Designing charity

CR Grad Guide: Jess Crombie, Head of Visual Creative at Save the Children talks about the rewarding and challenging aspects of creative direction at an NGO

If you’ve just graduated, or even if you’ve been working in the creative industries for a while, you may not realise the wide range of amazing jobs that your skills and education might be relevant for. You probably know about being an ad agency creative or a graphic designer, but there are many other jobs where creativity plays a central role. We talk to six people who have inspiring and unusual creative jobs and ask them how they got to be where they are today starting with Jess Crombie, Hhead of visual creative at Save the Children.

From a project on UK Child Poverty by Save the Children in 2012. Spencer Murphy photographed children from London (as featured in the 2013 CR Photography Annual). Shown alongside images is text from the children on what they think child poverty is

What’s your background, how did you come to work at Save The Children?

I studied History of Art at Manchester, although I was always obsessed with photography and the power of imagery – the walls of my bedroom as a teenager were literally plastered with ads like the Silk Cut and Boddingtons series that were so innovative and cool. My first job was at the ad agency Publicis as a PA to the creative director. I did that for about a year or so until the lovely creative services director asked me if I wanted to be the new junior art buyer. I’d never even heard of art buying before I went to work for an ad agency but once I saw what it was I really wanted to do it – getting to look at photography all day whilst commissioning amazing photographers and working with creatives on ideas seemed like a fun way to spend your time.

After a couple of years doing that I moved to New York to take up some very badly paid internships, just to spend a year or so in the big city. I highly recommend moving away from your own country for a period of time – it’s very freeing. I took up opportunities I probably wouldn’t have had the balls to say yes to in London, like curating a whole load of exhibitions in an empty uptown gym, which really helped my career and my confidence when I came back home.

“Probably the most difficult challenge is being confronted on a daily basis with the reality of children suffering”

After a brief stint as a picture editor at Decca Records (the music biz wasn’t for me, too many portraits), I went to work for the wonderful John Wyatt-Clarke as his chief booker (which means producer). John was an amazing boss who gave me loads of free rein to study for an arts management diploma, let me basically operate however I saw fit, and supported all of my hair-brained curating schemes. One of his photographers even lent me their studio in which to hold my exhibitions, into which I promptly drilled over 500 holes (it was an exhibition of 500 photos). Wyatt-Clarke & Jones gave me a huge amount of experience negotiating (NEVER speak first), budgeting, dealing with artists, dealing with clients and booking the unbelievably weird and wonderful things that ad shoots need to make them work (I had an address book that included bee charmers and a man who made fake coffee steam from tampons).

After a few years I wanted to do something where the images I was producing had the possibility to create real change. I had a bit of an existential moment that crystallised this feeling when the ‘head of crackers’ (real job title) at a well-known biscuit maker chided me for having the temerity to suggest cream cheese in a cracker topping brainstorm prior to the shoot. After hearing that “you would NEVER put cream cheese on that cracker”, I decided that maybe adland wasn’t everything I could hope for in life….

I went to work for Magnum Photos as their creative manager, looking after the commercial side of the business. Still adland, but one step removed, and with some of the most incredible photographers in the world. Working at Magnum was a steep learning curve in terms of documentary photography, but an incredible experience and an opportunity that still stands me in good stead today. It was also the definitive turning point in my career in that I knew after working there and the knowledge of what photography can do to bring situations to life, that I could never go back to advertising.

Photographs from a project to mark 20 years since the Rwandan genocide. Save the Children found children that it had photographed during the genocide, who had been orphaned and then reunited with surviving family members by the charity. The photos from 1994 are shown alongside images from 2014; shown above is Cyprien, now 33. Photographs: Colin Crowley/StC

After Magnum I dithered for a year or so whilst freelancing and then finally decided to try out working for NGOs despite that meaning a hefty pay cut and a more junior role to start with. I went to WaterAid as their picture editor, which turned out to be one of the best jobs I have ever had. I travelled every few months to some of the most remote, beautiful, interesting places on the planet, with some of the best photographers, took on exhibition projects, and generally ran things as I wanted. I was their first picture editor so was able to craft the job as I saw it, with the help of another fab boss (never underestimate the power of a great boss). Again it was a steep learning curve – on my first shoot in Madagascar the photographer didn’t turn up, the first village I went to had bubonic plague, and I did so many interviews the photographer we did find couldn’t photograph all of the people I met. But it was endlessly interesting and inspiring and I loved that what I was doing could have real positive impact.

While at WaterAid I also undertook a masters in Critical and Cultural Theory at Birkbeck, which was hard going while working full time, but highly recommended. Everyone should be able to critically analyse their role, especially if you are working in an area as contentious and complex as aid work, and studying gave me an edge and a vocabulary that has given me more confidence in my decisions, and made winning arguments easier. Always valuable!

When on shoots with WaterAid I travelled a lot with our video producer and started to get a real taste for filmmaking. I could see that the future was one where people worked interchangeably between the two areas so when the job came up at Save the Children to be head of film and photography I went for it so I could get my hands on both of them. I’ve been at Save the Children now for nearly four years and while there my team has grown to over 20 film producers, picture editors, post-producers, and production, as well as an overseas team of in-house photographers/ filmmakers. Save the Children is amazingly brave when it comes to content, and really values how visual media can tell stories so invests well in this area, which has made running this department a bit of a dream job.

Was this job something that you’d always wanted to do?

No, not at all. Partly because I was concerned that the NGO sector would be all hemp shoes and yoghurt weaving. But mostly because when I started out I didn’t know that jobs like mine existed.

My career path might look organised but in actual fact there is quite a lot of chance to it, and leaping into new opportunities. The theme is what I have always wanted as a career is the ability to use the power of imagery to communicate interesting, thought-provoking and/or important messages.

What are the core skills required to do your job?

My role is that of a creative director. I lead a team of creative people who specialise in photography, film and design and they all come together to generate great content which Save The Children uses to generate funds, get the public to take action, and to advocate for issues we feel are important.

To do my job I need to be very decisive as we have hundreds of pieces of content going through production at any one time, sometimes with very short turnaround times. I have to have a strong and clear vision of our brand and what ideas suit it. I need to be a good communicator, and a persuasive one as I am often trying to bring an external corporate sponsor or internal team along with an idea that I am confident will work. I have to be able to spot what is a good idea in the myriad of ideas that my great team generate and then help them develop that idea to be the best it can be. I have to be very confident that the vision that myself and my team believe in is the right one to go with. I need to be passionate and interested in both the issues that we work with, and the need to communicate them. And finally I need a lot of energy, Save The Children is the busiest place I’ve ever worked and bounding from one project to the next you need a bit of a Tigger-ish attitude to keep it all going!

What does your average day look like?

Busy. I typically start my day at around 6.30am (I have a small child) checking work emails and the news to monitor potential humanitarian emergency situations and check that there haven’t been any major events overnight. I will get to work at around 8am, when I get my emails in order, look over film scripts (we produce around 200 films a year), and look over the new photos that have come in.

At 9am I go into back-to-back meetings until around 4pm. Those will consist of everything from viewings of the films in production, to planning meetings with our advertising team, to creative brainstorming sessions, to showing our CEO or exec directors a new piece of creative, to a project group meeting to decide the next steps on an unfolding situation such as the Gaza/Israel conflict, to daily production catch ups, to a meeting on how best to respond to a critical comment in the media on the use of imagery in NGO communications. It is wildly varied but never dull.

At 5pm I leave to do the nursery run, but after the baby’s bedtime I am back on email typically before a large glass of wine and crashing out at about 10-ish.

What would you say is the best thing about your job?

I love working in a busy, adrenalised environment with plenty of freedom to develop ideas. It can be manic and chaotic but there is never a dull moment and every day is completely different, which I love. Getting to do that while also genuinely making a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of children all over the world is a bit of a dream.

My team is also fantastic – they are dedicated, endlessly patient and work their socks off while also coming up with great ideas every day.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
How do you manage these?

Probably the most difficult challenge is being confronted on a daily basis with the reality of children suffering. Sometimes it’s on a face-to-face basis, I have done shoots with children who are so malnourished you can’t believe they are still alive, it is heartbreaking. We meet them because they are being helped by Save The Children but still, it is almost impossible to spend time with them and then get on a plane and go home.

Mostly though, I spend a lot of time back in London in our edit suites or on a computer looking at film footage and photographs of these situations. I keep my critical head on and think about whether that piece of content will achieve its objectives, whether the edit is right, whether the crop on the photo works, and try not to let my emotions come into play in a way that is detrimental to my critical engagement. But there are times when it’s impossible and you get particularly caught up in the story of one child, or a photo or piece of footage just strikes a chord. While those moments are hard emotionally, I always think that if I feel that way then someone else probably will too, and that they will respond and do something to help that child and children like them, which is what we are all here for after all.

Another press ad from Save the Children’s recent Gaza campaign

Which projects from your time at Save The Children have been most important to you, and why?

Issues around representation are a particular passion of mine and how to represent those that we help in the most responsible way and in a way that they are happy with. Our daytime TV advertising is known in the trade as DRTV (Direct Response Television), but known to everyone else as the 1.5 minute ads that show really gut-wrenching imagery of children suffering, often in slow mo.

DRTV is one of our most successful areas of fundraising. Over the past four years myself and the team who produce these ads have been working together to move them forward in terms of the sophistication of the visual messaging and how we represent the children featured. From the outside it might look like baby steps but this year we have had a real breakthrough in terms of creating ads that work financially, and that represent those featured in a way that they are happy with. It’s a major step in a direction that I’m very excited about.

I also love projects that show the long-term impact of our work. This year, to mark 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, my team worked with our Rwandan colleagues to create a project that showed how life had changed for the children caught up in that terrible event. In our offices in Rwanda we found over 8,500 Polaroids and accompanying files of children orphaned during the 100 days of the genocide, that Save The Children had reunited with surviving family members. We tracked down some of them, some of whom had never seen images of themselves as kids, and made a film and photo project which got great media coverage all over the world. We’re continuing the project with the end goal of both a travelling exhibition to mark our centenary in 2019 and making the photos and records available to the Rwandan public. I love that it was a project that was innovative visually, while also helping the world not to forget those terrible events, and demonstrating that aid work has long-lasting effects.

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