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Spacesuit featured by RBS and NatWest

The story of how photographic agency Spacesuit Media was created from media resource Current E has been told at the content sections of international banks, NatWest and RBS.

“When’s the Andretti photo shoot? Have we got enough time before the Venturi one?” Ross Ringham asks his chief photographer Shiv Gohil in the media centre at the 2016 Formula E London ePrix. Ringham runs the photography agency Spacesuit Media, which predominantly covers motor sport. Founded this year, it was created on the back of another start-up, Current E, a media website that covers the new Formula E motor-racing championship.

Formula E was conceived in 2012 by the FIA, motor sport’s governing body. It would feature all-electric cars racing around major cities, representing “a vision for the future of the motor industry over the coming decades”.

The series piqued the interested of Ringham, an engineering writer, who was keen to learn more about the technology but found a distinct lack of media coverage. He started collating information from press releases as well as contacting various teams and companies involved.

“Everyone I talked to was very helpful,” says Ringham. “It wasn’t simply a case of publicity but rather people were interested in what they were doing – developing potentially groundbreaking technology – and keen to talk about it.”

Ringham started the blog in March 2013 and the site picked up traction. “It was mainly a way of satisfying my own curiosity – but I did think that if I was interested, surely other people must be too.” He was invited to the official Formula E chassis launch in Frankfurt that summer, which enabled him to make connections.

It quickly became apparent that a standard blog was not enough, and Ringham spent his Christmas holidays building the Current E website. “It’s pretty much in the same guise today as it was then, with marginal changing by professional coders,” he says.

A one-man band grew to a team of three in spring 2014, as Ringham brought in design and communications professional Naomi Panter and photographer Shiv Gohil. “We covered the test at Donington [the first time Formula E cars hit the track] and started selling photos to teams, which funded our trip to the first race in Beijing.”

Ringham and Gohil arrived in China two days before the Saturday’s series debut (practice, qualifying and the race all take place in one day). “We went straight out for a track walk when we arrived and worked all day Friday and Saturday, shooting pictures for five teams and Renault,” says Ringham.

Ringham discusses when the time came to put all his eggs in the Current E basket. “I had a decision to make. I was wiped out from the travelling and then going back to my job on Monday morning.

“So I left. It was not a knee-jerk decision; it was a good job – well paid with good prospects – but I sat down, costed it out and analysed what the future for the series would hold; it’s also rare to be able to get into something so new. I’d built up some savings and worked out what it would take for two of us to go the races.

“I realised that being on site doing photography and interviews was much more suited to me. The atmosphere was brilliant and, even though it was very long hours, I was never good at sitting inside all day.”

But Ringham was unprepared for a potentially catastrophic occurrence, one that almost led to him shutting up shop. “The saying ‘profit is vanity, cash flow is king’ is very true,” he says. “I figured I’d be OK, not rich, but I’d have enough; what I didn’t bank on is the time it takes to get paid.

“Sometimes it was immediately, other times 30 days, but sometimes we’d be three months down the line without payment. It’s nothing malicious on the client’s part, it might simply be mixed-up paperwork, an illness or just forgetfulness – but when every tenner counts, you’re suddenly six months down the line and there’s nothing in your current account or savings to pay the bills.”

“When we started, we had no idea how much to charge for photos – and it turned out we were undercharging horrendously,” recounts Ringham. “We were just looking to get to the races, build relationships, and deliver art that we’re proud of.” Were teams happy to increase the amount they paid for photos? “They knew we were undercharging originally but they liked what we were doing; the artistic direction was more punchy than the norm.”

Current E grew into a fully-fledged media website circumnavigating the globe. Its photography was attracting lucrative attention from elsewhere and the team began providing services in different motor-sport categories.

“It was confusing people,” says Ringham. “We were approaching clients as a Formula E publication, but we had become more of a photographic agency. We needed a separate entity with the appropriate branding, marketing and packaging to make clear this is a service and not a media source.

“Creating Spacesuit Media in March 2016 was a natural progression.”

For all its growth through three years, Current E still operated like a glorified blog, with income earned on a freelance basis. Although Spacesuit uses a similar model, Ringham is taking steps to ensure the company’s long-term future.

“I work on Spacesuit Media full time and do everything from paperwork to contracts and licensing,” he says. And does he get any help? “I’ve got a finance director and met with solicitors to make sure everything is up to scratch. Shiv is our artistic director and looks at any new photographers – both at their work and personality. It’s important they’re a good fit for our team and clients.

“With Current E, I had a blueprint in my head. But with Spacesuit Media I’ve done proper three-year and five-year business plans, setting clear goals. I’ve been able to get advice from successful businesspeople, run ideas past them, and talk about shares and investing. They’ll challenge me: ‘Do you really want to do that? Have you thought about this? Tighten up on that,’ and so on.

The agency took on Formula E itself as a client in its second season as it provided black-tie event imagery to the organisers, as well as shooting all off-track entertainment. “It’s a mark of how good our people photography is that we were commissioned to do this, despite a very limited client budget,” says Ringham.

“Spacesuit Media operates within some very strict ethical guidelines. For example, we always insist that our photographers retain their intellectual property – and this is written into contracts and licences. We also do our best to promote each photographer using watermarks. Therefore, the individual artist, the agency and the client all benefit.”

“I got taught very early on that success comes not so much from what you can do yourself but from surrounding yourself with people who are very good at things and letting them get on with the things that they’re good at. Take the logo by Dan [Bathie, a photographer at Spacesuit Media]; it’s a very good design – I had an idea but he used his artistry to create it.”

Asked if he finds it difficult sometimes to take a hands-off approach, Ringham grins: “Yes, and the team will tell you I’m quite OCD!” It’s no surprise – and a common feeling for many entrepreneurs.

“The thing with Spacesuit Media is that it’s more of a collective company; it feels like a family, as if everyone has a stake in it, we’ve all helped to build it. I’ve not been to every race this season – it’s hard not to go and I worry about whether our clients will be happy – but everything runs like clockwork when I’m not there; people have responsibility.”

natwest.co.uk

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