Nicolas Roope’s creative business lessons

Nicolas Roope has been at the forefront of design over the past 25 years. After leaving art school in 1994, he was a co-founder of Antirom, an art collective which playfully experimented with multimedia, and morphed into an agency creating digital shopfronts for Levi’s and websites for Guinness. In 2001, after the dotcom bubble had burst, he co-founded the Poke digital agency, with a mission to humanise the language of the Internet and create viral content for brands like Orange and the Tate Modern.

In 2002, he designed the ‘Pokia’, a retro handset attachment for mobile phones. With the Hulger design brand he founded to design the phones, he created an even more iconic design – the Plumen lightbulb, a squiggly-sculptural energy-saving bulb that’s now in the permanent collection at the V&A and MoMA. The founder of the Lovie Awards for digital design, he left his role as creative director of Poke in 2019 to concentrate on solving the world’s biggest design problems, especially around climate change. Here, he shares what he’s learned during an eclectic but important creative career… 

Lesson #1: Even creative businesses need hierarchies

‘Multimedia, as it was known then, was emerging as a new medium when I left art school, and we started the Antirom art collective. It was about experimenting with this new medium, and questioning the language of the Internet, which had been very dry and mechanical. We were initially just doing playful interactive sketches, but we soon started doing client work, like creating digital installations for Levi’s stores or building an interactive website for Guinness.

‘But things went wrong because there was no hierarchy. Simple things like who got paid what became very complicated, and ideas would get stuck because you had all these creative people together. I’ve since learned that, while you aim for creative consensus, there needs to be someone who the buck stops with. Mean agreement isn’t often the best result, and there are often impasses, so you need someone who will make the call. Sometimes, just moving forward is the most important thing.’

Antirom multimedia work for Levi’s

Lesson #2: Understand how audiences work 

‘What set us apart when we founded Poke in 2001 was that we understood interactivity and virality. We’d been working with the web as the dotcom bubble burst, and we’d all read things like The Tipping Point and The Cluetrain Manifesto. It was actually easier to make something go viral back then, in the time of Friends Reunited and blogging, because the Internet was smaller and more interlinked.

‘We had a few things early on that went viral really fast. One was The Warholiser for Tate Modern in 2002, who wanted to publicise their Warhol show. People sent pictures of their face to the site and it would make a Warhol-style image of them, which they could share. It went viral really quickly, and there were people all over the world sending entries. Another one that caught on fast was our Global Rich List, where you’d put in your salary and see how well off you were in relation to the rest of the world.’

Lesson #3: We are all humans

‘A big thread that runs through everything I’ve done is humanising things, especially in the digital space. One of our big early contracts with Poke was with Orange (now EE), and it was a really good partnership because they wanted to speak in a more human way than mobile phone companies had done. We’ve often tried to create interactive experiences, like the Wembley Cup for EE, a football tournament we created to help the brand reach a younger male audience, publicising it through things like Twitch and the FIFA games.’

Lesson #4: Timing is everything

‘Technology has moved so fast during my design career, and I’ve been on the right and wrong sides of it. Poke was essentially the result of the dotcom bubble bursting. We’d been flying high with huge contracts, but suddenly the world turned, the money dried up and we were sitting on the pavement, starting again.

‘With both the Hulger phone and the Plumen lightbulb, we missed the chance to really commercialise them because technology took over. I designed the headsets at a time when people didn’t like their phones, and wanted to simplify these fiddly, overcomplicated things. But, by the time Hulger was really ready to sell the products, the iPhone came out in 2007 and people started falling in love with their phones again.

‘With the Plumen lightbulb, it achieved its real aim of putting pressure on the big lighting companies by showing that energy-saving lightbulbs could be beautiful, long-lasting products for a reasonable price. But the fluorescent tubes we used were largely replaced by LED lights, which really hurt the commercial potential of the product. When that new technology came in, we were already committed to a large inventory using what was suddenly old technology.’

The Hulger Phone, originally the Pokia

Lesson #5: Get experience in early

‘With Hulger, we made mistakes that might have been avoided if we’d have got more experienced people in early. We got some of the organisational stuff and aspects of the brand wrong – in hindsight, the Plumen lightbulb would have been more commercial if it had been more luxurious, and we might have been quicker to spot trends in the industry, especially the rise of LED. As a creative person, you can get quite deep into the product and mission, and sometimes miss aspects of strategic direction.’

Plumen lightbulb

Lesson #6: Get your IP sorted 

‘Launching the phone was a series of quick lessons on intellectual property law. We’d originally called it the Pokia, with a nod to Poke, but got a cease and desist letter from Nokia. But, more importantly, we didn’t cover our own IP, so almost as soon as I’d come up with the concept, there were copycats making their own cheap versions.’

Lesson #7: Don’t succumb to the cult of busy

‘In our 20s and 30s, we all tended to glamourise how busy we were. When I was developing the Plumen lightbulb, I was the full-time creative director at Poke and had young children. It was too much, and there was a lot of burnout. Over time, at Poke, we became better at setting clear boundaries for staff and clients, and not being so obsessed with over-delivering. It made the business more sustainable, and acknowledging that there’s more to life than work actually made the business feel more meaningful and real.’

Lesson #8: Find your creative balance

Creativity is a complicated, amorphous thing that’s hard to define and even harder to put a value on – especially if you’re a general creative like me. A lot of my career I feel like I’ve been trying to walk a fine line between confidence and hubris. If you’re not confident you don’t get anywhere, but hubris really throws you off. As soon as you think you have all the answers, you’re closing yourself off to new ideas, and things will pass you by. It’s also important to remember that creativity often feels like a struggle, even when things are going well.’

Lesson #9: Creativity and design often aren’t what people think 

‘People can have quite a narrow sense of what terms like design and creativity mean, and I think there should be a much broader bracket. Design is something that can and should be used to tackle the biggest issues in the world. If you take something like electric cars, it’s widely accepted as a science and engineering problem. But actually, the technology’s there already. What hasn’t changed yet is the human behaviour. The biggest challenge for brands like Tesla now isn’t building cars. It’s about getting the world to a stage where Mr Jones, who lives in a semi-detached pebbledash house on Something St, will be embarrassed if he isn’t driving an electric vehicle. That’s a problem to be solved by designers and creatives rather than scientists and engineers.’

Lesson #10: Creativity has never been more important

‘We’re at a time in the world where we need to be more creative than ever. There are a series of enormous issues facing the planet, from the climate crisis to the fact that there are five tech companies in the US that are bigger than the entire FTSE 100. We require much bigger solutions than a few McKinsey consultants, and that challenge is what keeps me excited as a creative. Covid might actually turn out to be an opportunity, by creating a shock to the steady, established reality. I remember speaking to a friend from Serbia, who told me that he had a curious epiphany when bombs started falling on his country in the 1990s. He said that until then he’d lived within a narrower realm of possibility. But when he saw the bombs, he believed that anything could happen in the world. For a creative, that’s a valuable way to think.’

To hear from Nicolas, see his Founder File interview with Creative Entrepreneurs founder Carolyn Dailey.