made, and plans to be developed.
I'm not recounting all this to try and demonstrate how brilliant Will and I were at this stuff: every day was (and continues to be) a school day, and when we stop making mistakes, it will no doubt be because we have left the building. I'm describing the range of stuff that we, and many many others in our industries, are required to adapt to, to learn to do, to research and (hopefully) to excel at on an ongoing basis.
So where did we get the foundational skill set to be so adaptable, to be able to learn new skills and processes, to critically interrogate what was needed to build a business, manage people, successfully run demanding and technically complex projects?
Perhaps we undertook degrees in project management? Construction management? Business degrees? Did we do MBAs?
Nope, none of the above.
We have Arts degrees. In fact, most of the company have Arts degrees, including all of our Senior Management Team. That's not a recruiting criteria for us by the way, it's just the fact that consistently the best applicants for positions happen to have Arts degrees. And then they go on to do brilliant work within the organisation, being committed, adaptable, good communicators, big-picture thinkers and self-developers.
It is an outcome that we can see reflected more broadly in the £111 Billion that the Arts industries are (or were, pre-Covid) worth to the UK economy.
UK arts industries, and arts graduates, should be the poster-children for the economic recovery, and it is well past time that the contributions that the arts industries make - not just in revenue but in quality of life - were properly recognised.
The news recently that the Government plans to impose a 50% cut to high-cost subject funding of arts subjects in Higher Education would not appear to demonstrate such recognition, and that plan lacks vision and commercial strategy. Perhaps things might be different if those making these decisions had some arts education themselves!
We could not have built Factory Settings into what it is today without the outlook and skills that we got in Arts education. We are one example amongst many thousands in this country, and it is truly saddening to imagine a world where the UK no longer has a reputation as being a leader in arts and culture.
We are brilliant at it, and it brings us so many benefits in so many other ways, let's keep it thriving.
If you want to express a view, you can write to your MP, or support the Public Campaign for the Arts here: