#9 An Hour of Advertising with… Pete Edwards

When I first moved to Engine from Campaign, one of the reasons I was assured by friends that it was a good move was because ‘I’d get to work with Pete Edwards’.

It didn’t take me long to realise why. Pete is one of those planners with a brain the size of a planet. And he has a level of empathy that means he’s able to put that knowledge to good use.

Pete began his media career at BBH’s Media arm, before moving to Starcom in 1995. He spent a decade there in various roles, latterly becoming Managing Director of Starcom MediaVest Group.

In January 2006 he took the plunge and launched his own shop — Edwards Groom Saunders — a comms planning agency that grew quickly and was snapped up by Engine in 2009.

For the next ten years Pete played a key role in building Engine’s integrated offering, taking on a non-executive director role at Fuel (Engine’s data arm) and eventually consolidating all of the group’s media brands to launch Engine Media in 2017.

Not long after his departure from Engine (Pete left earlier this year and now works with other businesses in various Non-Exec and Trustee roles), we sat down to discuss everything from dealing with pressure, to using culture as a safety net, to what you should look for in a partner when launching an agency.

But of course, we start off with the usual first question…what was Pete’s first big career fuck up?

Part one: Going rogue, conquering elaborate job interviews and identifying the industry’s best planner…

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

When I was at BBH, one of the most prestigious clients was Levi Strauss. And I’d been working on it for about 2 years — going from a junior TV buyer to someone who was responsible for a significant chunk of their television media.

At the end of every campaign you’d do a review and you would report to your client how well you spent their money. It’s called a post-campaign analysis these days but then it was simply known as a buying review.

I thought we’d sort of done an OK job, so I wrote the presentation, went to the client, and presented it. I didn’t tell anyone in the agency at all about it — didn’t share it even with my bosses — because I was pretty happy with the results, had a good relationship with the clients and didn’t think anything more was needed of it.

I’d done the meeting, the clients liked it, and to me that was it. And then of course about two weeks later my boss, a chap called Andy Roberts who is now Global Buying Director at MindShare, found out and called me in to his room. And I remember to this day he used the phrase “you’ve gone rogue”. He was absolutely livid.

Because you’d done it all yourself?

Because there’d been no conversation about how best to present the results. I got away with it because the client relationship was so strong, but I suppose the learning was that even though I thought the work was good and the way I’d articulated it as a report was pretty good, irrespective of how good you are and how well you represented yourself, somebody else’s perspective could have given you a completely new take on what you’ve done and, crucially, what you might do next and what you might do differently.

So, whilst I think I’d done a brilliant report on what had happened, I didn’t spend too much time on what we would do well in the future to change and improve, which someone else would have been able to guide me on. It was a career lesson for me — ever since then I’ve never been a fan of buying reviews when it’s all about looking over your shoulder at what’s gone, it’s about looking at things as a springboard as to what you do next. What you’ve done in the past is only of value if it’s the foundation of what you do better in the future.

In a lot of these interviews I’ve done now, BBH has cropped up. Did it feel at the time that your cohort would go on to run agencies around the industry one day?

We were slightly on one side because we were the media bit, but yes, when I was there, we had Gwyn (Jones) and Jim (Carroll), who were my contemporaries on Levi’s. Jim is possibly the best planner I’ve ever worked with. He’s has a brain the size of a black hole pulling in information, but the way that he crystallises his thinking into a spectacularly sharp, progressive thought is a skill I’ve always appreciated. I know it’s M&C’s strapline ‘brutal simplicity of thought’, but Jim summed that up.

Was that intimidating to work with?

No because he’s utterly charming too. He was a very quirky individual — he used to carry around with him a single piece of paper, with all of his tasks on it, and you’ve never seen anything like it. Some of the tasks might be weeks old, and this piece of paper existed for about six months at a time before he was forced into a new one. It was like a mosaic of thinking.

And on the media side, who else were your BBH contemporaries?

People like Kevin Brown, Mark Cramner, Richard Eyre who went on to become ITV Chief Executive…it was full of really good people, and probably because the interview process to get into BBH Media was such an interesting one. It was five interviews, and the final one was with Richard, which was called a ‘fireside chat’. And we didn’t talk about anything to do with media. In mine we talked about a range of random subjects from Cliff Richard to God.

Did it feel like it at the time, that everyone here would go on to do something?

There was certainly an aura about the business. When I went to the first interview, we were on Great Pulteney Street, and it was just ‘sex’ when you walked into the reception. Because they had a bank of Sony TVs, in exposed scaffolding, and it just took your breath away because it was so fucking cool. And the work that they were doing was spectacular. It was lauded and groundbreaking. So I suppose you felt as though the people must be so bloody good too.

But that was my first experience of an ad agency, so I didn’t really know anything else. Working until 9 o’clock every night was standard. You really put the hours in because the respect and the reputation it had built meant you didn’t want to allow it to be anything but reinforced by your next wave of work that was coming out. It was an inherent feeling that you were blessed to be there. It was a cult.

Part two: Dealing with pressure, facilitating ‘luxury players’ and picking the right people to launch an agency with…

Thinking beyond Levis and throughout your career, have you worked on brands that you felt genuine pressure on because of, say, its history or status within the industry?

Pressure is always there. If you’re motivated to do the best you can do, the pressure is always there irrespective of whether it’s a new client or one with a great legacy. We weren’t copywriters or art directors but we were still always trying to be creative in terms of the media distribution of the idea. And that drive to always do something interesting and new did bring its own pressures. Especially if the last campaign was a huge idea, and you’re trying to sell in something new and different.

Is it possible for someone to be very good at coming up with ideas but being rubbish at selling them? And vice versa, can someone who’s brilliant at delivery thrive if their thinking isn’t up to scratch?

It very much depends on how good the team is within which individuals play. You can have brilliant strategic thinkers, as long as the team that accepts the strategic thinking can interpret it in a way that makes it happen in the appropriate way.

I knew one very celebrated planner whose perspective on account planning was that he would go into a room, he would do this and that, he would do it on his own and he would crack it. And he would come out of the room and baton-pass a solution that would be absolutely fabulous and brilliant, and the executional team would then go off and realise it. And he might deign to check interpretation, but he might simply go off and crack the next problem for the next client. As I say, he’s had a very successful career, and I think that as long as you can accommodate that with a team around him, that works. The problem comes when you don’t have the complimentary skills around him to do that.

Those people are what they call the ‘luxury player’ in football.

Exactly. And I don’t have an issue with that as long as they’re plugged in properly.

When you thought about founding an agency, did that therefore affect the people you looked for? The way that they worked?

It’s an interesting one, because when we set up Edwards Groom Saunders, it was myself and two others guys, Will Saunders and Jez Groom, and people on the outside said ‘oh but you three are all exactly the same’. And we were going ‘but we’re so different as people’. I do think it helps if you have very different skills, where as long as you know each other and the personality traits and the foibles of each other, then you can accommodate their differences.

So why do you think the three of you worked so well?

Well because Jez was a very big ‘blue sky thinker’ who would take a challenge or problem and pull it in lots of different directions, but with provocation from others. He was someone who liked to work in conjunction with others instead of as an individualist. Will Saunders was a brilliant suit and a wonderful client man, and then I considered myself to be quite a good strategist who’s able to simplify complex stuff — and I was good at selling and on the commercial side of things.

So even though some thought we were very similar, the reality — and the reason I thought we were successful in our own little way — was because we were actually totally different but very complementary.

I think when you have difficulty is when you have two mercurial ball players who both want to stand in the centre circle — that’s when there isn’t enough space to accommodate. You need the individual skills, but then you need someone who appreciates those skills and can act as the orchestrator to curate and coordinate the team and process.

Do you have to like each other?

No I don’t think you do. I think you have to respect each other. You have to work well together in certain ways and appreciate their value. I’ve worked with some very difficult people who I thought were a pain in the arse and really didn’t like…but after a bit of time working with them, I’d appreciate why they behaved that way. At times I’ve had relationships that were very rough-edged, but even at their most difficult I could see benefits. If you don’t like them but also think they’re shit, then that’s when it’s never going to work, because you’re never going to listen.

You mentioned earlier the industry’s ‘work hard play hard’ culture that you witnessed at the start of your career. Has that changed over time?

Well it’s a bit difficult for me to comment because when you’re in your 20s and early 30s the flexibility you have with your time — i.e. if you’re not married or don’t have any children — it’s a much freer way that you can live your life. Back then I found that my socialising very much revolved around people I knew at work. I got on well with them, enjoyed being with them and held a shared experience with them. If I spoke to university friends about what I was doing it was quite difficult, because a lot of it was quite technical, whereas people at work appreciated that.

In terms of whether people in the industry enjoy themselves now as much… well it’s a fact that young people are drinking less alcohol. They’re probably going out a similar amount but they’re probably going to gyms and coffee shops instead and living their lives in slightly healthier ways. Does that mean their play is different? Yes. Does it mean they’re having less fun? I don’t know. They’ll probably claim not.

But does that mean having fun with different people outside of the industry?

Maybe. I think there was an interesting shift 15 or so years ago with social media and the emergence of dating sites and apps. Before that I think it was something like 60–70% of marriages were founded in the work place. And it’s now 20–30%. So consequently those relationships that were formed at work are now formed on Tinder or Bumble or whatever it may be, and those people are very likely to therefore be in a different industry. And that’s an interesting dynamic. Because your partner was historically much more likely to be in the same industry, it meant lots of people were going out and going out together. It was a much more ‘contained group’ that made it very hard for people on the outside to break in to. And I think that might be different now.

Part three: Operating in new industry models, hiring the right people and the common mistakes that agencies make…

You’ve seen the industry fragment to extreme levels over your career — you used to be able to pigeon hole agencies so easily and now you can’t. Is that change a good thing?

I think it’s a good and a bad thing. I’ll use an analogy that I think Richard Eyre actually coined, in that big TV shows can be the social glue that binds communities together. And the reason the industry was revered and probably quite fun to report on was because there were big marquee brands battling it out. So if you were at BBH then it was very clear who you were competing against. It was yours Lowes and TBWAs and AMVs. Pretty clear.

I spent a bit of time recently constructing competitor set maps for agencies, and there was anything and everything on there. All of these people have a legitimate claim to say they’re competing against you. It makes things more complex, but it makes things more interesting too. Younger people can go and experience different types of environments. That brings a sense of unpredictability, but with that unpredictability comes a sense of fun. You get a sense of joy that you didn’t think you’d be getting a year ago, and I think that’s brilliant.

In the old model you went from junior planner to senior planner to a planning head etc. It was regimented. It was confined and constrained. Whereas now you can stop doing something and jump into something else that’s related but also fundamentally different.

Did it changed the way you hired people? I suppose previously you’d just look at a CV and see they used to work somewhere similar and assume they’d know what they were doing…

There was an advantage in the past when I was hiring people in that because the industry was so ‘villaged’, you could always speak to somebody that knew the individual in question, and you could always reference them off the record. I’m getting references now from people I don’t know and — quite rightly because you are only allowed to reference people in certain ways — saying things that are quite difficult to get anything from.

But there’s also an advantage in hiring people you wouldn’t have before, because you’re going to get something that’s an outlier. Something that’s new and fresh. That can completely spike up your delivery and your thinking.

So how did you like to hire people?

I know there are some organisations that like to go to the nth degree and go very scientific with it — and I think there are some things in the scientific basket that are probably quite valuable. Historically I think the recruitment process has been a little too cavalier, but you can also make judgements quite quickly, so maybe there’s a middle ground.

I do think with recruitment there should be more time spent looking at how a person is going to fit into a company. I’ve looked at people who haven’t performed as well in an organisation as originally thought, yet they’ve then gone to a rival business and blossomed. And I think everybody has the ability to be brilliant, as long as they’re given the environment, tools and support to thrive.

Do you think that’s a common mistake that agencies make?

I think the thing I’ve learnt is that you shouldn’t write off anybody. There are some people who are brilliant but are completely wrong for your business. They’ve still got merit, so that’s when you’ve got to help them find a place that does work. Because they won’t be enjoying failing in your business. They’d love an opportunity to go and be brilliant somewhere else.

The thing I find sad is that quite often you see some really good people who don’t perform not just because of their own shortcomings but because of the shortcomings of the business of which they work.

What are the factors for that? Is it the type of a clients a business has? Is more emphasis needed on culture?

I think culture is hugely important. A culture can be a safety net. If someone is not performing then culture can be something that can notice it, can make it known, can create a support network to enable an individual to stop doing what they’re currently doing and to help them blossom and be successful elsewhere in the business. So culture is vital.

I’ve been in some brilliant businesses, but the culture is so hardworking that sometimes people have burnt out. That’s wrong because the main resource we have in our industry is the people who work within it. So you have to create a strong culture, you have to be able to listen, you have to be aware of people’s performances. You need a strong EQ. It’s not just about what people say, it’s about understanding how they feel. And I think if your culture can’t accommodate that or can’t ‘sense’ that, then it needs to be worked on.

Part four: Championing great ideas, collaborating with ad agencies and seeing some of the industry’s greats in action…

You’ve been in rooms before where some of the most celebrated industry ideas have been presented — are they always immediately obvious at the time?

Idea generation is a fascinating process. Because sometimes you think ‘fucking hell this is massive’, and it comes to nothing. And sometimes you have something that feels quite prosaic, but if you invest time, effort, money and energy into it, it can turn into something quite poetic and beautiful. It goes back to what we were saying about people. If you invest in people, they’ve got a good chance of being brilliant people. If you invest in an idea, it’s got quite a good chance of being a brilliant idea.

Actually, I’d also add another really important thing here, in that it can’t just be you investing in the idea. If it’s bought into by everyone — there’s a team and a collective belief in the idea, even if it’s just the kernel of an idea — then it can explode. That’s one of the current difficulties of the creative process, where it’s an individual who cracks the idea and then gives it to everybody else. You have to somehow allow that idea to be contributed to by other people, because by contributing, people feel ownership.

How did that affect your approach when at a media agency and working with ad agencies?

I always enjoyed working with creative teams. But I do think that whilst the pairing of a copywriter and art director can work, it isn’t the only pairing to come up with an idea. You can have ten people in a room coming up with an idea. So long as it’s structured in the right way and what you then do afterwards is get buy-in from other people. And getting the buy-in is a real skill. It’s hard to get invested individuals working together as a team.

When I was a planner at Engine and worked with someone like Steve Aldridge, I really enjoyed it because he had quite a progressive idea on how ideas should be generated. It wasn’t just that ‘Team A’ and ‘Team B’ can have a think, it was to get everybody together, allow everyone to throw in ideas, but then we’ve all got permission to take our constituent parts and build on them further.

What’s your take on the concept of the ‘superstar creative’?

You can get them. They still exist. But to get an idea that doesn’t just live in one place — that can explode into everything — I think that creative mind has to be able to work with others to get it realised. It goes back to the point about there being so many different agencies, because there are so many different channels and ways to influence consumers. Everything needs to be joined up more effectively. So individuals have to plug into that wider team, and skilful agency leaders are the ones who can create a culture and environment where brilliant individuals can play as team players.

Where does the client fit into that?

It goes back to the point about everybody needing to buy into it. If the client isn’t one of those hugely invested and bought-in individuals, nothing happens. Because the marketeer needs to get the rest of their business bought into it. Distribution. Pricing. Packaging. If your idea is big enough it will be touching all of those areas. So that marketing individual has as much responsibility as anyone else as they have to take the idea into their own business and sell it as such. Ultimately if the idea comes up as an advertising articulation, that’s not enough. Isn’t that the measure of a big idea? It goes beyond what you say and affects what you sell.

Was there one brand in your career you particularly loved working on?

I have been asked that question quite often and I think everyone expects me to pick Levi’s. And it was great. But actually I think any brand, if you approach it in the right way, can be interesting. I worked on Swinton Insurance, which could be conceived as a really dull brand. But we did some really interesting stuff on it. Because we uncovered some nice insight, we had a really focused idea, and it worked brilliantly. So I do think that if you approach it with the right mindset, any client not only could be interesting, but should be interesting.

Thinking about other campaigns you’ve worked on, do you remember a time when you’ve really been blown away, perhaps where someone has been really quite brilliant?

I was always very impressed with Nigel Bogle. Because when One2One became T-Mobile, it was a really big thing. Because BBH had done a lot of work on the ‘who would you like to have a One2One with’ campaign, and there was a lot of equity in that. And so there was a big meeting about what to do to launch T-Mobile. There were a lot of people in the room and there was a lot of waffle.

Nigel had been particularly quiet during most of the meeting. The session was drawing to a close and there hadn’t been much progress made, and he just did this classic thing where he summarised what was said, distilled problem A, corrected problem B, showed what we needed to do with C and D…and everyone just looked at each other and went ‘ok, we get it, we know what to do now, we know why you are where you are’. That type of clarity I’ve always been a huge fan of. Big brained individuals who have the ability to translate insights into action is something I’ve always been very respectful of.

I’ll end with a question I love asking founders of agencies. Was there a time at any point during the days of Edwards Groom Saunders where you were able to think ‘ok, we’re on to something here’?

I suppose when you’re running your own business you’re defined by client wins. John Bartle, I think it was, said that when you set up your business, you’ll have a black book of people to tap up. And the ones you know well will say ‘yeah we’ll give you something’, and they’ll end up giving you absolutely nothing. And then there’ll be people that you don’t know from Adam, and they’ll be the most important people to your business when you start. That definitely proved to be the case.

I think you feel you’re really making it when you work for blue chips and you win some really big projects. So we worked for Standard Life, we worked for Aviva, we worked for William Hill. These were contracts that we knew would keep us in business for the year — we almost didn’t need to do anything else! And as soon as those types of things happen, you go from a hand-to-mouth nervousness to having a greater degree of confidence. And it’s interesting when you have subsequent conversations — clients buy confidence. You walk into a room knowing you’ve got a client that’s blue chip, and the next client wants to work with you because you seem to have ‘got something’. It never meant we could take our foot off the gas, but I think that was the time when I really started to feel confident about what we had.

Artwork by Guy Sexty