Cooking. History. Strategy. Romanian culture. Skeleton armies. Before and during his 20+ years in advertising, Kit Fordham has seen a bit of it all. We sat down with Wednesday’s Strategy Director to talk about his slightly unusual trajectory into strategy, how he learned to become a better strategist through photography and what he values in a strategist today. The below transcription has been edited for clarity.
If you stumbled across this article and want to come to a future Q&A, all you have to do is become a member of Group Think. It’s all free. So what are you waiting for...?
WELCOME, KIT. TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF AND HOW YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY.
Like most of you, I started with a blind faith in my own ability. And then you're proven wrong consistently, you eventually end up in a certain place by hook or by crook. I’m currently a Strategy Director at Wednesday, a fashion and luxury agency, where I’ve been able to harness all my skills. Basically it’s a culmination in many respects of all I’ve done.
I wanted to leave school at 15 to become a chef. My hero is Keith Floyd, a famous chef and drunkard. But I was told I wasn't allowed to go to catering college and had to stay in school. I was also told not to study law, so I studied history with Dr. Starkey. He taught me how to write, and how to think in many ways. But eventually I decided I wanted to either be a war correspondent or go into advertising. Basically I wanted to be shot at, or work where I couldn’t hide in an establishment.
I went to Hall & Partners, where I learned how to do qual and quant. Research is the foundation of everything, it’s like learning the grammar of planning. The relevance of that is that at Wednesday I was able to introduce research to strategy. Early on I organised a piece of qual covering eight countries with luxury consumers. I had to write the discussion guide, write the recruitment spec and then fly around to all the locations to do the research, then write the strategy – which I presented back to the client and the agency, all in order to show the value of research in the luxury industry.
After Hall & Partners, I moved to New Zealand and got a job at TBWA, a very good agency where we had lots of fun working on Nike, Playstation and various other things. Then my Visa was up, I moved back to the UK and worked at Lowe for three years, where I learned the hard skills of brand planning: IPA papers, marketing society, all that kind of stuff.
An interesting thing about Lowe: it’s where I learned the discipline of writing an unexecutable idea, which I’m sure we’ve all fallen foul of in our time. And I remember having my brief turned away in the most iconic way by the creative director, who after having one look said “Kit, what’s this all about? Go have another go mate”. It makes you think, it’s all well and good trying to be clever, but genius is the art of being simple. The relevance of that is where I am today, we don’t just write strategy. Because it’s an Art Director-driven level of creativity, the strategists also have to write the line. So I ended up having to write lines for brands like Esprit, and that work ended up boosting their share price, sales and attitudes among younger consumers. I had no idea I could write an endline until all these skills came together, but there you go.
After Lowe I went and got a job in AMV, a place I always wanted to work. But I wasn’t a fan of the size of the agency and what goes with that sometimes. I went back to photography and did a project in Russia for a bit, did a bit of consultancy, then did a stint at Droga5. While there we were asked to pitch for Farfetch, so I wrote the strategy and we won the business. Droga5 then had a realignment, they weren’t sure if they could follow through with the business, and at that time I got a random call asking if I wanted to go talk with Wednesday. I thought this was interesting.
I spoke to someone who was going on maternity leave, the next day I spoke to their CEO, and this is one thing I’ve learnt about strategy: you work with people who are actually decent, and if they have a sniff that you are a shyster, they’ll shit all over you or you’ll be in a battle with them. So I immediately recognised someone I could work with, and then after two months I thought, yes, you have a gaping hole here and all those things I have done should work well here. Incrementally, you don't realise from day one, but eventually you do realise there is a gap and that you can fill it and then you work out how you can fill it.
WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE IN PHOTOGRAPHY AND WRITING ENDLINES, DID YOU EVER THINK ABOUT MOVING INTO THE ECD POSITION?
Again, this is often the false dawn that planners think is coming their way. Though funnily enough, before I became a strategist, I remember seeing a creative brief in a book and decided to fill it in and send it to Watford Creative Ad Course, and for whatever reason I never submitted it. But ultimately no, I never thought I should, it always felt like a skill beyond me. And I rather like strategy.
DO YOU THINK BEING A PLANNER MAKES YOU A BETTER PHOTOGRAPHER, OR VICE VERSA?
I think so, yes. When I started with photography, the guy who taught me how to shoot told me to just shoot, don't think too much. I think we as strategists can sometimes, oftentimes, think too much about the strategy. You also realise how nebulous the creative process is. And you realise it’s not linear.
For example, with the Myers-Briggs test, you realise you are either a process person or an intuitive person. A linear person knows the objective is ‘here’, and they will follow the steps to get there. A bit like the worst account man in the world, constantly checking in with the client at every stage of the project with a timeline. The intuitive person will basically go all over the place, and normally get there quicker but they’re not sure when they are going to arrive. And so basically knowing that, and working with creatives, has helped me better understand how I work as well. Throwing your cards up in the air, see where they land and make sense of them is often the best way forward.
With photography, with my second exhibition Eastern Soul, I was able to apply my plannery skills, and look at a counterpoint in Romanian culture. I played on what people’s perceptions of Eastern European culture were, and what was actually there. On that note, I do think it’s better to be two things, so a photographer and a strategist, rather than double down on one thing, particularly these days.
Enjoying the Q&A so far? Become a member of Group Think and come along to events just like this one.
WHAT'S YOUR MYERS-BRIGGS?
I was ENTP when I first did it 15 years ago, and now I have an F, so I have more feeling. I think I now have a gentler way through my thought process.
YOU HAVE LOTS OF EXPERIENCE. HOW DO YOU CONSTANTLY BETTER YOURSELF?
Experience is a great thing to have, but complacency is the worst. A terrible thing you can do is become totally confident in your own ideas, that's when you fall down. Basically you can’t stand still.
Jeffrey Archer is probably one of the worst people on the planet, but one thing he said which I thought was really interesting was that every morning he’d listen to one piece of music, time and time again, until he had cleared his mind. So if you want to know what keeps me fresh, right now I listen to Every Me And Every You by Placebo, so that I can try to be totally open to everything.
DO YOU THINK STRATEGISTS ARE BETTER OFF BEING SPECIALISTS OR GENERALISTS?
It comes down to whether you think you’re able to bring different things together, like a big picture person, or the focusing on the nuts and bolts. And that really comes down to who you are to be honest. The benefit of having a very detailed strategist on digital is that they can go much deeper than a generalist. But again it’s a tension, being too locked in.
As I worked in above the line agencies, I was always concerned about where the idea was. It was always the campaign that drove the brand, and that reflected me and my degree with history, where you were always looking for the big picture, the big explanation. So I’ve always been a big picture person, as a opposed to an expert. It really comes down to personality. Some people are more suited to one or the other, there is no right or wrong.
I FEEL LIKE FASHION ADVERTISING FOCUSES A LOT ON ART DIRECTION. HOW DO YOU GET FASHION BRANDS TO LISTEN TO STRATEGY IN THEIR COMMS?
It’s about seizing an opportunity. All these brands are struggling to engage with their audience, and fundamentally missing the chance to do so because they are relying on a simplistic (not simple) strategy of buying engagement through celebrities. Which is not really a strategy at all. But still, the onus is completely on you to explain how you could move one of their accounts into a deeper strategy which would be more engaging.
The chart I put up more often than not is two circles, where one circle shows the people buying into the product (these are the people you have), and another buying into the brand through emotional comms (this is the piece you’re missing). It’s elemental, and it’s interesting on that respect because it’s not about fighting on a pinhead like it is with Domestos or Weetabix for incremental wins. The opportunity in the fashion world is massive.
DO YOU THINK BRAND ATTRIBUTION FOR FASHION ADVERTISING IS PARTICULARLY LOW?
I would say so. The other thing you have is the celebrities or models who are basically being used on everything, so they do Versace and they do Hilfiger. So which is the brand that's getting the deeper brand relation? It isn’t these brands. There’s absolutely no connection back to the brand.
The Esprit strategy I mentioned before was all about celebrating imperfections. Built out of a fact that Esprit never had a particular aesthetic, it was more based around a feeling or a mood. So we made it about being who I want to be, and if I get it wrong I don’t care because I’m on a journey. So the creative strategy became about celebrating the perfectly imperfect. And when I wrote that down I realised ‘imperfect’ and ‘I’m perfect’ are exactly the same letters, which then became the hashtag and kickstarted this whole campaign that is in its fourth year now. It’s not about celebrity, it’s about street casting and diversity. And that was a proud moment, it’s like watching your child walk for the first time.
IS MOST OF YOUR WORK UK-FOCUSED?
No. Actually I’m constantly on a plane, and with that I’ve learnt that there are actually huge similarities between the way people think, despite what all these countries would have you believe.
WHAT ARE THE FAILURES YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
I was at Lowe, and Parcelforce needed new branding, and they were universally awful. I was given the opportunity to write the brand strategy for them, and I had this one piece of data, which was people liked their drivers more than the other guys’. So empowered with this one piece of data I wrote a strategy, and with their new bar code technology that made everything come on time the Creative Director came up with this wonderful line which was ‘On the dot, no matter what’. So you had people fighting a skeleton army and things like that, and then the Parcelforce driver would come in to save the day. But on the day we going to shoot, there was a strike and the campaign was off. So we had spent all that time guarding the idea and then this shocker happens. It felt like a failure at the time. But I’m still very proud of what we had.
If you want to come to one of our next Q&As, all you have to do is become a member of Group Think and RSVP when we send out the invite.