09 March 2011

Pool with Creative Review

The team behind one of the most successful non-celebrity twitter accounts in the UK

As a follow-up to last issue’s Pool-related D&AD interview, ShellsuitZombie decided to challenge another dynamic duo to a battle. This time it was to be the team behind @CreativeReview, the Twitter account belonging to the magazine of the same name which (at the time of writing) has not far off 400,000 followers, making it one of the biggest non-celebrity Twitter accounts in the UK. The authors, Mark Sinclair (Deputy Editor) and Neil Ayres (Digital Producer) or ‘Neil and Mark’ as their Twitter profile lovingly calls them, were about to flex their darts muscle in a battle to find one glorious victor. Or were they?

No, because the dartboard was in use. So instead we just sat down and had a couple of pints and a chat about Twitter, writing for Creative Review, Carp and mistaken identity. I might make up some darts scores, but they will strictly be to ‘add spice’. The winner will also be made up. Sorry Mark, I’m sure you’re great at darts really.

Mark steps up to the plate first, throwing a mediocre 31 points. Neil manages more, scoring an impressive 120 with his first three darts.

Hi Neil – could you describe your role at CR?

Neil: Yeah it’s changed a bit since january. I’ve been working at creative review for 4 years, before which I was at Design Week. I came from a print production background but when the decision was made to launch the new website I started doing the online production for creative review. What followed was a youtube channel and then Twitter.

Do creative Review as a whole embrace Twitter as a valuable part of the magazine?

N: They do now, but when I first mentioned it people didn’t really get what the purpose of it was. It was very much ‘if you need something to do, go for it’. It’s worked quite well, definitely leading up to the tweetup for example.

Did that lead up to extra followers?

N: No it’s been very steady growth really. On one site we were ranked 38th in London, just below Andy Murray and just above JLS.

Mark: That’s where we see ourselves. (laughs). We have a similar number of followers to Wallpaper magazine, that’s quite a good comparison. Some celebrities are just on Twitter for an ego boost, they don’t really interact with their fans and that’s the antithesis of what we believe Twitter is about.

Twitter divides a lot of people, the ones that say they don’t get it are probably those who only ever followed celebrities and never got the conversational aspect of it.

N: Yeah I didn’t get it at first - I first noticed a famous psychologist had started a Twitter account just a few weeks after it launched and I looked at it and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It was another 18 months before I got into it myself. Around when we started the CR account a couple of years after that was a tipping point for Twitter, when it really boomed.

M: If you think about the things we’ve now done with Twitter it’s amazing that two years ago we had no idea what it really was capable of.

As a Twitter user I feel like even though Creative Review has over 390,000 followers now, if I say something to them they will get back to me. Though it’s a huge account it feels approachable.

M: Speaking to friends on friday night they were amazed by the amount of effort we’ve put into something they see as essentially a gossip tool, but doing Twitter effectively involves interacting and talking to as many people as we can. If you ask us a direct question we’ll try our hardest to reply, and when others see us doing it it becomes much more of a method for interaction and feedback.

N: A lot of people will only interact with creative review through our Twitter feed. We never mentioned that we were even a magazine on our Twitter description for ages, which has recently changed, but there are thousands of creative review readers that have never seen or heard of the print magazine.

Have priorities changed at CR post social media?

M: Not really, everything still points back to the print magazine. At the same time though, we see the blog as a sister publication to the magazine, not an offshoot, or the print magazine made digital. It’s doing its own thing. If you go on the blog, or on our Twitter, the magazine is very different to that. Circulation of the print mag is good but it’s been hard for everyone over the last few years. When the ‘work’ section of CR was dropped for the ‘crit’ section, that I look after, that was the print mag reacting to the current climate in a way - ‘news’ making way for more in-depth articles. If you get a new piece of work on the first day of print production, it won’t be published for 4 weeks, by which point it will have been blogged everywhere.

Yet people who subscribe to creative review have shelves of creative review. It’s very collectable.

M: Absolutely, it may be a cliche now but the tactile quality helps.

N: Also though the breadth of work has also increased. I’m not a designer but i’m interested in illustration and comic books and the magazine now caters for a range of tastes.

M: That’s why the Twitter feed has worked so well too. We can now flag up all sorts of things, not just design and advertising.

Do Creative review have a Facebook page too?

M: Yeah it’s been bubbling away for a while

N: We even have a myspace page!

M: Do we still? I thought that must have gone the way of … well … myspace. One thing I’ve noticed about the blog is that it tends to kick off quite a reaction. There seems to be hot topics…

N: There’s just one isn’t there? Logos.

M: Yeah it’s usually rebrands of household names. That’s why we did a logo edition of the magazine, we know how contentious that subject it.

Do you look for that?

M: Yeah we like it when it’s a good debate. There’s a fine line between good debate and a slanging match and we’re very cautious now that we don’t let it get out of control. Usually what happens is that someone says a piece of work is rubbish, then someone else says ‘well your website is rubbish’ and then we have to remind people to not get personal.

N: What’s funny though is that for the recent T-mobile royal wedding ad for example, the blog kicked off in a negative way and all the while everyone on Twitter was very positive. The level of anonymity on the blog changes opinion.

M: We try to let as much through as possible, but people use the anonymity function to say some pretty nasty stuff and we have to watch that.

N: And then youtube is another world. We tried to moderate that for a while then quickly gave up.

M: It’s like a subterranean commentary, it descends into hatred very quickly.

M: Pint?


Mark generously gets these ones in. This reporter has a lager, Neil has a disturbingly fizzy tap water and I can’t tell you what Mark has, he doesn’t announce it to the microphone. More fake darts is played in this time but I won’t tell you how much so I don’t have to add up the scores.

Thanks! Mark, what do you do at CR?

M: Well I’ve been at creative review for 9 years, I started as senior writer, doing feature and news writing. This was before we had a proper website, that only really got going 7 years ago. I now look after the Crit section and then manage regular columnists as well as any features I’m doing myself. That’s alongside trying to get out a couple of blog posts a day. As deputy editor I also have to step into Patrick’s (Burgoyne, Editor) shoes if he’s not around.

Would you one day like the top job?

M: Ooh, what a question (laughs) I don’t think Patrick has any plans at the moment so… Are you guys aware of being quite a big voice in the creative world?

M: You get an idea of the magazine’s standing and reputation occasionally but day to day you’re so involved in it that it’s difficult to tell. I think it’s the same with any magazine, for the people who write it, it can be hard to tell what it’s like to ‘experience’ it. But you always have to remember that you’re writing to be read, if you know what I mean. And I enjoy reading what we write about…

So if you were into carp fishing you’d still look up to the editor of Carp Monthly?

M: Yeah, something like that…

Do you also look after the feed? How does one go about getting work into that?

M: We look at the feed a few times a day, and by no means everything is approved, so it’s an achievement to be featured.

N: Sometimes a piece from the feed will make it onto the blog too if it’s particularly interesting.

M: It’s great because everything has been written by the designer or creator and we don’t have to then go back onto their site to write a piece each time. We can just press approve, so it just has our editorial take on what’s interesting.

How do you feel about Twitter as a means of promotion, particularly as a graduate. If you’re not Creative Review but an unknown creative, do you think Twitter can be of value?

M: Definitely. There are loads of people we know through Twitter and that’s only because of one mention or retweet saying ‘check this out’ It can be a very easy way to get your stuff out there.

N: and you start to have conversations with people who you’ve met through a retweet. Our problem is that we try to follow as many people as possible but inevitably there will be some really interesting voices that you never see when you have tens of thousands of people on your feed.

M: The simple act of ‘following’ someone is such a simple way to start a relationship though.

I’ve noticed that Neil, you have an active personal Twitter account but when I type Mark Sinclair into Twitter I get ‘@TheDonutMan’. I assume this isn’t you?

M: Ha, no. I was preparing to a conference in Cape Town a couple of years ago and the press contact asked what I looked like so he could pick me up from the airport. He eventually emailed me a picture that he’d clearly found on Google of a well fed middle-aged looking corporate chap in a suit and asked ‘is this you?’ Seriously.

N: You’re completely offline Mark. But at least you managed to get your name on the CR profile. If someone then knew it was a magazine and went to the website they’d work it out.

Mark isn’t very good at fake darts, missing spectacularly and impaling the barman. Neil, akin to Robin Hood, casually throws his next dart, splitting Marks in Twain. Ignoring the bleeding barman, he then throws his next two darts straight and true, leaving himself with just 40 to win.

Do you guys write outside Creative Review?

M: Yeah I’ve done a few projects, I’ve written a book too…

N: About comics. He’s going to plug it now.

M: Well it is available on Amazon for an insultingly low price. I do bits and bobs, the odd chapter and essay here and there.

N: Last year I did a few freelance pieces for magazines, I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m writing a science fiction novel though.

M: Freelance can be hard work, you have to go home and get motivated to write again, sometimes I’m very happy just writing at work!

Do you have a few spare copies?

M: Yeah I have about 20! I thought it would be great to have loads, but now I look at them and I’m like ‘Oh God, who can i send these to?’

OK on to degree shows. You must have been to a fair few, any thoughts or advice?

M: Theres loads of little ways in which you can make that experience more successful for you if that’s what you want. The whole ‘black folder’ portfolio thing is so off-putting for one - people don’t want to flick through loads of work. You think about when you go to an exhibition or gallery, people just want to go and look at great work. Also, if you’re there at your show, you can approach people and see if they want to know more about a piece of work. That can help too.

Do you think that theory works on Twitter too? Should you be shouting about your work?

M: Yes, certainly, but the other side is sometimes we get a personal message saying ‘Hi creative review, check out my work’ and then you check their Twitter page and they’ve sent the same message twenty times to different people. It’s the equivalent of copy and pasting an email and forgetting to change the name of the magazine. ‘Hi Creative review, I’ve been an avid reader of Eye for years now…’ It’s not the end of the world, but it can get people’s backs up a bit, and you only have to proof-read your emails to avoid it.

Mark then misses again. ‘MARK?!’, we all shout.

Final question - Any plans for another CR Tweetup?

M: That’s a really good question N: Are we allowed to say? M: There is going to be one on July 21 at Tate Britain, it’s a tie-in with the Vorticist exhibition they’re staging. It will involve creative participation online in the form of a Tumblr, and some involvement on Twitter. This is beginning to sound like a press release but we’re continuing to build on the first Tweetup. We’re going to post all about it on the CR blog.

That sounds exciting!

N: It’s going to be fun. Right, it’s time to get back to Twitter!

Neil then stylishly finishes Mark off with a double top, becoming the first winner of fake ShellsuitZombie darts ever. He would have looked proud and honoured (and probably made a winners speech) if I hadn’t made the darts bit up. There had now been a two and a half hour period of no tweets from Creative Review, people were starting to need their fix. It was time to go.

This article was originally posted in ShellsuitZombie magazine issue 2 in 2011, which you can see here. Neither Mark nor Neil work at Creative Review any more, which is a pity.