Creative Lives — On leaving your mark and making a job your own with Alexandra Kelly, head of creative production at GDS

Posted 15 August 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Figuring out what career path to follow is never easy. But for Alexandra Kelly, there was no time to waste. Embarking on a string of internships, she used the opportunity to find and refine exactly what she was looking for. Her job as head of creative production at GDS is one that helps nurture and build relationships, enabling the team to produce their best work. It’s a role that has grown and evolved alongside the organisation, allowing Alexandra to make the job her own – one of the benefits of joining an organisation early on. We talk early career experiences and how her background in photography equipped her for managing people and projects.

Alexandra Kelly

Job Title

Head of Creative Production, GDS (2012–2017)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Project Manager, Wieden + Kennedy (2010–2012)
Artist Agent and Project Manager, Pocko (2008–2010)
Artist Agent and Assistant Producer, Serlin Associates (2007–2008)

Education

BA Photography, Nottingham Trent University (2003–2006)
Foundation in Art and Design City College, Brighton and Hove (2002-2003)

Website

Alexandra Kelly

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
I lead a team of creative writers, designers, filmmakers and producers to help all 700 people at GDS and teams from across government explain their work to everyone who needs to understand it. My role is to manage the team and all incoming requests for work, to help define the strategy for the team, ensure we are covering all the organisation’s priorities and to provide creative leadership and direction. The team produces blog posts, events, presentations, stickers, posters, films and more, ensuring consistency of messaging across all our communications. 

What does a typical working day look like? 
My one year old wakes me up at around 6am and I leave the house by 7.45am. It takes me around 40 minutes to get to work in Holborn from my home in Kensal Rise. The standard hours are 9am to 5pm but I tend to start at 8.30am. The Cabinet Office, the department GDS is part of, is really supportive of flexible working. This is perfect for working parents and for in fact for anyone who enjoys some balance in their lives.

A lot of my day is spent talking to colleagues about what they’re working on and how the creative team can help them to articulate their ideas. Someone might think that a graphic or a video is the best solution when actually all they need is some help from a creative writer to simplify their thinking and put it into plain English.

“The mark you make and the relationships you build in each job are often the things that lead you into your next role.”

How did you land your current job? 
I worked with Ben Terrett at Wieden + Kennedy on the Guardian account and after a couple of years working together, Ben was asked by GDS to be their director of design. Soon after he started he asked me to help manage some of the creative work being produced and help run the design team. I started on a short contract but knew that what I was entering into was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of citizens, so I jumped at the chance. You never know where the people you work with will move on to and when, so the mark you make and the relationships you build in each job are often the things that lead you into your next role.

Because I joined in the early days of GDS, my role grew as the organisation did and I was able to shape the role in a way that I wouldn’t usually be able to. That’s the benefit of joining a young organisation – you can often take on more responsibility and have the independence to really make the role your own. 

GDS mission patches produced by Alexandra

GOV.UK 1 year anniversary stickers produced by Alexandra

Show the Thing poster produced by Alexandra

Where does the majority of your work take place?
I spend most of my days in the GDS office. When the team was smaller I spent more time on shoots and at events based in other government departments or venues around the country, but now one of the producers usually covers those jobs.

How collaborative is your role?
I collaborate with my team members and colleagues from across GDS and government on a daily basis. My role is all about nurturing the team, building senior relationships, having the difficult conversations, removing any blockers and enabling team members to produce all their brilliant work.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
My favourite bit is helping colleagues figure out the creative solution to their problem. We try to encourage people not to write long briefs as they can be time-consuming and often a quick chat is more effective. I’ll ask simple questions like: “What are you working on? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Who is your audience?” And then help them arrive at the best solution, which might be some time with a writer, a video, a graphic, or something else.

I also do all the finance and business management for the team – an element of which is usually part of most production-based roles but isn’t my favourite bit!

Make Things Open stickers produced by Alexandra

Lasting power of attorney film on GOV.UK produced by Alexandra

What skills are essential to your job?
You need to be very organised, be able to manage and stay on top of a lot of projects happening at the same time and skilled in the production and delivery of digital, film and print campaigns in a fast-paced high quality environment. People skills are essential – being able to line manage and lead a team, knowing when to step in and resolve conflict, being able to nurture talent, building confidence in your team and constantly challenging them to grow and develop. Confident leadership and creative direction skills, a good creative eye and the ability to be strategic in deciding the right way to solve things. Excellent communication skills and an understanding of the creative process which will help you to balance creative and commercial needs. 

What tools do you use most for your work?
Macbook Air and iPhone for staying on top of emails and checking messages on apps; Trello; Slack; Google Mail, Docs, Drive and Hangouts.

Design principles poster produced by Alexandra

Design principles poster produced by Alexandra

Design principles poster produced by Alexandra

Design principles poster produced by Alexandra

User Research poster produced by Alexandra

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I didn’t know what I wanted to be and I still don’t! I knew that I wanted to work in a creative environment and that I was good at managing and organising things but that was about it. For me it was important not to wait around until I’d decided exactly what I wanted to do. I got a job in a relevant field and saw which bits I liked and didn’t like before moving onwards and upwards, refining my role at each stage.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Studying photography at university gave me a really good understanding of the creative process and helped me get my first internship, which was a brilliant thing to have on my CV at the start of my career. The thread throughout all my jobs has been managing creative people and projects and I’ve always felt better equipped to do that with my creative background.

What were your first jobs?
I did an internship at The Photographer’s Gallery and one at the National Portrait Gallery, as well as lots of work experience on photo shoots, as a second assistant or runner. They were very useful, I learnt a huge amount and decided as a result that I didn’t want to be a commercial photographer or a curator.

“Joining a young organisation means you can take on more responsibility and make the role your own.”

Sprint 13 event graphics produced by Alexandra

Sprint 13 event graphics produced by Alexandra

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Users First sticker produced by Alexandra

What is the User Need sticker produced by Alexandra

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
The internships taught me so much and gave me two well known and respected institutions to put on my CV, which helped me get my first paid job assisting an art consultant. 

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
My job at Pocko was a turning point for me. It was such a creative place to work and we helped produce large ad campaigns and got to know all the art buyers at agencies. That knowledge and experience helped with my next move to Wieden + Kennedy.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
There is most definitely a shift towards digital ways of working and I’ve learnt to be flexible and adaptable to new technologies and online tools. I’ve also learnt that the best way to lead teams is to hire talented people and then provide cover from above so that they feel secure and can do brilliant work.

This article is part of a feature on Government Digital Service.

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Alexandra is now a creative services director at global agency BETC.

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