Saul Betmead: “The really good ideas are right at the edge”

interview by Romanita Oprea

An award-winning, entrepreneurial executive with a record of leading business transformation at agency and client level. Saul Betmead, chief strategy officer, EMEA at Young & Rubicam Group & WPP Global Strategy Lead is responsible with the strategic leadership on al EMEA, leading the top companies in the group and helping the clients find and implement the most efficient communicational solutions. He is part of the Executive Committee Y&R Global, member of the Creative Global Board, member of the Strategic Global Board, and former executive member of the IPA strategy Group, one of the most important think tanks in the UK communication.

Please tell me, how psychology and anthropology helped you in advertising?

It’s a really interesting question. I had every intention of being a psychologist. I’ve got a good degree, I really enjoyed it, I had funding to be a clinical psychologist, to do a PHD and I did 6 months of work experience at the Cambridge University and outside. But, I am a very empathic person and I really struggled with it, emotionally I found it to be very difficult. Especially while working with kids.

A lot of my friends had already graduated as I took a break between the second and the third year of the university. And my university pumped out a lot of people that were lawyers, bankers, that sort of territory, but there were few people that went into advertising and PR. They were most like me and they seemed to be happy: they were working hard and they liked it. And they still do. They all seemed to enjoy themselves. Therefore, I started to think that I may be quite good at this.

It wasn’t planned, but I think that psychology and anthropology is an interesting combination. Psychology is about why we do things in a certain matter, why we think that way and why the brain works the way it does, it’s a deeply complicated organ. And the anthropology is about culture, about people and why they interact with each other. Especially for strategists and planners, this combination is very useful. I was taught how to be inquisitive about people, but also about culture. It’s kind of strange that I ended up here. It’s a field that is constantly changing and I think that this is why I staid all this time in this industry.

How did you arrive to advertising and particularly to strategy? What makes a good strategist?

I decided that advertising sounded good and it’s something I wanted to do, but it’s not the easiest of jobs to get into. My mum, whom was head of careers at Cambridge University and whom is very protective of me (she didn’t want me to fail),tried to talk me out of it, by telling me I would never enter an advertising agency, because the competition was very steep. It was then that I knew for sure that if you want me to do something you just have to tell me I won’t get it or succeed at it. I applied for three jobs, at: DDB, Saatchi & Saatchi and one more. I was offered a job at Saatchi and that became my first one in advertising. And I still have a very fine relationship with Saatchi.

I think that when you get to a certain level you really need to be good at it. You need to be good at business. An account manager needs to be a good presenter, a good creative judge and a good relation person, you need to be a good strategic thinker, to see what is next, you need to be good financially. I have a big issue with titles and roles, but to be a good strategist you need to be curious, interested, objective, but also kind of emotional, empathetic, but I think that also describes what good account managing people are.

It all revolves around having good relationships with clients and being a trusted guy. If I look at the shape of the business now, the kind of conversations that the clients tend to have now with the people that have these skills sets (and it doesn’t always have to be the strategist, even if often is) is about giving advices and ideas that can be bounced from one to another and build and continue that good conversation.

If I look at Australia versus the UK, the UK has a very evolves, functioning planning department. And it’s quite academic. Tends to attract very smart people. Very bust, robust thinkers. But our business requires more than that: it needs emotion and the understanding of what happens in the people’s lives.

How do you believe that the role of the strategy has changed during the last years and where do you see it evolve? Will the actual roles disappear and melt between them?

The role of the planner is changing and good agencies need them to be more than just planners, but good creatives as well. But I think the roles will remain. Some people are better at other things than others, some have a better set of skills for one position than another one, even people will do more than in the past. It’s called competence.

My partner in the region, in the creative department, Jaime Mandelbaum, is great. There’s a big cross over in terms of our skills’ set. While I enjoy and I am better at sitting and looking at things from a strategic point of view, he is amazing at craft. There is a huge overlap in the middle, but those functions need to remain.

How important is research these days, as creatives have never been its fans?

My gut says that research is best placed at the beginning. It’s very important to test and learn things. But the most useful is to really understand what is happening with the people and their lives, what the brand relationship, what the product relationship are. Research is really important as it often can illuminate really interesting things.

There is a whole debate about what is an insight. For me there is an important question: does that interest me? My interest in that is… That is the statement, because if you are not interested at the beginning you might not be after either. Research can really help on that aspect. There is bad research, such as it is bad science. But we do a lot of research and we encourage our creative departments to do that because you know if the idea is right or wrong.

You cannot think about the creative department as being isolated from the world, they have to come up with good ideas, but that are implemented in the real world, it’s for the consumer. There is a whole debate about how is the best way to do research for advertising.

What did you know about the Romanian advertising prior to coming here and did your opinion /perspective changed while being the president of the Effie Jury?

I’ve been here once before, for four days, for a project, with our partner here –CohnandJansen JWT. I was pleasantly surprised, they have a great operation. I didn’t know what my expectations would be, Romania has great brand issues, especially in the UK. You don’t see any of the good stuff, just the bad stuff. And I wasn’t expecting much, but after seeing the works I was very pleasantly surprised. There were some great things that I would be proud to say they were mine.

Do you believe that winning an Effie is a real proof of the value and success of the campaign or it depends a lot on the way the case study is written for the festival?

Ultimately, effectiveness is about proving your worth and is about the bridging creativity and commerciality. The idea and the good execution is a combination of really good agency with a good relationship with a good client. And then it’s the case itself. Those are separate things. I am particularly good at writing case studies, I don’t know why, and I’ve spent a lot of time writing study cases, especially for Cannes Lions, it’s an art and you get better at it. The case studies need to be treated as creative art. Both at creative awards and at the effies, you need to pay attention and give them your time, as you only have 5 or 10 seconds to attract the judges’ attention.

I wrote a paper on gut reactions, about why the mind makes decisions like it does- because it’s looking for patterns, is always on the lookout for shortcuts. It’s why you have optical illusions. And you make decisions really quickly. When you are reading something, especially if you have read twenty of them, you make a decision which is hard to overturn.

Moreover, if you cannot prove your worth, you cannot prove anything and then how you get paid?

What piece of advice would you give to the Romanian advertising market?

For me there is power in the perspective, therefore getting people from outside the country to look in and see what you are doing is helpful. Part of my job in Y&R is to go and help countries just look at things differently. It’s very easy to get stuck in a place and be able to see from the outside. It’s easier for the networks to do it, but it’s not impossible for the independents either.

I think the craft could be pushed, the way it’s produced, I understand the budget side. But in a lot of countries, like New Zeeland, have very small budgets, but do extraordinary things. Therefore I am not sure this is a good enough excuse. I think that a small budget is more of an opportunity than a course.

And also, getting people to work in other countries and come back, getting interesting perspectives on things. There are good people in the Romanian advertising and I can see that.

Do you believe it’s possible to see in the near future another crisis arriving in the advertising industry or are we still in it?

Our competition is changing and there are very smart, aggressive people. We have a tendency as a business to do things exactly like before because it worked, but now, given the new landscape, the things we’ve done before aren’t necessarily relevant for what we are doing now. The inquiring mind, the creative solutions are the same, but there are other variables that are very different.

I believe we are in a crisis. I don’t think that I know somebody that actually knows what will work for sure in the future. I think there is also an opportunity, there must be more soul searching in business.

At a certain time you were talking about failure. How do you see it and approach it?

I’m an obsessive podcast listener and I was listening about someone that opened the Museum of Failure in Switzerland. It’s about all the things that have failed. For me, the expertize that comes with experience means that you are less likely to fail. But the essence of the business is pushing boundaries and trying to find the edges and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. The really good ideas are right at the edge and they are safe on one side and risky on the other.

One of the mantras we have in the company is “safe is the risky option”.

What does creativity mean to you?

Just trying new things. Connecting things in a different way. Knowledge is power and the more you know and try to connect the information differently, the more creative you will be.