#4 An Hour of Advertising with… David Wilding

If you’re part of the crowd who thinks that planners are all moody, introverted thinkers who are at their happiest when tucked away in the corner reading an obscure textbook, you’ve not met David Wilding.

David is one of the industry’s very best media strategists. He spent fifteen years creating award-winning work at Zenith, MindShare and PHD, three of the UK’s most decorated media agencies. And he’s now Head of Planning at one of the most interesting media companies in the world.

That journey and his current role was partly why I wanted to speak to him for An Hour of Advertising. But it was also partly because of his infectious enthusiasm and positivity. He’s witty and engaging on Twitter, in Campaign articles…and even in that thing called real life itself.

Oh, and I partly wanted to speak to him because I wanted the inside track on Blankety Blank.

Blankety Blank? Isn’t that the cheesy TV show from the 80s? The very same. Only this time it’s now on Twitter. And David is the ‘host’.

It’s good, clean, silly fun, and it hooks in half of Soho when it’s played (the game used to take place every Friday, until David had to temper down the regularity due to the overwhelming number of players and the fact it was causing most of adland to do even less work on a hungover Friday morning).

For those who have played and loved it, I’ve tried to steal the secrets of the game in this interview. For those who haven’t, I urge you all to follow the #BlanketyBlank hashtag for when David brings it back for the ‘regular one-offs’.

But more importantly, I urge you all to read the interview for proper, relatable advice on making it in the industry. David talks about learning from the mistakes he made early on in his career, he gives advice on how to get the best out of Twitter (both personally and in a work capacity) and he has some pretty important things to say on how and where agencies can really add value in today’s landscape. Enjoy.

Part one: Favourite campaigns, early life lessons and the first big fuck up…

Let’s take a look back over your career and start with a favourite question: do you remember the first time you really fucked up?

I remember one instance — I think it was a Columbia Tri-Star campaign — where they wanted us to plan pages and I’d planned it all in at half-page rates because that’s what they normally did. They approved it and I quickly realised for the budget they wanted full-page. I remember speaking to my manager at the time thinking full well I was just going to be fired instantly. I was devastated. Instead she said to me ‘OK, so firstly you know you’re never going to do that again, and secondly, we are going to spend the rest of this afternoon buying like we’ve never bought before.’

So early life lesson then — be up front early on and work out how from there to solve the problem?

Exactly. She was great about it and you could be sure I’d never do it again. You learn from your mistakes more than your successes. She was pulling in favours left, right and centre and it was incredibly impressive.

What was the first campaign you worked on?

It was actually for Columbia Tri-Star films, and I booked a 3-column mono ad in the News of the World for the film ‘As good as it gets’. I’d been at Zenith about 2 months and I was trusted to buy this campaign. I’d been promised by the rep that I was getting front half, right-hand page etc, and I still remember going out that Sunday morning really early to get hold of an early edition to check.

And what about some of your favourite campaigns? Perhaps more pertinently, what makes a fun brand to work on?

For me they’re the ones where you enjoy the people and enjoy the work. Probably my favourites are the obvious ones. A client like Nike is fascinating because it’s football, it’s a great brand, and you’re constantly aware of the illustrious history. You don’t want to fail on Nike. I loved working on ITV when I was at Mindshare too, because it’s the heart of popular culture.

Launching stuff is lots of fun. With Warner Bros, when I was at PHD, it was great because you were working on something that you knew everyone was going to be talking about. And finally, Sainsbury’s was great. It’s a brand with a fascinating history, lots of really nice people and again your audience is ‘the UK’. The insights that it gives you about what real people were thinking about the world and what matters to them was always really useful. That’s not to say they didn’t want to do innovative work, but it always had to have a real truth to it.

What about the brands or campaigns you wished you’d worked on?

I’m going to pick the ‘Fire Kills’ campaign, which was a government ad. I don’t think they do it anymore, but it was a piece of work that ran every six months and encouraged people to check their smoke alarm. They ran it when the clocks changed, which was a beautiful insight. Of course, you’re supposed to check your smoke alarm is working every week, but they know people don’t. So they realised that people tend to have a ladder out when they’re changing the clocks, so we’ll advertise then to encourage people to check their smoke alarms too. In advertising and media terms it feels like nothing, but it does the job really well.

Part Two: The changing nature of Twitter, advice for brands and the importance of culture

Let’s fast-forward to 2014 and you’re appointed as the first planning director of Twitter. Firstly, what does being the planning director of Twitter mean?

Ha, I get this question a lot! Twitter were essentially looking for someone who could talk to clients at an earlier stage about their broad objectives and media strategies. I was a media planner at PHD and loved that role — but I knew I wanted to work here, I was completely and utterly obsessed with the product and knew I got on with the people. So the role has evolved into what it is, which is talking to brands about Twitter, making sure that they’re seeing today’s Twitter, rather than the Twitter that they think they might know.

We’re 13 years old now, but there’s still some misperceptions around Twitter, so we need to make sure it’s perceived in the right light. Then it’s about seeing what the brands themselves are up to — a good meeting is one where we talk about Twitter for 10 minutes and the client for 50. Helping them work out what they’re seeking to do. It actually means my role is as similar as it possibly can be to my previous one — where you’re asking questions and moving brands forward.

So what is the power of Twitter and how has that changed even in the five years you’ve been at the company?

The real benefit for us is that we’ve clarified and simplified what Twitter is for brands. Although we get put in with other social media brands, we’re less ‘look at me’ and more ‘look at this’. Twitter is about what’s happening — and that can give people really clear direction of how they can use it.

It’s for people who want to be informed. The place where when people in the pub say ‘have you seen this?’ it’s the Twitter user who’s saying ‘yes I have’. That’s quite an intangible thing, but making that tangible to clients is a big part of the job.

What’s the other key pieces of advice you give for brands starting to build — or rebuild — their Twitter strategy?

There was a tweet about 3 or 4 years ago from Phil Adams where he talked about the difference between strategy and tactics, and it really struck a chord with me. In general, if you can ultimately fill in the gaps in the sentence ‘how can we…so that…’ then you’re in a really good place. Applying that to brands on Twitter is really useful. It doesn’t matter if you’re a brand that people associate with Twitter or a brand that’s never used it before, as long as you can start with an answer to the question ‘what are you trying to do and why are you even doing that?’ then you’re on the right lines. Then it’s down to execution and format.

Is it still the case that people struggle to look beyond the usual ‘Twitter tactics’?

There’s sometimes the issue that people still think Twitter is where you do the tactical thing — that it’s about agencies having war rooms and pizza at live events whilst looking for the next opportunity for when Suarez bites someone or the lights go out at the Super Bowl. But there’s so much more that Twitter can offer brands than that. On a broad level Twitter helps brands to launch something new or connect with what’s happening.

Twitter is obviously a place known for its culture. How do you go about building a good culture?

I don’t think there’s a magic formula for that. In the UK we have a very strong culture and Bruce (Daisley, Twitter’s VP EMEA) is very much in to work culture and has literally written a book on it. But mainly it just all comes down to the people. I loved working at PHD and I loved working at Mindshare before. And with Twitter it’s the same. You want a place where you look at the people and you ask: ‘are they any good at what they do?’ and ‘do you actually like spending time with them?’ With all those places I mentioned you can look around the room and go ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.

Part three: Twitter habits, celebrity tweeters and how to really win at Blankety Blank

What’s it like then working for a company whose primary product you use at weekends and in your personal life?

Personally I’ve not changed my Twitter habits at all. But when I tell you I was obsessed with Twitter before I joined anyway I’m not lying. I spend 3 hours per day on a train and I’d use Twitter during that time. I’d use it at home and in the office. I always valued being on it. Weekends-wise, it’s muscle memory to an extent. It may be more Wolves-heavy at the weekends, but I don’t necessarily use it any differently now from when I did before joining the company.

Who’s the person not on Twitter who you wish was?

Personally, (Wolves legend) Steve Bull, but it’s probably not the best answer for everyone! Maybe I’d say Gareth Southgate — he used to be very active on Twitter but hasn’t used it for a while and I’d love him to see him back on it. The sheer goodwill that he’s generated is great.

And who should we all be following on Twitter?

We’ve actually got a whole book of them. I really like Nick Walker, who tweets a lot of funny stuff. Greg Jenner tweets endlessly. Sophie Gadd, who works at Lego, is brilliant too. Mollie Goodfellow is a must follow too.

What advice would you give for someone looking to get more out of Twitter on a personal level?

First of all don’t think that there’s a right and wrong way to use Twitter. Use it in a way that works for you. Follow your interests and your passions — it’s amazing the things that you can connect with people around on Twitter. Use the “explore” function (the magnifying glass icon) as this is a really good way to catch up with what’s happening really quickly. Don’t be shy to join in conversations if you’ve got something positive to add. Most importantly I think I’d advise people to follow radiators not drains. There are so many brilliant radiators on Twitter and following them can open up a real treasure trove of wonderful stuff. But at the same time don’t hesitate to unfollow, mute and block the drains. There are loads of tools to help you to do all of this.

Do friends and family ask you for advice on how to use Twitter better?

I get a lot of people who tell me that actually they’re on Twitter all the time but don’t often tweet, and they almost feel bad about it. But there’s no right or wrong way to do Twitter, you just have to find a way that works for you.

What I love about Twitter is that you can talk about serious stuff, you can talk about funny stuff, you can talk about passions and interests and share good stuff. Twitter shows that of course you can be in to Britney Spears, Supply Chain Management and Grimsby Town! You can link those things together and show more to your personality.

And that can go on to actually building careers…

Yeah, and it’s great when you meet these people who are good on Twitter and it’s had a positive impact on their lives. We had Nick Harvey come in last year, we had TechnicallyRon in to talk about his book and mental health, and they’re all completely overwhelmed by how much Twitter has helped them in their lives and their careers.

In fact, every Friday afternoon we have an internal end the week meeting called Tea Time, and we always include an example of someone using Twitter for good. And the stories are amazing. I do genuinely think that the vast majority of people are decent minded folk, and part of our role is to make sure people are aware of all of that stuff. It’s frustrating that Twitter is still synonymous with certain people, when really there’s a whole fuller, rounder story to tell and Twitter mostly attracts remarkable, interesting and knowledgeable people.

How has Twitter changed our relationships with ‘celebrity’?

That opportunity (that Twitter gives) to connect with people you wouldn’t be able to otherwise is still very important. We talk about how back in the day you used to try and get a celebrity’s autograph — the modern version of that is trying to get a retweet. You see the reaction of fans when they get a retweet — it’s pure joy. And so it’s a really unique platform in that respect.

Who’s the most favourite ‘Twitter autograph’ you’ve secured?

I’ve had a reply from Alastair Campbell. I’ve had Carol Decker retweeting a ‘Blankety Blank’ top answer. The Reverend Richard Coles was also a Blankety Blank answer, so he replied to that. For me, the more ‘C-List’ the better.

I’m glad we’ve finally got to Blankety Blank — I think the most important question I have in this whole interview is to glean top tactics from you…

Well obviously you have to have a song lyric in there. Even I’ve realised now that one of those tends to be the top answer! But the real advice is just don’t overthink it. Because I don’t. The only bit I think about at the start is whether there’s a word that can have loads of different answers, because it’d be boring where there are only really 3 answers that work. But it genuinely is simply me coming up with a word and applying the first 3 answers I can think of.

At what point did you realise that your Blankety Blank games had ‘become a thing’?

When we started doing it every week and it started taking up most of the morning. In fact, I did have one person ask me if Blankety Blank was my job! You don’t mean it to — you start it on the commute and by the time you’ve got to work your phone is going off constantly and you’ve got to reveal the answers by lunchtime. After a year we had to say we weren’t doing it anymore, but it still obviously comes back regularly for ‘one-off specials’.

But that’s a great example really of Twitter being fun and stupid. It’s the spirit that first got me into it, seeing interesting and silly conversations by people you both do and don’t know.

Part four: The power of context, how to specialise well, and what it’s really like running a pitch

You’ve talked about how you’ve spent a lot of time working and educating brands, but what about agencies? What do agencies do right and wrong on Twitter?

I think much the same applies in that the better agencies are the ones who are knowledgeable about what today’s Twitter is. And they make sure that’s the Twitter they’re thinking about and what their clients are thinking about as well.

I think we reached ‘peak reach’ a few years ago when everyone was reading Byron Sharp and taking it to mean ‘get as much low-cost reach as possible’. The big fall out from that happened and the better agencies are the ones who understand the wider ramifications.

I’ll bang on about it forever, but the best agencies are the ones who understand that context really does matter. The same ad in two different places is not an ‘impression of one’. You have to bring value as an agency — everyone is given the same numbers, everyone can see what one media channel brings over another, so what value as an agency are you adding? That’s what I’d be asking myself every day if I was still at an agency now.

What else separates the wheat from the chaff in the current agency climate?

I know it sounds obvious, but I’d say you have to just be really good at your core job. When I look back on when I was doing media planning — and this is a reflection on me rather than the agencies I was at — I was quite interested in what was happening in the world, and the future of brands etc. And whilst it’s great to have an opinion on that — and everyone should — the number one thing is that I had to be the best I could be at media planning. Then you add the value.

I can see why agencies look to be active in lots of different areas, but I can also see why that can become confusing for clients. Specialise well. The mistake a lot of agencies, particularly in media, make is associating specialisation with jargon and making what you do difficult to understand. The talent is making what you do easy to understand, and just executing it brilliantly.

Is that because agencies are too concerned with not turning people off rather than turning the right people on?

It’s really hard to shut doors and go ‘we’re not doing that’, but it’s really important. Take out as much as you can and then take even more out. If you’re doing say, media planning, then you should be doing your work on the media plan. If you bring one thing to a meeting, bring the media plan and let that be the thing you talk about. Understand it intrinsically.

I look back on some of the things I did at agencies and I was always focusing on the verbs — create, engage, activate etc — but ultimately all you end up doing with that is taking something that’s quite specific from a client brief and losing the nuance and expertise. Totally take the verbs out and instead get as quickly as possible from A to B. So you say: ‘here’s your brief, so here’s what we need to be thinking about’.

Who does this well?

Lots of people do it well in pockets. I can only really go on my own experience. Just after I joined Twitter we were looking to do some consumer marketing and because we didn’t have a consumer marketing team in the UK at that point I stepped in with a few others to help to find an agency. We spoke to a few and gave them 2-hour slots to share their thoughts. One of the agencies — Lucky Generals — did their whole pitch in 45 minutes. That was brave, wasn’t it? I’d have never done that in my day — if we had a 2-hour pitch, we had 2 hours and 20 minutes of content, and we would just talk quickly. The whole meeting was spent looking at your colleagues encouraging them to speed up.

You could say it’s bravery, you could say it’s confidence, but where does something like that come from?

It comes from having the experience to know what people actually want to listen to. By being audience-focused. That’s why I say that the most successful meeting for us is talking about Twitter 10% of the time and talking about the other person’s challenges 90% of the time. In a pitch meeting, if you end up talking about yourself and your capabilities for most of it, you’re not going to win it. That’s rarely the challenge you’ve been set.

Finally then, for someone who spent so long working agency-side, what was it like being a client for the first time?

It was a one-off for me and we now have a brilliant consumer marketing team who do this for us far better than I could. But I have to admit that as an experience I loved it. I found it really interesting. You realise as a client that what you really want is someone to add a layer to what you’ve already thought about. Not to rewrite the thinking you’ve already done, but to build on it. When that happens agencies add huge value.

Artwork by Guy Sexty