Cat Turner didn’t go to one of the usual advertising courses like most CDs set on becoming an advertising creative. She studied law for six years, then went into politics, where she ran digital campaigns for the Liberal Democrat party.
While still in her 20s, Cat took the plunge with Bridey Lipscombe to independently set up the creative agency Cult, where she has remained chief creative officer since 2012. Their aim was to deliver strategically led creative social campaigns for brands specialising in beauty, fashion and luxury. Seven years on their ideas and insights have taken the form of numerous award-winning work for brands including Marc Jacobs, MAC, Nike, Burberry, Agent Provocateur and Sally Hanson.
With the US a growing market for the agency, Cult launched a New York studio in 2018 and in 2019 the agency launched a global production house straddling both offices. Now Cult has over 40 staff and an annual turnover of over $6.8m (£5.5m).
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Cat to get to know her.
LBB> You studied law, worked in politics and then ended up in the creative world. How did you make that transition?
Cat> I studied law for six years in the UK and abroad in Germany, Belgium and Australia. Travelling is such a luxury and a pleasure. And I loved what I studied.
Going from six years in law into a creative career does seem strange to a lot of people. I definitely don’t have a traditional background. Which means even today I don’t really hire based on that. When we’re looking at people to join the team I look more at who they are than what they’ve done.
It shaped the way I was able to think critically. And running a business, having a legal background continues to be very useful.
When I finished my studies I started working in politics, including at the Liberal Democrats. That was fascinating. Politics is good for learning how to deal with clients, managing the way team structures work - I think all of those intersect quite neatly. Traditionally people think of law and those types of careers as being non-creative, but I disagree. I think they’re inherently creative. They’re just a bit more structured than what we’d normally think of a typical agency creative.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what was your upbringing like?
Cat> I’m an actual Londoner, which is rare. It’s such an amazing place because it brings people from all over the country into one place. I grew up in south London, Battersea. It was not the cool place it is now. When I grew up it was pretty rough. My environment growing up was very urban. That shapes me.
I come from a single-parent family and that taught me a huge amount about determination. My mum’s very inspiring. I was very lucky to have that. My dad was not in my life, so I didn’t have that balance I suppose. But it made me quite a determined young lady.
LBB> Did your creativity exhibit itself a lot when you were younger?
Cat> I’ve got a kid myself, so I know how creative they are. They come up with all sorts of magic. But I think you need to have that nurtured from an early age in order to feel comfortable. A lot of people crush that down. Because I came from a single-parent family my grandparents were in my life a lot. My granny was an artist. She encouraged that part of me. She was very abstract with her art, rather than feeling it needed to be in this world it could be in whatever world you wanted it to be. We’d go to galleries a lot and draw and paint together.
I was probably quite an odd child, an only child, quite solitary. I kind of grew up in my own fantasy world. That’s something I took into adulthood. That often creates a certain personality type which is comfortable with creativity. It’s escapism. So being able to continue to suspend reality through what it is that you do is wonderful.
LBB> And when did you realise you could do that for a career?
Cat> I didn’t come out of university and think I’d go and become a creative. I don’t think it’s very well taught that that is even a career path. So I didn’t know. I just knew that I wasn’t the kind of person who was going to wear a suit every day. A lot of people feel that but they don’t know where to place those feelings.
So I worked in politics for a few years, which was fascinating and weird. And when the Lib Dems formed a government with the Conservatives I resigned from my job on principle.
That’s when I went into my first agency job, which was for The Brand Union, a WPP agency.
The role was quite digital. If creativity is a comfortable space for you, you’re always going to gravitate naturally towards that. So rather than a deliberate focus, it’s just natural to who I am. My career has been an evolution and doing what fits.
LBB> Early on in your career, were there moments that helped you to grow creatively?
Cat> Everything teaches you a lesson. There were definitely key projects early on. But before that even there were people. Like most people, I had good and bad ones. I had a high dose of bad bosses. I think you can find those as inspiring as those who are good because it teaches you how not to be.
I’ve worked on projects at previous agencies when I knew I was working on crap. That is something that I’ve wanted to avoid in doing our own thing at Cult - not to work on something vacuous; something should be purposeful, not just for money, it should be transformative.
I think it’s cumulatively many different moments where something doesn’t feel good, doesn’t work, is too shoddy, below grade, that person’s behaviour was toxic. And all of that shapes you and how you treat others, positively or negatively. Some people pick up bad behaviours and I’ve tried hard not to do that.
LBB> You launched Cult in 2012 with Bridey Lipscombe. Can you tell me about how your partnership came about and how it works now?
Cat> It was very romantic! Obviously we are just professional partners, but we did meet on Valentine’s Day in 2011. She and I are completely different. Imagine a spectrum. She’s on one end, I’m on the other. We are really different people. A lot of people wonder how it could work, but it works incredibly well because we’re able to look at something as a whole.
If we’re working on a project, she will be the strategic insight and I’ll be the big idea. She’s the driving force. So our dynamic is positive because it allows us to make up for each other’s failings and boost each other’s good parts. It’s rare because normally you’d find there’s conflict there. Although we’ve had our moments over the years, I think we’ve had a shouting match once and I can’t even remember what it was over. We’re able to work on different facets of the business and projects for clients, which means we’re more successful as a result.
LBB> And what were the key realisations that led to you building Cult together?
Cat> We were working together at a social media agency. We were sick of our work environment and the lack of vision of the leadership. That agency was very focused on travel and technology and although I love both of those we had aspirations for more. We had ambitions to work more internationally and across other sectors.
It came about accidentally, at Disney World of all places. Wine was involved. We had a view of a Mickey Mouse shaped swimming pool. We were unhappy and we thought we could do something ourselves. For every idiot who starts their own business that’s pretty much how it starts. You think you can do it better. We’ve made lots of mistakes along the way, but it’s seven years in now.
LBB> What was Cult to you originally and how does that compare to now, seven years along the line?
Cat> We wanted to do things differently to where we were working. So it was an act of rebellion, a fuck you, proving we could do it better. Focus on results, focus on partnership with clients - some of the basic things which all good agencies should do were our starting point. The culture we wanted to create for the team and the type of work we wanted to do really came through.
I think we were lucky that the early days of how digital, social media and creative were intersecting quite beautifully. That meant we were able to create more 360-degree campaigns. There were very few agencies that were specialising in and doing creative work in digital well. That was the opportunity.
It’s still quite a small team. We have an office in Brooklyn. So that’s been a significant change. Working across many time zones is a challenge. But I’d say the most substantial thing that’s changed is our focus on creative. Historically it was very strategically focused and over the years that’s shifted to be more complementary to the creative output.
That desire to do things differently remains to this day - that sense of fire and rebellion - even though the agency has changed quite a lot over the years as we’ve attracted talent, added more strings to our bow and broadened our offering.
LBB> The work you’ve done with Mind (which we spoke to you about here) has been really inspiring and I can see how it could have changed people’s lives. What do you think is most important about that work?
Cat> It is definitely one of my favourite projects that I’ve ever worked on. The starting point wasn’t Mind coming to us. We approached them with the idea. At the beginning of 2018 we wanted to start doing projects that were not for clients and allowed us to look at emerging tech for human good. Our first project was called Mindscape. We were seeing successive reports that showed younger generations had increasing levels of anxiety, more panic attacks, social exclusion was on the rise and I read this awful stat about how loneliness was the biggest killer, because as soon as you don’t have those human connections you begin to shut down.
I began to look with the team at how we could address that through emerging tech. It made complete sense to look at how voice technology could help support that. On a very simple level, when you start to have an anxiety attack one of the best things you can do is have a conversation with someone. And coming back to loneliness, if there’s no one around, how can you have a conversation? Voice allows you to have the sense of a conversation with someone even if there’s no one there.
We did a lot of research and I went and met with Mind. They were intrigued to see how it could come to life. They substantiated a lot of our research and we worked together on a lot of user cases. For example, anxiety attacks tend to happen in the middle of the night. You wake up, you’ve got no one to speak to. So we created specific user scenarios around those key times.
We found that so rewarding because we didn’t have any financial gain for it, we weren’t aiming for it to be anything other than a service for people who experience anxiety. That culmination of taking research and insights and creating a product at the end that can help people was brilliant. We enjoyed that as a team and it was very rewarding. Now we’re looking at turning it into a mobile app.
LBB> What work have you done recently that you want to tell everyone about?
Cat> It’s natural for agencies to want to shout about specific work and clients. We’re really lucky with our client base of well-known brands. I could easily talk about that. But what I feel much prouder about is the sense of camaraderie we have here. I know that makes me sound really soppy. The friendships that are made here, people who’ve moved in together, gone off and got married, I don’t think you can replace that. Clients and projects will come and go, but for me that’s much more rewarding. If we don’t have happy people who are nurtured and feel good about the work they do then the work is never going to be that good. I don’t think that should be underestimated. It does sound like a cliche but for me it’s the most fulfilling part of what we do.
LBB> So what’s the key to making sure people are happy and fulfilled?
Cat> I used to think I could control all aspects of our business culture, but the fact is it’s not just one thing. It’s like an ecosystem. You have to supply some of the basics.
A lot of people just want to be heard. If you can provide a forum for that then they’re able to express themselves. Often early in your career you’re afraid to ask questions because you feel judged for asking them. But the one thing we always say here is that everyone is faking it. No one’s got their shit together. No one really knows, until they get to that point, what they’re doing. So ask questions. It’s OK that you don’t know.
LBB> Do you have any other passions that you’re able to dedicate time to?
Cat> Everyone has different aspects that they nurture outside of work. I mentioned my son. He wants to be the next Tony Hawk, so that keeps me busy at the skatepark.
I still go to a lot of galleries that I visited with my granny when I was younger.
When I was in my late teens I became vegan. Now everyone’s vegan! But a big part going hand in hand with that was a sense of peace and wanting to improve one’s environment, which is also really on trend now, but I’ve lived my life like that for 20 odd years. It’s who I am as a person. So being able to bring that home or to work, I don’t see a massive divide between those things. I think a work-life balance is a complete misnomer because you need to have a more holistic view. You’ve got relationships, your family, projects that you love at work, projects that you hate, people that you love at work, people that you hate. Without getting too hippy about it, having a symbiosis between all those aspects is the key to being able to let go and be the most creative person you can be. Stress is the biggest killer of creative ideas. I’ve tried it. You cannot come up with good ideas if you’re not feeling good.
LBB> Looking ahead to 2020, what are your biggest goals?
Cat> We’re always quite focused about goals at Cult. This year we’re launching Cult Futures, focused on setting predictions for what’s coming next, looking at and better predicting trends so it can feed into our work. Our hope is to spin off products from that, whether they be consumer products or digital, taking those insights and creating IP out of that.
The other focus for 2020 is we’ve got our eyes on the west coast of the US. We’ve been working with clients there for the past year or so. We need to start thinking of the logistics so we can better service clients and not make everyone rabid with timezones. It’s natural, organic growth.