“It's easy to allow the data to tell a story about what people want, what people need, what people are doing. But the data can only tell you what happened in the past. It can't tell you what's going to happen in the future.”
Damian Bradfield is a British entrepreneur and marketing specialist based in Los Angeles, California. Bradfield is the Chief Creative Officer, U.S. president, and Co-Founder of WeTransfer. While attending the London School of Economics, he ran a fly posting and leaflet business, where he worked with luxury brands like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. In 2005, he moved to Amsterdam to work at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He then left JWT to create his own design studio Present Plus and join the founding team of WeTransfer. In 2016, he followed WeTransfer to Los Angeles and set up their current headquarters. His book The Trust Manifesto: What You Need to Do to Create a Better Internet was published by Penguin UK in 2019. He is the chairman of the University of the Underground and a trustee for Sarabande the Alexander McQueen foundation.
In this interview, Damian Bradfield shares how he transitioned from the world of fashion to tech, WeTransfer's strategy for reaching the American market, and why he wrote his book The Trust Manifesto.
TGL: How was your childhood?
DB: I grew up in a place called Canterbury in the Southeast of England. I lived there until I was 18 years old and then my family moved to South Africa. I had a happy childhood in a small village. My dad is an architect, my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and I have a brother and sister. We spent a lot of time cycling and at my grandparents’ swimming pool.
TGL: How did you start engaging with the world of creativity, communication, and advertising?
DB: I wasn't interested in art at school. My sister was really good at art and I wasn't, so I didn’t try to compete with her. I always read comic books and enjoyed graphic novels as a kid though. Since my dad was an architect, we grew up being surrounded by historians, and he was also a good model maker. He can make and build anything. We never had a painter or a decorator or a carpet fitter...My parents did it all. I grew up in that environment, but I didn't want to be anything creative. I spent years exploring the world of management consulting and banking. What I learnt from that was: I didn't want to do that.
Then, sort of serendipitously, I got into the London School of Economics. I thought I wanted to study finance and business, but I also studied geography. The human angle was far more appealing to me than the numerical side to learning. During my time at London School of Economics, I got a job working for Gucci Group and then Stella McCartney. That opened my eyes to a different world of business, creativity, fashion, and art.
TGL: What led you to do the London School of Economics?
DB: I randomly applied to some of the best schools. I didn't think I would actually get in. And then I got in, and my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, wanted to study and work in London too so it seemed like a sensible thing to do. Plus it was a really good name, if you had a degree from the London School of Economics it was worth something. I didn't study very hard, I've never been a good student. I set up a fly posting and leaflet business, so I spent most of my time doing fly posting for Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, and distributing leaflets for health clubs and gyms all across London.
TGL: How did you start in the world of advertising?
DB: My wife was actually in advertising before me. She worked for a company called J. Walter Thompson, which no longer exists. Also, a friend of mine went from John Galliano to Stella McCartney and ran PR for them. This friend and my wife both opened my eyes to the strategic side of creative storytelling. I'm not a designer, I didn't make anything when I was in an agency. I enjoyed the strategic side, the challenge of how to tell a story for a company or help people listen. We spent a lot of time working with the COI, the Central Office of Information, on campaigns around sexual health awareness, blood donation and those types of issues. I enjoyed the strategic challenge of getting people to do something or making them realize there was a problem.
TGL: When did you switch from the world of fashion to tech?
DB: I worked in fashion and then spent years in advertising. In 2009, we set up an agency in Amsterdam that was a design and advertising agency. At the same time, WeTransfer was established. There was a period where I was basically moonlighting between doing studio and design work whilst WeTransfer was still growing and didn't have very much money.
TGL: What are the biggest differences between these two fields?
DB: If you look at WeTransfer today, it's pretty visible that we have luxury goods from all over the world as advertisers. There is a huge canvas on WeTransfer where you can only show one advertisement. It's like a billboard, which makes sense for the world of luxury goods. It's the type of media they're used to buying. If you have a campaign featuring Keira Knightley and you spent millions producing it, you want to make sure that it's big enough and visible enough for everyone to be able to see it.
Unlike any other digital platform, WeTransfer only has one ad. You can buy the whole space. You don't have to worry about your ad sitting next to something inappropriate or a company that doesn't feel relevant or is in competition with you. It's almost built for the world of luxury and brands that really understand branding.
TGL: When did you move to the United States to open the WeTransfer headquarters in Venice, California?
DB: I was in Amsterdam from 2005 until 2016, and we moved out to Los Angeles in 2016.
TGL: What was your storytelling strategy to conquer the US market?
DB: Our strategy was no different from the strategy we had in Europe. Our goal has always been to win the hearts and minds of the creative community. The people that liked WeTransfer in the beginning were makers: people making music, film, art, fashion, and design. They used the service to send files and work to their friends and family. We wanted to build a service that was trustworthy and respectful, which behaved similarly to the world of luxury. You don't spam people, you don't demand that they do anything. You graciously open your doors and allow people to come in and enjoy the experience, and then you graciously allow them to leave with the confidence they'll come back. That's very much what we're trying to do too.
TGL: Why did you choose to make Los Angeles your headquarters?
DB: The traditional route for a media business would be to go to San Francisco or New York, but both of those felt like they were beaten paths and very expensive. I'm not sure the communities would notice us there. Whereas Los Angeles is one of the most creative cities in America with an amazing combination of musicians, artists, and filmmakers. It’s true, there isn't great infrastructure and there's no tube and the rest of it, but we were really well-received. Forming partnerships and working with people was so easy compared to what we would have experienced in San Francisco and New York.
TGL: As an advertiser, how do you tell a story while there is political tension and the COVID-19 pandemic?
DB: Make sure you have a clear identity, and you are able to take a stance on an issue. Unfortunately a lot of big businesses are led by fear, which leads to inaction. In the world of tech, there's a huge amount of data that is available to you once you have millions of users. It's easy to allow the data to tell a story about what people want, what people need, what people are doing. But the data can only tell you what happened in the past. It can't tell you what's going to happen in the future. It's the job of good brands to think for themselves and use the knowledge and insight they've developed to take their brands in a different direction.
TGL: You published a book last year about tech and big data called The Trust Manifesto. Why did you write about this subject?
DB: I wanted to write this book because I think we did a poor job at WeTransfer in telling our story and sharing a rationale for why we chose a particular path. A lot of our strategy was forced because we didn't have tons of investor capital. We were zigging when everyone else was zagging.
It was evident to me that there was a huge shift happening in America. People were starting to be pulled into decision-making based on an algorithm and not thinking through the consequences of their decisions. I wanted to outline some of the issues around big tech and tech in general. I wanted to put into words how we as society - individuals, businesses, and the government - need to treat the web the same way we treat the offline world. We need to really question whether we want to hand over our information to certain companies, whether we want to spend money so quickly, and whether we need to receive something within 30 minutes and be willing to pay more for it. We need to consider what the consequences of that are.
It's called The Trust Manifesto, because we blindly trust people and companies online, but we don't do that in the offline world. We need to be more inquisitive and critical of who we give our information, our money, and our time to.
TGL: Martha Lane Fox recently joined the board of WeTransfer. How would you describe the decision-making and governance of WeTransfer?
DB: We have always had a board, but we haven’t always had a chairperson. We were really lucky that Martha Lane Fox agreed to join us last year. We knew Martha because she ran a charity all about responsible technology. The mission of the organization was to educate people around some of the things I talk about in my book, so I was really flattered when Martha agreed to join. In the UK, she's definitely one of the most influential people in technology and a member of the House of Lords. She's a great addition to the board and has created some balance because other board members are our investors. We are working on improving the general layout of the company and making sure we have a balance of different voices and opinions.
TGL: What are WeTransfer’s current projects?
DB: WeTransfer always has millions of things going on, that's one of our problems and strengths. We always try to do less, but we never really achieve it. We started a radio station with Gilles Peterson called Worldwide FM. We started a university called the University of the Underground with Nelly Ben Hayoun. We started WePresent back in 2018, previously called This Works, an art/design/music platform that has nearly 4 million readers. We have a podcast in its third season called Influence. It started off as a podcast around the history of advertising and communications, but this season is more about influencing people and what's happening in the world around us, including politics and technology. We have Collect, the mobile application, which is for creating media mood boards. Paste for creating presentations. And lastly there's Paper, which is a drawing product. There are millions of downloads of Paper just for people who love sketching.
TGL: You started a collaboration with Marina Abramović. What is the context to this project?
DB: WePresent is one of the jewels of WeTransfer, as I mentioned 4 million people read WePresent every month. We have been very lucky to have a great editor in Holly Fraser who has helped bring in some amazing talent. This month being perhaps one of the most exciting times for WePresent as Marina Abramović guest curates the platform. Marina will be working with WePresent for a year and for the first time will be bringing the Abramović method to our user base to help people reconnect with themselves and discover new artists.
TGL: What does the future of WeTransfer look like?
DB: The future for WeTransfer is really good. We have proven to be indispensable during COVID-19 for people working from home. We have a tool called Paste for people who need to build presentations. We have WeTransfer for people who are just sending files, and we're busy working out more features and trying to put more value back into that product. Later this year, you'll see some new changes for WeTransfer in general.
The future for us is about trying to make sure people see everything that WeTransfer does. Most people know WeTransfer just as the file-sharing business, but there are many different strings to the WeTransfer bow that people have yet to discover. Our job this year is making sure that people discover and enjoy the other services we have to offer.
TGL: You lived in Europe, South Africa, and now Los Angeles. How has moving to Los Angeles influenced you and your career?
DB: We could do a whole podcast just on that. I think California is one of the most special places on Earth. Los Angeles reminds me of Johannesburg with the sprawling mass of the city and lack of infrastructure. However LA is a little richer than Johannesburg, and I mean that in both senses of the word. It's 30 miles from one end of Los Angeles County to the other, and there is so much to discover in that place.
In the Netherlands everything is organized, and it's all about punctuality, performance, productivity, and efficiency. I love the chaos of LA, which is totally inefficient. The time it takes you to cross the city in peak rush hour is unbelievably inefficient. But it makes the journey and the landing so much more powerful. If you live in Santa Monica and you have to go downtown for a performance, it can take you an hour and a half. It's a nightmare. But when you get there, you have a great night out and then it only takes you 20 minutes to get back which feels like such a luxury.
LA is still such a young city. You can feel that in the way people are so willing to meet and embrace new people. When I moved to LA, no one ever asked me, "How long are you going to stay for?" No one considers that you might leave. If you moved to the Netherlands or London, people ask you, "How long do you think you'll be here for?" Because they're trying to assess whether or not it's worth making the time and effort to get to know you. In LA, they just want to meet you and if you're nice enough, they'll keep in touch. That's a beautifully optimistic side to LA, which is often badly interpreted as being shallow.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
DB: Anthony Bourdain would have been amazing to have dinner with, both from the point of view of having interesting conversation as well as interesting food.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
DB: Something I love about WeTransfer and probably the main reason why I keep doing what I'm doing is because the whole company has been set up as an enabling tool. The reason that WeTransfer has the levels of trust that it has is because from very early on, we were using the platform to do something good: giving free media to friends who need it or thought a project was interesting. We would highlight it on the platform and millions of people would see it. A banker or venture capitalist might have seen it as a missed opportunity. It would have been if we were only thinking short term, but in the long game generous and enabling and helping people will always pay off.