At age five, Samantha Edwards might not have been able to tell you the definition of “financial responsibility,” but she certainly could have showed you: When her mother gave her a little spending money at a supermarket in Manchester, England one day, instead of buying candy or a toy or whatever else typically tugs at the purse strings of most five-year-olds, she bought soap. And toilet paper. “I was always especially independent,” Samantha tells us, laughing. “I was so excited at the prospect of being able to have my own things!”
As you might expect from a young girl with such a nascent desire for fiscal autonomy (and such reasonable shopping habits to boot), Samantha naturally grew up to be a woman enamored with the idea of hard work and the byproducts of a stimulated wallet and mind; at 15, she took her first job as a papergirl, followed by a gig working for a company that made flyers for local nightclubs, where she came up against a grave professional problem: The graphic design, in her opinion, was garbage. And so she told her boss as much. “He was like, “Well, if you think you can do it, then come in and show us you can,’” Samantha tells us, laughing. And you can probably guess what happened next: Samantha went and showed them she could.
After attending university, Samantha moved briefly to London to work as designer for GQ before settling in New York, where she thrived on the fast pace of the city, working for a number of different creative agencies. But for all she learned working for over a decade with esteemed agencies like SKAGGS and Global Point Agency, Samantha felt that the industry was lacking in something she’d always felt intensely passionate about: telling stories about individuals.
It so happened that Samantha’s brother, with whom she’d always been close (they had actually embarked on an ill-fated attempt to open a bar together back in early adulthood) was similarly frustrated with the sameness of his work at a large investment bank back in London, so when she suggested they open a creative agency together, they went for it; in 2011, Aaron moved into Samantha’s two bedroom apartment in the city, where they would go on to found and run The Charles.
Six years later, the scrappy independent creative agency whose motto is “Driven by individuality. Rooted in creativity” has made name for itself as a bit of an industry renegade, choosing to take a deep dive into narrative and storytelling, ensuring that “everything has meaning,” as Samantha puts it. With clients like Bloomberg Media, Ellen Tracy, Cartier, Ferrari, Bacardi and Estee Lauder, to name a few, The Charles serves a shining example that being intensely dedicated to creativity (which is definitely Samantha’s jam) can go a long way. The creative director, co-founder and new mother talked to Girlboss more about what it’s like building a business from the ground up (or rather, from a windowless office in Chinatown); how they’ve adapted to the ever-evolving media consumer; the importance of rebellion; and why it’s so important for creatives to be organized financially.
So you worked in the industry for a long time, but The Charles was something of an opposite reaction to that. What were the early days like, and how did you figure out how to get it off the ground?
[My brother Aaron] was working out of his bedroom and I still had a full-time job at that point. He worked on getting the finance set up, getting a line of credit, all of that stuff. I worked on the strategy of who we were gonna go after, and basically importing my existing freelance client base over to the agency, so to speak. Making sure we could get everyone on board. Then we gradually expanded. We hired another designer and we expanded into the living room. Then we hired a developer. It was Aaron, a designer, a developer and then me when I finished work, all in the living room. But eventually it just became too much. We had to make the leap and get an office — something that we could put our stamp on and call our own. That was really important. So we ended up in Chinatown (with no windows!), and eventually moved to another office in a larger building. Then, the clients page got bigger and now we are where we’re at. We’re just about a 5,000 square feet and things are rolling.
Part of what makes The Charles unusual, I think, is not just focusing on the getting at the individual heart of a company’s narrative, but also giving voice to your own company and really giving it a unique, intimate presence with things like The Charlie, a beautifully designed digital quarterly journal written by your staff, the forthcoming first issue of which gets pretty real about issues like Trump and the “Kinfolk aesthetic.” Where did that impulse come from?
We sought to create something ourselves; we asked ourselves “How can we represent The Charles online?” It’s almost like creating like this younger, rebellious spirit of the The Charles. What we try to do with all of our work is make sure that the story — everything in there has meaning. I think that’s one thing that we try to do across the board.
You mentioned this spirit of rebelliousness, and as a highly creative person, I’m curious as to how you balance your more artistic temperament with what is, at the end of the day, a need to bring in money to make sure the company stays afloat. How do you strike that balance, and is it ever a struggle to deal with a client who is not on the same page?
You know what’s funny? We’ve worked with some of the most corporate clients. They embrace us for our rebellious spirit because it’s one thing to be a rebel and be all talk, but it’s another thing to be a rebel and be able to put it in action in a way that’s appropriate, if that makes sense. We can actually be rebellious in design. You might break the grid structure. You might totally rethink the way that somebody’s mouse rolls over an image and you can give them a different experience. For example, like Bloomberg Media, we were taking what they had as a visual message and saying, “Okay, [we’re going to go with] low-tech imagery and how low-tech used to work, almost like how the terminals worked in the old days, old school computers.” Walking into Bloomberg and telling a company that’s focused on innovation and synergy and new technology and [pitching that the] visual message that we’re gonna send out is actually low tech? I would consider that pretty rebellious in a way that worked.
I think our clients respect and appreciate us because we’re not trying to give them something that’s completely, like abhorrent in shock value, but rather showing them that this is what they want and this is what they thought they didn’t want, but they actually want it. You didn’t want it, but it actually we made you want it.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of moving from creative director employee to the creative director who is also an employer?
I think the biggest challenges have been hiring and scaling. When you scale a business, it becomes not only about the financial side of things, but about the people. When we first started, we were very much like a family. Our first hires were with us for years and some people still are with us. As time goes on, and the more people you hire, the less time you have for it to be one on one or to nurture relationships.
What advice would you pass on to girls looking to turn their own creative endeavors into a business?
I would say make sure you have your financials in order. And your contracts. Hire a good lawyer. Hire an excellent accountant before anything else, because they seriously help to legitimize your business. Make sure you have your operations in order!
interview by Deena Drewis