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Self-Starters: A Conversation with Ross Drakes from Nicework



Here I talk candidly to Ross Drakes, the Founder and Creative Director of Nicework, also referred to as “The Blue Eyed Wonder”. Find him on


Nicework is a multi-talented and multi-skilled design and communications company in Johannesburg committed to facilitating communication between client and audience by immersing themselves in their client’s businesses and offering input ranging from strategic thinking all the way through to design solution. Most of all, they want their clients to do well as that is how they measure their success.



Nice work, huh?


We actually started with a much worse name. It was called [hesitatingly] “Today and Tomorrow”. The idea was that we would do design today but it would be conceptual heavy for tomorrow.


Are you quite glad that you changed that?


Very. And Nicework was one of the other ones and it actually started as a bad joke between me and Donovan and after we went to a meeting we came back and we were like “This is a shit name” and we defaulted back to Nicework.


(Laughs)…because actually saying it out loud to a client you realise…


Ja. “I’m from Today and Tomorrow. I’m just going to go home now. Thanks. It was nice to meet you.”

And the only problem with Nicework is that everybody calls you Niceworks. With a plural. I don’t know why.


Thank God it’s not with an “x”


Ja, I’m sure that some people have thought about it with an x. It’s so bad that we’ve even toyed with the idea of registering so we can capture all the email that goes to Niceworks. And you’ve been working with people for like seven years and they’re like “Oh yeah, Niceworx”.

And a lot of people get that excitement when they’re like “Nice work!” (thumbs up), and you’re like “Yeah, you’re the first guy to ever say that!”


But it’s working for you?


It is.


Ok good. What kind of nice work do you do?


Jeez we do lots, we work for lots of corporates, banks, Eskom…


Oh, some parastatals in there..


Ja. Parastatals, all the big corporates. And for them we generally do a lot of award stuff, so we’ll do all the packaging of award ceremonies, all the imagery and animation around that, we’ll do all their presentations for them, that kind of stuff.


So, how would you describe your company in a nutshell? What’s your elevator pitch?


I think the easiest thing to say is that we do marketing support. We don’t do traditional advertising and we don’t do traditional design. When marketing people have a problem, we use one of the many skill sets that we have to answer their problem. And that can be a logo, it could be a rename, it can be a brochure, it can be a poster, it can be a website, it can be a video, it can be any one of those things or a combination of them.


But you wouldn’t consider yourself in advertising?


No, well we don’t do the traditional you-come-to-me-with-a-product-and-I-come-up-with-a-big-idea-and-make-an-ad-campaign-and-buy-media-and-serve-it, so it’s not really that. I think we’re closer to a design company than an ad company, but we’re not a design company.


And it’s digital, your focus?


The thing is we do print, we do online, we do animation, we do everything – digital is definitely a big component of that. What do they always say online? Multidisciplinary…


Multidisciplinary is so trendy.


And convergence. You can use the word convergence in here. We do convergent, multidisciplinary design.


Partners, the long and short of it…


Well, partners are nice. It’s a good thing to have someone to share the journey with and bounce ideas off with, and it’s always a good idea to have offsetting things, so, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into business with the same person as you.


Oh, someone who is too similar?


Ja, you need someone with a completely different opinion because obviously between the two opinions is something different and interesting, but what you do need to have is a kind of common goal.


Right, a vision?


Ja, because if you don’t, you’re not all heading in the same direction and you just waste time and you’re pulling against each other…

I think I’m quite lucky with Ben in terms of that we are very different from each other, but we do share a common focus and direction. And we fight and stuff like that, but often between my way and his way is a different way or a third way, so you get a larger scope.


Employees, the good the bad and the ugly. Who’s in charge of the hiring and firing?


Mainly me. But it also depends. On the business side, it’s Ben’s job to fill out the people, and then on my side, all the creative and that sort of thing. But what we’ve recently started doing is trying to create depth, you know, because it’s very dangerous to have one person who does everything, if he leaves or whatever then you’re stuck a little bit screwed, so it’s always nice to have someone who has worked under them to kind of build it up. Obviously, we are too small to have 5 of everyone, it’s kind of a semi-dream.

We used to have a very shitty hiring process…


…Hi, I like you!…


…Ja, like “Hi, I like you, let’s go”. And then since then we’ve defined 10 ideas for our company or truths for our company and we’ve based our whole interviewing process around those 10 things. A big thing is personality fit, so, you can meet the nicest, best designer in the world, but if they don’t get on with the people in the company, or the clients, or the work, it doesn’t work. Some people just don’t fit together and don’t work together. Because we’re quite a small team you work very closely with people and obviously that means you can get on each other’s nerves, and if you have personalities that just don’t mix, that kind of ruins the whole vibe.


And you’ve had experience of that?


We haven’t had any bad experiences. We’ve had people who were nice people, but not a right fit for the company.


You say you’ve defined these “ten truths”, can you give me an example?


One of our things is that we are family. The big thing there is that if somebody in the company f***s up, it’s not in our way to single them out and push them out there for ritual sacrifice. If a mistake is made, then it means that the company has f***ed up as a whole. You see a lot in big corporates it is all about ass-covering. When something goes wrong, the first thing people do is start pointing fingers. If something goes wrong here, the first thing we do is try and figure out what went wrong and how we can fix it.

So the family aspect is big. And it also goes back to that personality thing. Because we’re not a very big agency and because we don’t have very clearly defined roles, well, we do have roles but if you’re a PM you can still come up with an idea, if you’re a copywriter you can still have a say in the design, if you’re a designer you can still say how we could actually manage this project differently.


I suppose your experience gives you a different perspective on things.


And what we do try is not to hire clones of the same person, so we have quite a mix. I suppose that one thing carries us all together is that we are all a little bit insane, so everyone is crazy in their own right.

What are the other ones…

A big thing for us is that we respect each other, we respect our clients and we expect them to respect us, so if someone treats us badly, for no reason, we will fire them, or we won’t work with them because if someone doesn’t respect you and they don’t see value in what you’re doing, you can never really do anything of any value for them. They’ll always be second guessing you or moving against you…


Like swimming upstream…


Part of being a family is we like to treat people well, so if someone treats one of us badly, we will call them on it and if they can’t change their behaviour then we won’t work with them anymore, as crappy as that is for the finances.


I absolutely do believe in firing bad clients, I really do.


It’s quite cool actually, firing someone.


It’s nice to be in that type of control, and I think that’s what entrepreneurs look for. That’s what makes us entrepreneurs, it’s because we desire that level of control over our own existences. We want to be able to say, “Actually, I don’t want to work with you, you’re not my kind of person”. If everybody could have that much control, I think the world would be a happier place.


Also, that’s not to say that there are bad clients, it’s just that they are a bad client for you. That person will find someone that they understand, that gets them and they won’t have that same kind of experience.

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