For Duncan Campbell and Charlotte Rey, curation and storytelling is a natural tendency that bleeds into all areas of their lives, from how they dress, to the decor in their homes, to how they see the world. Although they attended different schools — Charlotte studied fashion and history theory in London, and Duncan studied law in Paris — their friendship was grounded in their shared love and unique perspective towards visuals. Their point of view and penchant for curation only continued to gain them recognition and, after school, they both became editors for Acne Paper, an in-house publication by notable Swedish fashion house Acne.
Over time, the demand skyrocketed for the team’s thoughtful visuals and understated but elegant approach towards art and design, and they found themselves torn between their day-jobs in roles they loved, and the promise of the future. Although neither Duncan nor Charlotte had experience starting a business, they both saw the opportunities in front of them and decided to embark on their own career path. Together, they launched the London-based creative consultancy Campbell-Rey, offering their signature intuitive approach to visual storytelling to lifestyle brands. Hallmarked by rich, classical aesthetics, their work has landed them clients from Bentley and Bulgari to Baccarat and Coach. Today, Duncan and Charlotte are joining us to share some insight into their process, how they got to where they are, and what rock n’ roll has to do with it all. –Sabrina
Photograph above by Robbie Lawrence
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
Duncan Campbell: We met while working for Acne Paper, the biannual culture magazine published by Acne Studios. We worked there throughout university, becoming co-editors when we graduated and during our tenure we were often asked to take on additional projects predominantly in book design, branding and strategy.
Charlotte Rey: I think those initial clients came to us because they liked the timeless sensitivity the magazine had, as well as the way it sought out new ways to tell stories. Then, at the start of last year, the balance tipped and we felt it was the right time, the now-or-never moment, so we decided to open our doors as Campbell-Rey. It was a very exciting time and the idea almost presented itself to us.
DC: One of the great things about the magazine was that it allowed for a lot of learning, but also for independence, so the transition felt very natural. Of course, there were a few nervous moments, especially in the beginning, but I don’t think we have looked back since.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
CR: I hope we’re still learning and discovering every day. I’d like to think that we still value and re-evaluate constantly what it is that we do. I’ve always been very drawn to new representations of thought, be it a painting or a car or a piece of music. When I find something truly intelligent, clever or beautiful I can go all quiet and need to just be alone to contemplate how that way of thinking can be applied differently in another situation or with another piece. I studied Fashion and History Theory at Central Saint Martins, and Duncan read Law at King’s College and the Sorbonne in Paris, so neither one of us are doing what we were schooled in, but rather it has been a journey of exploration and I hope it continues that way. But I think we both feel strongly about the importance of gaining experience as well as the need to make things practically, which is something we try to do much as possible.
DC: The magazine was a good grounding as it was a very small team, so the “all hands on deck” approach was the only way to work. We have also been lucky to have had clients from an early stage that were prepared to take a chance on us. Our work has always come primarily through word of mouth; this personal way of connecting to the work has always appealed to us. I also think in general that unless you’re a doctor or an accountant, that learning about something often bears very little resemblance to doing it in real life. There is no substitute for putting in the hours, gaining experience, making mistakes and hopefully refining your skills as you go.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
DC: That you have to be a palm tree! [Laughter] It can apply to life or business, I suppose, but in general I think you have to sway in the wind a bit, otherwise you’re probably going to snap!
CR: We’ve been lucky in that we have had some fantastic advice from great people from both the creative and the business side of things. One of them said early on that, “You have to be on the rock’n’roll side of business and on the business side of rock’n’roll,” which I thought was very funny at the time but has proven to be quite correct. Then someone also told us that when things are quieter, really make the most of it — clean your desk and organize the administrative side of things — so that when the creative work kicks in, you’re ready to go and be a hundred percent present.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
CR: I think one of the biggest adjustments was going from having the support of a big company with substantial resources, to dealing with the day-to-day running of a business on your own. For example, when you realize that going to the post office or moving around London for meetings takes up a significant amount of your productive time, which means you have to be inventive, structured and organized to get the most out of your day and week. In the end, it comes down to gain or pain – you have to focus on where you can gain the most, what comes naturally to you, and what is the core of your business, and then outsource the painful stuff to people who see your pain as their gain. For me, that can be my tax return. For example, I’d rather have someone who loves that type of thinking (and is really good at it) focusing on that, so that I can work on a mood board or a new concept.
DC: I think that’s central to our approach. We also try to run a very lean operation, building specialized teams for each project, depending on the requirements and aesthetic of the client. This keeps our overheads low, and also allows us to respond quickly and be very mobile; for example, if we have to go and see international clients at short notice.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
DC: I think you need to be the type of person who welcomes constant change, and a calm outlook probably helps. The nature of any new business is that it will be an up and down experience, so that’s definitely something to be prepared for. One of the joys of working together is that you have someone to share it with when things are going well, but also when you’re having a tough day you have someone who gets it.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
DC: I don’t think we have had any big failures per se, but when we set up we did take on a lot of projects at the same time. Obviously, we were very eager and also worried that if we said no to work, then the client wouldn’t come back and ask again. This meant that the first few months of our business we were working on a lot of different projects in a few different directions, which was very hard work. We loved it and were up day and night to get them all finished and perfect – and couldn’t really have done things differently – but that kind of approach wouldn’t be sustainable in the longer term. Now we are lucky to be able to choose to a greater extent, and I think this is key to making good work. We have always been ambitious in what we’ve taken on, but there’s a line between ambitious and being stupid. It only takes one failure to undo the goodwill and reputation you have built up, and we would always rather do five projects well than ten projects to a standard that falls below what we expect from ourselves.
CR: Part of this is also managing yourself and the client’s expectations, learning what and when to say yes to things that come along. Of course, you can never predict the outcome in advance, but over time you certainly get a better sense of what works for you, what you like to do, and what you are capable of within a certain timeframe.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
DC: I love the time right after I get up in the morning, and before most people step into the office; it feels like getting a bit of a head start on the day and means I can get ready and have breakfast in a relaxed way once I already know what the day ahead holds. Given three extra hours, I would probably make more time for exercise, or do something cultural to give my brain a rest and take my eyes away from the computer screen!
CR: I would have a longer lunch and then a nap! [Laughter]
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
DC: Sacrifice sounds like something scary, but to be honest, I don’t think we have ever seen what we do in those terms. Of course there are compromises you might make at the beginning, like adjusting your lifestyle or working longer hours than you would in a normal job, but for us there was never really a question of whether or not it would be “worth it.” When something is your own, you only have yourself to blame if it doesn’t work, which is the best incentive in the world for getting things done and keeping standards high. When I was studying, I could have won a prize for procrastination, but now we just get on with it. It also helps when you’re having fun, so I wouldn’t say we have sacrificed anything that we weren’t ready to say goodbye to.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
CR: Working together every day for the past 10 years and being yet to have as much as a fight is a big achievement I think! [laughter] But in terms of work, one of our first major projects was for Bentley, the British car manufacturer, and we’re both very proud of how it turned out. We conceived an arts initiative for them that launched at Design Miami in December last year, and we had a definitive “pinch me” moment when the installation was finally up and people were understanding what we had conceived as an idea months before.
DC: Bentley has a fascinating history and a strong emphasis on craftsmanship, two things that we hold very close to our hearts and that reoccur a lot in our work. For the project, we built a neon sculpture over three days with a Milanese artist and when it finally opened to press on the preview day of the fair, there was really a feeling of “did we really do this?!” I also think that a great success, if you choose to look at it that way, are the continuous relationships you form over time and the people you meet. We have been working with a magazine called Cabana and its editor-in-chief Martina Mondadori Sartogo for a while now, and I think the world she creates and the people she brings together are something we both find very inspiring.
CR: I agree, we’re also currently working on the branding, art direction and experience for a new boutique hotel called Amastan in the 8th arrondissement of Paris — just between rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and the Champs-Elysées — that’s opening this winter. We have worked in close collaboration with the hotel’s founder, Zied Sanhaji, and the process has been very rewarding. We can’t wait to see the doors open for the first time!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
DC: We have been lucky to have mentors at different stages of our career, both on the business and creative sides. I think it’s really invaluable to try and find people with more experience and knowledge than you who are happy to share what they know.
CR: It’s always important to see to that you’re in a room with people who know more than you, whatever their field of knowledge. It will feed into your own and widen your horizons and you never know when it might [be] useful. If you keep your eyes and ears open – it’ll all come around.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
CR: It’s definitely something that comes with experience, but I think in the beginning there’s a sense that you have to say yes to everything without giving so much thought to whether the job is a good fit. It’s probably very common when you start a new business, but nowadays the fit is as important for us as the job itself, the energy and the inherent understanding is very important.
DC: I think at the start we probably found ourselves in a couple of situations where the project wasn’t a great fit, but we kind of just got on and tried to make the best of it. In an ideal world, clients will see what you do and come to you because that’s what they want, but obviously when you’re a new company then it’s a harder judgment for both parties to make. Looking back, there are perhaps jobs we shouldn’t have taken on in retrospect, but as long as you learn from the mistakes and then you move on, I think it’s all valuable experience.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
DC: From a very fundamental point of view, I think you have to offer something people want, and are willing to pay for – it can be a product or a service or an opinion, but you have to know what you are selling. This may not be clear at first, and we have spent lots of time thinking about our offering, how we can refine it and what we can do better, but it doesn’t matter how good you are unless you’re solving a problem for the client in one way or another.
CR: It might also sound obvious, but I think it helps if you love what you do and you are willing to fight for it. There are lots of businesses where people don’t mind if they’re making chewing gum or car tires as long as they make money, but that would not have worked for us. The kind of work we do is personal, and it only gets more personal as your name is on the door, so it’s important that you love it and are a bit obsessed by it.
DC: We never made a business plan (probably a huge business faux pas!) [laughter] or had to consider investment as our startup costs and overheads were very low, but I would definitely suggest that you spend some time doing what you do, and seeing if it works before taking the plunge. Ideas gestate and evolve, and the dream of doing something is very rarely like the reality, so getting practical experience is essential to see if it’s a good fit.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
DC: We are both slightly addicted to Instagram, so it would definitely be that, I think. I also like to glance at my emails in bed, and check Twitter for news. I’m terrible at tweeting, but find it a useful resource for current affairs, especially for situations that are developing quickly.
CR: I think I start with Messages or Whatsapp to see if anyone has been in touch; first thing in the morning it’s probably also the new News app on my phone. I have become quite transfixed by it.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
CR: It’s finding balance in knowing when to stop and to manage your time. The ability to create your day is fantastic, but it’s also quite encompassing, so sometimes it can be hard to set boundaries for yourself. I quite like the negotiating part, so I haven’t had trouble with that, although I know some people find it uncomfortable.
DC: Knowing when to stop can be hard, especially when you are constantly thinking about the projects you have going on. But some of the best ideas come just as you’re drifting off to sleep, so maybe that’s a good thing!