19th June 2020

Culture / Featured / Chris Wills

Breaking Bread Together by Chris Wills

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Chris Wills believes the success of his businesses was due to the fact that every day, Chris and his team got up from their desks and sat down together to eat lunch. It was in this time where able to chat freely, bonds were formed and good ideas were shared.

We all have tales to tell, a few life changing and some simply amusing or exciting. My tale is neither amusing nor exciting but it did shape my life and made the world in a very small way a better place. If you love the power of good food this tale might prove that good things happen when you break bread with like-minded souls.

When I left school aged 16 in the ’70s my parents were distraught, not knowing what would become of me with my poor exam results. But I had a passion to work with my hands, plenty of enthusiasm and the ability to work hard. After two years studying cabinet making, I fell on my feet, moved to London and got a job aged 18 working at a recently formed design agency called Pentagram. At that time Pentagram was without doubt one of the most exciting design studios in Europe. My job was to work with the designers and architects making prototypes of their designs. For a tender youth from the wilds of Dorset, this was a baptism of fire in the world of design.

Over three years I soaked up everything I could learn from some of the brightest creative minds and was lucky enough to work on some of the most exciting projects in what was a burgeoning creative industry.

At 1.00 pm the entire staff would have a free lunch together, share ideas and generally bond around good food. What’s more, if a client arrived, they would also eat with us, as did all of the partners. This was pretty radical in those days.

Chris Wills

The curious thing is, if I think back to those glorious days, it wasn’t the creativity that moulded me but the lunches we had each day in the studio dining room. At 1.00 pm the entire staff would have a free lunch together, share ideas and generally bond around good food. What’s more, if a client arrived, they would also eat with us, as did all of the partners. This was pretty radical in those days.

When it was my time to leave and break out, the die is cast. I was determined that if I were to run a company, I wanted to break bread each day with my team. This was a brave idea for a 21 year old with rent to pay and very little cash in the bank.

Somehow I managed to set up a workshop and work for nearly all of the new design companies in London, creating packaging, industrial prototypes, branding, you name it. I was the bright young thing who understood the creative process and could bring ideas to life. It wasn’t long before I moved workshops and started to build a little team of like-minded souls who could make all manner of beautiful things for our growing client base. But something was missing. We were in danger of evolving into just another creative sweatshop with nothing special to glue my team together. It was time to take the leap and create a company kitchen and dining area as I had promised myself. Within weeks our office manager doubled up as cook and we all started to enjoy fabulous lunches together.

The cost wasn’t a great deal to the company and overnight our culture started to evolve in a good direction. Each day, no matter how busy we were, the whole team would down tools at 1.00 pm and break bread together. Our lunchtime debate became the bedrock of our working day. We all shared our stories, learned from each other and prospered. My little company grew. We relocated to new premises and moved into the world of Advertising and films. It was the heyday of the ’80s and later ’90s advertising. From embryonic beginnings, we became a creative culture in our own right. The team grew with little if any churn, while good food sat at the heart of what we did and what we stood for. As the company bonded we were able to cross fertilise knowledge, bringing on the young rookies, sharing our experiences and on occasions, venting our spleen when demanding clients demanded more than we thought we could give.

This story might have ended there with an exceptionally happy company that was both profitable and working in an exciting creative industry fuelled by great food and happy banter. But computers had entered our workplace. Unsurprisingly, part of the lunchtime debate focused on the future of our creative industry. We had no experience of these bright shiny boxes apart from running our accounts. What we did observe were very few computers being used to retouch images. This appeared magical in those days where analogue ruled supreme. 

I can’t pretend our next step was solely because of our fabulous company lunches but I like to think good food can cultivate open minds where great ideas can be nurtured. One of those great ideas was to create a digital design company on the top floor of our building to be called ‘The Brilliant Agency’. I hired three talented college leavers, built a digital design studio and the internet barely existed. CD Roms were the big thing and I intended to be part of it, whatever it was. Our culture evolved once more with our company dining room getting very busy indeed. We now had a dedicated cook, food was veggie most of the time and the dishwasher was taking a hammering. We continued to prosper and I learnt that difficult clients became more compromising when we ate together. What was fascinating was our digital designers blended into our culture of craftspeople working in media and all because we broke bread together during lunch. We learned from each other and a few of my original team moved into digital design. The internet exploded and we now had a significant client base with household names. What happened next is another tale. 

At this point I could safely say eating together sat at the heart of what we did and was in part responsible for our success.

Chris Wills

In some ways, it wasn’t the food that was important but the act of eating together. Not in a canteen but as a family, albeit very extended. The culture of eating together stood at the core of what made us a great team and from that spread a sense of fulfilment and success.

Pentagram had influenced me significantly and hopefully, I went on to influence others. The father of UK Graphics Alan Fletcher was one of the founding partners at Pentagram and I believe it was his passion for great food and eating together which inspired me and many others.

Thank you Pentagram of the ’70s, we can still learn so much from those heady days of creativity and good food.

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Starting his career as a young craftsman, Chris Wills then moved into the world of design, media and finally digital communications. He founded two highly successful companies in his twenties, the first, Metro Models the second the Brilliant Agency. Now gentle retired, Chris's last part of his career was spent rebuilding and running a digital platform called Doctor in the House.

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