Grant Venner runs Brand Semiotics Limited. Commercial semiotics is an academic approach to analysing brand communication, often used alongside qualitative research.
My business has grown organically over the last thirteen years. Initially I started out as a sole trader / freelancer, plugging into other people’s businesses as an occasional planning director with a particular way of approaching branded challenges. The big milestone was deciding to turn what I had been doing into a proper limited company, about the time of my first major project for a large multinational. It was exciting creating my own ‘brand’ from scratch, and articulating my approach as a proposition differentiated from other practitioners in my field.
Brand strategy is usually quite a long way upstream from creative work, and the latter can take some time to get to market. Nevertheless I will often find my words or ideas on a product or in an advert. I have a very strong memory of turning onto the A4 from the South Ealing Road to see a massive poster for Glenfiddich which had clearly dropped straight out of work I had done.
As to celebrating, well, you can’t really pop a cork in an office of one, so I normally just content myself with a ‘warm glow’. Once a year, between Christmas and New Year, I take the family away for a couple of nights in a hotel, so we can all recharge our batteries – we call it the ‘company conference’.
These have genuinely been few and far between. I didn’t get paid for a (small) piece of work once due to a company going insolvent, which was rather unpleasant. Every now and again the work goes quiet – as it does in any business – and you find yourself thinking ‘oh no, what if it’s the end?’ Then the phone goes twice, usually on the same day, and you are back in the thick of it again. After thirteen years you get used to it.
The biggest risk I took was the decision to change direction. Prior to this I had worked for ten years in large corporations and a ‘safe’ career path was always an option. But I wanted to be master of my own destiny, and corporate life was making me miserable. When I told my workmates what I was planning, they all said the same thing – ‘wow, that’s brave’ – which is code for ‘you’re mad’. Many in my field start life with a specialist agency then take a client or two with them when they leave: I started from scratch. Did it all pay off? Absolutely. I thoroughly enjoy what I do and feel I have a much richer, more relaxed existence than if I had stayed in corporate life.
In this line of business, you work when the work comes in. That means some weeks you are working no days, and some weeks you are trying to force ten days’ work into the seven available, weekend included. I work from home so I pick up my two boys from school and spend the early evening with them: I think it’s good for us all. When it’s quieter I try to get ahead on the allotment, catch up on jobs around the house, and help run my local Transition Town group. And from April to October I have open water swim training to factor in. So there is a balance of sorts and a good mix of cerebral, practical and physical – but very little ‘down time’.
I was initially inspired by commissioning some semiotic work as a client: by the end of the agency’s presentation, I had decided to retrain. It wasn’t a bolt from the blue, more the missing piece in a puzzle I had been assembling for some time. The foundational texts by the grandfathers of Semiotics (Roland Barthes, especially) are still fresh as a daisy and as relevant today as they were in the early 1950s.