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SUCCESS STORIES: Keith - from cancer to Kanye

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9 min read

Keith Gray is, without doubt, a success story - a Creative Director who has worked with the likes of Tomato, KesselsKramer, Wieden + Kennedy, 72andSunny, and Mother, with brands that include Nike, Honda, Diesel, Jaguar Land Rover, ASOS; he was even personally requested by Kanye West to work on Yeezy, and Sir Alex Ferguson to work on Nike Manchester United kit launches.

But the brand names aren't what make Keith a success:

"You think you’re as good as the company you work for - that’s the way we’re taught to think. I think a better way of looking at it is that you take your talent with you. You’re not just good because you work for that company."

Where he is now is a different story, moving from a cancer scare to building his own clothing brand, Lawsuit: a brand that is socially and culturally conscious.

Photo Credit: Tom Woods

Tell us a bit about you...

If we go back to the beginning… I graduated from Central St Martins School of Art and Design. I was one of the youngest people to go there for my course. After that, I worked with a lot of different design and ad agencies. 

There’s two facets to design, particularly when it comes to fashion. There’s the graphic design on garments and apparel, but I also worked a lot on fashion communication with advertising agencies, doing ad campaigns, for example with Nike. It involved conceptual, creative design, and campaign concepts. At the moment what I do is what I’d call ‘multi-channel storytelling’ due to the way in which social media platforms have developed.

Despite being quite prolific, I was never particularly interested in coming up with ad concepts. I’m more interested in doing creative work for brands based on their business problems, but creating content that is culturally relevant in some way. 

My first role was back in the 90s. In the 90s, designers were like rockstars.

I got an art directing job in Amsterdam for KesselsKramer after winning Creative Reviews, Creative Futures - KK used to do all the big Diesel campaigns. I came back to the UK and worked for Wieden + Kennedy working across Nike and Honda, 72andSunny, and Mother.

I was a bit of an anomaly in it because I was Designer-Art Director. Traditionally, you’d have a copywriter and an art director, but I ended up working on my own - which included concept art direction, design, copywriting, and things like that. 

I ended up as Head of Creative for ASOS, and following on from that Global Creative Director at Jaguar Land Rover. 

Sometimes you work for a lot of these big companies, and even though they want to bring you in, to help make the company more creative or innovative, the infrastructure’s just not there. You end up as a sort of dancing monkey - just there to tick a box.

When you’re at college, and you get told to ‘follow your dreams’, what you don’t get taught is that your dreams change. Not only do your dreams change, but your ambitions, your hopes, and your feelings for what you’re doing change. As well as that, the media space in which you’re operating changes. 

For example, when I started, social media didn’t exist. Even though what I had been doing was multi-channel storytelling - it took a while and a change of career direction to get to grips with social storytelling. In many ways what I had been doing all along was just waiting for social media to happen.

So it was frustrating for a while in my early 30s.

Then to add to that, a few years ago, something really traumatic happened to me in London that resulted in me finding out I had bowel cancer and had only a week to live.

It was really interesting, partly because it was all connected to me being frustrated with what I was doing. Having cancer wasn’t actually that bad, it was what happened after - I decided I don’t want to do this anymore. 

I was then working with Vexed Generation again (I did a lot of design for them straight out of uni), and one day I got an email from Kanye West’s PA, and then he rang me - and I worked on Yeezy for a while over in Calabasas and Chicago.

What was Kanye West like?

Ye gets a lot of bad press, but I really warmed to him. I think he’s adorable. Every time I saw him I just wanted to give him a big hug. He’s naturally so creative that he projects a sense of being ‘lost’, but not in the negative sense of the word. Lost in the sense of discovery and exploration.

 

I met some good people at Yeezy such as fashion designer Willy Chavaria, who I continued to collaborate with - he became Vice President of design for Calvin Klein not so long ago and over the summer I was doing some work with him on CK.

After Yeezy, and coming back to the UK, I didn’t want to go back to London. London is always the place that you go to try and make it, in terms of career success. After a few years of working in London, I was seeing a lot more stuff going on all over the country and particularly Manchester. It has this new creative resurgence, a vibe a bit like when Factory Records were doing their thing back in the day.

I’d had this idea floating around my head for a while called Lawsuit, which manifested itself as a clothing brand.

Lawsuit is about social trends, not fashion trends. It’s not just the clothing - I wanted to create a conceptual place in which the clothing is one small part of something much bigger. 

What would your advice be to those looking to enter into the creative industry?

When you’re younger and you’re going on your career path, you learn from those who are already there, but there comes a point in your career that in order to move forward, rather than looking at the people above you or in front of you, the best thing to do is actually to look behind you - the ones coming out of university and school. 

It’s an industry that’s full of egos. It’s very different if you’ve gone to art school, or if you’ve gone to an ad school and been trained to write an ad. I found it really frustrating. 

The best piece of advice I could give is sheer perseverance. If you want to do it, and you’re good at it, hang in there. There might be processes and things in the way of you, but you will get there. 

The other thing which I think is really worth pointing out is that companies are really good at branding themselves - if it’s a design company or an ad agency. You think you’re as good as the company you work for - that’s the way we’re taught to think. I think a better way of looking at it is that you take your talent with you. You’re not just good because you work for that company. With that perseverance, I think that no matter where you end up, and if you’re good at it, you can always do something good with it. 

What's the biggest hurdle you've had to overcome?

It’s very connected to my clothing brand, Lawsuit. Everyone was telling me I should write a book - “From Cancer to Kanye”. Rather than to sit down and write some words on a page, in true multi-channel story-telling style, Lawsuit is my book and my story. Lawsuit is my lawsuit against any time (or people) where I’ve felt that things have been unjust or unfair. It's the experiences of hope, and ambitions of being up and getting pulled down. It’s an attitude that evolves from living life and the things we learn that can only come from experiencing defeat as well as triumph.

“Contentment really is the enemy of invention” and at the time of setting up Lawsuit, I was very, very discontent. But so was the country, the general feeling of apathy with Trump, Theresa May, and Brexit going on.

Another hurdle has been my experience of a creative career where you have to go up a ladder - from Designer to Art Director, then Creative Lead to Creative Director. When I got to the latter point, I went through difficulties with my own self worth, and it wasn’t because I couldn’t do it - it was more that I didn’t want to do it. 

It’s funny because a Creative Director doesn’t really actually ‘creative direct’. A Creative Director is often more about people management. I was much more interested in being hands-on and creative.

I’ve always been much more focused on my own work rather than, at times, the processes of a particular company, of climbing a career ladder. When you’re at art school, you’re not taught how to operate in a corporate, office environment. Especially in advertising, people can be snakes, but equally, you can meet some of the most amazing people. 

It’s the interactions with people and problems that occur that can actually fuel creativity.

That’s definitely one of the main hurdles I came across - how to negotiate politics in an office, how to work your way up a career ladder. I’ve set myself free from that now though - I’ve realised that I’m just really happy making stuff. It’s about accepting yourself, and keeping doing what you’re doing. 

Have you got a goal at the moment?

I really don’t know if I do have a permanent goal. Lockdown has changed everything. I’ve found myself craving stability quite a lot. Whenever there’s a recession or pandemic, the first things that go are marketing budgets! 

I don’t mean career stability, but more in life. I think long-term, all I want to do is buy a piece of land near some water and build a home. I just want a simple, quiet life and to lose all of the unnecessary hopes like: “I want to have this job title” or “this car” or “that salary”. I am driven by making Lawsuit as successful as it can be and continuing to use it as a vehicle to tell my stories and my experiences to help generate positive social change for the youth of tomorrow.

Check out more of Keith’s work here.

Do you know anyone who could feature in one of our Sort Success Stories? Email megan.timbrell@sortyourfuture.com to nominate them!

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