HEY MAX. HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I’m an advertising geek. I decided I wanted to work in the industry at 16. Well actually, I really wanted to be a window dresser – I liked the idea of the psychology of influencing people to buy things but the careers advisor at school showed me the likely salary so I upgraded to advertising. I even picked subjects at school that would help me get there - like economics and English. I then chose a business school with an advertising module in it. Back then, there weren’t advertising schools back then so I went to Greenwich Business School. Many of my tutors were ex-ad men themselves, which was great. And the way I got my foot in the door was when of them introduced me to his wife, who offered me my first job.
WHAT SKILLS SHOULD WE ALWAYS BE DEVELOPING?
Planners should be entrepreneurial. It’s a passion job. You need oomph. Young planners are invaluable because you won’t discount certain things simply because it hasn’t worked in the past. You’ll experiment. You are freer and less inhibited to try stuff and make mistakes. Failure is good too when we learn from it. Trying contrary ways of research too is always great. Think in ways your boss won’t. Don’t just use Google. Try thinking about it like rooting for truffles where you’ve got to look in lots of different places.
There is a bit of a curiosity gene in all of us – either you’re like that or you’re not. I’m still learning all the time because that’s one of the best bits of this career. The job changes as fast as our audiences do.
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR JOB TO PEOPLE?
I always say I’m a problem solver. I fix business problems with communications. I see our role as similar to a detective in a TV show. We seek out clues to help us figure out the answer. Observation is a big part of our role as is assimilating lost of information and data to develop hypotheses. I still watch more detective shows than is probably healthy.
HOW DO YOU FIND YOUNG PLANNERS?
I’m a big believer that planners are born not made. At iris worldwide, grads try a bit of everything but you can see very early on who’s going to be a planner. They have that natural curiosity, that desire to figure things out. It’s all about giving them the right stimulus, putting them in the right situations and allowing them to grow. We recently held an away day at Crystal Maze. Just imagine a room full of planners all trying to work on a problem all at once. They all ended up cheating. But hey, that’s what the SAS teach isn’t it?
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PLANNERS JUST STARTING OUT? (PARTICULARLY ON HOW TO NOT SCREW UP STARTING OUT?!)
It’s better to be humble and ask a lot of questions rather than stay quiet and be naive.
When you progress a bit, the biggest danger is that you make it an intellectual exercise. Always try to bring things back to understanding audiences and matching that with objectives, source of business, etc. Being a planner is similar to being successful in sports, you are there to get the competitive edge for the pitch or help the business beat the competition. But remember, no one knows the all the answers. There isn’t one perfect response. Don’t have just one hypothesis. Have several. Then bring them to your creative director or to the wider team for debate.
The second piece of advice I’d give you is to really try to learn from your mistakes. I think a great book is Truth, Lies and Advertising. It’s pretty old but it’s the only book that’s really honest about when things go wrong, and how we can learn and benefit from that. It makes think about what you could have done differently, and there’s always something.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE US ON PITCHING AND THE KIND OF RESEARCH THAT'S USEFUL?
Pitching is a competitive sport. You all are going to use Google - so what else have you got? I like discovering a feeling for things rather than just the facts. Follow your intuition in research and get closer to people. Meet them, talk to them, observe them – it’s all valuable. Don’t start and end with Google because that’s too lazy, and you’ll lose.
For example, I worked on a pitch for Smartcars – the brief was to sell more of them. Now there are plenty of papers on Mintel about Smartcars, but everyone else has Mintel. One of our young planners had a great idea. It was so simple but no one else thought of it. She called people who were selling their Smartcars in the newspaper. She learnt why they were selling their cars. This threw up plenty of hypotheses and so that was a great starting point for me.
When I was working with Facebook on restructuring how to present film for mobile consumption, I didn’t start with Google. I started on the train, looking over everyone’s shoulders and observing how they scrolled.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORKING ON GLOBAL VS LOCAL ACCOUNTS?
When I started global was seen as less exciting. That’s where the old folks worked, and the irony is not lost on me today. In some agencies, that may still be true but I suspect not. Whilst Global can be slower moving, the scale and opportunities are often huge – your solution will need to work in fifty countries, not one. Your idea may need to transcend cultural barriers, not just those of your home nation. It’s fascinating. Ironically, one of my first jobs was working on a global account, because nobody in the agency wanted it. I was 24 and leading the global account for Western Union – a multi-million dollar opportunity with fascinating challenges for any planner. I got to try all kinds of things that I just about got away with. The best planners will find something exciting in any account, whether global or domestic – there’s opportunity around every corner.
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO WORK WITH A SENIOR PLANNER?
Often young planners forget to manage up – they wait to be tasked and it doesn’t always come. It’s so important to be entrepreneurial in this respect. Your boss should be very busy and often preoccupied with multiple challenges. Think about what they need from you and how you can help them. You’ll get plenty in return when you get it right. It makes a difference in how fast you progress in your career. Many people will tell you about the boss that helped them develop most or the person that helped them soar in their career. Sometimes it’s just down to chemistry but even when that’s not there, you have to try to make it work. Perseverance is crucial, as is open communication. The best working relationships go both ways.
WHAT ARE THE LESSONS TO BE TAKEN FROM BREXIT AND TRUMP?
The biggest learning from Brexit is that it shows how thinking in a bubble can lead you down the wrong path. You’re all conscious of the London bubble. Try bringing this into your research techniques. I always try and use panel groups from places you’ve never heard of. You’ll get a genuine point of view. Rather than ten people who are all the same way of thinking and have been told to say this is their first focus group when you know they’ve been in hundreds. ‘Derby Woman’ was crucial to the last election. I found a panel in Royston in Hertfordshire – a quite random, obscure place in research circles. Places like that give a completely fresh perspective and that’s where the interesting insights come from. Don’t do the same research as everyone else, or you’ll come back with the same answers. Be provocative in how you do your research and insight mining.
I think being in your ivory tower will only get you so far. Creatives often get out of touch too, so it’s our job to stop that happening. Planning is about human connections, so talk to people. It’s not hard, it just takes effort - laziness is the enemy of planners. Sometimes time is an issue but you have to try. Do as much as you can within the time allowed. Whatever you do, go off beat, and then throw what you find into the creative process. It’s not always about linear journeys. The best stuff always comes from unlikely sources or unexpected connections.
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