A documentary photographer and graphic designer turned Head of Creative, David Gray swapped the Smoke for St Agnes in 2009 – and hasn’t looked back. He talks carving out a new category in surfing and the camaraderie in shooting campaigns in breath-taking locations.
“I was down here visiting friends in Newquay... I’d always holidayed in Cornwall – always wanted to live here. I was from the suburbs of London and living in central London for a long time, working for agencies and doing self-published photography books and exhibitions. And it was when I was down here for an exhibition in Hayle that I saw Finisterre in one of the Cornish magazines in a café.
At the time I was into minimal brands, intelligently branded and not glaring. And I liked fabric innovation. I bought a Finisterre Merino hoodie, I remember thinking the fit was a touch funny and ended up giving it away. But the question I asked myself was: ‘Why did I not send that product back?’ And it was because I wished them well and wanted them to succeed. That’s a funny thing to articulate through a website, but I got that feeling from them, you could see what they were trying to do and the potential it had, so I signed up to their newsletter. I saw this email come through: ‘We need a photographer and graphic designer’. I remember looking at my partner and saying, ‘this feels like me.’
I sent them a message: ‘I think I can help a little bit here…’ And that was it. I did a year, year-and-a-half of working week-on, week-off – still living in London and driving down. But after a year it became apparent I’d have to make a decision one way or another, both with the company growing and me not living two lives.
I love London. I was brought up around it and moved there after university. I’ve always had an affinity with it. I always thought I’d be in London a bit longer, but travelling backwards and forwards made me realise a few things about the opportunity. You don’t get offered work down here very often, in a role that you could really develop, and that’s what was unique about it. The people and the potential were really good. I don’t go back to London as much now; the lifestyle’s great here. Living here and visiting London, rather than living in London and visiting here – it’s nice having it that way around.
The surfing in the morning before you get in… not being on the Underground. Being out in the water and then having a short drive to work – you really start to appreciate it a lot. Especially when your surfing gets a bit better, over the years. I wasn’t a surfer before, just on holidays. There was an interest from a lifestyle point of view, and then there were a few surf trips – I’d come down and hire a bic board for a couple of weeks and paddle around. It’s taken a long time but now I’ve started to get into it; I shaped my own board this year.
“The surfing in the morning before you get in, not being on the Underground. Being out in the water than having a short drive to work – you really start to appreciate it a lot.”
When I started as a Graphic Designer and Photographer, everyone was kind of doing a job and a half and then we focused and started to work on the real vision of what we wanted with the marketing guys. What is the vision for this? What is our imagery going to look like? How’s it going to be different? How’s it going to do all the things we want, from a brand point of view?
When we got the Swedish army tents and started doing the trips ourselves, that’s when it really kicked off. Deciding that we were going to put them on the headlands with the wave in the background, and that this tent was going to be the icon for what we were trying to do – defining a category that was outside of flip-flops and board shorts, a separate category and building product from it. It feels like this is a defining moment, 15 years on, where we know who we are and where we’re going.
It’s about surf adventure. It’s about the cold-water community; the community of people who live in that environment. Then that is really importantly underpinned by the sustainability angle. We’ve always thought about the environment, in terms of our playground, and protecting that.
“It’s about surf adventure. It’s about the cold-water community; the community of people who live in that environment. We’ve always thought about the environment, in terms of our playground, and protecting that.”
Something I latched on to was the product, environment, people thing. And that’s stayed true through all the company’s iterations. The environment was a really big part of it even back then, and that wasn’t the norm at the time. The ‘eco’ word was yet to be overused and it was the start of that thinking. Now it’s mainstream thinking. As soon as The Daily Mail are talking about plastics, you realise it’s in the national consciousness.
We’ve had ‘cool’ as a thing for a while and it’s very surface level. It’s an aftershave ad, or James Dean with a cigarette walking down New York – it doesn’t have a sub-layer. Whereas now, everyone wants a bit more depth and they want a bit more responsibility. Who you use on a shoot as a model, people want to follow them on Instagram and see exactly what their personality is and what they’re doing. From a manufacturing point of view, you want to know where the product’s from and you want to understand the processes and the impact you’re having. We fit right into that. We have depth to the brand and we can answer all those questions that the consumer is asking.
I’m always amazed when I put the photoshoots together. The feeling on those trips – it’s like we’re all going to create something special, and we’re all part of that. From make-up, to styling, to the talent. And that just emphasises the depth of the brand; we’re not choosing models based just on how they look, we’re choosing them on depth of character and whether they can gel as a set of people to go on a trip that we can document.
“I’m always amazed when I put the photoshoots together. The feeling on those trips – it's like we’re all going to create something special, and we’re all part of that.”
There have been a few different trips. And that’s when the documentary photography style comes out. Traditionally that’s what CWS or True North was – product shot on athletes around cold-water surfing. Tom would come along and it was about us as a group of people, living and doing it. We went to Norway, Scotland a couple of times, the Outer Hebrides – all with those tents. Now it’s more seasonal trips around a drop of product, because the product range has obviously grown. But we have a requirement to shoot those in a lifestyle environment, they’re what we’ve really grown into.
There’s always a pressure of what you’ve got to bring back. But I’m starting to enjoy them a bit more now. We’ve been to Cape Verde, and Iceland, and we went to South Africa this year. But I think the fun ones are when we do the campervan ones; we’re living the trip. The talent feel less like they’re being photographed, and more like they’re on the trip with us. Hopefully that comes across in the imagery; the films and the photography are a big part of what we do.
I was really proud of what we’d done with CWS. No one was talking about cold-water surfing before we started talking about it. And then all of a sudden the big trade shows had cold-water surfing parts to them – it wasn’t just surfing anymore, it was cold-water surfing. And then magazines were doing cold-water specials. That felt like a proud moment because we really led that, and it wouldn’t have existed in the same way if we hadn’t. Jägermeister did a cold-water advert. And there was a trade forecasting fashion site that used us as a reference for what was coming next.
My development as a person has been brilliant. I love where Finisterre is; I love the potential of it. The overall holistic picture of what it could become is really interesting. The people have always been great; the collective unit of people who are building this thing is really strong. The potential has always been why we wake up in the morning and get down and do it. I’m fortunate enough to do the photography trips – seeing the world, connecting with the surf community and coming back with all the imagery and films. You can never take that for granted.
For me the challenge has been letting go, and also managing people. A small group of us went away and did a team exercise which was really helpful in terms of growing personally – understanding how you’re showing up to your team, how you are as a person, how you motivate people and how you inspire people. That wasn’t something I naturally knew how to do, and I was always trying to do that through my work rather than me personally. But when your team has started to grow, you need to give people on shoots a good idea of what your aims are and what we’re all trying to do – and keeping people fed and happy. How you turn up and the energy you give is important, and it’s something I am continually trying to work on.
We have always aspired to compete on a global level as a brand from Cornwall. We can compete with the best through the product we make and how we market it. It’s harder to get out of bed some days than others, but ultimately why we’re still doing it is because we can become as big a brand as any out there. And every time you see that happening a little bit, it’s really exciting. Some days it feels like a newspaper room in the 1960s where everyone is shouting across each other and trying to get things done. It definitely has an energy.
The future’s going to be different and what it becomes is down to us all. I’m really happy with what we’ve done, but I’m still inquisitive about the future and I don’t think we’ve quite fulfilled what we can do. We’re on the tipping point of really doing something great. We’ve got all the ingredients; it’s just a case of getting it out there.
Tom put a question in an exec meeting the other day: ‘How do we stop becoming the world’s best kept secret?’ We’re in a position where we can get agencies and experts in to mop up the stuff we’re not so good at. It feels like we’ve got the story and the depth. We can start tapping into those kinds of things, which is really exciting because it means that it goes from us just grafting away and doing it ourselves, to saying, ‘How do we do this properly? How do we produce that content and get it out to more people?’ That doesn’t mean we’re changing who we are and what we’re doing, it just means we’re telling it to more people – and we can do that knowing who we are.”