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Bossing It: The Importance of Being Reactive with David Smith


Absolute's CEO and founder on making tough decisions, having a totally transparent approach and keeping an eye on initiatives

Bossing It: The Importance of Being Reactive with David Smith

Dave co-founded Absolute in 2004 with the simple idea of creating a company that was the kind of place he truly wanted to work. When he first opened the doors for business, he did so with only five members of staff, one laptop to work on and one skateboard to sit on between them!

18 years since its inception and with 40+ years’ industry experience, Dave is immensely proud to have built a company which remains at the forefront of technology, creating visually ground-breaking content and mentoring, training and encouraging the next generation of talent. 

Nowadays, he spends a little less time on the Flame (of which he was one of the early pioneers) and a little more time overseeing projects as Creative Director, or mentoring Absolute’s rising talent.

LBB> What was your first experience of leadership?

David> As an artist, I’ve always mentored junior talent throughout my career and I was a board director at The Mill in the late nineties and early noughties. But in all honesty, my first experience being totally in charge was when I opened Absolute in 2004. For the first time ever, every decision - from décor to financial and legal support - was down to me. Software, hardware, furniture, staff and of course branding - who are Absolute? Logo, fonts and our new identity all had to be briefed, reviewed, approved, and printed, not to mention IT, websites and preparing the building so that it was ready to support our small staff numbers, the kit and (we hoped) clients!

LBB> How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?

David> I'd spent the previous 12-18 months at The Mill, working in a team consisting of Sally Heath (now executive director at Absolute) and Phil Oldham (now creative partner at Absolute). As a team, we might have been small, but we were certainly mighty. I started to wonder: what if we were to step out from there and do it our way? Nimbler, more proactive, and evolving to individual challenges and projects without being encumbered by corporate restrictions?

Starting Absolute was never about ME going it alone. It’s always been about people and passion - talented individuals who wanted to do the impossible. The goal was always to foster a family-like environment, where staff want to work for you and clients want to work with you. It’s important to look after people. 


LBB> What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?

David> Making tough decisions. All businesses have to deal with delivering tough news on occasion and it’s never fun. But you have to keep that human element. You have to be personable and responsive to real human emotions, even in tricky professional situations. You’ve got to learn through adversity and find people you can rely on. I strongly believe in surrounding yourself with people who are better than you – people who will push you and keep you on your toes. Another thing I learnt pretty early on was to never fully close a door. People move on, try new things, but it's good to stay in touch.

LBB> Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?

David> I’ve always been a people person and would like to think I’ve naturally got some attributes you’d expect in a leader. But I’d never consciously thought about it - until one day it occurred to me that I didn’t want to just be another number on payroll!

I realised that with the right people, I could build something which was returning to the core principles of this industry - creativity, people, talent, and making great work with great people who are part of the team. But it’s also about looking to the future. A cornerstone of the foundations of Absolute was and is mentorship, training and encouraging the next generation of artists and producers.


LBB> When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?

David> I think there are definitely some attributes which come naturally. The obvious ones: assertiveness, decisiveness, passion, motivation... but the more important ones: compassion, curiosity and a total understanding that you can always learn more. You can always be better.

You learn to navigate change and become proactive – but it’s also important to be reactive. Being kinder to the environment is something we are always scoping out. We hope to launch a new initiative very soon, where we’ll take the data from drives and return them within 48 hours, to save production companies and agencies purchasing multiple materials that will inevitably end in landfill. We also offer a monetary incentive for staff who switch to a greener energy provider.


LBB> What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?

David> The inevitable pressure to ensure new team members feel valued and welcome. We’ve grown rapidly these past 24 months – pre-covid, we were 45 – now we’re over 90. Previously, with new starters, it was easier to welcome them in person, but with the new hybrid work system (which we want to keep) that process can be a little harder. 

We always encourage new starters, if possible, to be office based initially, so that they can meet as many people as possible. We also ensure we have regular social events – summer parties, drinks – and of course, our legendary BBQs - to encourage people to meet.

LBB> Have you ever felt like you've failed whilst in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?

David> Sometimes, the state of the world makes me realise that, really, I’m not in charge. You can do everything right, but things like economic downturns can scupper plans in an instant. It’s important not to be naïve to external factors and to be reactive and open to advice from your employees.

LBB> In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?

David> We have a totally transparent approach with our staff. We host regular events, called ‘huddles’ where we update staff on what’s going on – any new hires, leavers, events, financial successes, and also any failures. There is an anonymous online question form where staff can ask questions in advance, and we address each and every one in the meeting – no matter their content. We’ve seen it all!

We also understand that what’s happening outside of work can have a huge effect on people. We take notice and adapt. With the recent increase in the cost of living, we’ve rewarded all our staff with a salary increase, and we also have a target-led bonus scheme.  

LBB> As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?

David> I didn’t have a mentor – which actually reminds me of a funny anecdote. When I first decided I wanted to go it alone, I went to WHSmith’s and quite literally bought a book called ‘How To Make A Business Plan.’ I basically plagiarised it, filled it in with my own figures, and went off to my first meeting with an accountant... who took one look at it and said: “This looks like something out of WHSmith’s.” It’s fair to say I winged it in the beginning, but having Sally and Phil around tripled the brainpower and we got there.

LBB> It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?

David> I think it’s important to remain ‘human’. When covid hit, none of us had experienced a pandemic before, so I wasn’t going to pretend to have all the answers. But the best thing I could do was be open, honest and approachable. People will far respect you more for admitting you don’t know the answer, but committing to finding it, rather than pretending you do and getting it wrong.


LBB> This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?

David> It starts much earlier than you’d think – you’d be surprised by the amount of young people who don’t even know our industry exists. I'd have loved to have learnt about it at school age! We encourage our artists to inspire the next gen of talent. Thought leadership is one way of doing this – but what’s the point if those it’s aimed at don’t know where to find it? 

So, we’re always taking up opportunities, like Creative Circle’s careers fayre. It was free for students, and we sent some artists who are relatively new to the industry, who were there to inspire and advise on their own journey into the industry. 

We’ve some fantastic female artists within each department at Absolute who we champion constantly, and we also take on interns to introduce them to what we do. We also use recruitment software which eliminates any unconscious bias by removing the candidates' name before we receive their application.

And we’re launching our own scheme for underrepresented students this space.


LBB> How important is your company culture to the success of your business? And how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely since covid?

David> It’s one of the most important parts. Absolute has always been known for its inclusive family feel and that’s very much the vibe we want to continue to promote. We’re constantly organising staff events to get people to mingle, every second week we do a free lunch for staff and we’re encouraging people to come into the office at least a couple of days a week if they feel comfortable doing so.


LBB> What are the most useful resources you’ve found to help you along your leadership journey?

David> The people I work with. I trust each department head to advise me on what could make their team run at optimal force. It’s also important, though, that I keep my own eyes on any initiatives that might make us more socially responsible, as well as responsive to changing social landscapes.

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Absolute, Mon, 14 Nov 2022 10:27:33 GMT