Thinking about thinking…
Thinking about thinking (the author isn’t pictured, ahem!)
Some time earlier in 2018, I was very fortunate to be interviewed by the very bright, very thoughtful Rob at Salmon Theory.
He wanted to know a little bit about my philosophy when it comes to work and life, and how it’s manifested within my career.
Below is the full text. If you like it, i’d urge you to sign up to his newsletter here:
What does the word ‘philosophy’ mean to you?
Two things. In a business sense, it’s an approach and way of seeing the world that helps people shorthand vast amounts of information and bits of pieces they have to deal with. Particularly for planners, it’s about where you come from, what your skills are, what comes naturally to you, and what you need to build out and improve upon. My academic background is literature, so I’ve always been comfortable writing and processing words as opposed to being a visual learner. As a result, when I started my career, I needed to get better at visual storytelling, and to get closer to the numbers.
In a broader sense, when thinking about ‘philosophy’ (with a capital P) at work, it’s how you deal with different things on a day to day basis. A kind of intellectual mindfulness, I suppose. It’s necessary, as life in an agency is never just getting up, doing the job and going home. Life and work are much messier than that. So, for me, having a particular philosophy provides a means of dealing with crises (inevitably, there will be some).
Being able to apply something of a stoic, pragmatic attitude to both has really helped me. I’m a lot more able to set things in context than I used to be. As a result, given that life and work blur so much, if I’m good personally, my professional work will be too.
What recent new belief or habit has most changed your life?
Professionally, I’ve gone from being a traditional brand planner to working more in CRM and digital. That’s given me an appreciation of how the different bits and pieces work together. It’s common in advertising to talk a good game about integration, but I’ve learnt you can only really talk about it by doing it yourself.
The way CRM and digital planners approach things, by looking at ‘small’ data at key points of decision making, really helps you understand how sometimes a big advertising idea or some microsite might not work. I’ve learned to embrace the power of small things that ladder up to something much bigger. That’s my professional belief, anyway: that ‘small data’ is really where the pearls of understanding and insight lie. Not in a made up manifesto, though those are fun to write – I’d be lying if I said otherwise!
Personally, I got married, have recently had a young son and (hopefully) grew up a bit; that’s been a big one. That sense of perspective has helped me better understand people who I work with and feel a bit more connected as to why people do things. Perhaps most importantly, finally really appreciating that life isn’t always a straight line. People go through their own ups and downs, victories and hardships. To really understand what motivates or depresses people beyond a textbook can only really be understood through living your own life, I think. And, given ours is such a people business, being able to have a little insight into why, say, someone’s unhappy at work, is very important.
When people start out in planning, I think they are prone to think a bit like academics; tending to see things in a very binary way, based more on intellectual rather than personal understanding. The older you get, the more you see people as fully fleshed out human beings with experiences distinct from your own. You learn to balance the personal with the academic. You are, after all, the product of your experiences – intellectual or otherwise. That’s my hard won personal belief.
When is balance more important than momentum? And vice-versa?
Professionally, having worked at agencies that have gone bust and agencies that won agency of the year, I found the only difference with their success (or failure) was momentum. Agencies have winning spirals and they have death spirals. The momentum trick is looking at the market and try to understand if an agency’s in a ‘boom cycle’ or not. Agency people move about; sometimes dream teams stop or start working together. All that contributes to momentum and success. Put it this way: if a lot of people you rate go to a place, you should consider it too!
Personally, balance is more important. When I was in my early to mid-20s, I worked every hour. I thought planners were the clever ones, and that I wasn’t that clever, so the way I got on was by out-working them. Conscientiousness totally ruled me.
But in reality, a sense of balance between personal and professional is what makes a good planner as well as a good person – one feeds the other. Don’t get me wrong, there’s never perfect balance, but when I was younger I slightly tried to shut off my personal life from my professional life, and I wasn’t as good at the job as I think I could’ve been. The older I get, the more I combine the two, and it’s made me better (I hope!).
What’s the role of faith and scepticism in your work?
Advertising agencies are very fragile things. We deal with raw and unfinished ideas, based on someone’s good faith and belief. And, very similarly to the power of prayer, you’ll see people at their weakest and most fragile (or divinely inspired). Particularly creatives, but I think this also applies to planners and account people. We think an idea is really good but can’t always empirically prove why, we just believe in it – and, increasingly, there has to be a common belief in the team for the best work to happen.
The best planners are amazing lateral thinkers, but understanding that – how a degree of faith is important – is the hardest thing to unearth when hiring a new planner. The very worst agencies don’t appreciate that quality, and their planners are very bright, glorified researchers as a result.
As for scepticism, I come from the West Midlands, a place known for its plain-speaking, so for me that sense of scepticism has been quite healthy and important. However, scepticism is an interesting weapon only if you know when to deploy it, and that comes from experience. When you start out, you think you need to have an opinion because that’s what the client is paying for. So young planners tend to use scepticism too liberally, and shit on ideas or points of view that could have merit, because they’re desperate to add value and be useful.
As you get older, you realise scepticism needs to be used more selectively. It has to be handled gently. If you overuse it you can become affected by it (I certainly have been at various times), and a planner that is too sceptical removes the inherent sense of optimism that should make up the other half of the job. It’s a funny thing: if you become too sceptical you bring into question the actual role of planning. And nobody wants a draining, negative force in an agency, which tend to be places full of optimists working toward a common goal.
A big philosophical debate within the discipline is that planners have to be (relatively) objective. How can you be objective when your job is to help sell a piece of work? Bluntly, I don’t think you can be – faith and cynicism override this. You’re never truly objective. To work well in the business, you have to be comfortable with that, and know which battles to fight, and which to let drop. Which to be an ardent cynic about, and which to ‘go with faith’.
For example, if you believe that a piece of work, at that particular time, is the best way of solving a problem – help sell it! If you don’t, voice an objection, but don’t shit all over the team’s work. You’re there to make the work work, not disagree with the pantone reference on a particular key visual. Save the cynicism for when the strategic approach is being set.
I think a lot of planners run into trouble here. In planning, there’s a desire to prove a point and add value, but sometimes planners go rogue, become full time sceptics about the work (as opposed to shaping the strategy), and that’s dangerous for how they’re perceived, both internally and externally.
Advertising is obsessed with the truth. Is there just ‘one truth’?
Think about any planning presentation. It’s always a rearview mirror. Always. Anything we come up with is only ever educated guessing stitched together, and arguably any truth from the past, no matter how empirically rigorous it is, is just something that hasn’t been disproved by further fact. So when you look at something like trends, they’re never 100% wrong in one direction, they’re perfectly imperfect. As a result, we need to recognise (and be comfortable) that there are many truths we could lead with.
Seniority helps with this, because it’s a shorthand for what you’ve seen before. There are certain answers people arrive at that you’ve seen in a piece of work from 1973 or the 1920s. They may be historically true, but the key ‘truth’ question has to be: how does the information you’ve found and understanding you bring with you with help resolve the tension or solve a particular problem?
The problem you’re facing is both timeless and brand new, so the truth you come up with should always be a response to that. Knowing that, and being comfortable with that, means something is true at a particular time, but not all the time.
How do you live in the present when your job is to figure out the future?
My Dad worked in an advertising agency, and towards the end of his career he was comfortable with the idea of knowing ‘everything’ he needed to know about his job – essentially, how to anticipate issues or opportunities in and outside the agency, as opposed to knowing a new thing called Facebook just before he retired. For the latter, he had a broader team who could help.
That little anecdote illustrates a key challenge. As you become more senior, how do you keep yourself fresh and relevant when there is so much you should be aware of? The conversations you have at 33 are different from the ones you had at 23.
My former boss always said it’s all about being interesting rather than being right. I agree. Knowing how to distinguish the signal before the noise, or appreciating how something might influence the future, versus the short term trend. When it’s right to dig into something yourself, versus being aware of it. By the way, at the moment, I’m reading a book called Hit Makers and it’s about how things become popular. It gives a sense of critical faculty about what’s interesting or what might influence my job in the next few years. (Every planner should read it!)
It’s so important to have a team around to help you. Know what you don’t know. And don’t be precious. Know when you have the time to look into something, and when the team can help you out (or lead on something you don’t know half as much about).
There’s a danger that when you reach your 40s you become the ‘dad dancing at the disco’. Even if something you’re researching or unpicking isn’t what you’d be interested in, professionally you still have to go with it. As you get older, it’s also quite freeing to realise “I don’t know this, and that’s ok”. Ask!
Being a little older, in my experience, has meant I don’t have the same level of anxiety that I might have had when I was younger. It’s ok that I don’t know the latest Snapchat update intimately. Someone in my team does, and can help me understand. If you work on a particular business or categories, obviously you have to know and understand them. But the reality is I am a 34-year-old man living in South East London, not a mother of three in Wigan.
My job is to get as close to understanding without truly knowing. You will only ever have an outsider’s perspective to something, so we shouldn’t be afraid to let experts tell you about the things we don’t know. The idea that the planner has to be the clever one and know everything is such bullshit. You’ve got to be comfortable with not knowing things and asking others.
What advice would you give to young strategists? What advice should they ignore?
Understand the basics. Every planner starting in this business has to learn how to do basic brand planning, to understand how to reduce a problem to its bare essentials, and provide a bridge to how it might be solved (but, critically, not produce the whole thing!). Even in 2018, the easiest way to do that is being at a bigger place that is advertising-led, as that gives you a bit more time to learn those skills and tends to have a bigger department to teach you. An agency of 50 people often doesn’t have time or money to train you.
Absorb from different disciplines. Do go for coffees with different people from the office. At the start of my career, I wrote a well-read blog that led me to conversations with very senior people, and that meant I have had a wide variety of mentors to help me at different stages of my career, to understand what I might benefit from learning or doing next.
Overall, the core craft of planning is being comfortable with ideas, and the best way to be comfortable with ideas is working within brand planning to begin with. If you come at it only from a channel perspective, no matter how good you get at it, you only ever see parts of the problem.
From personal experience, I’d be looking to ignore the popularity contest of Twitter. Use it, but be aware it’s only one facet of the job. There are a lot of charlatans out there who don’t know what strategy is, who got to where they are by being political or ‘internet famous’. Social media is only ever a perspective that people want you to see. That last point took me a while to realise, but social media fame is not the same as being good at your job. The best planners I’ve ever worked with don’t really blog or tweet that much.
Finally, I’d look to work with planners who are grounded in working with ideas and use their thinking to complement your own. Craig Mawdsley always described a planner’s job as being a creative midwife. We we make everything feel seamless, because the ideas are crafted in such a way that it just seems common-sensical. That only happens by exchanging differing points of view to craft a compelling story. At its best, that’s the job. Making radical creativity into something seemingly self-evident.
How are you mad?
When I started out, I was told every planner was a bit cracked. I think that LSU summed it up well with their positioning as ‘the home of gifted oddballs’. As time passes, I think I agree – every planner is a bit odd. If you look at me, my clothing and makes me seem quite straightforward; the sort of person who’s a middle of the road, indie appreciating white boy. Certainly not a Nathan Barley wannabe who only listens to Swedish House music, wears Supreme and only uses the latest DTC brands.
But dig a little deeper, and I’m someone who loves the works of David Lynch, will happily hang out on Reddit and gets off on dark humour – the darker the better. That’s my schtick, I think: getting clients comfortable with how I appear and using the dissonance between the way I look and the way I think.