Q&A with Tim Whirledge, Strategy Director @ Droga5 London

For our latest Q&A, we invited Tim Whirledge, Strategy Director at Droga5, for a chat with ten members. We talked about the role of specialisation, the cultural relevance of advertising and the role of strategy in creative development, among other things.

The conversation has been edited for clarity.

AS I CONTINUE TO GAIN MORE EXPERIENCE, THERE’S AN INCREASING PRESSURE TO SPECIALISE. I DON’T WANT TO. HAVE YOU GOT ANY ADVICE ON HOW TO AVOID THIS?

It’s a weird paradox. As a junior you need to build your own credentials, so being known as a ‘social strategist’ or whatever can be a way to do that. And, to be honest, having ‘a thing’ isn’t a bad thing. But then, as some strategists get more senior, they think they can spill more rubbish with little specialist knowledge.

Account folk and agencies obviously like specialised planners because it makes it easier to bill as a different kind of resource on accounts or projects. For me, authority comes from sitting above that stuff. If you’re going to be running people you need to be able to do that. Our agency talks a lot about ‘culture’ and using strategy tapping into it. Doesn’t mean we’d define ourselves solely as ‘cultural strategists’.

WHEN YOU TALK ABOUT CULTURAL STRATEGY, WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

Cultural strategy is about looking at the broader changes occurring across society to identify new types of behaviour or attitudes which could impact how people navigate a brand’s category, and how a brand should operate within it. We use it not as a separate output or delivery but to inform the advertising we create for clients. I often talk about “cultural sensitivity” - are you ‘woke’ to what’s going on in the world and empathetic enough to have a perspective as to why that may be the case. And then can you apply it to your client’s business problem. Culture is where your consumer, category and competition all sit. We’re all about helping the brands we work with make a ‘genuine cultural contribution’, rather than just trying to disrupt people from whatever it was. Our work shouldn’t be an annoyance. We bake this thinking about culture and its importance into all our work. Cultural strategy is not an ‘output’ in itself.

HOW DO I HELP CLIENTS AVOID THE WHOLE ‘NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE WOOD FOR TREES’, AND ALSO GETTING DRUNK ON THEIR OWN KOOL-AID?

There are two questions there. But I guess what you’re talking about ultimately is being able to convince your client to a different way of thinking – your way of thinking. The thing that’s kind of stuck with me on this is: ‘research like an academic, present like a journalist’. Never get caught in a pseudo-intellectual debate with your client. It’s a stupid thing to do in the first place, and really one of your central roles is to make their decision making easier when it comes to marketing decisions.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO FINANCIALLY ARGUE YOUR CASE? DO YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO TAKE ON A FINANCE DIRECTOR?

Some people say that you’ve got to be able to think like a CFO or a financial director. Back it all up with the money talk. But in categories like FMCG, it’s often marketing departments who have a lot of power and it’s them that need to be persuaded. This is because marketing is often their only point of difference in a commoditised category, and they’re the ones who are coming up with the next product. The truth with most of these ‘battles’ is there’s no substitute for a decent client. Someone that believes in the work you’re doing and will escalate the thing or steamroll stuff when needed.

SOCIAL LISTENING IS USEFUL TO GET PERSPECTIVE, BUT WHAT OTHER WAYS ARE THERE TO GET OUT OF THE LONDON BUBBLE?

Well, I live in Manchester and commute [laughs]. But one way is just to adopt the mindset that you are in a bubble and you need to get out of it with your thinking.

I also have a good group of people I can go to for insight into other worlds. Like a doctor, a police officer, a sports agent – not the target audience, but people who can give me an interesting and different perspective. Sometimes they give me gold.

If you don’t have a natural network of these folks, your agency might be willing to give people £50 for an interesting story or point of view. Usually it’s worth it with a client because then you can reference them a bit easier and it looks a bit more official.

IS ADVERTISING BECOMING LESS CULTURALLY RELEVANT? AND IS IT CATERING TO A LONDON BUBBLE MORE OFTEN THAN NOT?

We live in a world of cognitive misers. This is something an old boss of mine use to talk about all the time. The reality is most of the time people don’t care and you should have that in your head. Is it getting less relevant? Well… Let’s put it this way. If you compare it to content such as TV, movies, sports stars who are content houses talking to hundreds of thousands… We’re not in as tune as we should be.

I’M A CREATIVE DIRECTOR AND I’M PARTICULARLY INTERESTED IN YOUR OPINION OF WHEN A STRATEGIST SHOULD HAND OVER TO CREATIVE AND WHAT THE BOUNDARY IS?

I always talk about this with our juniors. Too often they masquerade something as a strategy, when it’s really an idea. You will carry much more favour with the creative department if you don’t do that, but instead own the problem. I moved away from the crappy ‘baton handover’ between planner and creative when I left big agency land. At Droga5 we’ll often swarm stuff, inviting creatives to that session as well.

Strategy ultimately still needs to tell where we are and where we need to go, and the more they can get everybody on board with that story in the agency and with the client, the better. But to be honest the whole thing is messy – it’s a creative process! We read these APG papers that present strategy as a beautiful logical story (and I’m definitely guilty of that) and we think that’s how to go about it. Truth is, whilst there’s definitely a craft in telling a story and articulating a steady flow of logic that ties it all together, my advice to you is don’t start there. Expect chaos. Then try to order it.

HOW DOES A SWARM WORK AT DROGA5?

Client brief comes in. Put the kettle on. Different departments are represented in the room. And the strategist facilitates a session to get us to the problem. Sometimes we get the client in to workshop their problem. And this is usually all about the problem, not the solution. Sometimes we even help the client create their brief to us. Ultimately, it’s strategy’s responsibility to turn all of that into a crisp problem we can solve.

IS THERE ALWAYS A PROBLEM? CLIENTS SOMETIMES JUST SAY TO US “WE WANT to do X”.

In my opinion, yes. There’s always a problem. They always want to do “X” for a reason, and it’s your job to find out what issue is driving that desire. Banksy just destroyed his art. Now you can imagine some client somewhere saying “Our brand needs to create a post about this”. But why? Does it? Or are we just adding more stuff to the landfill?


WHAT IN OUR INDUSTRY MAKES YOU ANGRY?

What makes me exasperated is how much people in our industry use the ‘C’ word. I’m talking about ‘content’ of course. David Attenborough makes content. Ad agencies make ads, they don’t make content. When you hear people say ‘what’s our content strategy for Instagram’, what they really mean is what elevator panel videos we’re using on Instagram.

The closest we get to ‘content’ in our industry is like a five-minute behind the scenes documentary about an ad. Also, ‘curiosity’ touted as the thing that makes a planner. Curiosity in a planner is table stakes. Empathy is far more important for understanding an audience. And obviously pseudo-intellectualism pisses me off.

WHAT MAKES YOU HOPEFUL?

You guys. We’ve got a young guy at our agency at the moment actually – always challenging the briefs I give him. Isn’t afraid to break stuff. He says “this app works like this – but we can use it like this”, not “this is how we can use this app in our media plan”. It’s creative, interesting, disruptive.

DO YOU STILL GET THE “FUCK, I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS!”?

Yes [laughs]. Planner paranoia. But as you get more experienced, you get better at the heuristics of knowing where to look for answers. Also, naivety is sometimes the most amazing thing in a planner.

HOW, AS A JUNIOR STRATEGIST, CAN YOU MITIGATE AGAINST BAD ADS?

Always be open to a better idea. Once we had a better idea in the client’s car park before the meeting and we ended up going with that. Don’t wash your hands of it.

But yeah, you’ve also go to be able to drown a puppy sometimes [laughs].

You will have bad ads in your career. I’ve definitely been part of a team that’s made a few. But the more and earlier you can call something as off-brief or that the idea is ‘wrong’ for a specific set of reasons, the better. Also, on a project everyone should have a shared understanding of what you’re doing. You should be trying to litter the subconscious of those doing the work with what the direction is. Inception-style.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY IF YOU WERE BACK TOWARDS THE START OF YOUR CAREER?

I’d calm down a bit. I was a bit lippy. Rubbed a few Creatives up the wrong way. I’d have told myself to just focus on the problem and articulating that, rather than trying to get my own idea through. Everyone has an agenda. Trying to understand everyone’s agenda at the beginning in order to navigate it all a bit better would have been good.

I WANT TO KNOW HOW YOU HIRE STRATEGISTS. PEOPLE ALL LOOK GREAT ON PAPER, BUT HOW DO YOU KNOW?

My technique is informal. I don’t have one key question or anything. I feel like the more it’s a conversation in the room, like a two-way thing, where you give them the opportunity or platform to have a chat you’ll see if they’ve got the interesting stuff.

To come out of an interview as say “we went off on one” is great. Being able to bounce of each other is what you need. I’m interested in how they think. Not what they’ve done.


WHAT’S YOUR BEST TIP FOR STRATEGISTS?

You know, many years ago I read ‘A technique for producing ideas’ by James Webb Young. One of the key things in that has always stayed with me and it’s been something I’ve employed a lot. Think hard about the problem. Then detach yourself from it. Do something else, and trust that the solution will come. It will. That’s how the brain works.

And also, in the morning fill your head with what’s happening in the world. Radio is great for that. Primes you for empathy.


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