Counterculture Partners provides advice and guidance to cultural, creative and third sector organisations to encourage them to plan, manage and thrive. Advice is offered on a range of topics including strategy, finance, governance and project management. The founders all have a wealth of experience in the cultural and creative business sectors and are now applying their knowledge to help other organisations succeed. caught up with Tom Wilcox, Director of Counterculture Partners, to find out more about the company and its plans.

Tom had a varied and interesting professional background before starting up his company, including much experience in the arts and cultural sectors where he honed his craft. Before starting Counterculture Partners, he worked as Managing Director of the Whitechapel Gallery for seven years.

“During my degree I took a sabbatical year off to be Vice-President of the students’ union, where my interest in business really developed. After that I worked as an auditor and consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, in the public sector and charities department. My first proper job in the arts was for Arts Council England, helping to assess and advise on business and finance issues affecting cultural organisations. Subsequently I was Finance Manager at the Poetry Society, as well as working freelance for a number of other arts charities, before moving to the Whitechapel.”

With so much time spent in the arts sector, it’s no surprise to hear that, for Tom, working in cultural positions was always on the cards.

“My Dad, Waveney Wilcox, is an artist and musician, as is my godfather, Tom Lynham, so I grew up surrounded by creativity. I have been in bands since I was 15 and so the decision to work in the arts was an instinctive one for me.”

Before starting Counterculture Partners, Tom worked in a senior position with the Whitechapel Gallery, and although he enjoyed his time there, he still had the urge to start his own company.

“I was at the Whitechapel for almost 7 years and it was a fantastic privilege to work there during a time of great change for the gallery. However, having my own business in the arts was a long-standing aspiration and I took the opportunity when I decided to relocate out of London in 2009. It was a wrench to leave such a special and fun place but I believe that it is necessary keep moving and challenging myself.”

He then decided to study for an accounting qualification in order to bolster his credentials prior to starting the business. For many entrepreneurs, the lack of a proven track record can make it difficult to gain customers in the early stages, but a professional qualification can help ease their worries.

“The AAT qualification I completed provides a rigorous grounding in key accounting skills. I decided to study it to learn some hard skills because an enthusiasm for the arts is not enough. I have subsequently become a Chartered Company Secretary which developed my financial knowledge further but also trained me in corporate law and administration.

Counterculture Partners caters exclusively to arts, cultural and third sector companies. Although these companies require many of the same resources and advice as other businesses, their driving force is different and this must be taken into account.

Arts organisations are businesses like any other except that the artistic imperative – the quality and primacy of the art – is the most important thing.
“The arts industry is exciting and dynamic. Arts organisations are businesses like any other except that the artistic imperative – the quality and primacy of the art – is the most important thing. What Counterculture does is to help clients to have robust structures that support the production and presentation great art, in all its forms.

“There are a wide range of professional challenges in the creative industries including fundraising, working internationally, complex stakeholder relations and financial sustainability. This means that uneventful days are few and far between.”

Although the directors of Counterculture Partners were all experienced in their respective fields, like all entrepreneurs they faced challenges when starting the company. Two of them are commonplace to all start-up businesses, but one was specific to the arts sector and therefore required specialist skills to overcome.

“The first challenge was cash flow, which is a challenge for many new businesses, and unless you are very well capitalised it is essential to manage cash flow effectively, particularly as your business expands. We have overcome this by issuing a debenture for working capital and by having standing order arrangements for fees with our long-term clients.

“The second challenge was maintaining quality as the business expands; we have overcome this by recruiting excellent people with the skills and values that our clients want to work with.

“Thirdly, we have had to deal with negative perceptions about consultants and accountants in parts of the arts sector. However, we have all worked in the creative industries prior to being consultants and we are peers and colleagues of our clients, rather than strangers in suits telling them what to do. This helped mitigate many negative perceptions.”

The market for consultancy for arts and cultural companies is thriving, and Counterculture Partners has a growing list of competitors. The flexibility and creativity of the marketplace requires a very broad range of skills and the tenacity to adapt quickly to market changes and client needs. For Tom, staying ahead of the competition is essential, and it comes down to quality.

Quality is at the heart of everything we do; our business is built on doing an excellent job for great clients.
“Quality is at the heart of everything we do; our business is built on doing an excellent job for great clients. 90 percent of our work comes from word of mouth and referrals; this is based solely on the quality of our work – this differentiates us from many of our competitors.

“Another factor that is important to us is that our experience in the arts, and the commitment we have as individuals to the sector, gives us credibility with our arts clients.

Continuing professional development (CPD) is a very high priority at Counterculture. Our directors, staff and associates spend a lot of time developing their skills and keeping up to date with changes that occur in the creative industries.”

Tom is adamant that arts organisations need strong finances in order to thrive, and as such feels that young people will always find a home in the arts sector.

“Arts organisations will always need qualified and committed finance professionals. There is less competition for accounting jobs in the arts than there is for other types of position so it is a good way into the industry. A passion for the arts is an advantage and strong accountancy skills can take you far.”

Arts organisations will always need qualified and committed finance professionals.
And as for those who wish to start their own business in the arts sector rather than work for someone else, Tom has three pieces of advice.
  • Understand and appreciate the artistic and social value of the work that is produced by your clients.
  • Focus on reputation and relationships as a way to build your client base.
  • Offer something that you can do better than arts organisations can do themselves.
With regard to his own company, Tom is keen to carry on growing, developing and honing the services offered.

“Now we continue to build all aspects of our business so that we become the first port of call for creative businesses in search of help and advice.”