How farming town architect Stephen Clements became YML’s chief creative officer

YML’s chief creative officer Stephen Clements

Welcome to So You Want My Job? Each week we ask the people working in some of the industry’s coolest roles about how they got where they are. Along the way, we dig into their philosophies, inspirations, processes and experiences. Hopefully our interviewees can inspire you to pursue (or create) a job that’s just as exciting.

This week, YML’s chief creative officer Stephen Clements shares his experiences and insights.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Does your job now resemble that in any way?

First, you should know that I grew up in the west of England in a small farming town, so the only creative profession I was aware of was architecture. After finishing school, I went off to get my degree in that very field and spent a lot of time designing creative things, including the ultimate pirate ship and an underwater house. I was also learning several different architectural methods that used biology, robotics and even film theory, which is how I got into the world of ‘new media’ – dabbling in the interactive experience via architecture. I really enjoyed it and have tapped into a lot of that thinking for what my team does today.

I realized quickly that there’s a comparison between how people navigate a physical building and how they do so with a website – there’s a story, a narrative. I’ve applied this to my career now, especially when we work on omnichannel briefs, which mixes the digital and physical worlds. I’m sure, as we move into more of a virtual reality (VR) world with mixed realities, I’ll fall even further back on to that original architecture schooling.

How did you get your job?

It was a pretty wonky route. I studied architecture, finishing two degrees in the field, and when I left school I started working with my tutors who were architects, but who were doing exploratory film work in the music video and ad worlds. This led me to eventually launch my own company called ‘My Version of Reality,’ where we made music videos, CD jewel cases and websites for DJs.

A year or two into this I wasn’t making a ton of money, so when I received a call from AKQA asking me to work on a pitch for Xbox to make a video of the interface (which at the time no one knew how to do since everything was HTML) I agreed and worked around the clock to make it happen. The deliverable was a cassette with the renderings I was presenting and a guy from Xbox came to pick it up in a briefcase he had chained to his wrist, like an actual spy movie. We ended up winning the business and I was offered a job at AKQA.

I moved to San Francisco and worked there for the next 12 years until eventually I started to launch my own companies, which included my wife and I starting an artificial intelligence (AI) wine sommelier platform that evolved to also be a cannabis sommelier. I did the investor circuit for the brand, and one of the investors I met was the chief exec of Y Media Labs, Ashish Toshniwal, who actually didn’t invest, but we hit it off. We got on a texting basis and eventually met up a few times as well. Mostly it would be him asking my opinions on these big thought-starter questions – like how do you inspire a creative culture?

Months later, after the 2016 election, I was feeling uninspired and was looking for a job that would allow me to travel for a bit so I reached out to Ashish and asked if he knew anyone who was looking for a freelance creative director – instead he offered me a consultant spot at YML. I soon realized they had some great work and talented team members, but they weren’t marketing themselves well. People didn’t know about their work. I left Ashish with that thought as I eventually headed to Asia for six months. During that time, I was interviewing a bit, but I didn’t know where to live and was having trouble committing to anything. When Ashish reached back out and offered me a full-time position, it all really fell into place from there.

OK, so what do you actually do?

I make apps and websites for brands that everyone has heard of and uses, such as Home Depot and State Farm.

Do your parents understand what it is that you do?

No. Even when I put it as simply as above, they don’t understand. They don’t have smartphones, they don’t use apps – they actually still have flip phones.

What do you love most about your job?

The best thing I think I’ve ever done is build a company culture. I enjoy it the most – creating the next generation of leaders and doing what it takes to inspire, educate and engage them so that they can reach their potential.

How would someone entering the industry go about getting your job now? What would be their route?

I don’t hold much stock in formal education. Meaning, I don’t care if you went to Harvard or just taught yourself in your bedroom. To enter the industry, my advice would be to make a strong portfolio, via design school or online tutorials, as it will be critical to landing you that first entry job. I even hired someone who had never gone to college due to financial constraints, worked until he could afford a computer, and taught himself Webflow to get his foot in the door. Now he’s a hot commodity. It’s more about commitment and determination than getting a degree.

What advice would you offer to others entering the digital design industry, especially at this weird time?

Now is the time. The pandemic has offered a unique opportunity because people aren’t going into brick-and-mortar storefronts, so digital products are filling the gap to meet demand.

What would you say is the trait that best suits you for your role?

I don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. With my role, I get to bounce between a series of products that are all solving massive problems with important clients across industries (healthcare, automotive, grocery). The ability to go back-and-forth between tracks and the ability to crack a vision, meaning say the one line that your team needs to easily grasp a project and begin ideating, are critical for my role.

Who should those who want your job read or listen to?

If you want my exact job, listen to our show Y in the Valley – a podcast about everything from ideas and IPs to IPOs; $500 in the bank to Fortune 500 companies. It’s an insightful show about Silicon Valley’s founders, leaders and unicorn creators – all shaping culture, tech and the future.

If you’re just looking to get in the industry, I encourage you to travel, explore different digital ecosystems and test new apps. If everyone reads and listens to the same things everyone becomes similar and innovation is stifled.

Last week, Elise Burditt told us how she came to be the associate director of biscuits, UK & Ireland at Mondelez International.