D-list people and upsetting spies

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Steve Price is creative director and owner of Plan-B StudioSteve’s run his successful design agency for 22 years. Simultaneously worked as a CD at Unit9, Rehabstudio, Poke, Earth, and Grey London. He also founded ShoutOutToHelpOut - a directory for all creative industry grads to get their work seen by industry titans and recruiters. #ShoutOutToHelpOut is a directory for all grads entering or already in the creative industries. To get their work seen by industry titans and recruiters. Now, he’s ‘levelled up’ to "Chief Creative and Brand OFFICER OFFICER OFFICER OFFICERRRRRRRRRRRRRR." of the new F1 team, LKYSUNZ.

Biggest fuck up

How project SHFT put Plan-B Studio on the HM Treasury and GCHQ radar

‘I don’t understand the question?’ I replied to the representative calling from my bank, returning my call regarding a payment I’d been waiting on from a client partner in Norway.

‘Does your client work with any organisation in Tehran?’ They repeated. 

‘My client’s an artist management and theatre production company in Norway. It’s possible they might work with artists in Iran, but highly unlikely. What’s this got to do with the payment I’m waiting for?’ I asked, having explained the project and what work we were commissioned to do with the client.

This was the third call I’d received from my bank in two weeks regarding the elusive payment. The call ended with my bank informing me that the payment had been flagged by the Government and I should expect a call from a Government agency. The call ended. I had a cold sweat forming. WTAF? 

I called my client and explained what I’d been asked. They confirmed they’d never worked with anyone in Tehran. My client was at her bank in Norway, confirming the payment had left their account two weeks previously. 

Let’s rewind a bit.


My client in question is SHIFTIT (or SHFT, as it was known then). A new online marketplace for the performing arts sector – created to encourage the sector to be sustainable. A site for producers, directors, scene-makers, and costume designers to sell, swap, or buy items. To reduce the sector’s guilty secret of sending millions of tonnes of production items to landfill. A site to help shift items, avoid landfill, and improve sustainability. 

We’d been commissioned to create the name, brand identity, website, and marketing. 

Budget allowing and a client that was eager to get going, we performed a relatively quick naming process. Did our due diligence and desktop searches regarding the shortlist of names. And a deeper due-dil for the preferred name, ‘SHFT’ (short for SHIFT (SKIFTE in Norwegian); as in, to move something swiftly. 

We checked all the usual places and checked translations in other languages to avoid any surprises. Checked Companies House and the Norwegian equivalent. Ran checks (in incognito mode) on various patent/trademark portals. Domain options were available. We were good to go. 

We got client approval and proceeded with the name and registered domains. Sorted. Or so we thought. 

My client wired money for one of our invoices. As a payment reference for the international payment, they’d written ’SHFT’. Unbeknownst to me or my client, flags, sirens, and alarms had gone off. 


Back to my phone ringing after the call with the bank. Withheld number. A civil servant calling introduced themselves from the HM Treasury and the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation. I was interviewed for half an hour over the phone. Questioning whether any of my work includes involvement with people or organisations in Iran or, more specifically, in Tehran. Nope. Never. ‘I mean, I’d love to go there, I hear the foods amazing.’ I replied. A stony silence came the response. 

After they’d concluded their interview, I asked, ‘what on earth is going on? I run a design and branding agency in London for a client in Norway. Am I in trouble?’. 

‘Hold the line.’ Came their only remark.

The line was silent, except for the odd click. Simultaneously, I was busy on my laptop Googling ’SHFT, Tehran’. As soon as I did, I realised what might be going on. Part relieved, partly still shitting myself. 

Another civil servant came on the line and introduced themselves as being from GCHQ. Before they carried on, I explained the situation. The project. The client. Norway. Me. Design and branding agency. And the new project being called SHFT. ‘I’ve just Googled Tehran and SHFT. I downloaded and opened a PDF from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, did a search in the PDF for ’S-H-F-T’, and I’ve just seen that is the the acronym for Sharif Technical University.’ The caller confirmed. They typed notes and confirmed the case would be taken no further. Five minutes later, my bank called. The money was cleared. 

What’s so important about Sharif Technical University? ‘Sharif University of Technology provides support for and is associated with designated entities involved in Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities.’

Now, I’ve had some projects that have landed with a bang, but nothing close to nuclear. 

My client saw the funny side, and since we’d not done anything for public consumption, we changed the name from SHFT to SHIFTIT. Revised the brand identity and went on our merry way. My client also promised never to reference SHFT in any future payments. 

If GCHQ is listening, I told you I was telling the truth. 


So many people are unbelievably shit at their job. What Paul Mellor from Mellor&Smith would describe as ‘D-List people’. Folks who are incompetent at everything except selling their own personal variety of bullshit. 

These people worm, squirm, and snake their way into positions of authority and hire people who are even more incompetent than they are. The downward spiral of shitness ensues. These are usually the same people who hide behind jargon and acronyms.

The creative industry has some of the biggest, best personalities, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the greats. Sadly, there are still too many cunts and dicks. D-list (see above) people who’ve blagged their way to positions of responsibility without giving a fuck about being responsible for those they are supposed to manage, inspire, nurture, and mentor. Ego-maniacal, sociopathic, misogynistic, narcissistic assholes who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near positions of responsibility. 

Sadly, many of these individuals are like a toxic nuclear cancer. They spread. Most are (not all, but most) are men. Traditional mindsets stuck in the dark ages. Diversity, equality, and inclusivity are more than a policy document or a website footer link to a ticked box. It takes sustained investment and time to create a truly diverse culture. Sadly, some agencies’ solution is filling people’s already full diaries with ‘wellbeing talks’ by HR people to almost nobody because they’re too stressed or busy or both to attend. 

Useful advice

Listen, intently. Listen more than you talk. Watch. Observe. Absorb.

Talk in simple terms. 

Avoid jargon. 

Avoid acronyms, you’re not speeding up your communication process, you’re word-blocking others from knowing what the fuck it is you’re talking about. 

Never assume everyone else knows.

Write in short, simple sentences.

Keep emails to a minimum.

Stop Cc’ing every fucker in the building.

Be polite, kind, and caring.

Take an interest and really listen to people, especially younger folks who will benefit from support and mentoring.

Choose your moments to open your mouth, and when you do, make it count. 

Come with ideas, not problems. 

Always over deliver.

Good people don’t have time or appreciate drama, bullshitters, wankers or D-Listers. 

ALWAYS ask stupid questions. Asking stupid questions or questions you fear might make you look stupid are usually the most important questions everyone else is too frightened to ask. Stupid questions avoid fuck-ups, mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscommunication. Stupid questions normally oust the D-list people for the frauds they are. There is power and confidence in being prepared to ask the stupid questions. Do not be afraid, there are no stupid questions. Only those that are asked after the fuck-up has happened. 

Avoid being a wanky-bollocks person, you’ll sleep easier.


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