Feel The Culture, Don’t Just Observe It: A Q&A with Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy EMEA at R/GA

We finished off 2018 by having Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy EMEA for R/GA, over for a Q&A with a dozen planners. In a pub. Over beers and a rogue pizza. It was as awesome as it sounds. Here’s a summary of our conversation.

SO ROB, HOW DID YOU GET HERE?

What to say… I’ve been arrested 14 times. I used to be a session guitarist for some of the 80’s and 90’s worst pop stars. I’ve lived in 15 countries. I’ve worked at Wieden + Kennedy, now I’m at R/GA. And I’ve just moved back to England after 24 years, which is freaking me out!

I believe in creativity, culture and chaos. And I’m too old to change. I have a very strong belief on what a planning team should be (something my team is finding out now!). I’ve worked on different brands, like Nike and Spotify, and while that all sounds great, it’s all about what you learn from it.

WERE YOU ARRESTED FOR DIFFERENT THINGS? OR REPEAT OFFENCE?

Different…

OK. SO WHAT SHOULD A PLANNING TEAM LOOK LIKE?

Diverse in thinking, heritage and backgrounds. I want them to be a gang where we all share the same values and beliefs but all  have different opinions and approaches to achieving it. I want people who are connected to culture rather than just observers of it. At Wieden, I believe I built a team that could take on any agency in the world, and beat them. My insecurity was being the white guy in China who has no right to be a boss.

Planning is too male and too white. And I’m not anti-male or anti-white, but diversity tends to be about ticking a box rather than hiring for their usefulness. That’s got to change and I am hopefully doing my bit for it both in terms of hiring, opportunities and raising the issue continually.

I am nervous of people who have been planners all their life. I like people with life experience, not just advertising experience – as long as you can demonstrate a passion for culture and creativity within it.

WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE FOR YOUR DEPARTMENT?

I want R/GA to have one of the most interesting planning departments in Europe. I want my clients to succeed in a way they never imagined possible. Creatively, I want our  work to be so resonant that it feels like it’s come from within culture, rather than an observation from a research report.

At R/GA, we have an amazing data capability which gives us incredible understanding what’s going on at incredible scale but we add to it by understanding the texture of culture. Going out. Talking to people. Being in the culture rather than observers of it. I fucking hate planning that is a Yoda statement …  sounds good but doesn’t really mean anything. I want us to create work that adds to culture rather than just takes from it.

IS IT ABOUT LEGACY? DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO REMEMBER ROB’S DEPARTMENT AT R/GA, SAY, 10 YEARS DOWN THE LINE?

It’s not about having the same department forever because people leave all the time, right? And I want them to go on to awesome stuff. My success is driven by the people that work for me so my job is to give them the place, space and time to do the best work of their life. Back them. Push them… but back them. I know they will leave one day and I am fine with that. If we have all done our job right, they’ll leave for a job that is bigger than any they could have imagined… a job that is about them not about simply filling a role.

The greatest insult for me is when people leave for the same job in a different agency, just for a bit more money. Fortunately not many have and a whole bunch of them have gone on to do things I could only dream of.  Some of my ex-team members are now running strategy at Apple. That makes me fucking proud.

IS THERE A ROLE FOR CLASSICAL TRAINING TO BUILD THAT GANG?

Totally. It’s hard, because the standard of planning I’ve come back to in the UK isn’t as high as I was hoping it would be. There’s some amazing planners of course, but the overall discipline seems to be focused on doing what clients want rather than what they need. Ticking boxes rather than pushing boundaries. We need more rigour around the role of strategy because it seems we are focusing more on the process of it. Both are important, but strategy is about changing things and a lot I have seen seems to be more about how you repackage clients briefs.


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IS IT TOO LATE TO WORK THE BASICS AT 30?

It’s never too late to learn the basics. At R/GA I’m having conversations that make me go, “WTF is going on?” and I have to admit I love it. I think the key is being open to it and not let your ego get in the way! Haha.

I HAVE A QUESTION. WOULD ANYONE LIKE SOME PIZZA?

(Everyone laughed but no one did take a slice. But later people asked, and there was no more pizza left. So, yeah. Tough luck.)

WHAT DO YOU PERCEIVE TO BE THE BIGGEST PROBLEMS IN THE WAY OF GREAT THINKING? AND HOW DO YOU REMOVE THEM?

Habit and convenience. I’ve worked in places that observe culture but don’t really understand it. They say things through their lens of experience not what is actually going on. It’s like when white, privileged planners say, “I understand black culture”. Which – honestly – is possibly the most offensive thing I’ve heard. I’ve sent planners to different cities to thrust them into the reality of life – no comfort, harshness – and not because I’m a bastard but you can’t expect people to know life if they do it from their desk.

My job is to help my team help create the most intriguing, infectious work. That’s my responsibility. I like chatting to my team, throwing provocations about what they’re working on. Not because I want them to do what I think, but because I want them to humiliate me with an even better understanding of culture, the category and the creative opportunity.

R/GA HAS LOTS MORE CAPABILITIES THAN TRADITIONAL AGENCIES. HOW DO THE PLANNERS FIT?

Simon Wassef did an amazing job there at giving them a place. My biggest worry right now is that a planner’s role is almost too integral. We sometimes try to planner the fuck out of stuff. I said to the guys: I don’t care how you do the job [I do, but I mean I am not obsessed with process], I want to know we have real clarity on the business problem, the creative opportunity for the work and the point of view the brand can have to make all this happen. If they can’t answer these things then, they’re in trouble.

AS HEAD OF A FEW DIFFERENT STRATEGY DEPARTMENTS – HAVE YOU EVER FELT ALONE?

Fuck yeah. Loads. But in some ways, that’s the gig. That said, I believe honesty is always the best policy and tough love is still love. While that can sometimes isolate you, it’s the price you pay when the goal is for your team to win in the most exciting way possible. Which means letting them work things out rather than doing it for them. My job is to open the door to opportunities that let my team be brilliant. It is not to open the door and close it behind me.

IS THERE A COMMON QUESTION YOU ASK TO PROMPT BETTER STUFF?

I basically ask myself whether what I’m hearing is something I know, or something I don’t know. If it’s the former we really push why that’s the case. I once worked with a client on a piece of research, and asked her when was the last time she did research that told her something new. She said 10 years! The world’s a pretty different place from ten years ago. So yeah that created awkwardness, but it was necessary.

I WORK AT A PLACE THAT IS ACCOUNT MANAGEMENT HEAVY. ANY TRICKS UP YOUR SLEEVE TO GET ACCOUNTS TO BUY AND SELL RISKIER STUFF?

Great account management wants to do great work. Bad account management wants to please the client. It’s tough. Similarly, on the client’s side, middle management want to be told they’re right. Upper management want to be challenged because they want to win better. You need to find ways to talk to the people who are willing to take the risks.

HAVE YOU EVER CHOSEN NOT TO WORK WITH A CLIENT?

Fuck yeah. I won’t touch cigarette brands, though it’s an intellectually interesting challenge. And no skin whitening cream, because it’s a cultural jail for women in Asia. I also once walked out on a client because they were so dismissive to one of my planners. If one of my team says they can’t work on something, then I respect that, but it has to be for valid reasons. It can’t be just because you don’t like them. You only play that card when it really matters.

HOW DO YOU GET BETTER BRIEFS AND BETTER RESEARCH?

Part of it is understanding the real business problem – you’d be amazed how many times we are given problems that aren’t the real problem! – and then framing it in a way that opens up the creative opportunity from the cultural perspective. 

As for research, I think it’s about understanding what we are researching and why. I once spoke with film researchers and they said they simply measure whether people were entertained or not. I thought that was smart, rather than getting lost in the weeds that can end up screwing the overall opportunities and possibilities. I suppose I tend to look at research as giving us clues rather than specific answers, which means the work can still breathe rather than be destroyed by a ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach.

HOW DO YOU MAKE HIRING FOR DIVERSITY WORK IN THE TEAM?

Well, it’s not just about hiring them. You have a responsibility to help them. They might have things to learn but you shouldn’t try to change what made you want them in the first place. The way they see the world is the value, so embracing that and helping others understand it is key, or it won’t work and they’ll be seen as a novelty act. They can make a huge difference if you direct them rather than dictate to them how they should think and what they should do.


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