Challenge & Fear
After a decade with The Mix, Partner & Creative Director Stephen Duffy reflects on his rich experiences and bids farewell to the agency.
In November 2012, as a young designer splitting my time between interning in creative agencies in Leeds and folding t-shirts in my local GAP, I was very much on the hunt for a full-time creative role and a move down to London.
In a moment of pure serendipity, a chance twitter search for #designjobs brought up a tweet from Tash Walker searching for a junior designer to join her new start-up agency.
A portfolio submission, train down to London and two-hour chat later, I was offered the position of “Visual Planner”.
Both Tash and her first business partner, Austin, come from branding agency backgrounds, and with that, recognised the value a creative could bring to their fledgling start-up. The fact I was the first hire when the core offering is market research speaks volumes to the founding principles of the agency – a willingness to be bold, to bring together people with different backgrounds and skillsets to do something different and challenge a tired and uninspiring industry.
My first few months were challenging and fun in equal measure; we had a fresh methodology and a vocal disdain for the type of soulless qual research that occupied the market, which inevitably meant we were seen as risky and unproven. The agency was in a situation that very much matched my own – young, hungry and looking for the right people to take a leap of faith and provide the opportunity.
Time in the early days was often split between trying to get a foot in the door with industry connections, or ruminating and business-planning over pints in the Woolpack pub, who’s beer garden our first office overlooked. We were figuring out the how, but the notion that whatever we did, it had to be real, genuine, human and not overly-rationalised felt instinctive and anchoring.
The gap between where we were then and where we are now feels incredibly significant. We have grown the business from a rebellious idea to a global agency. In the decade since, there have been some fantastic and bold brands who have joined us in our challenge to the market research industry, with businesses like Asics, Mozilla and Diageo having worked closely with us for a number of years.
In the name of better and more human research, The Mix now routinely works across all five continents. Over the last ten years we have run over five hundred projects for household brands, to get marketers more excited about the people that buy their products and inspires them into action.
In practice this has looked like: a lot of missed trains, hungover flights, navigating language barriers, enduring bacterial parasites, hosting immersive breakfasts, drunken dancing on tables, flying with an inflatable igloo, watching people open presents on Christmas morning, wheeling suitcases full of camera equipment, running a half-marathon, countless boxes of blindfolds, hosting film premieres and eating Sunday roasts with people all over the UK.
As an independent business, there has always been a prevailing attitude at The Mix to make your working life work for you. It’s why we’ve worked a four-day week for five years, and this entrepreneurial spirit has always been present within our creative team. An encouragement to develop your personal passions as part of your practice. To find gaps and spaces to explore new skills and different formats.
For me personally, this meant branching out from graphic design and into filmmaking and animation, two areas I had a personal passion for but no specific outlet. I’ve since been found with a camera in my hand all over the world, shooting documentaries with marathon runners in Tokyo and filming young creatives in Lagos.
As a team we’ve co-created a fanzine with grime fanatics for Sony Music, produced podcasts for Mozilla, popped-up bars for Diageo, and built immersive experiences for Disney.
There is a complete backing to try things out, even if it doesn’t necessarily work out, because this creative freedom means the agency isn’t just sitting still, but can always be fresh and unexpected.
The scale and ambition of the work has only been matched by the agency’s ongoing commitment to build a fantastic and diverse team. Based out of a new HQ on Bermondsey Street in London, and establishing an exciting new studio in New York City, the agency is in a fantastic position.
However, after the best part of a decade, the time is now right for me to take up a new challenge. To embrace all of the experiences from being a part of the building of The Mix in its start-up days, and the entrepreneurial spirit that is so core to the ethos of this agency.
Starting up afresh myself means I’ll be right back at the beginning of this journey again, back to the deep end of uncertainty and having to prove value from the ground-up.
If the last 10 years have shown me anything, it’s the importance of having conviction and welcoming challenge and fear.
I could not be prouder of what the team have achieved in my time here, especially in my last four years as Creative Director.
Thanks to all of the team at The Mix, past and present, for all of the laughs and just being great humans. We’re in the business of people, and you’ve all made it an incredibly fun and rewarding experience for me. A huge thanks also to my partners Tash, Gemma, Sam & Maria, for the support and advice throughout our time together. You have so many exciting things in the pipeline, I have no doubt that The Mix is destined to reach even greater heights over the coming years.
Ta-ra, good luck and thanks so much for everything.