Creative Generalist Q&A: Russell Davies
Russell Davies likes breakfast, so much so in fact that he wrote a book about it (eggsbaconchipsandbeans). That alone makes Russell a fascinating man with good taste but it only begins to scratch the surface. Visitors to RussellDavies.com–or any of his other eclectic interest sites, ranging from creative spaces and 10,000 bands to in defense of the ordinary and a good place for a cup of tea and a think–are witness to his keen observational eye, brilliant insight, and good humour. Davies was a planner for nine years at the elite advertising agency wieden + kennedy before joining Nike last year as its Global Planning Director. This spring he left that position to focus on book writing, blog posting, consulting, and teaching.
An obvious first question, I know, but let’s get it out of the way. What does an Account Planner do exactly?
Account Planning was invented (or named really) in British advertising agencies in the late 60s / late 70s. It was created to try and make sense of the tons of consumer research companies were doing but not using. Planners were also the first to seize on focus groups as a commercial tool and used them to start uncovering ‘insights’ about the way people used and thought about brands and products. All this understanding was inserted in the advertising process and intended to make advertising that understood the audience better and was better attuned to how they actually thought and felt.
Over time planning has splintered into all sorts of odd little schools, some do loads of market research, some don’t do any but broadly we’re brand and communications strategists, but strategists with a close connection to the creative process. We create strategies that tie directly to execution.
Even now, in what might be considered a boom time for planning there are very few of us. It’s a very small niche, there are probably less Account Planners in the world than there are professional soccer players.
Is it fair to say that a planner’s generalist work makes specialists’ work more productive? How so?
Hmm. I’ve never thought of it like that. But yes. Modern communications and branding is a massively complicated business with all sorts of specialist skills required, I guess we’re the people with overall responsibility for the bigger picture. So we spend a lot of time nudging specialists in the right direction, trying to make sure their efforts are productive.
Of all the jobs I would consider to be “creative generalist jobs” account planning is perhaps the most apparent and purest example. Would you agree?
You might well be right. At least the way some of us do the job. (The dilettante sort.) Advertising creativity is not an especially pure form, it’s mostly about the collision of ideas, trying to create something new and attention-grabbing. So we need to be interested in a wide range of ideas. And advertising isn’t big enough to support the specialists that you might suspect we’d employ if we were the efficient manipulation machines of popular myth. We don’t have staff anthropologists, ethnographers, econometricians, statisticians, semioticians, propogandists, MBAs, blah blah blah. So we end up doing a little bit of everything. And any planner who’s any good, I suspect, is interested in a little bit of everything.
In what other industries or fields might the planning skill set be applied successfully?
Any industry or field that needs to manage the tensions between people, art and commerce. So all industries and fields.
In a recent interview with Mark McGuinness of Wishful Thinking you remarked that expertise is often simply swift pattern recognition learned unconsciously from repetitive experience and that experts tend not to make the best managers. Can you elaborate on that comment? … Would you say that it is a challenge to maintain a generalist approach as one becomes more experienced and expert?
Did I say that? Blimey. I’m not sure that experts don’t tend to make the best managers, but that they don’t neccessarily. I suspect a lot of ‘experts’ have this experience – a more junior person presents you with a problem and you tell them do this, this and this. They’re astounded, your answers make sense, they’re the right thing to do yet to the junior person they seem non-obvious and clever. They ask you how you knew that. You don’t know how you knew that. You can’t explain it. It’s just that you’ve been through a similiar situation a bunch of times and you’ve internalised the experience. The danger, of course, is you stop thinking. And/or you attempt to use intuited experience to solve problems that don’t really fit. Or, as you suggest, your experience/expertise starts to limit the areas where you’re willing or able to solve a problem.
Given such factors as the fragmentation of media, the increased accessibility to creative production tools, the continued measurability push, has the traditional advertising agency become a relic of the past? What does the future hold for the ad biz?
Ad agencies change all the time. They’re not like they were 20 years ago. And they’ve had a pretty good run. But I suspect that many of the middle-sized busines models of today won’t last very long. A few of the big networks will survive, they have a role to play. But I suspect most ‘advertising’ talent will end up independent, in smaller, more flexible, more personal work units. The skills you learn in agencies are massively transferable and those skills will always be valuable.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an insight. Not a conventional ‘consumer insight’. And I’ve never written a decent brief. But I’ve been lucky enough to be in the room when some brilliant communications ideas were had. Some of that was just coincidence, some wasn’t. My favourite bits were probably some of the work we did on Microsoft, the ads we did for AltaVista, the idea of Run London and all the work on Honda.
Your title at Nike was a pretty big one: Global Consumer Planning Director. How does planning differ at such a large scale (worldwide, for a gigantic multi-national, beyond advertising…)?
Planning is mostly about generalisations anyway. You’re never thinking about one-to-one relationships, so global planning just makes the generalisations bigger. The differece isn’t in the thinking it’s in the persuasion around the thinking. You have the same ideas, it’s just you have to spend longer persuading anyone to pay attention or act.
Did the success of your blogs make the decision to leave Nike easier?
What’s your educational background? And how did you come to be doing what you do now (planning, blogging, consulting, writing books)?
I went to an ordinary, rather splendid comprehensive school in Derby. I studied history at University. Did OK. I liked the look of what Darren Stevens did in Bewitched so I tried to get into advertising. Ended up in media. Then account management. Then planning. I get bored easily so I change jobs a lot – trying to find the right balance of interestingness and overly generous compensation.
What have you learned as teacher of the Account Planning School of the Web?
That people are marvelous. Everyone I’ve asked to help has said yes. And there are all these people willing to do extra homework for no good reason just because some guy on a website has offered to criticise their efforts. It also illustrates the power of the web and community. Not much effort on any individual’s part is leveraged into quite a good thing for quite a lot of people. I’m all about leveraging not much effort.
I would imagine eggsbaconchipsandbeans has tapped you into a somewhat obscure subculture of breakfast connoisseurs. Are you surprised at how large or vibrant this community is?
Nothing about the web surprises me anymore. And breakfast is no more obscure than many other web communities. Who doesn’t like a large breakfast?
You frequently mention your son Arthur on your blog and chronicle his observations, questions and play habits. Has fatherhood informed how you approach creativity and creative business? If so, how?
It’s made me want to be at work less. It’s made me realise that being in creative business is a fantastic job but it’s still a job. It’s not life.
Where do you look for inspiration? Are there any organizations, people, books or websites that you find especially inspiring?
Oh. Everywhere. Paul Smith wrote a book called You Can Find Inspiration In Everything. I wish I’d written that. Inspiration isn’t in what you look at, it’s in how you look.