Two corners of the iso globe.

Four clocks showing the time in Sydney, Melbourne, Dublin and Kansas

Since March, two Royals – Etaoin Knight and Katie Morris – have been trapped in the Northern Hemisphere as COVID-19 roared across oceans, international datelines and borders. 3:43AM, 5:23AM … the time stamps on their Slack handles scream out the night shift hours they work from Ireland and the US. So, we asked these two now-nocturnal Royals what the experience has been like and what they are most looking forward to when it’s over.

So close, but so far. How did you get caught overseas and when?

Etaoin: I flew home for a family party pre-COVID outbreak, I left Australia when there were 110,000 cases worldwide, and over 90,000 were in China. Australia had just a handful at that stage, look where we are now six months later!

I got caught as the border closure announcements were made, with less than 24 hours notice – and it takes at least 26 hours to return from Ireland to Sydney. I tried to change flights but couldn’t make it before the 9pm deadline. I was meant to arrive back in Sydney at 6am the following morning, regardless of border closures. 

Katie: I had tickets to SXSW along with a handful of other Royals. So when the event was cancelled, and the airline refused to refund my tickets, I rerouted my domestic flight in the US to Kansas City so I could spend a week with family. I was due to take off from KC back to Sydney about 48 hours before the lockdown went into place. I called my airline (RIP Virgin Australia) to change my flight within 10 minutes of the announcement, but the soonest they could get me back was still eight hours too late. I was trapped. 

If these walls could talk. Describe your iso surrounds?

Etaion: I’m really fortunate to live on the east coast of Ireland and beside the sea, so a quick walk gets me down to some stunning scenery of the Irish coast. If I squint enough, I can almost see the UK. 

Katie: I’m staying at my mom’s house in a suburb of KC. Nothing’s walking distance, but it’s summer here, so I’ve been teaching myself to skateboard in the local drainage ditch and getting as tanned as possible in preparation for my imminent melanin loss in hotel quarantine.

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. Who are you living with? And how’s that going for you?

Etaoin: I’m lucky to be at home with my parents and spending more time with them than I have in about 10 years. It’s almost like being a child again, surrounded by my old things in my bedroom and being treated like I’ve never grown up! My sister lives in London but came back for a few weeks earlier in iso, and it really brought back the teenage memories.

Katie: I’m with my mom and stepdad, who are wonderful. And their two cats, who are not. They’ve been super helpful and understanding (staying quiet late into the morning so I can sleep, letting me use their cars and buying me food). But at the same time it’s still living with your parents, so it kind of feels like taking a step back. I never wanted to be that person who moved back into their parents’ guest room, so I feel pretty … lame.

As the Commodores sang … “on the night shift”. What’s it like to be working here – while living there?

Etaoin: Due to the time difference it is quite challenging to work remotely (Australia 9am-6pm is my 12am-9am). My body clock is all over the place as I try to adjust to normal Irish time over the weekend, but I’ve made it work. There is a lot of sleeping and napping during the day to get through it, but the timing is actually quite peaceful. And I feel more productive as there are no distractions in the house because everyone is asleep! I have a new earned respect for shift workers who have to do this permanently, but I don’t recommend it. There have been times where delirium appears and the simplest tasks become the hardest to finish. I’ve also learnt that at some point your voice gives up on you. I thought this only happened after a night of drinking.

Katie: While my hours are nowhere as bad as Etaoin’s, it has been really challenging, and not in that way that builds character. I work from 6:30pm-midnight technically, but in that way everyone works until 5pm (as in, you don’t really finish at 5pm every day). And that’s ok when it’s 5pm, but it’s really hard when it’s 1am or 2am and you’re just waiting on ONE file to upload properly. I’ve experienced firsthand one TINY aspect of the hardships that shift workers like nurses and doctors are working through right now, and let me just say – pay them more money.

Perspective check. How has your take on the world changed?

Etaoin: Early on, I thought it was great that each country was looking out for its own – when you saw repatriation flights and incentives to bring back doctors/nurses to help in their home countries manage this fight against COVID-19 – but it seems to have taken a dark turn where borders are being closed, citizens can’t leave their home countries and those are non-citizens but temporary residents of countries can’t re-enter. 

A real positive, though, is that I feel a majority of people have taken a step back and paused their active/hectic lifestyles and reconnected with lapsed friendships and family. 

Katie: I think for a while I was in a pretty dark place. Being turned away from somewhere I’ve worked and paid taxes in for seven years was really hard. I compared it to being a long term relationship, then waking up one day and deciding not only are you breaking up – you’ve got to move out today. I’ve now transitioned to EXTREMELY cautious optimism. As long as I’m working for The Royals, I still maintain some sense of normalcy. But if I wasn’t working, I think my headspace would have moved into just giving up and staying here to start over by now – so I’m really thankful for that.

Change is as good as… What do you do more of in iso than you ever did here? What do you do less of? 

Etaoin: 

  1. More Walking. In Sydney, I drove, got public transport, Uber’d absolutely everywhere. Now looking at places I would have driven to – that are a 10/20 minute walk away – I can’t believe I used to drive there and I won’t be doing that anymore.
  2. And exploring Ireland. I had never really explored my surroundings around the country. Any annual leave or holidays I would take used to always involve going abroad. Now given the time, I get to see stunning parts of the country that I didn’t even know existed.
  3. Less exercising and F45-ing. The restrictions have kept gyms closed over here and to a minimum. The walking counts as exercise though, right!? :) 

Katie:

  1. In Sydney, I live in Surry Hills so I walk to work, to restaurants and bars, the dog park, and the library. Where I live now you HAVE to drive, so I feel like I’m not using my legs at all. 
  2. More reading. I would be doing this in Sydney, too, during COVID. But without anywhere to go (or people to see) I’ve been going through a lot more books than normal. 
  3. More exercise. Without the ability to walk or run around with my dog, I’m very aware of a lack of exercise, so I’ve been doing my workouts every day instead of once a week. I do them while watching Forensic Files, so it motivates me to outrun my attackers. 
  4. Less seeing my friends – as an extrovert this has been especially hard.
  5. Lastly, my skincare routine has gone from three steps to about 17. It’s the only thing I have control over.

Spotlight on. What have you noticed and or what are you more conscious of?

Etaoin: The mental health of everyone, more than ever. Regardless of who you are or where you are, everyone is struggling right now. COVID-19 affects every single person worldwide, and we should all be more conscious of how it affects everyone differently. 

Katie: More conscious about my general health. Stuck at home leads to weighing yourself more. Not eating out means I’m watching every carb. No walking the dog means I’m forcing myself to work out. Seeing myself in much less dirty mirrors means I’m taking better care of my skin. My most obvious motivation is to get back in the country, to my dog (the lease on my house in Sydney is done, and all my stuff sold except clothes and shoes) and to the life I worked so hard to build. 

Worlds apart. Do you feel lonely or more connected?

Etaoin: Sometimes a bit of both. Lonely in the sense that there are only a handful of people that really understand what we’re going through being stranded overseas –  our lives essentially in limbo until we can return. But also connected, in that being stranded in my home country, I get to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in years or have grown apart with lapsed communications. And it’s great to have this extended time with them. 

Katie: Definitely more lonely. My work comms are very similar – I’m on video with all my Melbourne teams already so that wasn’t an adjustment, and I normally video chat with my friends in the US. But I have been so physically cut off from my friends back in Oz. We message every day but I can’t bring myself to video chat with them as it just upsets me too much. I’m also really missing my dog. I’m living with the same amount of people but feeling very isolated.

Central casting. Who would play you in the movie about you in iso?

Etaoin: LOL. Tom Hanks, ‘cause he’s got the isolated, life-in-limbo experience on his CV from Castaway and The Terminal, so my iso life should be a breeze for him. 

Katie: Etaoin, she’s the only one who truly gets it.

Finish these sentences…

Etaoin:

  1. Life in iso be like  …  saying ‘good morning’ at any time day, or night.
  2. The first thing I’ll do once out of iso is … drink the biggest glass of Ink Gin on my balcony looking left and right every few minutes, smiling (left is views of the Harbour Bridge and right is views of Bondi Beach).
  3. Iso is good because … I get to spend extended time with family and friends. 

Katie: 

  1. Life in iso be like … is this day over yet?
  2. The first thing I’ll do once out of iso is … hug my dog so hard.
  3. Iso is good because … I’ve been fostering puppies!
Etaoin, Business Director, reads a magazine
Etaoin Knight is a Business Director
Katie Morris, Social Media Community Manager, holding a rose
Katie Morris is a Social Media Community Manager

Please Talk About Fight Club: Professional wrestling takes back the belt

Two men compete in a wrestling match

Beaten into submission for being a fake-tanned, sexist pig that was stuck in the past, professional wrestling has emerged victorious from the jaws of defeat. The Royals’ Content Tag Team Champions, Dan Michael Jones and Dave Rood, get in the ring to find out why.

“It’s like watching professional wrestling,” US Congressman Tim Ryan tweeted after President Trump’s State of the Union speech in early February. And he was right.

Trump orated with the subtlety of a hyped-up ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage cutting a promo. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore up a copy of the speech as soon as she was sure her gesture would be picked up by the bank of cameras at the back of the room. It was exactly like watching professional wrestling — as it should be. Theatre, spectacle, competing plot lines. And against all odds, wrestling is back in the zeitgeist. The world is ready to rumble. But why?

Two golden ages, then a gap

In the late 80s, over 90,000 people packed into the Pontiac Silverdome to watch Hulk Hogan take on Andre The Giant for the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) championship at Wrestlemania III. During the ‘Attitude Era’ of the late 90s and early 2000s, close to 10 million Americans would tune in to each week to watch The Rock, The Undertaker and ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin battle it out live on cable TV.

Nostalgia for times like these has meaning because it’s our way of finding meaning in our memories of them. Here’s what growing up in these golden ages means to our authors:

The 1980s: Dave ‘The Rood Awakening’

I have two vivid sporting memories of 1987. Sobbing when Jim Stynes ran over the mark. And pure elation when Hogan body slammed The Giant in Wrestlemania III. The Giant — billed as the 8th Wonder of the World — had turned on Hogan during the lead up. Good became evil. The build-up was epic. 1:55 mins in and that commentary line comes: “The irresistible force meeting the immovable object”.

(Turns out Andre the Giant, who was on his last wrestling legs, was calling out ‘slam, slam’ as an instruction to Hogan). If you haven’t watched it already check out the HBO documentary Andre The Giant).

I grew up on the cartoon, WWF wrestling of that time. It was all glam and fake tan and well trodden story tropes — babyface versus villain, the fall and redemption. Pile drivers and clotheslines and ‘King Kong Bundy off the top rope’. The injustice of referees turning their heads at precisely the wrong/right time was real. The plot lines stay with me: Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan slapping The Giant. The break-up of Hogan and ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan winning the first Royal Rumble. Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts, mullet in full sweaty flow with his snake Damien curled in a bag in the corner of the ring waiting to be thrown theatrically over Roberts’ victim. It was pure vaudeville and pure escapism.

The 1990s: Dan Michael ‘Jone$town’

I was blessed enough to come of age during the Attitude Era. Announced on-screen by WWF chairman Vince McMahon in December ’97, the era eschewed much of the G-rated glitter and spandex of the 80s WWF, and replaced it with more realistic and violent combat, heavy metal music and four-letter words.

At the time, my grandparents had a subscription to this thing called Optus Vision. It was a cable TV station — Netflix for the ’90s — and each week, my grandma would tape both WWF Monday Night Raw and the rival WCW Monday Nitro for me.

The best thing about it all? ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin — a bald, goateed Texan — who strode to the ring accompanied by the sounds of breaking glass, threw up middle fingers at his opponents, and double-fisted cans of cheap beer anytime he won.

I was always way more into all the extraneous bullshit surrounding the matches — backstage promos, intro songs, dramatic interludes, fireworks, pyro and personalities — than the wrestling itself. That hasn’t changed.

But something had changed outside of wrestling during the Attitude Era. The world got consumed by ‘realness’. 9/11 snapped the western world out of its bubble. It was the era of street press and Vice Magazine. The internet had made it so we could all be famous at once. Anyone could be a superstar. The WWF — which had rebranded as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) following a lawsuit in 2002 — was failing to catch up. Not even a Wrestlemania’s 23 in-ring appearance from Trump himself could help.

Mixed martial arts — a freeform combat sport with only a few rules — was ‘real’. The outcomes weren’t planned in advance. There weren’t dramatic, scripted scenes bookending the fights. WWE was soap opera on steroids. MMA was televised violence that often left competitors in hospital. It got bigger and bigger, and wrestling lost its relevance. Some of the WWE’s biggest stars crossed over to MMA. ‘Real’ had a firm grip on the championship belt.

Socialism at the smackdown

It’s no secret the WWF/WWE has always been a dictatorship. Nothing is approved for live events or TV broadcasts without the express permission of the chairman, Vince McMahon. He and his family run the show behind the scenes, and have all “gotten over” — industry slang for being given airtime and heavily marketed — on screen, time and time again.

“His stories constantly revolve around authority figures having more power than wrestlers, with the McMahons and the WWE brand itself being framed as the real stars of the show,” Todd Martin wrote in the LA Times in October last year.

“McMahon makes up his mind on wrestlers, undermining wrestlers fans react well to but that he doesn’t like as much while going strong with wrestlers fans reject. And wrestlers up and down the cards are put in comedy sketches built around McMahon’s unique and often childish sense of humor.”

But new leagues like All Elite Wrestling (AEW) — which is proving to be the first real threat to WWE market share since the early 2000s — pride themselves on giving creative control back to the wrestlers. In 2019, AEW signed a cable TV deal with TNT.

Jon Moxley, one of AEW’s breakout stars who had an eight-year career at the top of the WWE talent pool, left McMahon’s stable after becoming fed up with the things he was being forced to do on TV — like getting fake vaccinations for rabies before a match, or making fun of a fellow wrestler’s real-life cancer battle as part of a promo video.

“The first time I sat down to talk with them, it was like, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do. Does that match up with your goals and what you’re gonna do?’ and it does. So, we’re off to the races,” he told Fightful at the end of January.

“I pop up awake in the middle of the night going “Oooh!” with ideas and stuff, and I like to just go to the ring sometimes with no ideas and just see what happens on the fly… every day is a fucking vacation.”

Suplexing the glass ceiling

When Hulk Hogan held the WWF championship belt during the late 80s, women in the industry were relegated to being love interests and ‘valets’ who’d carry the blokes’ belts to the ring. During the sexed-up Attitude Era, females had a bigger part to play, but their representation was just as misogynist — if not more.

Female performers during this period were marketed as ‘divas’, mostly used as props to enhance the male wrestlers’ masculinity, and often competing in ‘lingerie’ and ‘bikini’ matches where clothes were designed to come off.

Thankfully, things have changed. Female wrestlers have literally fought for equal representation for years. And it’s working. GLOW, the 2017 Netflix series based on the 1980s wrestling league of the same name is a huge hit. While Shimmer Women Athletes — a female-only league founded in 2005 — has seen several of it’s stars go on to much, much bigger things.

Take Becky Lynch as an example. Born Rebecca Quin in Limerick, Ireland the year Hogan took on The Giant at Wrestlmania, Lynch spent much of her teens and young adult life working towards a career as a professional wrestler. After nearly a decade in indie leagues in the UK and US, Lynch got a spot with the WWE’s development network, NXT.

Becoming part of a group of equally tough-as-nails female wrestling that included Charlotte Flair (daughter of 80s legend ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair), Lynch spearheaded the rise of women in wrestling — from the minor leagues to a headline victory against former MMA fighter Rhonda Rousey at 2019’s Wrestlemania 34.

“We’ve been constantly breaking through glass ceilings. We’ve been burning down the house, building up new ones, tearing them down … building up a whole new planet,” she told Sports Illustrated in January.

“Now the possibilities are endless.”

Treating fans like tag partners, not cash cows

Wrestling is like Santa Claus. It’s a collective hallucination that makes life way more fun if you close your eyes a little, open your mind a lot, and just roll with the fact that in some bizarro universe it’s totally not fake.

The big leagues, like WWE, call their die hard fans “marks” — the same term con artists and hustlers call their victims. And it’s long been a case of ‘you’ll watch whatever we broadcast, and you’ll like it.’

But more and more, independent leagues and breakout promotions are letting fans have a say in the direction that characters and plotlines take — listening in to the discussions on popular wrestling forums like Reddit’s SquaredCircle.

“Last week, I put out a statement on my social media channel saying ‘Give me the feedback’. If anyone can take it, I can take it. The good, the bad, the why, everything,” AEW Wrestler and Vice President Cody Rhodes told IHeartRadio in October.

“I want to know because we’re not going to pretend we have all the answers. I got a great education for wrestling and I’m excited about these shows we have ready, but I’m ready to hear what the people think too.”

And they’re making changes, and dropping references to show that Rhodes isn’t all talk, either. In a recent match, Jon Moxley had his eye gouged by another wrestler (not really, of course) and has been wearing an eye patch in the ring since.

Online fans noticed the resemblance between the wrestler and another eyepatched character — paramilitary leader Big Boss from the video game franchise Metal Gear — and started making memes of the two side by side.

Cue Moxley’s entrance during the February 5 episode of AEW. He’s striding to the ring like he owns the place, dressed in military fatigues. “It’s Big Boss Moxley,” the commentator says, while half-a-million SquaredCircle subscribers struggle to decide between cheering and laughing.

Two women compete in a wrestling match
Photo: Digital Beard, Melbourne City Wrestling

Shouting real talk off the top rope

In 2020, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to be fake. Just like wrestling’s always been. Fake news. Botnets. Deepfaked films. Filtered images that show cartoon versions of ourselves.

There’s a chance that’s why the cheers and jeers and beers of the rag-tag crowd could be heard from the street, when we headed to a heritage-listed theatre in Melbourne’s inner north — to witness Melbourne City Wrestling’s recent Clash of the Titans event.

After the action was over, MCW co-owner and promoter Michael Jozis told us that — since he started hosting MCW events at a Chinese restaurant near their airport a decade ago — the wrestling game has changed from targeting families with colourful production to holding a mirror up to society.

“There is outrage culture, and people can come and let off steam at a wrestling event,” he says.

“Then, you’ve got wrestlers who are kind of giving it back to them, making them believe what they are saying and telling them ‘no, you’re wrong’. You can get people to question what they are looking at.”

And if the audience isn’t reacting, Jozis reckons he’s not doing his job properly.

At Clash of the Titans, a wrestler known as Avary beat Steph De Lander for the Womens’ Championship. Jozis says her story represents a lot of people who have been maligned. He would know, he’s the promoter.

“She kind of tells people be whatever you want to be, go out and do whatever the fuck you want and she is kind of the embodiment of that in how she carries herself,” Jozis says.

“And I think people can look at that and respect it and get behind it.”

– Dan Michael Jones and Dave Rood

 

What I learnt from interviewing rock stars and superstar DJs

rockstars_01

The art of interviewing is useful long after the ‘on air’ light dims. The Royals’ Emerald Cowell shares what she’s learned about asking the right questions of others during four years of hosting her radio show.

It’s 7.45pm on a Saturday. I’m standing outside a yellow brick warehouse on the corner of Blyth and Nicholson Street in East Brunswick, Melbourne, waiting for Steve Cross to buzz me in.

Steve’s the presenter of a radio show called Beat Orgy and the founder of Remote Control Records. Waiting for him to let me into the RRR studios is a pretty familiar routine. After all, I’ve presented a show — Tomorrow Never Knows — on the station for nearly four years.

But there was something a little different about this particular Saturday night. I had a pre-recorded interview with Ed Simons packaged up and ready to put to air. Ed’s one of the world’s most respected music producers — one half of The Chemical Brothers.

Only a few months earlier, I was standing in a sweaty pit of thousands of flare-waving fans, witnessing Ed and bandmate Tom Rowlands lay down an electrifying set at Glastonbury.

I’ve been volunteering in community radio for over six years. And it’s taught me a whole bunch. But one thing that’s really stuck with me — something I’ve been able to apply to all facets of my life — is the art of interviewing, getting over nerves and getting the best out of people.

Being a good interviewer takes a set of skills. There’s no one simple way to do it right. But there are ways to make sure you get some bloody good answers.

Lesson 1: Know your shit

The Chemical Brothers are electronic music legends who have collaborated with some of the world’s best. So when the opportunity came up to interview Ed Simon before The Chemical Brothers brought their Glastonbury set here to Melbourne, I had to know my shit.

Interviews like this are coordinated through the record label. An agent blocks out an hour or two for back-to-back phone calls to radio stations and media in all the places a tour will visit. And that means artists get asked the same questions again and again. So, how do you ask a question that surprises and gets a response the world hasn’t heard before?

Answer: You know your shit. Like knowing that The Chemical Brothers met at uni and quickly became a musical duo trying to find their break. They’ve been at it ever since, so I knew it was worth asking what they’d pass on to up-and-coming local producers.

Ed’s response echoed Block Rockin’ Beats, one of The Chemical Brothers’ breakout hits:

“There’s always a party to be had. Electronic music works best when it’s the catalyst for people having fun together. Find a crowd. Rock your block.”

Lesson 2: Make the subject feel comfortable

Before the interview

Being on the radio can be quite daunting, let alone being asked questions by someone you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s important to take the time before your interview to learn a bit about the person, including how to pronounce their name and what their pronouns are.

Simona Castricum has been producing dance music in Melbourne for 20 years — but she’s also an academic and architect. After I interviewed her, she said I made her feel relaxed enough to really open up about her experiences because I made a real effort to understand the relationship between her music and her academic practice.

“I’m interested in how we can take those principles from the dance scene and apply it to other places. There’s things we have done down at [Melbourne music venue] The Tote that have made their way to parliament,” she told me on air.

During the interview

Guide the subject with positive body language, like a smile or a nod. And don’t feel like you have to fill every silence. Breaks in the sound can make for good radio. Give them space and time to think about their answers, so they can respond with confidence.

Female Wizard is one of the most skilled DJs in Melbourne. They told me they’d never had the opportunity to talk so openly about their work like on my show, because they felt comfortable, not rushed. We talked about what they were trying to offer their audience: “an experience of reception and participation”. Sounds like how I want the people I interview to feel.

Lesson 3: Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions

The first CD my mum ever gave me was the 1986 album Infected by The The. If you’re a fan, then you know why they’re considered one of the seminal post-punk bands of the era. If you’re not, take a listen to This Is The Day. I’ve already picked it to be played at my funeral.

Getting told that I could interview lead singer Matt Johnson ahead of the band’s 2018 Australian tour gave me the sweats. And not just because he’s one of my musical heroes.

It was because — even though I’ve been a massive fan since the age of 13 — I knew nothing about his life outside the songs. I had to do my homework. So I went deep. I read articles, listened to radio interviews and watched everything about the band I could find — including Matt’s appearance on the ABC’s Rock Arena in 1986.

And I learned that in the late 80s — at the peak of The The’s commercial and critical success — Matt’s youngest brother Eugene suddenly passed away. He dissolved the band and began a 20-year hiatus away from the music industry. Losing his oldest brother Andy in 2016 prompted him to return to music.

Having done my research, I felt confident to ask Matt a pretty tough question: “Your new single is such an incredibly powerful tribute to your older brother. What did it mean to write that song?”

His response: “It was a song that had to be written. I was compelled to write it. We have a huge fear of life and death and that song really represents the cycles of nature and letting go. It’s about not taking things for granted on one side, but also having an acceptance of the natural order of things and not fearing death — which is just a gateway to somewhere else.”

Emerald (right) with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow.
Emerald (right) with Josh Davis aka DJ Shadow.

Lesson 4: Don’t set the narrative, start it and listen instead

Stop thinking about your next question. Listen to your interviewee and let the narrative happen organically. Sure, it pays to know your shit, go in with a plan and ask the hard questions, but you should make them conversation starters — not checkboxes you’re ticking off as you go.

I learnt this through interviewing legendary producer Josh Davis, who is better known to the world as DJ Shadow. He’s got a reputation for creating music from samples, sometimes of well-known songs by well-known bands — like Metallica’s Orion and Bjork’s Mutual Slump.

“So, do you want to shake up that expected behaviour of DJs and producers using obscure samples by choosing to sample more obvious songs?” I asked him.

I anticipated a straight up “yes”, based on previous interviews I’d heard. But stopping and letting Josh navigate the conversation allowed him to open up, and reveal more than I’d expected.

“Sometimes people get a little too caught up in this idea of me in a dusty basement with a hoodie on listening to old records,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s an important piece of who I am as an artist, but a small piece of where I get my sounds. I want to show my peers that obscurity in itself is not a virtue, it’s what you do with those sounds.”

Just like each musician’s approach to their art, every person you speak with will be different. But knowing your shit, making people feel comfortable, not being afraid to ask the hard questions and making an effort to listen should help you navigate the challenge of having a conversation with anyone, interview or not.

After airing the Chemical Brothers interview that Saturday night, I got to witness their show again in Melbourne only a few weeks later. Watching them drop Block Rockin’ Beats at the end of their set, again drenched in sweat from a crowd ecstatically jumping up and down, I thought back to the interview with Ed and how he was right — there’s always a party to be had.

– Emerald Cowell

Reality Check: What if we told you that your memories were wrong?

The strange phenomenon known as the Mandela Effect has a thing or two to say about memory, truth and what ‘real’ really means. Dan Michael Jones, The Royals’ resident explorer of the surreal, reports from somewhere down the rabbit hole.

Man reflected in puddle

Nelson Mandela died in 2013 at age 95. It was the end of an iconic life for the freedom fighter and Nobel Peace Prize-winner who lived primarily in the public eye – even when he was locked behind bars. Obituaries mourned the loss of a statesman who made lasting change for the betterment of mankind.

But when he died, a whole bunch of people around the world were really confused. Because they’d already seen Mandela pass away. They’d already seen his televised funeral. They’d already read obituaries after he died during the 90s – never able to take his rightful place as the head of a free South Africa.

English Alive, 1990: writings from High Schools in Southern Africa; K. Heugh, A. Kennet; Western Cape Branch of the South African Council for English Education, 1991.
English Alive, 1990: writings from High Schools in Southern Africa; K. Heugh, A. Kennet; Western Cape Branch of the South African Council for English Education, 1991.

And they were all convinced that they hadn’t just remembered it wrong. They were sure things had happened that way in their reality, and their reality had changed. One of them was US researcher Fiona Broome, who coined the title “The Mandela Effect” for the strange phenomenon she and others were experiencing.

But it’s not just about Nelson Mandela. The phenomenon has permeated politics and popular culture, and gone beyond the “are you kidding me?” factor. It says a lot about the nature of memory and its ability to be blurred, influenced and reshaped.

I Feel A Change Comin’ On

Google turns up hundreds of other examples of Mandela Effects, and a huge number of people who are convinced of their legitimacy.

In 2015, a Vice article titled The Berenst(E)ain Bears Conspiracy Theory That Has Convinced the Internet There Are Parallel Universes got people outside of the web’s dustiest corners thinking about the phenomenon.

You might remember reading the Berenstein Bears books or watching the cartoon when you were a kid. You might have read the books or watched the series with your own kids. Are you 100% convinced Berenstein is spelled s-t-e-i-n like Einstein? Turns out in this universe we’ve been spelling it Brenstain (with an “a”) all along.

Then in 2016, New Statesman published an article about people convinced that there were two films in the 90s about kids befriending genies. Both starred tall dudes with one-word names that start with an “s”. Both have a “z” in the title. Kazaam, staring the NBA star known as Shaq was real. Shazam, starring the comedian known as Sinbad wasn’t.

But New Statesman spoke with Mandela Effect-ed fans of Shazam, including Don, who worked at his uncle’s video store as a teenager in the 90s:

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years. And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental. It feels like a part of my childhood has now been stolen from me. How does a movie simply vanish from our history?”

Fiona Broome suggests that these aren’t simple errors in memory. Rather, they’re reconstructed incidents (or sequences of events) from the past.

“They exceed the normal range of forgetfulness,” she says.

And she credits the multiverse for these shifts. As in our universe is just one in an infinite series of universes in which every possible combination of events and outcomes can and will happen. Sometimes they just meet at the edges and bleed into each other a little.

Further Down The Rabbit Hole

Mandela Effect theorists and fanatics (and there are plenty) have taken Broome’s initial hypothesis a whole lot further. They place the blame squarely on CERN – the European Centre for Nuclear Research – and the centre’s famed Large Hadron Collider.

The planet’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and the largest machine in the world, the Collider is housed in a 27km circular tunnel beneath CERN’s headquarters on the Franco-Swiss border just outside Geneva. And it’s there to try and replicate the conditions of the Big Bang, the event that led to the creation of the universe.

Many who believe in the Mandela Effect say that every time the Large Hadron Collider is used – ie. every time the conditions of the birth of the universe are recreated – it shifts our reality a little.

That shift is not enough so that the fundamental nature of life itself is changed, but enough so that one man’s death occurs differently, or one of the two B-grade 90s flicks about tweens palling about with genies phases out of existence forever.

So that’s the exciting explanation. And it’s a conspiracy theory that supporters attempt to justify with real science about particle physics, gravitational waves, string theory and cosmic inflation. But an accurate explanation might be a less sci-fi and more Freudian than anything Broome et al suggest.

Because truth is, us humans are fallible creatures with imperfect sensory functions that only get worse at their jobs as we age. Our cognitive systems are easily led astray. And our memory centres aren’t high-performance hard drives, they’re biochemical processes that reconstruct past experience into vague representations of “what really happened”.

Losing The Memory Wars

Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Washington. And she’s an expert in reconstructive memory who has provided expert testimony about the falliabily of recall in a number of high profile court cases – including the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King and the litigation of Michael Jackson for child sex charges.

In a study Loftus undertook during the 1970s, she asked participants to recall details of a simulated car crash they were shown by asking half “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” and half “How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?”. And that small change in wording made a big difference in the results.

When the researcher asked the question using the world “smashed,” participants recalled that the cars were travelling at higher speeds compared to when Loftus asked them with the word “hit.” The word “smashed” caused eyewitnesses to recall broken glass at the scene even though none existed. Their memories changed due to the changing of one word in a question.

This work can help explain many examples of the Mandela Effect as simply contaminated or distorted memories. Like the way – spoiler alert – Darth Vader’s line in The Empire Strikes Back has been misquoted over and over as “Luke, I am your father,“ even by the character’s voice actor James Earl Jones (for those playing at home, the actual line is “No, I am your father.”)

But this wasn’t enough for Loftus, who was convinced it is possible to implant entirely false memories in people. She developed the ‘Lost in the Mall’ technique during the 1990s. Participants of a study were each given four short stories describing events from their childhood, supplied by their family members, and later asked to try and recall them.

What participants weren’t told was that one of the stories – describing a time when the subject was lost in a shopping centre – was false. The fake narrative incorporated plausible details provided by the relative. In this initial study, 25% of the participants reported to be able to remember this event even though it never actually happened, and many were able to provide embellishing details that were not supplied to them.

Fake is the New Real

“This is a dangerous time. Moving forward, we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet,” says Barack Obama in a powerful 2018 PSA about the mind-bending potential and inherent risks of AI-driven deepfake videos.

Barack Obama
Still from You Won’t Believe What Obama Says In This Video!, BuzzFeed Video

Only it’s not Obama talking. Sure, it’s his face, but the mouth and the voice are a spot-on impersonation by Get Out director Jordan Peele. In a world that’s divided by “fake news” and “inconvenient truth”, we need to be more vigilant about who and what we choose to trust.

The Mandela Effect shows that not only are our brains and memories fallible, they’re highly susceptible to influence. And as fakes get more and more lifelike thanks to machine learning and AI, the implantation of false memories will only get easier and easier.

Recently, a deepfake video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – a stringent critic of Donald Trump – made its way across the web. The video was an obvious fraud, slowed down and then pitch-corrected to make it look and sound like Pelosi was drunk and incoherent at several news conferences and public events.

But despite being faked, Twitter and Facebook declined to remove it. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani shared the clip, and then the President himself sent out a “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE” missive which embedded the video and was pinned to the top of his Twitter feed.

Scary stuff. And perhaps scary enough for us for all to rekindle our long-term relationships with the truth once and for all. Otherwise, I’m moving to Geneva. So that next time they fire up the Large Hadron Collider, I get Mandela Effect-ed over into another timeline.

– Dan Michael Jones

Sidewalk stories of Sydney

Sydney photographer Juli Balla’s Mad Men-esque style launches the Sydney office edition of The Royals’ art gallery.

Juli takes us back in time with this striking image from her personal series Where The Sidewalk Ends. Through meticulous craft and attention to detail, she manages to transform Sydney into a Mad Men-esque set straight out of the 1950s. Every image draws you in and tells its own story. The casting, location, wardrobe, hair and styling are all highly considered and evoke a strong sense of time and place.

Juli Balla - Where the Sidewalk Ends
Juli Balla – Where the Sidewalk Ends

This piece is featured in The Royals’ Sydney office as part of our rolling art gallery, which aims to showcase creative talent that we admire and work that inspires us.

Juli’s European background has “made a mark on [her] personal style.” She is influenced by art and cinema, and her creativity is constantly fueled by travel.

“I feel it is very important to create a distinctive mood in my editorial work. I strive to create images that will stand the test of time, transcending the current trend of the day. In my personal work I aim to create a form of visual poetry.”

Both of Juli’s parents were photographers and she graduated from Canberra Art School in the late 1980s. Her commercial clients include Qantas, David Jones, Mercedes benz and Nivea.

“While working on commercial projects, I find it most satisfying when my team and I follow the client’s brief, and I can also infuse the work with my personal style. I especially love making use of the serendipitous during location work,” she says.

Juli’s bio:

I have worked as a fashion and advertising photographer based in Sydney for 24 years, and also regularly work in Europe, the USA, Singapore, China and Japan. I have photographic representation in: Sydney, Milan, Beijing and Shanghai. My work consists of magazine editorials, advertising, fashion and cosmetics campaigns and portraiture.

I work for magazines such as Grazia Italia, Elle in South East Asia, UK and France, Vogue Australia and Britain, Harpers Bazaar, Marie Claire worldwide.

I also enjoy my celebrity portrait commissions. My recent assignments include international celebrities such as: Rachel Weiss, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman, Tony Colette, Olivia Newton John, Abbie Cornish, Miranda Kerr, Rachel Ward, Richard Roxburgh, Miranda Otto, Portia de Rossi, Terence Stamp, and Priyanka Chopra.

As both my parents were photographers, I couldn’t help but fall into the profession. In 1980 I emigrated from Budapest to Australia, and graduated from Canberra Art School in 1987 with a major in photo media. I have been creating personal work since the beginning of my career, and have exhibited in solo shows as well as in numerous group exhibitions from 1986 to the present.

juliballa.com and @juliballaphoto

The Dark Side Strategy

I recently watched a Netflix documentary called ‘The Great Hack’. Some of you will probably have seen it or at least will have been presented it in your feeds – thanks algorithms. For those that haven’t, it’s an excellent and gripping film about Cambridge Analytica and their nefarious dealings in social manipulation for Trump and Brexit.

The doco takes you behind the scenes and into the lives of ex-employees and whistleblowers, as well as revealing the extent of their data enrichment programs and behavioral change capabilities. It’s nothing short of fascinating and terrifying all at once.

The Great Hack: Netflix
The Great Hack: Netflix

Beyond the data though, there were the far more disturbing strategies that sat behind the technology; the manipulation and behavioral tactics these agents use to swing elections and influence voter mindsets.

The documentary, for example, features a case where social media was used to create an anti-vote movement amongst Trinidanian Youth – this powerful uprising tapped into an apathetic generation and quickly swelled.

In the film, Cambridge Analytica says it worked for “the Indians” – implying they worked on behalf of the majority-Indian United National Congress (UNC) party. According to the film, the inaction of this voter segment meant a 6% swing was achieved in what was considered to be a neck and neck race. This weakness was exploited through an anonymous Dark Side strategy that exploited fake news, privacy data and misdirected public sentiment.

These, of course, are the tools of politics, the Dark Side strategies that political strategists employ to not only activate advocacy amongst supportive bases but to also disrupt and nullify oppositions. These are the same forces that influenced Brexit, and Trump’s win.

Which got me thinking about advertising. Because from where I sit, it seems that the majority of advertising strategy is what I would call ‘Light Side’ or tactics and messages designed to persuade apathetic or casual buyers to buy a brand over another. There is very little by way of Dark Side strategy, actively discrediting another brand or rendering their audience impotent.

There are of course some exceptions and even some famous public stoushes, but for the most part, I think advertisers play a pretty fair and above board game. There are few instances I could readily think of where Dark Side strategy is central to a brand’s ongoing strategy or if they do exist, there’s a very good reason they are invisible.

I would suggest there are some examples of ‘Grey side strategies’ about; the famous Mac v. PC comparisons, for example, which threw shade at a competitor in a funny way. Or much more seriously, the infamous research and medical propaganda of the tobacco industry, which for years waged war against the medical community and its warnings about the dangers of smoking.

So why don’t more brands consider Dark Side approaches?

There could be a number of reasons. Perhaps brands don’t want to be seen as manipulative or risk brand damage. Maybe marketing leaders are inherently good and not Dark Side inclined or perhaps budgets don’t allow the exploration of concurrent strategies. And there’s one more possibility, maybe those responsible for strategy have just not yet really considered it.

I’m open to the Dark-Side (at least as a thought experiment).

Andrew Reeves, Communications Director, The Royals

Up in lights

Melbourne artist Tom Adair’s neon style kicks off The Royals’ rolling art gallery.

It greets you as you finish your hike up the stairs to The Royals office in Melbourne – the neon glow of two art pieces by the super talented Tom Adair, that is. Mixing the subculture of the local graffiti scene with architecture and encased in perspex, the works use neon lighting to set off strangely familiar Australian scenes.

Artwork by Tom Adair

The artworks are the first to be shown as part of The Royals’ Rolling Gallery, which came about after a bunch of Royals starting chatting about inspiration in the workplace. With everyone being so busy so often, it can be tricky to take a breather and actually find a moment to think bigger. That’s where our Melbourne and Sydney galleries come in. Every quarter, The Royals will take a vote on who they would like to see featured from a selection of creative folk. Tom is kicking it all off.

We chose to launch our Royals Rolling Gallery with the Melbourne artist’s work for two reasons: firstly, we love Tom’s use of layering with airbrushing and neon – the specialist framing really tops of the dynamic aesthetic. Tom works with a hugely varied range of materials from Dibond, neon, timber and HDP foam to metal and glass, which gives his work a unique vibrancy.

The second reason? We wholeheartedly believe in supporting local artists and Tom’s studio is just down the road from us.

The idea for this type of work came from Tom’s push to work out his own style, something that wasn’t the “done to death”, in his words, stencil or graffiti on canvas. His first five or so years in the studio combined his love of seeing printed images on canvas, with graphic design and photography. But it was an old high school memory of Howard Arkley that got Tom back onto airbrush work.

“About eight pieces later I wanted to add another element, and I had some spare neon sections lying around so I screwed them to a finished piece. From there I knew the combination of techniques and mediums was something I could call my own,” he says.

And he wants the work to communicate the need for us to be less judgemental and more accepting in a life that is forever pursuing happiness through consumerism and the house we own or the car we drive.

“The architecture of scenes I depict in the halftone pattern is a motif for the relationship between what you see from the outside or from a distance versus what reality really is,” Tom says.

“When we (the viewer) get a little bit closer the perception (or image) deteriorates and its imperfections are exposed. In this way my work changes depending on where you view it from.”

Tom’s Bio:

Tom Adair’s work comes from an urban landscape where the spray can is king, and speed is most certainly your friend. His ability to make immediate, aesthetically strong paintings was honed in the world of graffiti.

A decade after leaving the brick and concrete walls of the streets for the studio, Adair’s work is an investigation of architecture and popular subculture.

Tom is far more interested in us, our relationship to the environment, and how a thirst for evolution and technology has changed us.

His hand drawing with the airbrush is fluid yet stripped back – a technical linage to Howard Arkley. The use of neon as a drawing tool abstracts and illuminates at once, literally electrifying the picture.

Tom works as a local artist in Cremorne (Dover St/Studio Sixnine) and lives in Richmond.

https://www.tomadair.com.au/
https://www.instagram.com/tomadair_/

What I learnt about recommendation engines when I built my own

Streaming platforms like Netflix seem to know what you should be watching before you do. To better understand how and why, film buff and The Royals’ data scientist Dr Paul Vella built his own recommendation engine.

Netflix devotes a staggering amount of time, money and computational power to keep me happy, content and watching. But why do they think they know me so well? Every time their algorithm makes a recommendation, there’s a risk I might not like it and will consider switching to Stan (psych!).

But according to a 2017 article published in Wired, more than 80 per cent of the TV shows people watch on Netflix are discovered through the platform’s recommendation system. And Netflix are definitely not alone in being a recommendation-obsessed content provider.

Formulas have been implemented across Spotify, Amazon, YouTube and other platforms to recommend anything and everything. You could say they’re as common as Game of Thrones spoiler alerts on social media.

So why do these companies think I would like the songs, books and films they recommend? How did they reach those conclusions about me?

Man sitting in gallery viewing blank art work.

To satisfy my curiosity, I decided to try my hand at building a film recommendation system and see for myself how content providers arrive at their conclusions. The point was not to build a proper model per se, but to understand the inner logic of these systems and their potential use.

There are many different techniques for building recommendation systems. And approaches involve NLP (natural language processing), vector factorisation, nearest neighbour clustering and similarity indices.

Stay with me.

Because if you take a step back from the ‘technique’ and think about the methodology (or purpose) of these approaches, all of them are trying to do one of two things:

  1. Recommend items that people who are similar to you like (called collaborative filtering)
  2. Recommend items that have similar attributes to others you like (called content-based filtering)

A third, hybrid filtering approach combines these two, then applies weighting to reach a recommendation. And the logic behind each can be set out in a relatively straightforward way:

Collaborative filtering

  1. Aaron and Bob both like Jurassic Park (1993)
  2. Aaron also likes Ready Player One (2018)
  3. Bob hasn’t seen Ready Player One
  4. Recommend Ready Player One to Bob

Content-based filtering

  1. Aaron likes Jurassic Park (1993)
  2. Jurassic Park is an action movie and so is The Meg (2018)
  3. Bob hasn’t seen The Meg
  4. Recommend The Meg to Bob

Hybrid filtering

  1. Aaron and Bob both like Jurassic Park (1993)
  2. Aaron also likes Ready Player One (2018)
  3. Aaron 14 and Bob is 36
  4. 30-somethings aren’t into Ready Player One (2018), they like The Commuter (2018)
  5. The Commuter and Jurassic Park are both action movies
  6. Recommend The Commuter to Bob

To give an example of how this works on a larger scale, let’s look at Spotify. Their algorithm is pretty complex, and takes in data about what you’ve listened to and how long for, what you’ve liked or added to playlists, and more granular elements of the songs themselves like genre, tempo and duration. It also pays attention to what others who have similar preferences to you have listened to or liked.

The model I built in a Google Sheet is based on a much simpler collection of information. It recommends films from a list and tracks just two variables: when I last watched a film, and how much I like the genres the film fits into.

Viewership

The logic behind tracking the date I last watched a film is pretty simple:

  • Films that I’ve watched most recently shouldn’t be highly recommended.
  • Films that I haven’t watched should be highly recommended.
  • The longer it has been since I last watched a film, the more highly it should be recommended.

The viewership score is therefore just a count of the number of days since I’ve last seen the film. This puts less importance on films I’ve seen recently and more on those I haven’t seen for a while.

To get a viewership score for films I haven’t seen, I simply take the maximum number of days from the films I have seen. This means films I haven’t seen in a long time and films I haven’t seen at all are equally weighted.

Genre Preference

I also kept the logic behind the genre preference score simple:

  • Films can be classified in many categories. Avatar (2009), for example, contains elements of science fiction, futuristic, fantasy and adventure films.
  • Giving a film a rating (out of five stars) counts equally across all genres (attributes) of the film.
  • The genre preference score is therefore the sum of ratings given to all films in that genre.

Table of genre preference scores

This simple calculation reveals I prefer sci-fi and action films over drama, which is true.

Getting to a Recommendation Score

Since both variables are integers and there’s no logically necessary reason to place more importance on one or the other, I simply add the scores together to arrive at a recommendation rating (the higher the score, the higher the recommendation):

Table of recommendation ratings data

The Data

Now you know the mechanics behind a relatively simple content recommendation system, let’s see how good it’s been at improving my movie nights.

I have around 1,016 films in my database. And I’ve given a rating to 712 of these. I’ve watched 165. Given I can watch one film a night – well, two, if the first one was terrible – it took roughly six months of data collection before the system was recommending films I’d actually consider watching. This is evidenced by how strongly it kept recommending Eat, Pray, Love (2010). Ugh.

If I arrange my film ratings by date from Jan 1, 2018 to Apr 1, 2019, a simple linear regression reveals a slight positive trend in my ratings (it is a five-point scale after all, so any positive trend has to be small). So, there’s some evidence the films I’m watching more recently are getting better ratings – and therefore my movie nights are more enjoyable.

So what did I learn about recommendation engines?

  • I can trust my spreadsheet’s recommendation more than a friend’s opinion

Anyone can build a recommendation model, and it will probably improve your choices. The system I designed doesn’t include any Python code or API calls, just a few fancy spreadsheet formulas and some stats know-how.

An element of DIY is probably better, anyway, because I can classify films the way I like. For example, I can break down ‘sci-fi’ into 10 micro-classifications (futuristic, time travel, zombies, etc) I am interested in, giving more accurate recommendations than just using ‘sci-fi’ on its own.

The more you can describe the elements in a set of choices, the better the model can be at recommending things you might like. Harvard’s cognitive psychologist George Miller famously published research back in the 50s that showed we can only hold about seven items in our short-term memory (or in this case, make a choice from around seven films).

And how many elements of those can we compare? Because a recommendation model can make suggestions based on hundreds, thousands or millions of elements.

  • You can uncover patterns in your decision making you didn’t even know you make

Since I was tracking the order I watch films and their genres, it was possible to build a database of which genres I would tend to watch next by finding patterns in my preferences.

For example, if I watch a crime film, there’s a moderate association (0.29) that the next film will be a fantasy film. And if I watch an action film, there is a negative association (-0.15) that the next film will be a superhero film. That’s probably because my wife will want to watch something else!

  • My feelings still play a part, they’re just quantified

It may come as a surprise, but recommendation engines are entirely reliant on the way a person feels. All the data and analysis in my film recommendation engine comes from two variables: my ratings of the films (how much I liked them), and when I last watched the films (was interested enough to act).

Netflix does the same thing, just in a more complex way. Its recommendation algorithm considers what you’ve watched, when and how long for, the order you watch films or series, your ratings, and the ratings given by other members who are similar to you.

The more descriptive these algorithms get, the better their recommendations are – to the point of factoring in ‘hyper-specific micro genres‘ I’ve proved to be at least curious about. Even the artwork of their content is displayed based on what I’ve engaged with in the past.

  • You can flip the system to make predictions

Probably the most interesting take-away from building a recommendation engine is the possibility of extracting the importance scores or average ratings to make a prediction of how much I might like movies that aren’t yet released.

There are 13 films in my database that fall into the space, action and adventure genres, and they have an average rating of 3.15 stars. Does this mean I’d give Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker three stars when it comes out at the end of the year? Will I be disappointed?

I’d probably have to use something a lot more advanced to get a more accurate prediction, something that might work out the part-worth (choice-based conjoint analysis) or standardised beta coefficients (stepwise linear regression) of individual aspects of films (actors, directors, release year, genres, etc) which could be used in as inputs in a model of my film ratings.

I could then use this model on a list of films being released over the next year or so, to filter them down those I’m most likely to give five stars to, all without the need to rely on other people’s opinions.

But first, I’m off to watch Hot Fuzz (2007), because an algorithm told me I’d like it.

– Dr Paul Vella

Proud and honoured to be recognised for our People and Culture

 

Royals Frey Fest 2019

Culture has always been important to us here at The Royals. We believe it affects everything we do – from the ideas we generate for clients and the insights we uncover, to the final product we deliver and everything in between. It determines our success as a company and shapes how we are perceived in our industry and the broader business community.

We believe this emphasis on our culture was a significant factor in our awards success over the past 12 months, which saw us winning Independent Agency of the Year 2018 at both Mumbrella and AdNews awards, the People & Culture Award (Under 100 employees) at B&T Awards 2018 as well as being highly commended for the Culture award at Mumbrella.

For our people, these wins represent important industry-wide recognition of the commitment and hard work that goes into building a successful agency, and an opportunity to pause and acknowledge what we have achieved together.

The Royals’ culture, built around our desire to be “the most interested agency in the world” lives and dies by our people. It’s one of passion, revelry, audacity, inquisitiveness and camaraderie.

Over the past 12 months we’ve been more committed to cultivating Royals’ curiosity than ever before, delivering on this promise through the launch of The Royals Academy, our all-new Learning & Development Program, designed to enhance the personal and professional growth of every Royal.

We’ve also reinforced our commitment to working side by side – never in front or behind – with pay equality, flexible work, respecting different points of view and celebrating what makes us unique as well as what makes us the same.

We’ve run our third annual engagement survey through Culture Amp to listen to what matters most to Royals, sent some lucky Royals to SXSW, welcomed 45 new Royals (as well as four Royal babies into the world) and we are preparing to take the agency away on our fifth annual three-day Royal UNconference, to spend quality time together away from our daily jobs.

Above all else, we believe in a culture that is human – one that’s filled with humanity, empathy and compassion for each other.

Our flexible work options are available to all staff – to juggle family commitments, studies or passion projects. We have 100% return rate among Royal mums with positions tailored to their individual needs. We also celebrate significant life events together (birthdays, weddings, new babies) with personalised care packs from every Royal, and support each other through tough times, offering unlimited compassionate leave for grieving colleagues, sharing the workload until they’re ready to return to work.

Our AdNews, B&T and Mumbrella awards have taken centre stage in the trophy room (aka the boardroom) and they bring a smile to our face every day. With 2019 now well under way, our focus at The Royals remains on all the improvements we can make to ensure our culture continues to thrive and grow with our people.

Here’s “cheers” to that.

The Royals, AdNews People and Culture Award Finalist

This excerpt originally appeared in iknowho and has been shortened for length.

Kings Valley UnConference

Early 2018 saw in the AdNews People and Culture Award, founded by iknowho. We wanted to sit down with returning finalists The Royals and hear more about their consecutive nomination.

As Dan Beaumont, Managing Partner, says: ‘Culture is everything at The Royals, it’s genuinely at the centre of who we are.’ We caught up with Dan and Kristy Camarillo, Talent Manager at The Royals to discuss their motivations, challenges and initiative successes.

What motivated you to enter this year’s People and Culture Award?
Dan – Our culture is our number one priority in the business. We know that if we get that right, everything else flows from there. If you haven’t got that right, I would argue that it’s more difficult to do great work for clients, win business and build a great agency.
It’s important for us to establish a reputation of valuing our culture and our people. We need to signal to the market very clearly that The Royals is a great place to work and we value people, irrespective of ethnicity, gender or age. That’s why we enter culture awards.
Kristy – Ultimately, awards not only attract clients but also talent. I think being recognised for something we’re heavily invested in, which has been our People and Culture, has allowed us to attract the right talent and to retain those people.

Being finalists 2 years in a row has shown consistency from your People and Culture initiatives. How do you stay on top of your game?
Dan – It’s consistent because we haven’t changed our priorities. The way we manage the agency is like an operating system; a little bit like the operating system on your smartphone. We upgrade our OS constantly; we fix bugs, add functionality and make the system operate better – that’s how we approach The Royals. So when it comes to our culture, the way we have managed it evolves and we strive to ‘get better at getting better’.
Kristy – Our engagement surveys measure the strength of our culture & drive our our employee initiatives for the year ahead. These come from the bottom up, not the top down. We want to ensure that the voice of all of our Royals is represented, listened to and considered.

Which People & Culture initiative do you think has created the biggest impact to the business?
Dan – Lots of little things we do have a big impact on our business. We have an unwritten rule particularly with the five partners: we give before we take.

A Christmas draw
Every Christmas we throw a name in the hat for every year each person has worked at The Royals. We draw a name and that person gets and all-expenses paid trip to SXSW Festival in Austin; this is a real celebration of the staff.

The UNconference
The unconference is an away weekend, which is 3 days and 2 nights across both offices, Sydney and Melbourne. We have been to Hobart, Byron Bay and last year we all climbed to the top of Mount Kosciuszko, where we had our first values awards presentation. We have 3 values – Audacity, Camaraderie and Revelry. Nick, our Creative Partner, has created patches for each of these values, and we award them to people who demonstrate those values. The unconference is a chance for all of us to get away together and do something we have never done before. This year we went glamping in King Valley and enjoyed everything the vineyards there have to offer, and then some.

Mount Kosciuszko

Monday Morning Assembly
Every Monday morning we have an all-staff meeting with both offices connected across video conference, where we talk about the week ahead. It’s about transparency, where staff can ask questions about what is going on in the business, then we have a presentation on something that is inspiring and interesting – staff members are responsible for this. It’s a big part of kicking off a successful five-day sprint in the agency.

Most Interested Day
It’s easy to get caught up in our busy day-to-day work so each month we give one Royal the day off, to get out of the office and take part in an ‘interested’ activity – it might be an advanced driving course, trapeze lessons, how to manage a beehive. The aim is to change up people’s daily working days and stretch them a bit – get them out of their comfort zone.

So it’s not just one initiative but all the little things, and everything contributes to our daily working lives and the overall culture of the business.

The Royals are known for looking for talent from a range of backgrounds, what impact has this diversity had on the business?
Kristy – We do not have a separate diversity policy, it’s just ingrained in everything we do. A lack of diversity in our business is a lack of relevance. We have people from a range of backgrounds – a marine biologist, lawyers, accountants, military psychologists, individuals from 15 countries that speak 12 languages and span three generations. Bringing such diverse perspectives and experiences to our work allows us to create better, more effective work for our clients and it drives our business forward.

As The Royals have offices in Melbourne and Sydney, what challenges do you face for the culture spanning two locations? How do you overcome these challenges?
Dan – The rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne is very much alive, not just at The Royals. We move people around a lot as they work in projects in each office. This facilitates our single agency mindset; we called it ‘1 egg with 2 yolks’. We don’t enter NSW or Victorian Agency of the Year for that reason. Some publishers try and pull us apart, but we have one P&L and that’s how we manage the business across the board. Operating as one agency/ one culture means we don’t need to duplicate services in both cities.
Kristy – We share resources, we cast projects appropriately (based on skills and experience). We try to come together as much as possible – face to face, Hangouts, phone to maintain collaboration – which is a cornerstone of The Royals.

Thank you to The Royals for another great award entry. Check out what was discussed in last year’s interview here.