Meet a member: Jo Lilford

After hearing a little bit about one of her current projects with a serendipitous link to 26 Trees, I caught up with Jo Lilford to find out more about her writing, inspiration and more.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

Hello. I’m Jo Lilford. I live in a small Welsh town call Llantwit Major on the Glamorgan heritage coast in south Wales, though I originate from Pembrokeshire, a bit further west. Life has taken me on a sizeable loop and after leaving home at 16 to work in Florence, Rome, Sydney, London, and finally Seattle (my favourite place) I was eventually struck by a bolt of what, in this neck of the woods, we call ‘hiraeth’. It doesn’t really have a translation, but it’s not dissimilar to Proust’s madeleine – though specific to the irrepressible emotional draw of home.

So, I walked out of a terrific, secure job as corporate marketing director of Getty Images in Seattle and hopped on the plane home. I took me another decade of ‘working for the man’ before I struck out alone, but I’m now seven years into running Run Jump Fly, a strategic brand and communications consultancy. I love persuading organisations to own and inhabit their own voice and language just as readily and importantly as they do their visual identity. A client once said, ‘You’re like the Hotel Inspector, but for brand communications’. It’s pretty close, actually. My first love is developing brand strategy.

Where did your love of words come from?

My Grandad Aaron was an artist from Yorkshire. He was a terrific entertainer and when we were little he’d have us clutching our sides at hilarious and utterly inappropriate ditties he’d teach us when our mum and dad weren’t listening, ‘Not last night but the night before…’. My favourites were his recitals of Marriott Edgar’s poems. The Lion and Albert was the best thing ever. Poetry has always captivated me. I won a BBC competition at 11 with an appalling poem. Then, at 13 I was despatched to Pau in South West France to spend three weeks with a family who spoke no English. After the first 24 hours of crushing homesickness I fell in love with my first ‘other language’. Today I can think of few pleasures greater than rolling unfamiliar words around my tongue and the joy of making myself understood in a language that isn’t my own. Language used well is such an intoxicating thing.  

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

I’ve been a member for about 18 months. My chum and erstwhile collaborator Neil Baker had talked about it for years and gave me a copy of the Book of Because. I confess I initially held back because I made the – entirely incorrect – assumption that it was just going to be another yawningly London-centric creative organisation like all the rest. Delightfully, it isn’t.

Neil was also the person who persuaded me that I was a writer and told me to stop hiring other people to do it. I thought it was hilarious to begin with. But I gradually took his advice and have never looked back. It was a little peculiar entering the 26 Emerging Writer of the Year award last year, I felt like an impostor. But I’m delighted that I did: my Special Mention hangs on a sunny wall in my office.

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

Only one, so far. That was last year’s wonderful 26 Trees. My apologies to Heather Atchison, my long-suffering editor on the project. I wrote about far more trees than was strictly necessary. If your pub quiz team needs a pink peppercorn specialist, I’m your bird. The project also informed something I’m working on at the moment, one of life’s happy coincidences.

What’s your ideal scenario for writing?

I worked in a studio with designers who played music all the time for a bit. It drove me crazy. I’m monastic in my tastes. I like silence. Solitude. Constraint. Two years ago I went along to the Dark Angels course in Highgreen Manor in Northumberland run by the inimitable and gracious Jamie Jauncey. I came away with a head full of learnings – but the application of constraint is up there as one of the most valuable tools anyone has ever handed me. Make yourself do it in four lines. Start with a number. Take something in your line of vision as your first word. I invent little ways to get off the starting line. Writer’s block has become a thing of the past.

What are you working on at the moment?

A few lovely things. One most obviously connected to the 26 Trees project: I’m leading on the brand strategy and writing for the National Forest of Wales. It’s a beautiful and ambitious project to re-forest Wales, one big wood, stretching north to south, east to west. Until the middle ages we were a woodland nation like much of Scandinavia and the aim is to recreate that, here.  

Then, I’ve just completed a campaign strategy for the Museums of Wales – they are incredible and profoundly unsung places: if you haven’t visited, then you should. The outdoor Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s is astonishing, slices of Welsh lives to experience first hand. They’ve transported buildings from all over Wales, across generations – from a Medieval pigsty to a working men’s institute, to a whole terrace of homes – and painstakingly rebuilt them all across a wooded 100-acre site. Expert historical storytellers are on hand to share how people lived and worked in every building. It’s magic.

And I’m also currently interim Director of Communications at Transport for Wales Rail. I continue on my mission to enrich business through language: this time, on our railways. The coronavirus has unwittingly triggered a fantastic development. Wonderful poets have emerged across the organisation and sharing their self-penned poems has now become a regular feature of our daily video call, reaching over 2,000 people. It’s enriching for the soul and holds special importance right now in elevating spirits as our frontline team – drivers, conductors, maintenance and station teams, cleaners and controllers – take big risks each day to keep fellow key workers and vital goods moving around the country. Anxious times.

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of?

Two summers ago, I worked on the brand strategy for an incredible sustainable development organisation, an NGO headquartered in Zimbabwe, that operates in 45 countries. They help people to build their lives in incredibly challenging regions of the world. Amazingly, they’d never worked on their brand since its inception in the 1970s.

I ran three days of workshops with them in the mountains in Mashonaland in Zimbabwe, to show them how language was holding them back and the opportunities it could open for them. Their foundations were rooted in 1970s socialism and as a contemporary, progressive organisation, it did them no favours. They sounded outdated and a little militant. The sad and sudden death of their inspiring CEO slowed the project, but they’ve recently been in touch to let me know that the project has been transformative for them. It’s made them see themselves and tell their story, differently. And they have asked me to pick up where we left off. Hearteningly, they no longer refer to one another as comrades, either.

In seriousness, I look at how that project captured their unwavering fervour and energy for making the world a better place and think, yup, nice one, Jo. There is no better feeling than a client who sticks around or comes back for more.

Where do you get your inspiration?

My inspiration truly has no fixed abode: it comes from the strangest of places. They say everyone has a book in them – I’m not convinced I do, but what I do have is a million first lines to novels, which I write in my head as I go about my day. The most bonkers things trigger them. A shell. A queue. The smell of dinner. Getting soaked. Pagan festivals. Whatever. Does anyone else do that, I wonder? Yes, I’ve always been a bit odd.

– Jo Lilford, interviewed by Sophie Gordon

We’ll be meeting a new 26 member each month. If you’d like to feature, or nominate another member, drop me a line at Don’t be shy.

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