Creative Correspondence: Sam Sneade & Ellie Johnson
Editing legend Sneade chats to the newly promoted partner at tenthree, Johnson, about the progression of their careers, the lack of industry rockstars and how cultivating talent is the most important part of the job.
Legendary editor Sam Sneade is as closely tied to the apex of British advertising as you can get.
Through both his own company, Speade, and latterly with Stitch Editing, Sneade's scissor-hands have been behind some of the most iconic campaigns in (relatively) recent history, as well as having a hand in cultivating the careers of some of the industry's top talents.
One such talent is Ellie Johnson who, after having started her career at Speade, now sits in a partner position at tenthree, showcasing her expertise on ad-work and music videos that have caught the attention of public and award-shows alike.
For our latest Creative Correspondence, we asked the two to reminisce about their working history together, report on the progressions of both careers and reflect on how the industry no longer takes chances.
Above: Sneade and Johnson in a socially-distanced snap.
Ellie Johnson: Well, last year’s brought a lot of change! Set aside seismic global events, you brought your company Speade, where I spent my formative years as an editor, to an end and joined with Stitch for a new chapter of your career.
What are you proudest of from that time running Speade?
Sam Sneade: Well, Speade/Sam Sneade Editing ran for nearly a quarter of a century and in all that time I was the sole owner, bearing 100% of the responsibility so it started hard and got harder; as rents rose, and revenue streams became tighter.
However, having said that, it was a blast, and I couldn’t be prouder when I think of the talent that was launched at Speade, not least of all yourself.
Speadsters are littered all over the industry today, here and the USA. Hell, my first hire, Kirk Baxter, went on to win two Oscars.
I couldn’t be prouder when I think of the talent that was launched at Speade.
If anything, this was my one big achievement: as a seedbed for young talent. That and a willingness to tackle long-form projects that weren’t necessarily that a more profit-orientated set up wouldn't have considered wise: we did 17 feature films from Sexy Beast onwards. Between the various members of Speade we even made our own feature, Gozo, a project from the brain of the remarkable Leo Scott!
Oh, and there were a few commercials that people might remember too.
Congratulations on being made a partner at tenthree this year, that’s a big step. Was it a difficult decision to take on those extra responsibilities?
Above: A still from Sexy Beast.
EJ: Yes! I love my day to day as an editor and am very happy to be entirely consumed by that, but when the opportunity at tenthree came up I looked at my skills and realised that I had something to bring to the table.
Editors have a high level of empathy anyway, we’re team players, we’re used to helping ideas or other people shine whilst we sit on the sidelines.
I see my role as partner primarily as a support to the people within the company. I’m excited to help us continue to grow and champion the creativity we show as editors. And I firmly believe having women in leadership positions has immense value, not just in offering a different viewpoint and different skills but also to be seen succeeding in what is still a male-dominated environment.
Being an employer is a huge responsibility. It wasn’t so much that my employees were lucky to have a job as I was lucky to have them working with me.
But I think as a leader I’ve obviously learned a lot from you. Speade felt more like a community than a company; you cared about the people first and worked hard to create an environment where everyone could thrive, regardless of background.
Was that an intentional approach to leadership?
SS: This was very much my approach, which maybe ran counter to the prevailing mood of the times. I came of age in the “greed is good” 80s, but just because you were surrounded by c***ts was no reason to treat people you employed like one. Being an employer is a huge responsibility. It wasn’t so much that my employees were lucky to have a job as I was lucky to have them working with me. I always said that being the owner of a small company was like leading a Viking war band… the chief had to be first across the river into attack waving their sword (ooh err), and last to get fed at night.
You mentioned our industry being male-dominated. To be honest, your gender never really registered with me. I find it slightly puzzling that people would even care about the sex of the person in the chair and also laughable in light of the fact that some of the greatest editors in the world have been women; Thelma Schoonmaker, Anne Coates and Lucia Zucchetti, to name but three.
Indeed when I started in advertising, the undisputed person at the top of the heap was the redoubtable Pam Powers. The world is made up of two kinds of people; those who can edit and those that can’t!
Have you felt that your career’s been affected by being a woman?
Above: Thelma Schoonmaker, Anne Coates and Lucia Zucchetti.
EJ: Absolutely, in both good and bad ways. You often said your job was 30% editing 70% working the room; it’s important to inspire confidence and also be pleasant to spend all day with! That, along with the more traditionally masculine attitudes which thrive within advertising, makes the unconscious bias understandable.
But I didn’t feel held back for a long time, certainly not creatively. You and the other editors at Speade never underestimated what I could do. I found amazing directors who didn’t consider my gender to be a positive or a negative, they just knew I was a good editor. It wasn’t until I started doing more notable work that I began looking around at my predominately male peers and the opportunities they were getting and feeling somehow restricted.
I do feel that I’m taken more seriously as an option now – people are looking to celebrate the skill in my work rather than questioning my ability.
But at exactly the right time the push for fairer hiring practises really took hold, and I feel so fortunate to have been at the perfect point in my career to benefit. I don’t think I get jobs to be the token hire (or if that is the case you can feel it from the initial enquiry!) but I do feel that I’m taken more seriously as an option now – people are looking to celebrate the skill in my work rather than questioning my ability.
Across the industry, it feels like we’re seeing real change, but we still have a long way to go across all under-represented groups – filmmaking is a collaboration and the more diversity working together the stronger the end result is.
At Speade the editor / assistant editor role was incredibly important both as support for the editor but also for assistants to be learning the craft of editing. Did prioritising that relationship come from your own experiences assisting before the digital revolution?
Above: Some of Sneade's most famous works.
SS: Good point. In the Old Days (zzzz) the editor and the asst were very much a 2-man (oops…there I go again) team, sharing a bench 12 hours a day, so for training, it was invaluable. God bless you Jim Bambrick; you might’ve thought I was unteachable, but I was absorbing it all along.
As for passing that stuff along, I think it came naturally. I mean, I love the sound of my own voice and I tend to the pedagogical and I am passionate about the craft of film editing and passing on what little I know...and learning a whole lot back in return. I still have stuff to learn; it’s shocking the stuff I don’t know.
You were invaluable in that sense, quietly and patiently showing me how to use new technology and a host of other things.
The problem with the amount of tech around these days is that can send people off in the wrong direction. Just because you own a guitar doesn’t make you a musician, you’re merely a guitar owner until someone shows you what to do with it.
As to your point about the digital revolution, the problem with the amount of tech around these days is that can send people off in the wrong direction. Just because you own a guitar doesn’t make you a musician, you’re merely a guitar owner until someone shows you what to do with it. Technology is just an access portal for your ideas, if you don’t have any, you’re going to get found out pretty quickly. This has also led to an under-valuing of the very real talents we do possess, as witnessed by the proliferation of somewhat 2nd rate in-house setups, and the assumption that the editing process is simpler AND CHEAPER than it actually is.
What’s important for you to achieve as a partner?
EJ: A company is only as strong as its roster, so putting creativity to the forefront of everything we do, and protecting, encouraging and developing the individuals within the team. I believe we should be home to a diverse pool of talent; a good editor can edit anything but we all inherently have strengths or particular styles of work we enjoy, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing!
I don’t like the thought of identi-kit editors who you can slip into the chair for any job...If you choose to work with me it should be for what I can bring to the project, my personal creativity, and that works both ways, so I’ve accepted I’m not right for every job too!
Another driving factor in me taking this step at tenthree was to (hopefully) be able to make a difference in this small sector of the industry. When I started in Soho, I didn’t realise how closed it was, I blindly stumbled through the doors of Speade and got to work, but coming to a position of privilege I feel a huge responsibility to encourage and support under-represented creative voices, not just in the jobs I choose or directors I work with but among my peers too. We’ve already made steps within tenthree to become a supportive environment for young editors, and we’ve made it a priority to ensure we are an equitable and inclusive workplace.
How do you think we can open the doors of filmmaking to a wider range of people?
Above: Director Steve McQueen.
>SS: In some ways, I think the industry has become less diverse, certainly in a social sense. Racially, I’m afraid it’s never been diverse, but maybe with the examples of Steve McQueen etc young BAME kids are beginning to see a place for themselves in this industry (at the moment though this is possibly more in features; advertising, for some reason, not so much).
The real problems are the lack of money in the starting grades and the astronomical cost of rent in London, so those with supportive parents (and this tends to mean middle class) win out over a more diverse range of candidates.
Placements should NEVER be unpaid; it’s really just exploitation, any way you look at it.
Placements should NEVER be unpaid; it’s really just exploitation, any way you look at it. The simple action that can be taken is that people should be PAID PROPERLY; it’s that simple. If this means that people at the top are paid a little less, so be it. How can it be right that certain people right at the very top can be ‘compensated’ to the tune of tens of millions a year whilst underneath them pay freezes, redundancies and pay-cuts have become the norm.
Of course, they argue that they are creating ‘shareholder value’ No they’re not, they’re creating inequality!
To what do you attribute your success in your career?
EJ: I’m not sure I felt it was an option to fail!
I moved to London with my savings after working through university and a deadline of how long that money would last, so I had to throw everything at it with no shame! But also, at exactly the right points I had support and opportunity and didn’t ever feel anyone holding me back.
Ensuring that I can pay that forward for other people is incredibly important to me, particularly after this year, which has made starting out so much harder for so many.
You’ve worked with some of the best names in advertising, Glazer, Kaye, Budgen, do you think personalities like them can exist now? Can work like that exist now?
Above: A selection of Johnson's most prominent campaigns.
SS: Mmm it’s hard for me to say. The climate has definitely changed, the cash-rich swamps of the 80s and 90s have been drained somewhat, so the support afforded to those big beasts is less than it was - not that any of those guys were in it for personal enrichment, they were striving to do the best work.
Having said that, there’s still plenty of talent coming through.
I think the real change is a follow on from the last question about the universality of tech. The age of the specialist has passed and there is the assumption on the part of marketing execs that because there’s a camera and editing app on their phone they’re all Francis Ford Coppola. Unfortunately, because agencies have all agglomerated into worldwide holding companies with "duties to their shareholders” they acquiesce in this state of affairs.
Add the rate of turnover in marketing jobs and the unwillingness to take risks or make waves and you have the perfect recipe for blandness, which advertising should never be! 'Ad Vert', from the latin ‘To Turn Towards’; i.e catch someone’s eye, which I’m afraid most modern advertising signally fails to do.
The industry needs larger-than-life personalities, they lend it glamour.
As to the personalities in the agency/production world today; much less arrogant, more fearful and somehow lacking in chutzpah, which is a shame. The industry needs those larger-than-life personalities, they lend it glamour and thus cut through, which in turn sold more stuff (and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about)! My comparative experiences on a major stout brand between this century and the turn of the last are very illustrative of this point, buy me a pint of the stuff and I’ll name names!
Indulge me, what was your best day at Speade, what was your worst day at Speade?
EJ: This is hard! Best day was probably when I was promoted to assistant editor. I was a runner for quite a short period and really enjoyed it but becoming an assistant and working more closely with the editors I admired was validation that I was doing the right thing. I took my now-husband out for dinner in Chinatown, clearly revelling in my riches and thinking we could have such luxurious dates all the time now I was an assistant... though the long working hours made that harder than I thought!
Worst… well the whole period where I was realising, I needed to step away from Speade to develop and prove myself was difficult, very emotional as it genuinely felt like I was cutting myself off from my editing family.
But the worst single day? Probably that hangover in Germany in 2013...