Q&A with Christian Barnett, Founding Partner at Sword & Stone

HOW DID YOU GET HERE?

I am a founding partner of Sword & Stone, a creative strategy agency. James works with us, he’s great. I’ve done that for two and a half years. I set it up with an old pal from Young & Rubicam. Before that it was just me, like a freelance planner, but I picked up a couple of youngsters and it became more than just me, which was always the aim, and that turned into Sword & Stone.

Before that, I was Head of Strategy at a design agency called Coley Porter Bell, part of WPP. I did brand identity which was really interesting. Before that I worked on Madison Avenue for five years, in Young & Rubicam in New York, and I had two jobs: one was a big global job and the other was much smaller, it involved me working for a unit inside Young & Rubicam which was small, and punchy, and we had really good clients like LG back when they were small. Before that I worked at Rainey Kelly in London, five years, I was the global planner on Lego which was dead cool. Before that I worked with David Trott, I don’t know if you know Dave Trott but if you don’t read the blog, it’s very good – a little formulaic, but very good. And he is like that, he really is. Before that I was a researcher, that was good, I worked with a really nutty guy, one of the first people to bring motivational qualitative research into the UK.

THERE SEEMS TO BE THIS TREND THAT BRANDS ARE LESS IMPORTANT AND NEED TO BE MORE TRANSPARENT AND PURPOSE LED. HAVE CLIENTS COME TO YOU WITH THIS IN MIND? 

The first thing that strikes me is that you say that brands are less important nowadays, and it’s been hitting me that brand consultancies aren’t important as they used to be, the energy and the conversation is somewhere else. It might be a bit controversial but that’s what it feels like.

In terms of ‘transparency’, I think clients are capable of convincing themselves of a whole lot of stuff... I think clients want to think the world is different and that they have to be transparent etc. but when it really comes down to most often revert back to the usual things that clients care about - ‘getting things through the system’, and ‘not giving too much away’. I asked Jeremy Bullmore once if brands should accept they have a dark side, which in a way is an attempt to make transparency interesting, with an edge, and he flat out rejected the notion and said brands should always be the best selves they can be, which I’m not sure I always agree with.

IF BRANDS ARE NOT IMPORTANT ANYMORE, WHAT IS TAKING OVER? 

The energy seems to be around growth, innovation. I don’t think ‘utility’ is the big word it was a couple of years back but the idea that things should be useful, not ephemeral, this is where people have got to.

In terms of branding… There are too many branding agencies, they’re too commoditised, and to be quite frank anyone can knock up a logo for a couple of grand. You don’t need 6 months and half a million pounds. The old style branding was about spending a lot of time trying to find deep insights about the company, when actually brands are these living things, they don’t just sit in a document on a shelf, like a rulebook, it doesn’t work that way.

The one exception about brands not being important is when the CEO is a huge advocate or sponsor or owner of the brand. You see examples like Nike, Apple, Dell when he was around, Ford back in the day... When the owner of the brand is a brand guy, brand matters. But when the brand is neglected to some mid manager with a rulebook that says ‘do this, you can’t do that’, it’s no wonder people ignore the thing.

ARE YOU FINDING THAT A LOT MORE BRAND CONSULTANCIES ARE TRYING TO GET MORE OF THE ACTUAL NITTY GRITTY OF RUNNING A BUSINESS? 

I don’t think many care about, or get into, the nitty gritty. We do. Some of our recent projects have actually involved us in two different ways related to running a business.

One is as you say, a business job - figuring out where to create growth, where to innovate, how to create a new proposition, ensuring customer-centricity rather than self-centricity... That’s all about making business work and generating revenue or margin.

Another thing we get, and I quite like, is looking at how organisations work as organisations. Recently I was asked to look at something like this for a national magazine. So, they have a team working on a specific project, and everyone knows that the project, and what it’s dealing with, is only going to become more popular. But the issue for this team was really to understand how they could engage the rest of the organisation - “Where do we fit in the organisation?”. The client was really pleased with our thinking because we didn’t really care about the specifics of their project, we cared about understanding how the organisation works, and how our client engages the rest of the organisation in order to manage his own brand inside his own organisation.

So when you say ‘running the business’, I think there are two ways. One is the structure of the organisation, how people interact, and the other is how do you directly make more money for the organisation, or more margin. Rarely to brand consultancies care about getting stuck in with this stuff.

IN A NEW BUSINESS SCENARIO, HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE NEED TO SOLVE THE CLIENT'S BRIEF AND REFRAME THE PROBLEM? 

First off, just to say that I love pitching. I’ve always loved pitching. It’s really stressful but I love it. Pitching is great because if you’re good you get exposure, if you’re crap you get exposed. So my recommendation is that this is the one time when you can completely remove yourself from the daily workings of an account and do your very best work. Everyone likes to talk about collaboration, but collaboration sometimes isn’t good – sometimes it’s bullshit. We used to work on LG and did some pitch work for them as well, and when we pitched we did a stellar job because they wouldn’t interfere, and in normal working practices they would interfere as a compromiser all too often. When pitching you can really let fly. I’m not saying ignore their brief. But if you look at the problem and re-frame the problem, you ask ‘what is the real issue?’, you answer the real issue, that’s a bigger bolder pitch and you’re in control of that. If you’re smart about it you will cover the detail, but re-define the whole problem, take it home to your own turf, your territory, play it back to them in the way that you want, make sure you cover the bits and bobs, and don’t get caught in channel discussion. Channels are not the issue, they’re a post-script of big ideas. At least if you lose, lose properly. It’s always better when you win on your own terms, with big thinking.

I’M CONSTANTLY WORKING ON NEW BUSINESS PITCHES AND PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF MY AGENCY HAVE SAID IT'S DETRIMENTAL TO MY DEVELOPMENT. DO YOU THINK IT IS?

Do you know the WPP Fellowship? I used to be a mentor there. I’ve known some great people who came through; one of them got nominated for an Oscar this year! When I used to mentor these guys and girls, I had them for a year. I always felt was my job was to get them through the planning cycle (Strategy > Creative > Evaluation), and you just do that cycle as often as you can in order to get incrementally better. So I used to say at the WPP Fellowship, “let’s get you around that cycle as much as we can”. The more you get on that cycle, the more you understand what happens at all stages of the process and where you can make an impact. I’ve avoided all my life getting stuck just working on one thing, which is one of the things I’m most proud of. For example, I worked on cars for a while and cars are weird: if you’re in Detroit, you essentially have these agencies who are just there to work on Ford or some other car brand, and typically if you’re a young planner you just follow the big wigs who have been working on cars forever. Working just on new business all the time… At some point you stop being a planner. I’d be careful of that.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT COLLABORATING WITH OTHER PLANNERS? 

Generally I like it, partly because of the intellectual challenge. If you can get in a room with someone and get a 3-hour meeting done in 20 minutes because you speak the same language, it’s great. But also some planners can get a bit assy and difficult, but I’d say just give it a go. You know creative teams often work best in pairs, but if you can get a right mixture of two planners you can also do really great things.

ANY TIPS ON REFRESHING BRAINSTORM SESSIONS?

Brainstorms are a fucking waste of time sometimes. People just like to say, “oh let’s do a little brainstorm about it”, but I like to do this exercise where if you add up the hourly rate of everyone in that session, do you still think it’s worth doing? It’s a really useful test. Sometimes they’re just lazy meetings. I don’t think people come up with their best ideas on a brainstorm session, they do it by themselves. I’m a big fan of giving people time by themselves and bring solutions to the brainstorm session. It’s like they bring little snowballs that could start something, and what a group is really good at is throwing those snowballs down the hill and giving the good ones momentum - discussing where else can you add a little bit, and building on it, “what if we did this”, “what if we did that”. Groups are great at figuring out the solutions with the most momentum, and if an idea picks that momentum and people build on it, it’s probably good. This is why we call our workshop process at Sword & Stone ‘The Idea Accelerator’, not the idea generator. Most meetings have structured agendas, and brainstorms are no exception – they should have some structure. When it comes to collaborating with creatives on brainstorms, it depends on who you’re working with. There are creatives who I wouldn’t hesitate to go and solve the problem with together, while others I’d avoid speaking with until I have the problem. The same goes with creative directors who you work with. If you’re a junior planner, it’s also important to understand how your planning director likes to write a brief, because that helps you write a brief that you know they will sign off. But in this process, avoid becoming an extra creative in the process. A lot of people who take a Humanities degree end up wanting to work in advertising, but then they think, “I don’t have an arts degree”, so they become a planner. And it sounds really glamorous to hang out with the creatives, but not that glamorous to hang out with suits and clients. It’s a bad, bad move. I love creative people, sometimes they make things that make me gasp. And when I work with them I like to write a brief, it’s useful to get them to check it out, show it to them before you present it to them. But don’t become one of them.

WHAT MADE YOU GO AND START YOUR OWN AGENCY? 

I basically ran out of jobs to do. I did planning in an advertising agency, as well as a design agency… by the way, planning in a design agency is very different from planning in advertising. In advertising, we assume that the fundamental role is to act like an envelope, you deliver that envelope, it has a message, and you see if that convinces people to do something for you. When you’re designing logos, there’s no message, it’s all about impression and feel and the stuff you don’t even think you think about. In advertising, I always liked working with copywriters because planners are almost always better with words. In design, I had no copywriters so I had to learn to brief differently. But essentially, at that stage in my life, everything I was offered I had already done. I didn’t want to be the head of a 30-person department because that just sounds like a lot of admin. Then someone said, “if you leave, I have work for you”. So I left and I had work for about 6 months, so that was my business plan – survive for 6 months. Last week I realise I’d made it 6 years, so I guess I outlasted my business plan.

DO YOU EVER WORRY THAT YOU MADE A WRONG STRATEGIC RECOMMENDATION? 

No, I don’t. (laughs) Well, I did, I used to, I don’t now. Why? This sounds arrogant, but I used to have a client who said, “you spend 100% of your time doing your job, we spend 10% of our time doing your job, so you know more than us, you just do it all the time, so tell us when we’re being asses”. I think that’s brilliant client behaviour. Whether she actually listened when we told her is another matter.

DO YOU FIND THAT YOU HAVE A FEW DIRECTIONS, OR THAT THERE'S NOT JUST ONE SOLUTION FOR A PROBLEM AND YOU COULD JUST KEEP GOING? 

You’re right, but at some point you’ve got to know it’s time to stop. It’s like what Sting said, you can write a song forever and at some point you need to stop. Depends on the client need, how much we’re being paid, but at some point I have to say, “I’m done with that”. We used to work with a PR agency and they’d give us a brief at 4pm and they’d ask if we can come back by tomorrow morning, and that was brilliant in a way. Because you go, right, first thoughts count! You have a little brainstorm and you go, this is our first thought. And if they say it’s wrong, you say it isn’t. And if they give a better thought, then you say, “well you gave us four hours”. I quite like those things because they really test you, but you’ve got to feel if you’re right. The way I might tend to work is that I have ideas and then try to prove if it’s the right idea. But the first thing you need is a really good idea and then have a great rationale that persuades people that it’s the right one. And those two things have to happen, and this sounds a bit mean, but when you can box a client in a little corner, and whatever the creative work is, they’re going to say yes, because the way you set it up is totally irrefutable. As long as the creative work pays off your brief, you can sell the creative work without getting anywhere near it.

ARE YOU EVER FRUSTRATED BY THE CREATIVE OUTPUT? 

Yep. I’ve had hissy fits at creatives and walked out on them, because they think they can be the only people who can walk out on people. So I walked out just to show them that I could. Another one that really pissed me off, a very senior team in a London agency, and I was doing a 6-month maternity cover, and we were pitching for something and I gave them a brief and they wanted to talk about it. And I said, you saw this brief before, you agreed this is the right sort of brief, and you want to talk about it. I said, “go execute it and then we’ll talk about it”.

WE KNOW THAT STRATEGY SHOULD INFORM THE CREATIVE THAT YOU DO, SO HOW MANY OPPORTUNITIES FOR MISTAKES ARE THERE ALONG THE WAY? 

I'm doing a piece of work and I’m really into it, and I think the output is going to be quite good. So if I bring it to them and they reject it, I will still think it’s pretty good. I have my own quality control over it and that’s fine by me.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH CLIENTS WHO WATER DOWN THE PITCH WORK? YOU KNOW, YOU PITCH SOMETHING AND 6 MONTHS LATER IT'S COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.... 

If you really believe in what you’re doing and your idea, do as much as you can to keep it going. I’ve been sneaky, I’ve somehow managed to do things that weren’t meant to be done, I’ve been relentless in the pursuit of an idea, bored people to death, I’ve not let go of, I have followed that idea around the office, I’ve owned the idea so it doesn’t ever go away. Lego is a good example where we wanted to do something and we won it, I had a good team and good history with Denmark and Lego and stuff, and I did not let stuff go. I was really relentless to the point where I pissed a lot of people off. But we fucking won. Also, you’ve got to get people around you. Advertising isn’t about lone maverick creatives, it’s a team thing. If you have a great idea, get your team around you, then get the next group of people around it, and so on.

I’M A BRAND DESIGNER WHO IS CURIOUS ABOUT STRATEGY. WHAT IS THE BIGGEST ISSUE FOR A DESIGNER TO BECOME A STRATEGIST? 

When I was at Coley Porter Bell, we pitched to Morrisons for a huge design project, packaging, the whole thing. And we won. But we won because we didn’t get into the design details, we got to the brand issue. In design agencies, you often focus on getting to the details too quickly, so instead we asked, “what is your brand strategy?” So that’s my advice: don’t think about what the right colour is, think upward, think upstream.

THE CSO AT MY AGENCY HAS LEFT AND NOW WE FEEL THERE'S A LACK OF LEADERSHIP AND TRAINING. WHAT DO YOU THINK A YOUNG PLANNER SHOULD DO IN THAT SITUATION? 

If you want to be really bold, I’d go and see the boss. Say you really like it there, and you want to learn, make an effort to make it work. I had an intern who asked me once, “how do I become a planner?” And I said to him, well it takes time, about 3 years. He said, “I want to do it in 3 months”. So I said, fine, and he worked on for 3 months and then got a few jobs after that, in good agencies, but he never really stuck around. Your agency is a good agency from what I’ve heard, so stick with them as much as you can. Find people who you can learn from. If it doesn’t work with them, then find someone else.

IS THERE VALUE IN BRINGING A DIVERSE BACKGROUND INTO PLANNING OR WOULD YOU RECOMMEND GETTING TRAINED UP FROM THE GET GO AS A PLANNER? 

I only became a planner when I was about 30, but I think it was different. In my day, you’d become a researcher and then become a planner. People ask me sometimes if they should do an MBA, and I say, if you’re doing the job you want to do, just stick by it. If you are not doing what you want to do yet, go and do loads of different bits. I do believe planners are better when they’ve known other parts of the marketing mix. If you’re not doing the right job, go experiment a bit, play around, see what happens, learn stuff. But if you are doing the job you want to do, for goodness’ sake, don’t change from it.

HOW DO YOU DETERMINE THE SOURCES OF INFORMATION YOU NEED TO CONSIDER FOR A BRIEF? 

It depends on the client, but you want as much as you can have. I usually ask for things like sales volume, revenues, and also consumer data. Those are the key things. Qualitative research today is a bit bland, there’s no real insights that come out of it unless you do it yourself and you know where to dig. Ultimately, the best source of data is yourself, it’s what you do with that data. You can look at all the data in the world and have no idea, and you can have a great idea with no data. For me, data is a stimulus for you thinking. You want some data to give you some sparks, and then when they turn in ideas you see if they add up to the data you have. That’s how I would do it. Sometimes you have short turnaround times and you need shortcuts for thinking. That’s how you become valuable.