How do you run a successful business that’s driven by purpose, and not profit? Not an easy question to navigate, but one that more creatives are asking every day. In Montréal, designers Ashley Phillips and Miro LaFlaga are bringing fresh ideas to the table as directors of Six Cinquième, the award-winning creative agency they founded in 2018.
In just a few short years, the couple have managed to carve out a thriving practice around values like diversity, community and innovation. They also have a penchant for disruption, and describe themselves as ‘mavericks’ who are committed to building a better world with those who ‘don’t just embrace change but seek it’.
Today, their impressive portfolio includes branding for socially transformative projects like New Room, a creative leadership programme that helps organisations to grow through human-centred learning. As a Black-owned business, Six Cinquième has also made it a mission to work with clients that champion more inclusion and representation in the creative industries. Last year, they collaborated with Montréal’s Phi Centre to give shape to a Poetry Films event and platform that celebrated aspiring Black filmmakers. Not long after that, they were hand-picked to create a dynamic and confident identity for BIPOC-focused talent agency, On Est Là!. Meanwhile, playful typography takes centre stage in the artwork they delivered for Revenge of the Black Best Friend, a new television series that tackles the harm of token Black characters. In between commissions like these the studio keeps busy with a slate of workshops and mentorship programmes that they host for emerging creatives and Black youth in the area.
So where does this clear-eyed sense of design and business come from? Curious to know more, we recently sent Ash and Miro a few burning questions over email. Here, they share some seriously good advice about dealing with doubt and building a healthy work culture — all while keeping the lights on.
Creative direction for Revenge of the Black Best Friend.
First of all, can you tell us a little bit about Six Cinquième? How and why did you decide to start your own agency?
Ash: At Six Cinquième, we help companies in defining their purpose and in building a brand that is true to that purpose, inside and out. We started our own agency because we were tired of trying to fit into spaces that weren’t made for us. We decided to create our own space and own way of doing things that encourages healthy creativity and more diversity in our industry.
Have you always had a clear sense of what you stand for as designers?
Ash: We are drawn to folks who want to shake things up, because so do we. We know what it’s like to be the only one in your circle with big ideas and how that scares people into projecting their own lack of vision onto you, making you doubt yourself. We’re here to reinforce and empower those who dare to think big. It makes our work feel purposeful, and we’ve always wanted to make sure the work we do brings us fulfilment.
Miro: I feel that Ash and I have always wanted to stand for something. We knew whatever we were doing, it needed to be bigger than us. That vision has matured over time, but has kept the same foundation from the beginning. Too many companies exist or go into business for the wrong reasons: profit. And although profit is important for businesses to thrive, we believe it shouldn’t be the main driving force of a company. Co-founders and directors get so caught up with the numbers that they forget their company’s existence actually impacts lives. Our biggest challenge as agency owners is bringing people back to this reality.
“Too many companies exist or go into business for the wrong reasons: profit… Our biggest challenge as agency owners is bringing people back to this reality.”
A lot of your work is centred around bringing more diversity to the industry. Do you have any advice to share for Black creatives who are just starting out?
Miro: Imma share the advice that I received from my mentor Derek Walker: Be aware of your value and don’t be scared to say ‘no’. Opportunities for us can seem so scarce that we feel it is necessary to seize everything. However, certain opportunities might not align with us in terms of values, compensation, etc., and it is okay to walk away. It can be very hard to do that at times, especially when starting out. In the long run it will pay off because people might be disappointed, but will respect you for it.
Branding for In Flux: Poetry Films and On Est Lá!.
How selective are you about the projects you take on? Are there any client ‘green flags’ that you look out for?
Ash: We are very selective, because we only want to work on projects we are truly passionate about. Green flags we look for in clients are great ambition, the desire to do good in the world, impact and action driven companies, risk-takers, people who like to take the time to do things the right way and just overall good energy.
Miro: Sometimes, the project might not look interesting at first, but the client’s openness and willingness to push boundaries motivates us and brings a different dynamic to the project. I think as designers, it is important to identify early on what type of people you want to work with and the ones you want to avoid. Using that information, you can slowly make your way towards the ideal clients.
What are some other things you do to cultivate a healthy work culture at Six Cinquième?
Miro: Communication is a big thing for us. Ash and I really try to create an atmosphere where we allow open communication. We want the people we work with to feel comfortable bringing up difficult conversations, even if we might not like it.
Ash: One thing we want to maintain as we grow is to set expectations and strong, healthy boundaries with clients so that we can always prioritise the wellbeing and creative flow of our people. It can be intimidating at first, but learning to communicate with clients on a human level helps them understand that the best work only comes from the best work environment. This means being realistic about the feasibility of deadlines, scaling back on the scope of work in order to deliver higher quality results instead of trying to do a lot with very little, and respecting strict cut-off times for your availability.
“We want to redefine what operations look like in an agency.”
We hate that high-pressure, machine-like environments have become normalised in the creative world. Poor client relationships built on numbers and speed for the sake of going fast with no time to think about why or where we’re really going are the cause of that. That kills creativity and we want to redefine what operations look like in an agency. We’re still figuring out the perfect formula (when we have it, we’ll share it with you all), but that is a big thing for us.
Branding for New Room.
Has it been hard to balance ‘doing good’ with making enough money to survive? What’s one tip you could share with others who are trying to do the same?
Miro: Ahaha… we are still figuring this out to be honest. One thing that helps is putting ourselves and our work out there. Showcase the work you want to do so people can start getting familiar with your style and approach. This way, when folks reach out to you, they already have an idea of what to expect. Also, although it is important to be selective with your work, there’s nothing wrong with taking on a project just to keep the lights on. The bigger agencies do that all the time, trust me. Just don’t put it in your portfolio, unless you want to attract other projects like that.
Ash: One thing I would add to that is, work on your mindset. Don’t be desperate. There will always be more projects. Yes — take on a less interesting project here or there to keep yourself afloat temporarily, but don’t make that your business model out of fear. There is truly an abundance of opportunities out there and, as cliché as it sounds, closing one door often leads to other unexpected opportunities.
“Showcase the work you want to do so people can start getting familiar with your style and approach.”
LastLY: What’s something that excites you about the future of design?
Miro: Accessibility in design is something that I am excited about. Design is beyond what we see. It incorporates our touch, smell, hearing, taste and beyond. Many people are limited to what they can experience. So it is making me constantly think about how we can add these elements to the things we are doing and reach people who are often left out of the conversation.
Ash: I don’t know if it excites me but, the emergence of AI in design has definitely captured my attention and has me curious about the evolution of design and creative thinking. If it catches on, we will be moving away from a tactical approach and towards a more strategic one based on imagination, communication and thought. I find that very interesting.
Photo: Noire Mouliom.
Top photo: Ben Meir Ohayon. All images courtesy of Six Cinquième.
Seriously Good Advice
This interview is part of a series we like to call Seriously Good Advice, wherein we ask different designers we admire to answer your questions on building (and maintaining) a meaningful practice. If you have ideas for what you’d like to see in our next conversation, reach out to us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Designers for Designers
For those who prefer their advice in real-time, What Design Can Do has teamed up with Designplatform Rotterdam to organise Designers for Designers. This digital coaching series brings experts, students, employees and employers together in a set of interactive (but anonymous) sessions focused on sharing experiences. Click here to learn more.