Interviews

“A good idea never comes at a desk”

Eli Vasiliou, Associate Creative Director at Iris on the importance of creative outlets outside of work, brand integrity and the democratisation of flexible working.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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The nationwide lockdown and subsequent shift to entire industries working from home has meant different things to different people. For many it’s been an impossible exercise in juggling homeschooling with home working, with two flatmates working at the kitchen table and one in a bedroom, or just adjusting to the pressures of living with your entire family all of the time.

For Eli Vasiliou, the lockdown experience has been a moment of reassessing where she gets her ideas from. Vasiliou, who is Associate Creative Director at Iris, believes that only emails should be answered at a desk. When it comes to creative ideas, those she finds away from the office environment.

“A good idea never comes at a desk,” she explains. “It’s very unnatural for creative people to sit in an office.” For Vasiliou, lockdown has been an enjoyable period creatively, giving her the time to explore pursuits outside of work. As a result, she says she’s experienced a massive amount of guilt that comes with admitting the forced working from home situation has actually been a positive one for her creativity.

I can be as expressive as I want, and I don’t have to express myself through a headline.

Eli Vasiliou

Creative outlets

Vasiliou explains, however, that at the beginning of lockdown, she grappled with the same existential crisis as everyone around her. Because although she says that work has only got more intense, “from a purely selfish point of view [lockdown has] been really good creatively.”

She has used the time clawed back from her regular commute to pursue other creative undertakings, like teaching herself calligraphy and artisan perfumery. This has allowed her to not only form deeper relationships with others who are interested in similar pastimes, but to also create an important distance between her and the work.

“I’ve got completely creative control in [those hobbies] and that’s really good because it means that work isn’t my only creative outlet,” she explains. “So, I don’t get so tied up in everything having to be absolutely perfect and fighting every battle. I’ve found I’ve been able to step back a bit and be a bit more distanced from the work and make much more sensible and more impactful decisions.”

Vasiliou uses the hobbies she pursues in her own time to both give herself another creative outlet, but also to enable her to be better at the job itself. “I can be as expressive as I want, and I don’t have to express myself through a headline,” she adds.

Immediate actions for change

Examining how the industry has changed in previous years when it comes to being more inclusive and representative of the outside world, Vasiliou says: “We all think that we’re cutting edge and cool but actually we’re massively traditional and we really are not embracers of change.”.

She has always been passionate about diversity and inclusion but feels, when it comes to the industry, “our biggest barrier to change is thinking too long term.” “Nothing moves anywhere because it almost seems like an insurmountable problem,” she adds.

During lockdown, she reveals that Iris has been looking at what immediate actions can be done, pulling together a new diversity and inclusion strategy for the agency that will examine its targets quarterly rather than annually. It looks at what the business can do right now and holds everyone to account in the process. “Everyone is responsible for it. That’s the only way that things are going to change,” Vasiliou says.

She believes the industry’s obsession with focusing solely on the long term means you lose sight of the changes businesses and individuals can make today and the individual accountability that comes with that decision. “There’s a casting decision you can make tomorrow, there’s a character you can write into a script this afternoon, there is a way that you can treat the people that you work with that you can do in the next five minutes that is going to start you moving in the right direction,” she explains.

“We get so caught up in long term plans and strategies and it paralyses us,” Vasiliou believes. If the process of tackling inequality and representation becomes too far off a goal, then the ability to act in the moment becomes next to impossible. But, she adds, she is feeling positive about the steps the industry and Iris as an agency in particular are taking. “It feels like things are finally starting to move,” she adds.

Working from home used to come with quotation marks, ‘working from home’. And those quotation marks are gone now.

Eli Vasiliou

The democratisation of flexible working

Vasiliou has championed flexible working for a long time. She cites some pro bono work she did with Digital Mums to remove the stigma from the conversation around flexible work as a key moment of realisation about “how important it is from a business point of view not just from a cultural point of view.”

The last few months of enforced lockdown, while she acknowledges they’ve been difficult and frustrating for many teams, have also, “proved the worth of flexible working in a way that’s utterly undeniable.” This has marked a significant shift, Vasiliou believes because “working from home used to come with quotation marks, ‘working from home’. And those quotation marks are gone now.”

The difficulty comes, she predicts when teams begin to slowly trickle back to the office. When everyone’s at home it works brilliantly but she believes companies need to be proactive in how they manage the working environment moving forwards to keep that same sense of democratised collaboration. Fundamentally, Vasiliou says; “it’s just all about trust. Trusting your colleagues and trusting your team.”

Working at speed to match the mood of the nation

What Vasiliou noticed under lockdown was that the fact that everyone was working remotely meant that, “there’s a bit more democratisation in how we talk to each other.” This is something she doesn’t think will be going away any time soon.

But it’s the speed and the nimbleness at which creative teams have had to work that Vasiliou says has been an interesting situation to find themselves in. Ideas they were coming up with at the start of lockdown, just a matter of months ago, now feel “so quaint.”

“We were forced to move very, very quickly because the mood of nation is changing, and you have to get something out immediately otherwise it’s going to be out of date,” she explains. This was the case with a recent campaign she worked on for Starbucks that thanked customers for wearing a mask. While they talked to the client about potentially rolling it out more long term, they realised they wouldn’t have been able to do it in time and the idea would’ve lost its potency.

As it was, the team worked collaboratively with their client to turn work around in a matter of days: “[we] came up with the idea, got it into design then two days later it’s on the [client’s] Instagram feed.” If the team hadn’t operated quickly and reactively, and they hadn’t got rapid sign off from the client, “we would’ve lost that opportunity,” Vasiliou says.

Brands have to do things with integrity, and you have to put your money where your mouth is because you’re not going to get away with it anymore.

Eli Vasiliou

Realistic not aspirational

Vasiliou’s hope is that the lockdown and consumer behavioural change that has come with it, while difficult to predict how it will stick in the long term, will be a shifting point for the way brands operate.

She talks of how simple pleasures have become much more important to people as the lockdown extended. People have been interested in how things taste, how things feel and “elasticated waists,” she smiles. Vasiliou’s hope is that this embracing of simple pleasures will mark a step change for brands.

She explains: “I would hope that would open the door for brands to start talking a little bit more realistically about the products and services that they sell and what they actually do rather than this lifestyle that brands promise. I think that we’ve just got so carried away with that over the last decade, it’s probably been building that way for longer. But it’s all got so silly now that your toothpaste has to promise you an aspirational lifestyle.”

Fundamentally, she wants to see a more realistic rather than aspirational approach from brands, a move to getting “back to selling things in a more real way,” she adds.

Operating with integrity

“One of the more exciting things that has come out of lockdown is how there’s been far more scrutiny on how brands actually behave,” Vasiliou explains citing the website that was set up earlier this year that detailed how brands were operating in the crisis; how they were treating staff, customers and their community.

“Suddenly, all the layers of artifice and brand nonsense got peeled away,” she says. “You could see, does this brand actually stand for something genuine or is it just fluff?” This attitude is one that Vasiliou believes will definitely continue and one that brands need to learn from. That it’s about how a business acts: “you have to do things with integrity and you have to put your money where your mouth is because you’re not going to get away with it anymore.”

This was a reality that became clearer to her when she worked on the What’s Your Name campaign for Starbucks. The work won Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising Award earlier in 2020 which invited brands to explore how to better represent the LGBTQ community. Says Vasiliou of the work, “we knew right from the beginning that we wanted this to be more than just an advert.”

As a result, the team recognised that it was essential to partner with a specialist organisation. They chose to work with Mermaids, the charity that provides support for young transgender and gender diverse people and their families.

“The partnership with Mermaids was such a huge part of it,” explains Vasiliou. “Not only were they brilliant people to collaborate with and great sounding boards all the way through the creative process, helping us with casting and helping us review the work and check that it all felt authentic and real. But the fact that Starbucks were raising money for the charity that would help young trans people meant that they had even more permission to talk in that space and to align their brand with any kind of social purpose. Rather than just making their flag rainbow coloured for Pride.”

For Vasiliou, the last few months have given her the space to establish when she is at her creative best, to examine the ideas that her and her team are putting forward to support brands to operate with integrity at every step of the way. To have found the extra time and space to establish this creative lane at a time of such intense uncertainty should be a source of immense pride, not guilt.