Creative Directors, Interviews

Balancing the Grind With Paul Swann, Managing Partner: Creative & Strategy at The Works Sydney

August 13, 2019

Paul Swann is the Creative Partner and also Managing Partner at The Works a leading independent agency based in Sydney.

He is an Executive Creative Director, with over 50 international creative awards including Cannes Lions, Spikes Asia, Clios, New York Festivals and D&AD.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your background and career?

After graduating I explored a pretty diverse range of entrepreneurial ventures including a t-shirt brand, a Millennium Bug consultancy and a web development agency.

While these were of mixed success commercially, they all taught me valuable lessons and gave me a load of funny stories. My first roles in advertising were more strategic, starting with a boutique agency in London, followed by a regional role in a multinational.

On moving to Australia, I joined a nascent Naked Communications, where I focused more on creative development, before moving to The Works in 2012 where I currently work. I’ve only really worked for four companies and have been lucky to have been treated very well and worked with fantastic people.

2) What is your current role and what does it entail on a day to day basis?

I’m a Creative Partner and also Managing Partner at The Works. The Creative Partner side involves working with clients, developing work, and running the creative department.

The Managing Partner side focuses more on the running of and vision for our business and how we partner with other businesses in the group such as Daresay (our content and social agency), On Message (our dedicated Messaging agency) and of course RXP (the digital solutions business that acquired The Works in 2017).

As much as the business side is often exciting my heart will always lie with the creative.

3) What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

I try not to send work emails in the evening, but I can’t help myself from firing off a few first thing in the morning as things pop into my head as I walk the dog.

Then I’m generally in the office around 8:30. We have a flexi time policy at The Works but people tend to start early so they can leave a bit earlier, especially in summer when the beach beckons.

Days are spent briefing, reviewing and shaping work, discussing internal initiatives, while still trying to have a laugh along the way. Our industry is moving at a furious pace and I try to make time to learn something new whenever possible.

This could be reading and article or presentation someone has shared or just looking at the best new work in the local or international trade media. To this end we have an internal knowledge sharing platform which helps foster a culture of continuous learning.

We also have a physical training bootcamp a couple of times a week. We’ve deliberately scheduled it at 5:45 so people have a defined end to the work day.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

I’ve learnt not to leave things until the last minute because that doesn’t give you time to account for the inevitable curveball that’s heading your way.

A phrase I like (and often espouse) is ‘start by starting’, which essentially just means try not to spend too much time prevaricating and get going on the task, by doing this you’ll realise where the barriers are early on and you give yourself time to overcome them.

Another thing I’ve learned over time is to engage others. When I was younger I was more reticent to let people in, especially on creative assignments. But now I realise how a quick conversation with a trusted collaborator can accelerate your thinking incrementally.

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5) In between your job, life and all your other responsibilities, how do you ensure you find some sort of balance in your life?

I’m lucky enough to enjoy what I do so work rarely feels like a chore, but that creates its own challenges in that you can spend too much time doing it. It’s obviously important to develop interests outside of work.

I love going to galleries and shows and also watching films. Which is fortunate for a couple of reasons, first because they all inform my work life but also because my wife is into similar things. Emma, my wife is also great at ensuring I don’t get out of kilter and is always planning interesting things for us to do.

6) What does work life balance mean to you?

As I’ve matured I’ve realised that balance really is one of the most important fundamental principles in life. You naively think you can cheat it by neglecting one element over another but you’re kidding yourself.

It’s critical to remember that it’s the other elements of your life; your friends, family, you physical and mental health and interests that make you good at your job.

7) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

When I started to get a bit more responsibility and needed to be ‘on form’ more often I begun to appreciate the importance of exercise.

I don’t do Triathlon’s or anything that extreme, but I do try and workout regularly. I’m calmer, more creative and more productive when I’m fit. I remember reading a world leader (so someone much busier and important than me) say that they ‘didn’t have time not to exercise’.

I loved how they flipped what you often hear from people about being too busy to exercise. Over the last few years I’ve been meditating more too. I was intrigued when I learned that lots of highly creative people (the film maker David Lynch and comedian Jerry Seinfeld for example) have used meditation throughout their careers.

8) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I’m much more into non-fiction than fiction when it comes to reading. Like the rest of the world I recently enjoyed Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and Moneyland by Oliver Bullough.

I’ve subscribed to The Economist for years and love the diversity of topics it encourages me to engage with. I’ve also become a big fan of podcasts, the A16Z podcast is worth checking out.

9) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Feeling physically and mentally well. Is that one thing or two? Anyway you know what I mean, your never going to get stuff done if you doing feel well.

10) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d refer back to an earlier answer, don’t think you can cheat balance. That doesn’t mean not working hard or not playing hard either but not at the expense of the other important elements in your life.

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