LUKE & SARAH FROM HEADJAM

Husband-and-wife dream team, Luke Kellett and Sarah Cook, run a top creative agency, Headjam, but they live by the strict rule of ‘no computers at home’. Mind blown.

I met Sarah way back in the day when we both worked for Newcastle’s very first Boost Juice. I remember all our ‘life chats’ fondly – we always found a way to have deep and meaningful conversations in the midst of the crazy smoothie-making. After losing touch for a few years, we were reunited completely by accident in a record shop in Brooklyn, NYC. Some might call it divine intervention, others simply coincidence. But I knew I had to interview these cool kids about all the cool things they’ve been doing.

Luke Kellett and Sarah Cook met in Melbourne, through a community of artists and warehouse communities in Brunswick, collaborating on social anthropological project This City Speaks To Me. The project was to document what was happening in artist’s lives, and ended up becoming a book that was purchased by the State Library of Victoria as a cultural piece. They moved from Melbs to Sydney, but spent most of their free time in the coastal city of Newcastle, a couple of hours north. Eventually, it was time for a more permanent migration.

"We try to talk to each other and I think that’s the best communication tool – look at each other in the face and have a few words."

With Sarah freelancing for Headjam over several years and the newlyweds working together on various projects, it seemed a natural progression to move into Headjam in a partnership capacity. Luke’s background is photographics; he worked as a staff photographer for the likes of Atlanta Records and Sony Music, back in the “heyday (pre-iTunes) of the music industry.” Sarah heads the design team, and Luke acts as account manager, though the term “boss” is a pet hate of them both. Instead, they see the Headjam team as family and work hard to maintain a positive, collaborative culture at work.

“We openly have a profit-sharing scheme with our team members – it’s an important part of our business,” says Luke. Sarah adds, “We have salad club, which is where everyone brings lunch for the whole team and it has to fit in a bowl. It kind of rosters around, which is a nice collaborative thing. We also take the team on trips and go to festivals, talks or conferences.” They also have Friday Frat from 9-10am, where they do a fun thing for an hour to break up the day-to-day; drawing monsters, taking photos out and about, playing cards – nothing is off the table.

Talking to Sarah and Luke was nothing short of mesmerising. That sounds like an odd word to use, but it is certainly awe-inspiring to hear these two talk about the changing nature of creative industries with such passion and fervour.

"It took a while to build up and we felt proud that we could stand by those morals and stick to our guns."

 

Luke spoke in detail about design, business structure and their commitment to working with Health, Education and Community/Arts organisations to further research projects. “That’s a really important distinction for us,” says Luke. “A lot of our internal team have access to mental health problems in their families. We’re very passionate about what we deem behavioural change, which is essentially producing creative outcomes to influence peoples’ behaviour in a positive light.”

Headjam currently have a key role in developing content, solutions and data tracking for major research projects coming from the University of Newcastle, Melbourne University and University of Queensland, to name a few. Just as one cool example, they’re currently in the process of developing an anti-gambling app that simulates a pokie machine, testing whether it’s the flashing lights and colours, losing or winning streaks, that are influencing behaviour.

It’s nowhere near just logos and typography for these design gurus. With Luke and Sarah at the forefront of Headjam, this creative agency has its finger on the pulse like nothing I’ve ever seen.

What’s your involvement with Community and Arts?

S: Community and Arts is our love child!

L: Financially, it doesn’t bring in the money, but we support a lot of local arts initiatives. That’s our most forward-facing work – design, website, things people see on a day-to-day basis. We’re interested in working with local organisations that we believe are making an impact on Newcastle as a renewable city.

Is it tough saying no to the smaller projects that come knocking on your door?

L: We actively say no to a lot of projects and clients that come through – we turned down a substantial amount of money a couple of years ago for a mining application.

S: We’re passionate about behavioural change models… it definitely means we’re not rich! Because we say no to the highest-billing types of work.

L: But it means the team and culture we built are really sustainable, it’s really enjoyable, and we collaborate with incredible people.

S: I think we’re very privileged to be able to do what we’re doing and what we love.

L: It’s never an easy financial decision … but it’s much more worthy to make a bit of a loss on certain projects that it would be to make a profit on something we don’t believe in.

Is Headjam your forever dream?

L: We’re definitely focused on making it as self-sustainable as possible, so that we have enough people and a team around to manage if we want to go away on holidays.

S: The business and organisation and what Headjam stands for is bigger than any one person. If we leave tomorrow, Headjam can keep going.

L: For the foreseeable future, it’s us. [But it’s] nice when you can de-emotionalise yourself from the business - it’s empowering.

by Amy Lovat

How did Headjam evolve when you took over?

Luke: It was a changing environment - 2002-2010 saw a huge shift in terms of the type of work that could be produced. There was a big shift in centralising production of artwork. That means organisations would employ their own creatives and designers internally. What it meant for the design industry was that instead of getting this consistent roll over and day-to-day design jobs, the industry changed to be more conceptual, so you’d essentially be employed to come up with creative concepts for their internal design teams, to then roll that out over a number of years.

We brought on multidisciplinary tools and started to grow the business. We came in and radically changed the structure and systems. Originally, Headjam had 4-5 designers and outsourced digital development and video production. We employed 2 digital developers, 2 video producers, with a design team of 3, and production and strategic management team of 3. We could essentially tackle any creative concept task that came through without having to outsource and rely on external parties. We adapted early on to the shift in the market place.

When did you make the decision to only work on certain types of projects in Health, Education, Community and Arts?

Sarah: [Because we were] buying into an established business, it had a fantastic reputation. It was the type of work that had organically come through Headjam anyway. But we sat down in 2010 and said, ‘Let’s be strategic’. We analysed our current clients, who we wanted to work with, our individual backgrounds and what we were passionate about. It felt right and … now we have somehow carved a niche where we are known for that work and it’s coming back at us. It took a while to build up and we felt proud that we could stand by those morals and stick to our guns.

Can you share a creative, community-focused project you’re working on now?

L: We’re actively producing sexual health campaigns nationally and within the state, to try and influence young teens and adults to make safe choices when having sex. This could be anything from encouraging condom use to more extreme examples as working with the AIDS Council of NSW to provide guidelines as to how best minimise risk for intravenous use of syringes and more hardcore sexual practises.

Because of that passion and drive for behavioural change, we not only work with local and federal health organisations, we’ve also started working with educational institutions around Australia, and PhD candidates and research fellows.

"But it’s much more worthy to make a bit of a loss on certain projects that it would be to make a profit on something we don’t believe in."

How does a collaboration with a University research project work?

L: For example, they come to us with a challenge. Such as ‘We want to measure how successful developing a gaming platform is at influence behaviour change in 14 to 18-year-old children, on increasing condom use…’ We go away and think about the problem, then come back to them with a solution and a recommendation of the type of game it should be, creative outcome, help to build a database of analytics, mathematical structure behind research elements to provide them with the data they require.

What’s the final outcome – is there the possibility to influence change in the wider community, outside the individual research project?

L: That info is then used to rally legislative government to change the way commercial advertising is communicated to that audience. [They could then] pass the knowledge onto NSW Health and the Cancer Council and … recommend campaigns moving forward.

S: We’re building real live interactions. Someone might have a theory, but we’re making it a mobile app so that people and the community at large can use it.

You openly have a profit-sharing scheme with your employees, which is rare. It sounds like you harbour a pretty collaborative work environment…

S: Something that’s happened recently is businesses turning to a freelance model, which makes sense, but for us there’s nothing more valuable than sitting in a room with a lot of other creative people and having minds meld to make a project. When we can, we get people in and build a team that works together. Everybody’s ideas are valuable. We try to keep project teams fluid – if there’s a new project coming in that will need a website, we get the developer in straight away, as well as the office manager and everyone, so they can be part of the conversation and ideation of how the brand is going to look from early on.

L: If we had a cleaner, the cleaner would be involved in the brainstorming sessions! [laughs] You have to be involved in understanding and experience, so if we’re doing work for a business we go in and spend time there, whether it’s a Japanese restaurant, fitness classes – we go do it, we’re all there. It’s that immersive element of the process that’s important.

A group environment’s definitely not for everyone… there’s the stereotype of the writer (like me) hunched over a computer alone in a dark room somewhere, a total introvert. But I think that in creative industries, the human interaction pushes you forward, you can bounce off each other for inspiration.

S: Exactly. I can look over next to me and have someone designing something and a snippet of that will inform my own productivity. And conversations really push you along.

L: The agile nature is important to us. We don’t want to grow to a larger size team. We’re really passionate about keeping the team at 10. We’re also looking at key trends in the next 5-10 years… We’ve built relationships with studios in the UK, US and Canada of the same size, we physically went to meet them. So we’re looking at generating a knowledge and staff share, or a team members’ exchange program.

Cool. Thanks guys!

Luke: You haven’t asked us how we go collaborating together?

Ok, how do you do it?

L: We do really well. [laughs]

But you don’t ever take work home?

S: Ever since we met our whole relationship has always existed around creating things together. It’s a beautiful thing, I love it. We’ve had our screaming matches but it’s all turned out good in the end.

L: The rule is no talking about work at home.

S: We break that rule sometimes because we get excited and carried away. But it’s always the card you hold in your back pocket…

L: We’re not always good at switching off. It was a conscious decision. It was running our lives and weekends and every part of our existence. We had to stop and say, we have to leave work at work. So that’s why we don’t have computers at home. I play miniature war games, futsal. Sarah does yoga, we watch movies. It’s not always easy, but it’s very rewarding and we get to work with the person we love every day… that sounds really corny.