Who: Tobias Lewis Thomas
What: Creative Director, Design Consultant & Photographer
Field: Advertising and Photography
Where: London
Follow: @tobylewisthomas

How to lead a creative agency and become an editorial photographer

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Introduce yourself and tell us what you do.
I do art directing in the commercial and advertising world and photography in the editorial space. I also consult for medium to large size businesses whereby I go in and take a look at their ideas and try to enhance what they do.


How old are you and where are you from?
I’m 29 and from the New Forrest, Lymington


Did you go to university, if so what did you study? Were you a good student?
I went to Bournemouth Arts University and dropped out in my third year. I was really lucky and business started to pick up for me. I used to tour with popular bands and then started filming/shooting them and that turned into money.

In the summer of my second year that turned into an office and a studio. It was a question of; am I going to finish my dissertation or am I going to take that job that just came in. I thought, you know what I’m at university and already doing the thing that I came to University for so it made more sense to step away from my degree.


Do you think you made the right decision?
Yes definitely.


How did you meet the people you were on tour with?
I think young people are naturally drawn to the things that they love. I love music and we all grew up in this punk scene and would meet at gigs. It was a cool way to meet people and that has grown into a way to facilitate me having a career.


What did you do after?
I moved to London where I freelanced for two years in photography and directing. I also did consultancy for hospitality where I would train bartenders and write cocktail menus.

Two years in I met two guys called Elliot Hammer and James Allen who are the founders of Birch Design agency. We decided to start a new company, keep the name and make it this 360-creative agency. 

What was your involvement with Birch?
My role was the creative director, so I would put together teams for the film and photography side to execute projects for clients. 

Who were your target demographic?
Probably the premium luxury industry. We did a lot of work for menswear, tailoring brands and the hospitality industry.

What kind of clients did you work with at Birch?

Soho House, Warner brothers, McDonald’s, Royal Mail and Vita Coco. We were a small-medium sized agency with some big clients.

They came to us because of the mutual love for things like the menswear industry and also the way we did story telling. We understood the product and the brand.


How did you meet Elliot and James?
We met at an exhibition. I’d just come back from NY and was going to HK so had ten days in London in between and I wanted to put on an exhibition. I got 13 photographers together and rented a gallery in central London. I remember calling them ‘chaps’ when I first met them because they were so well dressed.

My girlfriend at the time ended up being their first employee and then they moved offices and I moved in. So essentially, they were my landlord. But they had seen my work, and one day James took me for a drink and asked if I wanted to join them and so I jumped on board.

Are there any bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

"One thing that I’ve learnt is that you don’t have to work five days a week. We have this idea that working hard looks like being busy, but actually working hard looks like being productive towards a goal and once you’ve done all the quantifiable steps within that period of time it’s ok to just relax" - Toby

I found myself working all the time and just being busy and being happy with that. But at the start of this year I had a lot of money and it didn’t really bring me a lot of happiness and I was confused by that. I had all this freedom and I could do what I wanted but actually when freedom outweighs your self-control, you lose direction and everything begins to mean nothing.

I’ve learnt to question what I’m doing and find out what my purpose is so that I don’t over-invest in work. Work is just one part of life and so is fostering relationships so that when you’re 50 years old you still have friends that you love.

How do you switch off?
When I’m away I don’t take my camera with me and I like to be present in any experience. I have a strong community in Hackney and I like to spend time at home.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?
When I was looking back at the prices I used to charge to clients back then, I was doing so much work for hardly any money. I’ve always been really comfortable with my quality of work. For me, it’s a failure if you can’t get out of work by 5pm and if you’re going into work at 6am - those things shouldn’t run your life.

One thing I’ve learnt is that you don’t have to bend over backwards for people and when a client asks me to edit an extra picture I’m like no, I’m OOO. If you go in with strong boundaries, people will respect that. One time, a guy asked me to do some filming for One Direction and he proposed a set budget and I was like when you can up that let me know and he came back and increased the budget.

Creatives tend to undervalue themselves in terms of their pricing. When setting your pricing, how did you know what to charge?
You can look at everyone else’s market but I thought about how much money I wanted to earn a year and then split that into the 20 days a month that I actually worked and then split per day. So, then there’s the question of how am I going to earn that much money? You normally overrun to meet your earnings so you need to account for that.

It takes a certain level of focus, resilience and character in each individual to drive routine and want to make their mark on the world. What do you think taught you to be this way and what childhood influences have contributed to this?
My parents didn’t teach me anything. I’ve been able to take criticism really well and just always hit a new stage. Being surrounded by really graceful people has been the only way I’ve made it. I used to spend a lot and didn’t know how to save. But since I’ve surrounded myself with smart people I’ve saved a lot each month and I just think, imagine if I’d had this mindset 10 years ago.

I’m currently reading the book Outliers and he talks about the learning styles between the privileged and under privileged and the way those people develop.

I’m from an under privileged background and I definitely lacked all of those things like disciplines etc.

It’s been an intense journey for me to the extent that I’ve had to install these things into my life. For example, my laptop screen will automatically go black every 30 minutes to allow me to take breaks, my apple watch gives me reminders to drink water. I’ve had to micro manage my life because I didn’t learn these things when I was young. My upbringing has made me a real hard worker and I’ve learnt to respect myself and build on my character.

Tell us what you do now?

"I’m a freelance photographer and director. I’m shooting with the Telegraph this week with the head chef at the Ritz, and then shooting with J Cole. I spend a day a week doing creative consultancy and in September I’m going to start a Theology degree" - Toby

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to? What new realisations have helped?
Say no to social media. I don’t have Instagram, Facebook or Twitter on my phone. Instagram can make you question your life even if you’re really content with it, especially when you’re 30 and don’t have a house or kids.

Just saying no generally. I think being able to protect your time and book time for yourself and say no to everything else. Even with clients, to be able to say no and say it’s not really part of the contract and having people to respect your boundaries.

Also, no sugar.

What does your morning routine look like?
I stretch on my yoga mat and then go to the gym and steam room.

If you could gift one book to someone what would it be and why?
The road back to you by Ian Morgan Cron. It analyses your personality based on your fears.

Favourite quote?
“Many live alone on islands made of nightmare. May we live as boats and bridges sent through darkness, honest boats and bridges sent to find them. May we build those things, and may we also be them. And may we raise an honest hand on days we need them. And them, after help and rest and all the things our lives require, let’s keep going. There is still so much to feel and see and say” – Jamie Tworkowski

It reminds me that although I’ve come a long way I should always look back and lend a helping hand to others in need.

9 JULY, 2018



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