Creative Lives — The National Trust’s head of creative, Matt Haigh: “Don’t overthink it. Take opportunities as they come”

Posted 23 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

It was, suitably, a walk in the Welsh countryside that inspired Matt Haigh to pursue a position at the National Trust. So when online research revealed an opening for a new head of creative, it seemed too good to be true – and, having missed the application deadline, it was. But some LinkedIn stalking and a well-written email made sure he found his way into the shortlist for the role, and three rounds of interviews later, he’d landed his dream job. As a graduate worked with Benetton in Italy, and later at Wolff Olins in London – where he applied his conceptual mindset to real-world briefs, including Amnesty International and Oxfam. He tells us how his upbringing inspired him to work for causes he believes in; and how his degree has informed his creative approach. 

Matt Haigh

Job Title

Head of Creative, The National Trust, (2016–present)

Based

Works in Swindon, lives in Oxford

Previous Employment

Head of Design, Amnesty International (2014–2016)
Creative Director, Oxfam (2011–2013)
Designer, Greenspace (2009–2010)
Designer, Wolff Olins (2006–2008)

Education

BA Graphic Design, University of Brighton (2001–2004)

Matt Haigh

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job? 
As head of creative I’m responsible for all the creative work the Trust produces. We have an internal agency model, similar to Channel 4, SpecSavers or Innocent, so my role’s very similar to that of a creative director in an external agency. I spend most of my time reviewing work, brainstorming with the team and presenting to internal clients. 

What does a typical working day look like? 
I spend Monday to Thursday at The National Trust’s head office in Swindon (although it’s fairly common to have external meetings with agencies every couple of weeks) and I work from home at the bottom of my garden on Fridays.

My days tend to be very meeting-heavy, with lots of reviewing work and brainstorming ideas. The Trust’s office is really nice, it’s all open plan so there’s a good buzz about it. We all hot desk but we’ve got a bank of desks for the creative team so we tend to all be sat together, which means I spend a lot more time speaking to people face-to-face, rather than staring at a computer screen the whole time.

Fridays I work at home and it’s totally different. We live right on the river so in the summer I’ll go kayaking for 45 minutes or so and in the winter I tend to run.

“I was out walking in a very beautiful part of Wales pondering what my next move should be, and the scenery inspired me to think about the National Trust.”

What do you like about working in the part of the UK you’re based in? 
Being in Swindon can sometimes feel a bit random from a creative point-of-view, but it’s very central, so lots of people commute in from Bristol but others come in from London too as it’s only an hour on the train. 

I live in Oxford, which is great. There’s loads going on culturally (we’ve got some great galleries and theatres and the music scene’s surprisingly vibrant) and it’s also really easy to get out into the countryside. The only down side is that it’s expensive – it’s regularly named the UK’s most expensive city.

How did you land your current job?
I was out walking in a very beautiful part of Wales pondering what my next move should be, and the scenery inspired me to think about the National Trust. I grew up in North Devon so I’ve always had a strong connection to the countryside and conservation was an area I hadn’t done any work in yet. When I got home I did some searching online and saw that they’d advertised for a new head of creative which I’d recently decided would be my dream job. 

I was furious with myself for missing the deadline, but I managed to find who I thought the hiring manager was and sent him an email through LinkedIn. Luckily they hadn’t finished short-listing, so they added me into the mix. Three rounds of interviews later and I was offered the job.

How collaborative is your role?
Very. I work alongside designers, writers, account managers, digital experts, external production agencies, advertising agencies. Very little of what I do is done on my own.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love thinking about ideas and working with other people to solve creative problems. I also love getting out and visiting some or the amazing places the Trust looks after. 

The volume of work can mean I don’t get to spend as much time looking at stuff as closely as I’d like, which can be frustrating sometimes, and the endless emails can be draining too – if I don’t keep a constant eye on my inbox it very quickly gets out of control.

“I’m very dyslexic, so was always attracted to more visually-based stuff at school, and that eventually led to graphic design.”

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
The thing I’m most proud of is a set of films we made to try and change perceptions of the Trust and engage people on a more emotional level. We noticed that a lot of our content starts at the end of most people’s relationships with the Trust, where they’re already at one of our places and are talking about how great it is.

The films aren’t focused on our places, but on why those places matter to people – a stretch of coastline walked by an autistic boy and his father which strengthened their relationship; a group for older people in central London where people who could otherwise be lonely are part of a strong local community; and a property that inspired a young girl to widen her ambitions and set up her own charity. 

The reaction online has been much deeper than we expected, with people opening up about their own experiences and why the places we look after matter so much to them. They were viewed over 9 million times so they’re probably the most watched piece of work I’ve made as well. We worked with an external production agency, Lonely Leap, but the direction all came from the in-house team.

What skills are essential to your job?
Being able to think on your feet and juggle a lot of things at the same time are pretty crucial. I get a lot of people asking me to have a quick look at something, often at a critical point, and I need to feed back quickly if I’m going to be able to influence the outcome.

Do you run any self-initiated projects alongside your job?
I got into design because I loved drawing when I was younger. I don’t really do it in my work anymore, but I’ve been illustrating a series of books for the kids over the last couple of years.

What tools do you use most for your work? 
I use Adobe Creative Suite for creative work. We use Slack to communicate when we’re working at home or out of the office and we use Trello to keep an overview of who’s working on what and what stage all the projects are at. 

I also always carry some Post-It notes around with me, which are great for scribbling an idea on that you can then leave with someone at the end of a conversation, and there’s something very satisfying about throwing an old one away and starting fresh each day, rather than the baggage of carrying around pages and pages of notes you never look at.

“My parents had a very strong sense of purpose, which is why I think I’ve ended up needing to work for causes I believe in, rather than just selling stuff to people.”

Stop Torture campaign for Amnesty International, 2015

Stop Torture campaign for Amnesty International, 2015

Stop Torture campaign for Amnesty International, 2015

Stop Torture campaign for Amnesty International, 2015

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be Walt Disney but soon realised I didn’t have the patience to be an animator.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
My parents had a very strong sense of purpose, which is why I think I’ve ended up needing to work for causes I believe in, rather than just selling stuff to people. I’m also very dyslexic so was always attracted to more visually-based stuff at school, and that eventually led me down the graphic design route.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
The course at Brighton was very conceptual and focused as much on the ideas and processes behind the work as it did on the final outcome. The briefs were really open: one brief was to ‘subvert the familiar’, and I ended up reconstructing a pig out of pieces of pork. More often than not the outcomes weren’t graphics based.

This meant I had to learn a lot of the design stuff after I graduated, but it’s set me up to be able to work on a really broad range of projects, which is pretty crucial in my current role.

UnfollowMe campaign for Amnesty International, 2015 (senior copywriter Ben Beaumont)

UnfollowMe campaign for Amnesty International, 2015 (senior copywriter Ben Beaumont)

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UnfollowMe campaign for Amnesty International, 2015 (senior copywriter Ben Beaumont)

What were your first jobs? 
My first job was working as a designer at Wolff Olins. I’d never heard of them before and didn’t really know what ‘branding’ was, but they offered me a job and seemed like really smart, nice people. It was the perfect place for me as you need broad creative thinking in branding.You need to be able to work with the strategy team and then be versatile enough to apply that to everything from a logo to the side of a van.

What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
The best thing I ever did for my career was to go to Fabrica, Benetton’s communication research centre in Italy. Unlike an internship, you’re thrown straight into it, as everyone there is under 25, so you have to learn as you go. You’re given live briefs to work on but there’s a bit less pressure than an agency, because it’s an educational centre rather than a commercial business.

The work was also interspersed with visiting lecturers coming to run workshops. The people I met there were all super-talented; I learnt a lot from working alongside them. It was someone at Fabrica who put me in touch with the creative director at Wolff Olins, as she’d worked for them in New York straight after graduation.

“The course at Brighton was very conceptual, so I had to learn a lot of the design stuff after I graduated, but it’s set me up to be able to work on a really broad range of projects.”

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
When we rebuilt the website at Amnesty, due to various people going on maternity leave, I suddenly found myself leading a lot more of the project than intended. I became the product owner so had to make all sorts of decisions about the structure and content, selling it in to senior people internally and doing a lot of presentations. It really opened my eyes to what else I could do beyond sitting behind a Mac and gave me a lot more confidence.

amnesty.org website, 2015, build partner Code Computer Love

amnesty.org website, 2015, build partner Code Computer Love

amnesty.org website, 2015, build partner Code Computer Love

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What skills have you learnt along the way? 
I’ve had to pick up most of my design skills since graduating, and starting my career in branding at Wolff Olins has proven invaluable. There are always new things happening in the creative industry, particularly on the digital side, but I don’t think my core skill set has had to change that much over the years, I’ve just had to keep up-to-date on new ways of applying that core thinking.

What’s been your biggest challenge? 
Because of my dyslexia, I grew up thinking drawing was all I could really do. I hated having to stand up in front of people and didn’t like anything that involved writing. It’s been a slow process, but I’ve realised there’s a bunch of stuff beyond design that I’m actually quite good at, including presenting! I think most of the mistakes I’ve made have been around that lack of confidence, and not pushing myself out of my comfort zone earlier in my career.

“Most of the mistakes I’ve made have been around a lack of confidence, and not pushing myself out of my comfort zone earlier in my career.”

Fab magazine for Fabrica, 2005, co-art directed with Andy Rementer

Fab magazine for Fabrica, 2005, co-art directed with Andy Rementer

Fab magazine for Fabrica, 2005, co-art directed with Andy Rementer

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
I still feel relatively new in my current role so the future for me is about building up the internal creative team here at the Trust and exploring where we can push the work next.

Could you do this job forever?
Sometimes I think this is a definite yes. The longer I’m at the Trust and the more I see of the work they do the more committed I am to their cause. The work’s varied and interesting, and the people are great. I know at some point I’ll probably get restless and eventually I’ll need a new challenge, but I don’t see that being any time soon.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
There are lots of areas I could potentially go into, maybe a head of brand or head of content role, or maybe a head of communications role somewhere smaller. But most of these would take me away from the hands-on creative work which I’m not sure I want to do quite yet.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work? 
Don’t overthink it. Take opportunities as they come up and see where they lead because doing something is always better than doing nothing. I’ve never had much of a grand plan but one thing has just kept leading onto the next.

Posted 23 January 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Mentions: National Trust, Oxfam, Wolff Olins, Amnesty International
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