#10 An Hour of Advertising with… Will Humphrey

I get lost on the way to interview Will Humphrey. Aiming to meet near his office in Westfield Shepherd’s Bush, I get misled by the shopping centre’s awful interactive maps and end up wandering the shop floors (and accompanying car parks) for a good 15 minutes.

I feel pretty embarrassed. But Will spares my blushes by confirming that the centre’s overall customer experience leaves a lot to be desired.

And this is rather affirming. Because Will is one of the industry’s sharpest minds when it comes to helping brands with their own user experience and strategic thinking.

Just look at who he’s done it for. O2. Budweiser. NatWest. Land Rover. And consider the names of the places he’s worked. M&C Saatchi. Anomaly. Edelman. Lowe.

Will is now Strategy Director at Digitas UK, leading strategy for Samsung. Many also know him as the co-founder of AdGrads, a popular graduate blog aimed at encouraging young people to join the advertising and communications sphere.

Will is a huge advocate in mentoring junior talent (following AdGrads he worked with the IPA on improving how we as an industry do it), and we talk at length about this in our chat. We also cover how planning departments have changed, cultures that make or break an agency and what other industry blogs you need to be reading.

We’ll get to that and a whole lot more, after the usual first question…

Part one: Facing up to agency life, the changing nature of the planning department and the rise of advertising degrees…

Do you remember the first time in your career that you really screwed up?

Yeah, I do. I was very lucky — I graduated in 2005 and by hook or crook, in 2006, I got into the Saatchi & Saatchi summer scholarship as an account man. I come from an advertising family — my father ran an agency in the West Midlands — and because of that I’d grown up thinking that account handlers were very involved with the strategic decisions from the start. And then I got to Saatchis and realised that actually, when you’re a junior account man, your job involves an awful lot of admin and an awful lot of sorting things out.

It was a bit of a rude awakening for me, because I was a snot-nosed English graduate who thought that his opinions were (for some reason) worth listening to. So to go from that idealised view to suddenly be faced with needing to bind an awful lot of documents at midnight for a random client…well, that wasn’t what I’d imagined. I remember still struggling with the binding machine in the wee small hours, having what was close to a nervous breakdown. Even to remember it now, it still feels raw.

I’ve had a lot of answers to that question so far and none have involved a binding machine mishap…

That was only the first of many account management fuck ups. I was a very bad account man. In fact, not long after the binding episode, I remember being asked to do a competitor review for Pampers. I was sent to Clapham and told to bring some product samples back. I didn’t know London, so I got very lost along the way, and then when I got there I proceeded to buy every possible related product. I returned on the tube looking like a 21 year-old with some kind of weird fetish, wielding every single discernible type of nappy, not realising that I could just expense a cab. I was just completely naïve and out of my depth.

So you quickly realised that account handling wasn’t for you!?

Yes, it took less than those six weeks! Luckily, as a planner — which is definitely the job I’m more suited to! — there haven’t been any catastrophic, truly mortifying fuck ups.

There was one occasion though where I met someone who wanted to get into the industry and thought the world owed them a living. I used to regularly meet people who wanted advice because of AdGrads. By and large they were wonderful experiences. The people were lovely; interested and enthusiastic. I was a couple of years in as a planner and I could talk to them a bit cogently about how I’d got in, how it was difficult, but persistence paid off etc. They were great.

The only time it really backfired was when you met someone who wasn’t particularly grateful. I remember meeting one person who I’d bought breakfast for, talked to them in depth about advertising, and they fundamentally weren’t at all grateful. And I reacted quite badly. It still haunts me to this day that I was less than cordial to this person and may have even put them off a career in the business. It taught me quite an important lesson that it never hurts to be nice in this industry. Even if someone is a complete arse — and this person was acting like a total arse — remember that anyone can be having a bad day. Who are you to try and cut someone down to size?

As you say, you knew about the industry and account management before you joined the industry, but what did you know about planning before you took on a role doing it?

Planning was a funny one for me because — bearing in mind I got into planning in 2007 — as a discipline it didn’t really exist in regional agencies much before then. My father’s agency in Cheltenham/Gloucester wouldn’t really have ‘planners’. It was only through Russell Davies’ blog that I was dimly aware of the role.

Of course, planning has since mushroomed, and you could say that there’s a planner for every discipline these days. But I suppose when I came into it, account handling was then a lot more strategic and strategy was less prominent. Since then, one of the things I bemoan the most is the loss of the more strategic account handlers. They still very much exist, but it’s become increasingly challenging, given the rampant growth in strategic specialisms.

Thinking about getting into the industry — how has that process changed over the past ten years? It’s no longer really ‘you start in the post room and move on up’ is it?

I was lucky in many ways — I grew up in an advertising household and was aware of the industry. And I think when I started, I was told that the hardest thing about this business is ‘getting in’. Once you’re in, you can move around, forge a career, and that’s all well and good. The problem comes when people don’t have, frankly, the more privileged upbringing like the one I had.

Even with that, it was still very hard to get in. Especially as a planner. But on the other hand, now it’s never been easier to merchandise yourself, so people know a little about who you are before you apply. Of course there’s more noise around than when I was doing it. I was probably one of five grads who had a blogspot account, which allowed me to meet a lot of quite senior people quite quickly, which was very fortunate.

How does that affect who you hire?

I suppose the difference now is that more and more degrees have become more productised — you do them less for learning and more with the aim of getting a job. I took an English degree with the view of being able to learn and get in to all sorts of careers. Now advertising degrees are more prevalent for people who want to get into advertising, there are business marketing degrees etc.

This has meant the majority of junior / graduate CVs I certainly see now are made up of people with advertising degrees. I’m not bemoaning it, but I do think it’s a bit of a shame that a love of learning and the serendipitous connections between things has been slightly lost. I understand it — tuition fees mean the need to get in and be earning from the start. This, by its very nature, makes people more hard-nosed. Which goes back to your ‘post room’ point. The 80s and 90s model of hiring tortured souls and misfits has become harder to justify. It’s harder than when I got in 10–12 years ago.

Part two: Tacking the industry’s London-centricity, a call for agencies to be less opportunist and what you learn working across disciplines…

Previously you’ve talked quite passionately about the head start some get simply by being from the South-East. Is it something that really concerns you?

Advertising is very much a career where if you are from around a big city, it’s easier to get in. You don’t have to, as I did, work at home to get money to be able to come to London, where you then have to stay in a hostel to get through your first job in the industry. That isn’t a ‘poor me’ thing, it’s more acknowledging what is still a huge barrier. I don’t think I could afford to get into the industry now in the way I did in 2005/6.

It’s worrying. Advertising is increasingly becoming a hobby for rich people’s children. I complain about that a lot on Twitter, and I stand by it. There are more and more people who aren’t sure what they want to do — but have connections that can get into advertising — and get into the industry because they know someone who works in it and can live at home. As a result, it sort of hollows out the drive and determination in the business that makes advertising a brilliant place to work in. I think there are still interesting people in the industry, but I think the business as a whole — and I’ve talked to the IPA and APG about this — needs to find a balance; where they can keep a number of brilliant misfits coming in as well as understanding that intelligence doesn’t start or stop with a Marketing or Business qualification. However, to make sure all those people from all over the country get in, there needs to be structural change.

Is anyone doing it right?

I think it’s quite damning that the best agency I’ve seen do this is Golin, a PR firm. They’ve hired out rental accommodation and as part of their graduate scheme, they basically put you up. For most other agencies, not enough thought has gone into things like that.

If advertising wants to move out of its bubble (a bubble which is increasingly acknowledged by the industry), a bubble where your frame of reference stops at zones 3–4 — or a leafy part of Surrey — being aware of those socio-economic factors and doing more to respond to the real issue/s would be hugely beneficial.

So how can agencies react and change? What are the barriers in the way?

All of that criticism aside, I do think we have to recognise that advertising agencies aren’t Deloitte. There aren’t teams of HR people able to construct these sorts of things. Typically, there are two people in the HR department — two people with a limited capacity. So point one is being mindful that it’s a bit apples and oranges and for all the mud that gets slung at agencies; changes have to come from a holding company level down rather than the resources of the agencies themselves.

However, that’s not to excuse agencies completely. I’ve worked for an agency who, even by agency standards, was hugely ‘male, pale and stale’. And, even speaking as someone who sounds like he’s swallowed a dictionary, I think that place was quite guilty of ‘diversity washing’. It convinced itself that the way it could solve the whole issue was creating a job title.

Point two is about avoiding being ‘cart before the horse’, where the management doesn’t think enough about the factors that causes the workforce to be diverse. It’s not about putting a sticking plaster on. It’s not a matter of badging. It’s about acknowledging that bias exists and doing something about it.

Is that because agencies are too short-term focused?

I’d say so. I’ve been guilty in the past of hiring ‘people like me’, and it’s about realising that that that’s a symptom, it’s not the disease itself. The disease is the lack of desire to look beyond the University Milkround for hiring, or the need to hire people who will just get on and do the job — rather than those who may require a little bit more time and effort to shape and help.

It’s partly because of thinning of margins, and partly because the industry is a lot more ‘opportunist’ than it was due to the sheer breadth of work we’re asked to do now, even versus five years ago. “We need someone to plug a gap here” or “We need a social media intern to do x”.

I’ve seen people brought in, not taught very much and then really overworked because they filled a need. And after witnessing a few examples of this, it’s very easy to take a cynical view. I think the most important thing is that at the higher level you look beyond the norm in terms of who you bring in and don’t just ‘badge’, which some agencies are still guilty of.

We talk about culture being able to define and change a lot of these things. You’ve had a career working at some of the most recognised agencies in the business. Have there been genuinely different cultures between them as you’ve walked through?

Oh yes! One thing that is still very true is which discipline ultimately holds sway over a business. People will say ‘we’re not this and we’re not that’. But there are some agencies that do really have an account management culture, where the most important thing is ensuring that the account management skill of knowing what a client wants before they’ve even said it is paramount. Other places I’ve worked have been purely in service to what the end creative product is.

I think the greatest thing I’ve realised by working in a variety of different ‘flavours’ of agencies is understanding that the egos and behaviours tend to be based upon what you are creating. So I’ve worked at big, traditional agencies where it’s still very much about the piece of film at the end, and the size of ego relative to those in your hard-working CRM agency has been quite apparent.

So which did you prefer?

Well…it’s a curse and a blessing. Without ego, would the work be as good? Would the sell be as good? Would the research be as interesting? Possibly not. At the same time, I did find it very refreshing to go to work at CRM-led shops after being at lots of big name places, and I realised that those agencies contained lots of very talented people who were perhaps more grounded (and perhaps a little more honest) about the work they did — able to place it in greater context. Don’t get me wrong — the flip side of that is that some of the work or the creative sell wasn’t perhaps as interesting or as sexy as it could have been. Again, it really depends on the place you land in, and what the culture’s driven by.

Part three: The traits that makes or breaks an agency, the challenges in setting up new departments and taking the time to reflect on ideas…

Away from the actual type of work itself, how else have the agencies you’ve been at differed across disciplines?

I think it’s interesting to see which cultures hold sway in which flavour of agency. For example, during my time in PR, we had access to C-suite decision makers who you’d never in a million years get access to in advertising. But at the same time, we’d also be pissing about with brainstorms designed to please a very junior PR manager — throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

I think the key thing for me is how you fuse the best elements of each discipline to come up with more interesting thinking and creative. In PR for instance, if your Account Handler is good, they’ll also be a good creative, good at strategy and very good at knowing what a client wants. The best tend to be something of a one-man-band. Whereas at an ad agency you’re more likely get specialists who are brilliant at their specific discipline. And at a CRM agency you get people who’re brilliant at thinking within customer journeys and doesn’t just write a manifesto and think ‘job done’. Every discipline has something to learn from the other flavour/s of agency.

What are the traits that make or break every agency, regardless of discipline?

The thing for me that I still think holds the most sway is that the agency who seems to be the most successful acknowledges what they are. It’s ok for an agency to be more account handler-led. It’s ok to be more creative-led. You just have to acknowledge which one you are and what you’re buying into.

The worst is when agencies get into a muddle trying to be something different. “We make FSDUs but we want to be R/GA.” Be honest about what you make, what your core competencies are, what your bread and butter is — and the rest flows from there. Agencies get into a death spiral when they chase new things and forget to be in service to the things that made them successful in the first place.

I’m interested then in how you launch a new department — as you did setting up Edelman’s first planning department — within a PR agency…

So I’m going to caveat this all by saying I was way too young and inexperienced when I did it! I didn’t know any better, honest! And looking back on it now, I realise just how very young I was — I was 25 at the time — and I have to acknowledge my arrogance. Edelman is one of the largest PR agencies in the world. It is very, very good at what it does.

I was brought in to try and inject a bit more strategic rigour into how the agency came up with ideas and structured pitch responses. And I suppose the biggest watchout when setting up a new department is to understand what your colleagues think about what it is you do.

Just before I started at the agency I went to its Christmas party and I remember being introduced as ‘our new Head of Planning’. And a person who was already there and quite high up in a different team said to me “Planning, brilliant! We need a hand making sure that Manchester’s roundabout system is sorted’. He genuinely thought I was a town planner by trade. Later, I’d meet others who claimed they did strategic thinking; what they knew as strategy is what I guess you could describe as ‘statistics plus’. It was coming up with a statistic to validate a particular opinion. Not everyone behaved like that, or believed that, but I did realise that a central challenge was to communicate what I did and why that was useful.

So it wasn’t an easy inauguration?

When I first went in, I made a lot of wrong moves. I came in believing that my views were absolute; I was being employed to improve the thinking, so I knew best…how impossibly arrogant must that have seemed! Never mind just how wrongheaded it was — Edelman had been named Agency of the Year for something like four of the previous five years, and I was a comparative know-nothing.

So, I eventually learnt to sit quietly, to take stock and to listen to what was being said. To think through things a little bit more before stamping my size 11s all over it. It might be a horrible American cliché, but I realised the importance of bringing people on a journey with you.

Regardless of the discipline I’ve worked in post Edelman, I learnt that being able to rally support by making people feel like they’ve been involved has been all-important. It sounds bloody obvious, but everyone needs to feel like they’ve been listened to. They need to understand your intentions, and they have to want to go where you’re going.

You can ride into town like a maverick cowboy, shoot a few bullets that may hit and may initially help win a few pitches, but in the long-term that approach is a recipe for disaster.

You spend a lot of time reflecting on actions and ideas — how easy is it to actually get perspective in this industry?

Realising that what you do is only a tiny pimple within the glorious microcosm of society is so important. You can’t just surround yourself with advertising and comms people. Those people are brilliant — some of my best friends are advertising folk who I’ve met along the way — but understanding that there is more to life than just advertising is key.

Of course, to be great you still have to live and breathe it. And of course you’ve got to be passionate. That’s what drives you forward. It’s a fantastic, interesting and varied career. But it’s a tiny thing in the scheme of a much bigger world. Stepping out of the business — whether that’s through a pastime, through friends outside the industry, whatever — is critical.

What works for you?

It’s very hard to see the wood from the trees when you get into the business at 22 and you go from being swallowed up by academia to being swallowed up by agency life. So having something that has absolutely nothing to do with the industry helps. I play golf, and though that probably makes me seem old before my time, it’s a great place to escape, relax and think. I’m also trying to learn how to sing, which is something I do for fun; I’m not very good, but it takes me out of myself for an hour or two a week.

I’d also urge anyone struggling with this in the industry to read David Foster Wallace’s ‘This is Water’. I’m not going to spoil the punchline to it now, but it’s from a speech he gave at a Kenyon University in about 2005, where basically he talks about putting things in broader perspective. It helped crystallise everything for me.

Part four: Embracing the fun of advertising, creating an environment for lateral thinking and the blogs you need to read…

You’re of course right that advertising is still a fantastic career to get into, and partly that’s because we’re meant to be the ‘fun’ part of a client’s day. Is that still true?

It’s not even just about fun — because one person’s fun is another person’s horrendous team building exercise — it’s a sense of whimsy and light-heartedness. I think that’s one of our industry’s biggest weapons. I worry that it is being lost (or at best, obscured), mainly because of the commercial pressures on CMOs and agencies.

Following on from that — the one thing I think the business has largely lost since I started is the ability to take the afternoon off — to go to a retailer to do some ad-hoc research or to have a drink with your client. You almost have to always be ‘seen to be working’ now; your time has to be accounted for, somehow. I remember reading something very clever once about the importance of long lunches. Long lunches are brilliant because they bring the client’s defences down, and you actually get to learn about what they might have really liked and hated. They go beyond the corporate lines you might get in some chemistry meeting.

Why do you think that sense of whimsy is being lost?

Well, I guess it’s partly to do with the productisation of strategy. It’s increasingly ‘two hours of planning to write this brief or do this thing’, which then manifests itself in the way you talk to clients or brief in colleagues. There have to be pockets of time which are self-indulgent, because that’s where the value comes in. The value of what we create is forged by serendipity — it’s not just fun; whimsy and exploration breeds lateral connections between things that you don’t get simply by reading Byron Sharp, Dave Trott or David Ogilvy.

Knowing a little bit about a lot of things, and applying that creatively, is the greatest thing about our business. It’s not about knowing a lot about advertising. And it’s not just about knowing a lot about a product. Being closed off to broader things and stimulus means you may as well just in-house everything, because it becomes a race to the (efficient and well optimised) bottom.

With all this in mind, how do you build a team around you to create an environment for lateral thinking?

I suppose the most important characteristic of any planner, at any level, is conscientiousness. It’s certainly the quality I look for the most. I know it might sound really trite, but if someone is not conscientious — they’ve come to a brilliant thought but they’ve not really challenged themselves or thought about other repercussions — then I’m less likely to be interested in them.

I don’t want fully-formed thinkers, I want someone who’s had an element of self-doubt, who’s kicked the tyres of their thinking and who has gone above and beyond to push themselves.

In what way?

Well, that could be answering a traditional brief in a non-traditional way, or having an online presence that talks about things they’re interested in and demonstrates how they solve problems. They don’t just say ‘I’ve worked at this sexy agency, here I am’. They’ve still got that fire. For planners, if you’re just in it for the money and your enthusiasm has gone, you can tell. You can tell quickly when a planner is ‘phoning it in’. The conscientiousness and enthusiasm has to be there.

For those trying to get into the business, I think a means of showing how you think about problems (via Slideshare presentations, or a blog) is helpful. I’m looking for how you think and problem solve — show me!

You obviously write a lot of blogs yourself — who do you learn from?

Whilst I know we spend a lot of time professionally talking about the nasty parts of social media, the nice thing about its rise is that you’re able to very quickly figure out whose thinking is fascinating. David Carr, for instance, I love. We have very different minds — he thinks about the world in a very visual way, whereas I’m an English graduate who’s very much a writer in terms of how I process things. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him here at Digitas.

More generally, I’m very lucky to have Richard Huntington as a mentor. He thinks about problems in some of the most interesting ways I’ve ever found. I love people like Heidi Hackemer, who have gone out there and done their own thing, but in a very different way to the rest. And of course there’s Gareth Kay, who I think is a very inspiring man in the way he thinks, and the way he’s approached his career.

Do you still get time to read? What other specific blogs do you read?

Well, I read a lot less ‘advertising chat’ than I used to. That’s partly because of being a parent — and partly because I’m trying to read more broadly — there’s more chance of lateral thinking seeping into the limited time I have. I do read certain blogs religiously — I think Northern Planner is still one of the best accounts of a working planner going, I still read Rob Campbell and anything that Richard H writes. Of the new breed of planning newsletters, I think Rob Estreitinho’s Salmon Theory is a really interesting and a different take on things. I write a bit less on my own blog than I’d like to, but I still find it helpful to take the time to write.

And then more broadly there’s lots of things that aren’t advertising that I’d recommend to any planner — Aeon (the Australian philosophy newsletter) and Quartz I read daily. Though I also acknowledge we are suffering a bit from newsletter-itis. Not every planner needs a newsletter or blog, it’s not proof of being interesting. But if you have a passion for it, it helps you think and you want to share some thoughts, then you should.

Illustrations by Guy Sexty