Leading from the front
Louis Persent (2008) launched advertising agency Weirdo in 2020. An Architecture graduate and world-class athlete, he shares his experience of feeling ‘like an outsider’ and how he’s making space for diverse voices in the creative industry.
I arrived at St John’s fresh from the World Junior Athletics Championships, with a silver medal in tow and a stubborn desire to have it all. I told myself with full conviction that it would be entirely manageable, and thrillingly challenging, to balance 20 hours of training a week with the notoriously intense hours of an Architecture degree. And St John’s seemed like the place where that kind of naive optimism might even be supported.
As a hugely indecisive teenager, an Architecture degree at Cambridge was my salvation from the curse of having to choose a single direction. It gave me the flexibility to think like a scientist one hour and a historian the next – or an artist, a filmmaker, even a sociologist… Architecture moulds itself into whichever impossible shape you require of it, and this constant morphing has been of great use a decade on. I work in advertising now, and the capacity to jump between different scales and depths of thinking has felt like a secret weapon. Architecture deals with the noble, weighty materiality of building stuff whereas advertising can be flimsy and transient, but I’m often struck by the ways these fields similarly connect the commercial with the artistic.
My route to advertising was via athletics tracks, physio tables and ice baths. If St John’s taught me anything it was that being really great would take a level of focus and decisiveness that, at graduation, I was light-years away from having. With London 2012 a year away I made the decision to step back from Architecture to concentrate my energy on making the 400m Olympic relay squad. Nine months of training later I missed out by 0.1 of a second. Close. Frustratingly so. But also a sign that with a little more focus, and the right kind of financial support, Olympic success next time around wasn’t just something to dream of but to plan for.
And so the scramble started. I moved to London, then Berkshire, then Florida – from mindless part-time work to national funding to full-blown sponsorship. Everything became about training and running … until everything became about my Achilles tendon. First there was one tear. Then another. Then one more to crush the dream. Almost exactly three years on from missing London, my athletics career was no more.
All along, including my time at Cambridge, I had been hiding myself from the friends and teammates around me. I was scared to be open about being gay, and I deflected any topic of conversation that came too close to the subject.
After a month of soul searching and a favour from a friend I snagged some work experience at a small marketing agency. Three weeks later I told the founders it wasn’t for me, silently appalled that I’d turned my back on the seriousness of architecture and the purity of running. Somehow, though, I didn’t leave for four and a half years.
The agency grew fast and my career with it. I found myself building a creative team of 40 people, directing Snoop Dogg and Jeff Goldblum, working for brands like Spotify (even managing to feature a same-sex relationship into one of our ads) and helping Nike inspire young Londoners to sprint – all very full circle.
Despite these successes I felt frustrated by too many aspects of the modern advertising industry, including questionable uses of data, hyper-targeted ads, and ineffective or incorrect measurement. Short-term media tactics were favoured over the ingenuity of creative thinking. The most frustrating element was the lack of diversity in the industry and on screen – something that, as a gay, mixed race man, was all too apparent.
It struck me that I was experiencing similar feelings of being an outsider in advertising as I had in athletics. I was working at the cutting edge of the industry, but despite the power to target anyone at an incredibly specific level, we didn’t know what to say. In short, I felt that the industry was out of touch with a society that was ever more diverse.
So I left my job in June 2020 and launched Weirdo with a former colleague in September.
Weirdo is a hybrid of an advertising agency and a community of creative people – writers, illustrators, filmmakers, designers… We bring in diverse perspectives based on the audience the campaign is targeting to make the most relevant work possible, from ad campaigns to rebrands and strategic projects. It’s about putting inclusivity at the heart of the creative process – not just relying on a focus group or testing panel. And I’ve stolen lots of ideas from architecture, where this kind of community-led creativity has been embraced by a new wave of young practices.
Other businesses are starting to test similar models, and it feels like a new movement is emerging. It’s exciting to be leading from the front, with clients both sides of the Atlantic, growing interest and a busy schedule.
I think I’ve finally found my focus.