Want to get to know our CEO Meg Gage Williams? Read this in-depth interview she gave Life & Times Magazine from Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2015

Want to get to know our CEO Meg Gage Williams? Read this in-depth interview she gave Life & Times Magazine from Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2015

Rajinda Jayasinghe interviews Meg Gage Williams for Life Times Magazine, Colombo. 

Every once in a while you meet someone that is truly living the full length and breadth of their years. Sitting barefoot across from us on the LT sofa on a breezy Friday afternoon, Meg Gage Williams has just dropped in for a chat on the way back home to Galle before her daughters' bed time. She is settled and secure in her weekly routine and is enthused, in a way that only a mother can be, at the thought of the kiddie chaos that will soon rain down upon her. But as her story unfurls it becomes abundantly clear that we are not speaking to a run-of-the-mill expat with a passing interest in the developing world. 

Sure, Meg, along with her husband Philip are Co-Founders and Directors of Stick No Bills, the provocatively-named gallery and co-located design studio in the centre of Galle Fort that, with its cult-like following of globetrotting fine art print collectors, is fast reaching iconic status.

Sure, she professes her unconditional love for Sri Lanka’s abundant natural beauty, rich multiculturalism, sun and surf. Yes, she has embraced parenthood and settled comfortably into her maternal and entrepreneurial endeavours. 

Yet, as we come to learn more about this amazing woman, we begin to unearth the tip of an incredulous tale that can only be told on a need-to-know basis, a Fleming-esque novella of shadows and intrigue and action. 

From dodging bombs in Baghdad while building a real-time threat alerting network to taking Sri Lanka´s post-war art market by storm, Meg’s story is bursting with life.  

Tell us about the years before parenthood, before you moved to Sri Lanka. 

I was a bit of a rebel in my younger years, moving once every year or so from one country and one school to another as the youngest daughter of a senior army officer. So I suppose it’s ironic that in my early twenties after graduating from four of the best years of my life at Edinburgh University I was lucky enough to start working with former British special forces; with the elite of one of the very institutions I had rebelled against as a teenager.

My family had a pretty storied background serving vocational, lifelong careers representing Her Majesty’s Government overseas in the 19th Century and in the armed forces in the 20th Century with my grandmother on my mother’s (Fox / Macpherson side) being born in the Punjab to a British (Scottish) army officer in 1920. Meg Senior who grew up to become a real driving force in our family was born straight into the school of hard knocks as she was christened on her mother’s grave following complications during childbirth that today would have no doubt been averted. 

Meanwhile my grandfather, father, uncles and cousins on the Williams / Ogilvy side were all patriots of a mindset that drew all but one of them (Ad Man Sir David Ogilvy) to working in military intelligence, whether that was in Iraq and Libya in World War II, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Hong Kong, Addis Ababa and Aden in the 50s and 60s, Cyprus and Belfast during the 1970s and Berlin during the Cold War. 

There was a pattern of behaviour in place by the time I came along. Try as I did to resist it, I fell into line. 

In 1998, thanks to an invitation to travel to Bosnia from Cambridge-graduated sound engineer friends, my then-boyfriend and I drove 1900 kilometres from Dover to Dubrovnik before crossing the border into Bosnia where we volunteered for a humanitarian charity called War Child, the mission of which was - and still is - to protect, educate and stand up for the rights of children living through conflict in the hardest hit places on the planet.

In 1995 War Child had brought the super stars of the British music industry - Paul McCartney, Oasis, Blur and Radiohead - together to record an album in three days. The HELP album shot straight to the top of the pops, raising £1,250,000 GBP with which a state-of-the-art music and outreach centre was built on the bullet-ridden Neretva river front line in Mostar, to support all children whether Croat or Serbian, Muslim or Christian, affected from all sides of the conflict. 

This amazing music centre served as the base for our witnessing of the final throes of the fall of Yugoslavia. Seeing first hand so much needless devastation as well as post-war societal apathy changed my life. It struck me one hope-filled night on Sarajevo´s river front that music, literature and the arts will always serve as the elixir of a culture´s recovery from war. 

I travelled solo to Sri Lanka the following summer as a journalist for The Sunday Times and was further humbled by what I discovered there: an island-nation of 22 million souls, abundant - to the same degree as Colombia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe - in natural resources yet, like these other exceptionally beautiful countries, fraught with a civil conflict that seemed to have no end in sight. 

After a few years post graduation in between London, Bogotá, the Cayman Islands and Barcelona working for The Risk Advisory Group, volunteering for Medicos Sin Fronteras and identifying the perpetrators of assassinations of Colombian unionists I began working for a British security firm called Olive Group, established in early 2001 by Chris St George, a former British army officer and subordinate in Bosnia of my uncle Major General Peter Williams. 

Olive, formed in a relatively benign pre-9/11 world to provide former SAS soldiers as leadership training mentors and close protection officers for aid workers and media teams in conflict zones, for high net-worth individuals worldwide and the England Cricket team on tour in Africa, Pakistan and India, became the first security company to gain a licence, courtesy of USAID and DFID (the American and British foreign offices´ development and aid departments), to operate in post invasion Iraq. We were granted this license literally within a week of Saddam being toppled in May 2003. 

The license enabled us to be the frontrunners in the provision of safe passage for international aid, government, non-government, contractor clients tasked with switching the power back on, shoring up dams (including the same dam in Habbaniyah that my grandfather had been stationed at in 1940), securing the ports, airports and oil fields and ensuring a stable environment so that schools and hospitals could function and ordinary life could resume. 

Then the Iraqi army was disbanded, a fatal error especially as barely any weapons were first recovered, the US-led invasion was discredited, the Baghdad headquarters of the Red Cross - an international organisation I admire hugely which has always been a neutral symbol of humanitarian aid no matter what - was attacked by suicidal siege using hijacked ambulances and all hell broke loose. 

The intel department I had been building with a global terrorist threat alerting remit for two years suddenly became wholly focused on just one fledgling insurgency and connecting the dots therein between different carjacking and organised crime groups that were becoming increasingly extremist in their objectives and elaborate in their modus operandi as a rash of lawlessness and violence spread across Iraq.  

To instil a code of conduct, pacifist rules of engagement and overall self regulation in an unregulated context Olive Group formed the Private Security Companies Association of Iraq. I also helped set up the Hostage Working Group between many different embassies and agencies to pool intelligence and stand firm in our refusal to pay ransoms that, whenever paid, were directly fuelling the fire.

This led to Olive funding a not-for-profit book called Kidnapping In Iraq which I co-authored with RAND Corporation’s Brian Jenkins (a Vietnam war special forces veteran who went on to become the leading expert on airplane hijacking’s in the 1970s through to the early 2000s) John Yourston, our director of operations and senior risk analysts Ed Williams & Paddy Ogilvy. 


The one hundred page tome documents 264 armed kidnappings  of non-Iraqi’s taking place country-wide between March 2004 and January 2005 and analyses innovation in tactics, techniques and procedures. Our aim: a situational awareness campaign to debunk the "it won't happen to me" bravado and consequent exposure of many contractors and thereby prevent any more horrific tragedies like those suffered by the families of Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan from ever happening again.

How did you keep up your sense of hope in such difficult times? 

When I look back at that chapter in my life I recall first and foremost the high calibre of many of the people of all nationalities I was privileged enough to work with. 

Aged 25, even though I had been gutted to see the war go ahead without a UN resolution and was sceptical about the mid term utility of psyops terminology such as “Operation Iraqi Freedom", "reconstruction" and "nation building" I felt like I was part of something good to begin with. Having grown up in the U.S in the 1980s and spent many of my early years living on army barracks I felt at home and at ease working with so many Americans and abiding within garrisoned quarters. 

Along with the desire to save lives there was also an element of professional pride that motivated  the analyst team Olive Group developed to produce the most constructive and timely intelligence we could. We wanted to be the best that we could to develop the best humint network we could to help shed light on the truth of what was actually happening and so diffuse tensions within an especially intense chapter in geopolitical history where, in the words I recall of Rory Stewart, then governor of the fiercely independent and furthest-flung Maysan province, much of it marshlands and desert on the border with Iran, the collective reality we were all inhabiting became increasingly restrictive and so prone to guess work, to what I shall never forget Mr. Stewart calling "degrees of not knowing".  

I could see that we were going to be tarnished by association with the so-called Dogs of War the moment Sandline and Blackwater arrived on the scene. The worse the security situation became, the more foreign forces would, no matter how competent or good their intentions, increasingly come to exacerbate the risk we had first arrived there to help reduce. 

By 2006, for me to interview the Minister of Interior at the MoI in "the red zone", for example, this would involve an armoured motorcade of minimum four vehicles and 8 men crossing the Tigris from west to east with, according to our analytics, a one in twelve probability of being subject to a suicide bombing attack. In light of the spiralling corruption and the awful news of torture emerging from nearby Abu Graib, I began to question what on earth was the point. 


This sounds like it was really dangerous work. How did you stay safe?

I was very lucky to be working with former special forces soldiers and officers, with highly experienced people who knew how to keep their head down and stay alive in extremely volatile circumstances.

I provided the intel and they provided the security, as well as basic weapons training so I could defend myself in case of in extremis situations. In this way Olive Group gave me the very best shot at staying safe and provided me with far better duty to care than many media and NGO workers were privy to. That said, the insurgency was escalating and our back and forth between seventeen power plants around the country which we were safeguarding was becoming dicier by the day.

Tragically, 23 people working for or with our company were not so lucky as I was to survive in one piece. My thoughts are always with the families of those we lost. 

Almost half of these fathers / sons / brothers died in roadside bombs or small arms fire / rocket propelled grenade surface to air and indirect fire attacks but the majority were lost in fatal traffic accidents. Never underestimate the lethality of vehicles on the road, even in the most mundane environments.

I have to ask. Have you shot someone. 

No, thankfully not.

What was it that finally made you decide to move on from this line of work? 

I felt a strong calling throughout my twenties to found a family-run business that could be the change. While my profession meant I  travelled all across North America, the Middle East and Asia, Dubai increasingly became a sort of command centre; a buzzing logistical and financial hub, not just for us but for any and every entity that had anything to do with the petrodollar-fuelled boom in the region. 

With so much money flowing through the Emirates and the vast majority of its transient inhabitants economic migrants, it bean to feel like we were all clinging to Icarus’ waxen wings as he soared up towards the sun. I had to leap off, quit my high-flying job, and dive into the ocean where my husband-to-be gleefully handed me a surfboard. We had no idea the Lehman Brothers / Wall Street bubble was about to burst as I resigned from Olive Group, we sold our gas-guzzling jeep, most of our worldly goods and booked our one way tickets to Rio. It was reckless but right; fortune favours the brave and we’ve never looked back. 

We spent nine months in Brazil  doing travel intelligence write ups for www.i-escape.com before coming back to Sri Lanka. 

We gravitated straight to Weligama where we lived in a shack on the beach with our newborn baby girl Farrah and surfed, surfed, surfed, our carbon footprint drastically reduced, before realising that we were almost completely out of cash and needed to come up with a plan. 

Right before we were about to pack up and head back to England we were offered an opportunity to secure residence visas and local company directorship by taking over management of a surf hotel in Ahangama called Easybeach. The large white 11 bedroom boutique hotel with its lovely sweeping lawns overlooking excellent reef breaks had fallen on hard times since its giant Norwegian owner stabbed a cobra to death on the lawn and then died when he slipped down his board taking off on an enormous wave.  

Not knowing about the cobra incident and how in the eyes of the local community that had cursed the hotel as cobras are exceptionally sacred in Sri Lanka, we jumped at the chance of running the place to help the owner´s widow out and had the hotel fully booked with pro surfers within a few months. How the following 18 months misadventure at Easybeach transpired is a book I have in the pipeline. Looking back I now see we were accidental pioneers in a surge in the surf and yoga “industry” that has since completely transformed the southwest corner of Sri Lanka, for worse and for better. I think one of the reasons the 1970s style surf poster we designed “A Wave Of Your Own” is a best seller is because it speaks directly to a crowd of surfers who can no longer enjoy the luxury of riding a wave all by themselves. All the way from Hikkaduwa to Hiriketiya the line ups are packed. 

We’ve been based on the island permanently for 5 years now and on and off for ten years prior to that. Phil survived the 2004 tsunami in Hikkaduwa which was one of the worst hit towns, on one of his early visits and I was flying in and out from the turn of the millennium because this used to be one of the conflict zones I covered. I am so happy that peace reigns now. I can’t say we have ever had a dull moment. We LOVE this place.

And what about the forming of “Stick No Bills”?  

Again, it was fortuitous. A Dutch merchant’s mansion in Galle Fort that had hitherto been a flop of a hair salon in spite of its brilliant name  - "Fort Locks"   - became available in 2010 and we grabbed the chance. Philip, one-time head of consumer advertising at the FT as well as a fashion and advertising photographer by trade, is always chock full of ideas and had been toying with the idea of photographing, usage rights clearing and then selling high quality prints of our private collection of antique James Bond, Hollywood, Bollywood and Ceylon tea and travel posters so that the history and beauty of these works could be properly celebrated. 

We soon realised that everyone loves vintage – from your erudite traveller to your millennial that finds ironic retro cool, there was definitely a huge demand. You would be shocked at how much more the word “Ceylon” sells, in spite of its colonial connotations, over the word “Sri Lanka”. 

Galle definitely attracts a lot of “cool”, independent tourists and when we started to design postcards and posters with a tongue-in-cheek retro flavour to combine with our historic vintage collections they began to fly off the shelves. 

We prioritised targeting ‘walk-in’ opportunist customers among the one million-plus international visitors that come through Galle each year who happened upon our gallery during their exploration of the Fort. 

Now, well into our fourth year, we are also supplying a select group of prestigious outlets island-wide and increasingly tapping into the 6 million plus Sri Lankan tourists that explore the country each year. It's been harder to gain traction in the local market but now that we have, we are learning so much about the intricacies of popular Sinhalese and Tamil culture and traditions from our clients and this deeper level of integration and insight in turn enriches the place-centric poster art we curate and create.

Why the name Stick No Bills? 

Why invent a new name when there is already one out there so triumphantly endemic and so deeply, subliminally ingrained in people's minds all around the world that we could hijack, like terrorists hijacking a religion, for our own innovative ends? As we raced around in tuk tuks we kept noticing how the words were emblazoned onto the walls of so many government buildings, banks and private properties located in the most eye-catching locales at the heart of many of the world’s foremost cities. We joked about having a free-spirited poster gallery business one day that traded under that ironically authoritarian name, in order to capitalise on its uniquely free and systemic global branding legacy. 

On the surface the instruction to Stick No Bills seems counter-intuitive for lovers of posters. But when you scratch beneath the surface it makes perfect sense. The etymology and the grammar is classic olde English, showing this phrase has been used, in multiple languages, to protect government and other power house buildings from the poster plague that has enveloped most cities since Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in Mainz, Germany in the fifteenth century. And it is this very plague of posters that we have battled through to single out the gems that deserve not just to be “stuck” on walls but actually heralded, in gold leaf frames no less for what they are; a historically important genre within the global art market. Thus our branding, positioned prolifically in the few unlittered spaces left on the walls of major cities worldwide, began over 500 years ago. That's some legacy train to jump on. 

Working in Sri Lanka can be difficult. Has it been a challenging journey?  

Setting up a business here can be extremely challenging. But it has also been really rewarding. First and foremost we are grateful to our brilliant suppliers (carpenters, company secretary, framers, printers, lawyers, accountants ) and our hard working staff. They are all a pleasure to work with and are integral to our success. Second, to say we are grateful for the new government’s welcoming and proactive approach to foreign investment and minority rights would be an understatement. Yet, challenges still do exist. Galle is developing fast now that the island´s first motorway has at last been completed but we still rely so much on Colombo to get a lot of stuff done. Overall though, we’ve been lucky that Sri Lanka has so many increasingly sophisticated resources that we can pull from. 

So what’s next? Is there a broader vision?

Absolutely. The sky's the limit and there is so much great content we are busy curating. There is extraordinary growth potential right here but Sri Lanka is far from alone in having both great waves and an amazing array of vintage travel posters celebrating the Golden Era of travel.  Tahiti, Hawaii, Rio, San Clemente, South Africa and North Cornwall spring to mind in this context.

Added to which the Stick No Bills brand has global appeal not least because laying claim to this name is what Phil describes as being "the biggest marketing hack in the history of instructive signage" as Stick No Bills is already out there, streets ahead of us, stencilled onto the walls of power houses in former commonwealth towns and cities the world over.  This subliminal perception; I mean the fact that our now - after years of appeals - trademarked brand name has already seeped into most folks ́ minds before they find us, has been a highly effective form of guerilla advertising. Some people even think I've personally been out there under cover of the nighttime stencilling our brand name onto street corners!

The brand Stick No Bills® feels unstoppable. We would love to establish sister galleries in historic, cosmopolitan and up-and-coming destinations in Europe and the Middle East within the next five years and, while we´ve been an ecommerce business from the start, we are forever in the process of improving our www.sticknobillsonline.com global sales platform so that we can better reach out to the international jet set market with which are posters seem to resonate the most, as well as the 3 million-strong Sri Lankan and 18 million strong Indian go-getter diasporas based largely in Australia, Canada, England and the U.S appreciative of idealised content that reminds them of their mother countries. 

An Americas flagship gallery somewhere beautiful and Hemingway-esque in the Caribbean or artisanally opulent in Manhattan from which we can better service the US, Brazilian and Latin American markets would also be a dream come true. 

What is your favourite place in Sri Lanka? 

I love the hill country.  My aunt Penelope was raised on a tea plantation close to Nuwara Eliyah. That whole lush green mountainous area, a refreshing world away from the fecund south coast, reminds me of the highlands of Scotland. Trinco and Nilaveli are pretty special too. But I would have to say that Weligama Bay is my ultimate happy place.  I love surfing both sunrise and sunset there. You can hear the crows caw-caw and the minaret call to prayer drift across the water in the stillness in between the sets. The waves are epic yet there aren’t any rocks, crocs or sharks to dodge as is the case on the reef breaks in front of Easybeach and a little further up the coast where we surf closer to home around Habaraduwa.  

Whenever I jump to my feet on the clean green shoulder of a peeling wave, my spirit truly soars. Living twenty feet from the shoreline on Sri Lanka´s southern coast can sometimes make you feel like you are living on the edge of the world. The Indian Ocean never stops roaring here. We shout to each other to be heard over the waves. There is nothing visible between us and Antarctica except for the high seas, saline mist, blue whales and oil tankers. It can be so edgy, literally, and so liberating at the same time, hence our series of designs reflecting our crazed experiences of the south: “Postcards From The Edge”. If money was no object and Taprobane Island came up for sale I would buy it in a heartbeat. 

What inspires you?

Courage. The quest for truth. The healing power of art and laughter. Intellectual zeal and honesty. Craftsmanship. People that play well and with grace in their time whether in a team, at a competitive sport or an instrument. I am left footed and tone deaf but I adore music so I would love to come back singing and dancing in the next life. And the human spirit. My grandparents have always inspired me, from my grandfathers´ integrity, forever inquiring minds, good humour and excellent manners to both my grandmothers ´determination and kindness. Oh and my amazing parents, brother and sister and cousins, and Farrah and Alexa of course, I mustn't leave them out!

What would be your perfect day?

My perfect day would be sunlit with some great clean waves, with Philip and my beautiful daughters healthy, happy and alongside me. At 5 and 3 the girls are both popping up on their surfboards now and we need to cultivate that. 

What do you like the least about Sri Lanka?

The driving. Can everybody please start to indicate?!

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In Memoriam Fundraiser

To commemorate Philip's life and legacy we are fundraising for a cancer-free future.

We have set up a GoFundMe page in his name to support the NPO Fundación Fero (www.fero.org) in their cancer research efforts.

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We would like to thank Kelly Slater for his condolences.