Is it possible to have fun, do what you love, work as a collective and develop an international creative agency? Monorex's founder Terry Guy tells Garrick Webster how he and his team made it happen.
"The whole business plan is collaboration," says Monorex founder Terry Guy. And there probably isn't a better way to sum up the company, which has just celebrated five years in operation, and declared purple to be its brand colour for year six.
With a successful break-out studio running for nearly two years in Malmo, Sweden, Monorex also has a foothold in Scandinavia, as well as an office in Australia. What started off as a street artists' collective customising baseball caps and doing the odd canvas in Camden, is beginning to look increasingly like a global design agency. The client list, which includes Reebok, Umbro, Casio and many more, is growing all the time. What Terry Guy has managed to do is pull together a network of artists and designers and, via Monorex, connect them with these major brands. The brands want to tap into youth markets that appreciate graffiti art and everything associated with it. A lot of work is also undertaken for PR and marketing companies wanting a reliable design group whose style is fresh and authentic for the fickle, fast-moving youth scene. Monorex offers that solution.
"I saw there was a business niche in the fact that urban artists are really, really talented people who didn't have the skills to promote themselves," says Guy. "When people approach us they know roughly what they want, and they come to us because they know we're probably the only people who can do it; for example, large-scale murals, freehand-painted on 50-foot billboards. There aren't a lot of artists in London who can take a job of that sort of scale on. We've got networks that pull in the right people, and a lot of brands realise that."
With its collaborative roots, Monorex isn't structured like a traditional studio or agency. At the centre is Terry Guy, who is the face of Monorex and the organiser. Around him are an inner circle of freelance illustrators and designers, who he calls the Famous Five. They generally work out of the Monorex studio, and Guy asks them to run with the major projects that come in - monikers include Alfa, DiscoTeck, Jimi Crayon, Mr K and Stika. Beyond this group is a broader sphere comprising illustrators, artists, designers, DJs, cameramen and other creatives, who are called on for specific projects, based on the styles they work in or the skills they offer.
Monorex members such as Joshua Howard, aka Stika, have developed their professional skills alongside the company's expansion. "From my point of view, Monorex's growth has helped me grow and understand," he says. "It's the best work experience you could ever get, being in at the early stages of a company, seeing it expand and overcome problems. I was a graffiti writer before but I hadn't really ever worked on huge scale projects, and it's a totally different way of working - measuring up, working things out and stuff like that. With regards to Monorex as a company, I've learnt a lot about speaking to clients and pitching. I've definitely become a lot more confident with that, and learnt a lot by being chucked in at the deep end and sitting in front of very important people."
Meanwhile in Australia, Shannon McKinnon is taking his first steps with a new Monorex enterprise by enlisting talent. First founded in Melbourne, the office has moved to Sydney, and the space they occupy is also being used as a gallery to showcase artists on a bi-monthly basis. "As we build up our talent pool and establish a strong foundation, the key is to secure a collection of great artists, then we'll start approaching clients. The bi-monthly events will showcase Monorex artists, and one of the biggest jobs that I have on the cards is the launch of Secret Wars in Australia - something I plan for early in the new year."
Although they're registered as separate companies, Monorex can't really be mentioned without reference to its sister operation Secret Wars. The two are intertwined. Secret Wars is a series of creative tournaments where artists battle each other in front of a live audience. Think Ultimate Fighting Championship, but instead of smashed eye sockets and dislocated arms, the combatants end up with achy wrists and knobbly fingers. The battling takes place graffiti-style, on wallboards with marker pens. DJs play in the background, the audience drink beer and enjoy the live art, and at the end of the night the winner is declared by the crowd's cheering in decibels.
When Secret Wars toured Europe, Guy met Daniel Wakeham, who now runs Monorex and Secret Wars in Sweden. "What I really like about Secret Wars, and the reason why I got involved in the first place, is the way it pits people from different artistic backgrounds against each other. Even though they're battling each other, they're still collaborating, in that their creative output is meeting in one piece of art really. For me that's just fantastic," says Wakeham.
By running Secret Wars, the Monorex crew get to know the artists and illustrators who compete, and can invite the best ones to join their own ranks. "We find new people who come to us through the Secret Wars website, apply, and send us loads of work that we might like the look of," says Guy. "We'll get them involved in Secret Wars, and then we'll get the gist of who they are and what sort of character they are, and what else they do outside of the black-and-white illustration stuff."
Equally, the events enable them to filter out the people who might be great on-stage as live art entertainment, but not cut out for client work at 9am every day - such as the artist who declared his need for Jack Daniels 24-7. "An amazing illustrator," continues Guy, "but he drank so much Jack Daniels in the space of 90 minutes that he actually collapsed on stage. I had to go on stage and pick him up and shake him. And I go, 'Come on, you've got to get up, keep drawing'."
Secret Wars events are held for the public, and for clients. Reebok, for instance, used the services of both Monorex and Secret Wars for the Bread and Butter show in Barcelona. The Monorex contribution involved all the graphic design elements such as the shoe advertisements, banners and graphics for the event. Meanwhile, the live, freestyle artwork at the show fell under the Secret Wars remit. MTV and Swatch also recently held a Secret Wars event in Athens.
Whether the Secret Wars events are staged in bars, arts centres or at commercial shows, they're just one of the methods that Monorex uses to keep in touch with people who create the kind of artwork they specialise in.
Their efforts to stay on the pulse of the urban culture takes many forms. From their Shoreditch base they spread themselves far and wide, with different Monorex members getting out and visiting clubs and art exhibitions, or attending clothing and footwear launches.
"Our eyes and ears are everywhere, on fashion, design - everything really. We're immersed in that young, hip scene and as long as we can continue to be part of that circle, we can bring something different to a brand," says Guy.
The building they're in has other advantages too. It's right next to Village Underground, a concert/club venue, and there's a nice big wall outside that the owner allows them to paint up when bespoke client projects come in. When Umbro wanted a Monorex piece for England's redesigned football kit, it went up on the wall outside. And, when Monorex held its fifth birthday party, the team produced a gigantic piece of their own branding on the wall in purple and held the party in the club downstairs. Purple cupcakes and cocktails named after the main artists awaited the guests inside.
From the rooftop garden of Monorex HQ, Guy can point out the locations of current clients, as well as ones he'd like to work with in the future. Reebok's building is only about a block away. Nike is not much further, nor is the Tea building, which houses some of London's most famous agencies.
But it's from the other side of London that one of Monorex's most interesting new projects will come from, and it doesn't involve a big agency or a major brand. The team have been drafted in to help with the revamping of Brixton Market, a community project, and work should be underway by the time you read this.
"There are 15 derelict shops, and the development agency contacted us and said, 'Can you do something creative?' It can be anything - go away and come back with some ideas.' So we're literally inviting artists outside of the Monorex and Secret Wars bubbles, people like Insa and CHU, and we're basically saying: 'Here's a space, here's a small budget, what do you want to do with it?' At the moment we're just drafting those ideas in, and we're going to have a four-week timetable with creative installations."
Again, it's that drive to collaborate that comes forward. As Dan Wakeham of Monorex Sweden quickly points out: "I think that's an important point to make, that we're always ready to collaborate with people outside of the Monorex sphere as well. We're never afraid to bring other people in. We're not like, 'This is Monorex, everybody else stay away.' We're always ready to collaborate. I think a lot of people forget about it when it's about money and paying your rent and stuff; you tend to be a bit protective of what's yours. But I think what we do really well is not think about the money aspect that much, and just be really open to anybody who can bring something to the table."
What will the future hold for Monorex? It's a mixed bag. Over in Sweden, Wakeham is working on plans for a major project with both Coca Cola and Reebok. The UK crew also scooped the Lloyd's Innovation Prize for Secret Wars at the 31st Arts & Business Awards in November, having been shortlisted in three of a possible eight categories - alongside its sponsor Edding, a manufacturer of permanent markers.
Despite offices opening abroad, and plans to franchise out Secret Wars to cities near and far, Guy wants to continue in a vein that keeps things personal and collaborative. "We don't want to be like an M&C Saatchi where we're in a huge building with hundreds of people running around, in little desks, trapped together. I like the idea of us being in quite a personal sort of house, a friendly space. The Reebok people and whoever else comes through enjoy the fact that we work with them on more of a personal basis - Dan goes out and gets drunk with the Reebok Scandi guys on a regular basis. You become very friendly with the people you work with."