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Published on

February 10, 2022


Season 1, Episode 5: Building Trust Through Creative

In this week’s episode of Outsmart, your hosts Nicole Allen and Rex Petrill chat with TEAM LEWIS Executive Creative Director, Simon Billington.

In this episode we talk through:

  • How creativity fosters audience connection
  • Using logic & instinct to drive creative
  • Striking a balance between moving at pace and driving results


Simon: When it comes to brands, it’s a truism that is, if a brand reflects you more, becomes more personalized to specifically you, it loses its inherent brand tension and therefore strength. So, you become overly personalized. We’ve all seen paid media that’s executed uber personalized down to the Nth degree. And excuse my expression, but it’s shit because you see straight through it because it’s designed to go to the lowest common denominator that’s not representing a brand that is trying to hook you into doing something that you’re going to distrust in the end anyway.

Rex: Welcome to another episode of Outsmart. We are your hosts Rex Petrill and Nicole Allen, and we are thrilled to be joined today by our Executive Creative Director out of London. And you’ll key on that right away with the accent. Simon Billington. Simon, putting you on the spot. How the hell are you and who are you?

Simon: I’m good. Thank you for that illustrious introduction. Yes, from the London office but I have spent some time in San Francisco. Do you want to know about my job?

Rex: I personally like more about you, but you can see what you do.

Simon: I’m a Cancerian. I like long walks and… no, I’m the ECD. So, I’m an Executive Creative Director at TEAM LEWIS. I operate globally, which is not easy, long days, but ultimately, it’s about just trying to see how we can bring a bit creativity to all of our work and up level it and see how we can use creativity to effect in order to drive those results that really make a difference.

Nicole: Yeah, love that. And didn’t you get your start drawing logos when you were in your teens or something like that? Do I have that right?

Simon: Yeah. I can’t believe you brought that up. So, I basically was a plagiarizer very early on. So, what I would do is I’d see another piece of work, whether it was a cartoon, and I would copy it and I became quite good at that. And then somehow that turned into a career. I’m not sure how I’m a bit of an astronaut when it comes to where I came from, but one of the key things that was a tipping point in my career, dare I say it was I was actually running a sign company when I was in my early twenties and this lady from a local area came in and said is this a sign company? And I said yes, that’s right, it is. And she said I have a boat and I’d like a sign for it. And anyway, I asked her what the name of the boat was, and she said it’s ‘Splash’ and she moved her fingers in an arc and like a very naive creative at the time. I drew the word splash in bubble writing that would indicate how old I am, and she went oh my God, darling, you called in my head absolute perfect. And that was kind of when I knew what I wanted to do because I could think about what somebody was saying and then turn that into a physical reality. And I think that ability to tune in is kind of the bit that I’ve always loved doing and being able to go, I can see where you want to go with this. So, yeah, that’s where it started.

Nicole: That’s what happens, Simon, you have one too many Manhattans with me and spill a little bit of your story, and I remember it forever.

Simon: 100%. I know. I’m now concerned about what the rest of this is. It’s like an interrogation.

Rex: Like Tom Hanks Smitten and Splash, you were also taken in by a boat and a water creature, so on to that. I think not related to 1980’s pop culture movie references, which really dates us all. You spoke a little bit about there, about your passion and for getting involved in things just like I was buying Facebook ads as a nine-year-old back home. What does creative mean to you? What gets you excited to come into work every day?

Simon: That’s a small question, isn’t it? I think for me, creativity is about taking components and elements and putting them together in a way that’s not been done before and eliciting an emotional reaction as a consequence. The way we arrive at it is very rational, and I enjoy the fact that it’s quite a rational process that leads to the bedrock of what creative can do. But when you get and you elicit that emotional response, that, to me, is that’s what we hook into, that’s what we buy into. And I think that the creative process is twofold. It’s working with the people within the organization and seeing them achieve something they haven’t done before and also doing that for the brands that we serve and how we can tell those stories in a new and exciting way. And to me, there is no better feeling than when you see the team, when they’ve pulled together, and they’ve created something that’s unique and fresh and different and is appealing to an audience. And driving results. I mean, that’s the drug, right? For me. I love it.

Nicole: And you’re talking about driving results and defining success, I’m sure, especially given that we have our head of Paid Media and our Executive Creative Director on this call you both have different ideas of what that means and how we actually define success. But how should we be looking at ROI for creative? How do you know if something that you produce is successful?

Simon: That is a massive again, a massive question. I’m glad you’re giving me the really easy ones. I wish they were easy. The reality is there’s lots of different metrics that we apply to all of our work. And obviously, however much further we move forward in being able to give definition to those results, some governing body somewhere decides that we actually need to roll back the visibility we have on those and make it more invisible to us. And you kind of have to move back towards qualitative kind of measures. But I think really and truly the core thing that’s always been the same and creative is define yourself an objective right up front. Clearly make it understandable what it is you want to try and achieve and throughout the process of creativity or throughout the process of development and incubation, keep that in mind because then when you get to the other end, you have got something concrete that you can measure it back against. Obviously, there are layers to that. There are successful campaigns, but ultimately, we all know when a campaign is delivering gets that originating objective. And obviously then it depends whether or not it’s brand awareness, lead generation, so on and so forth. So, it is a multilayered thing. But for me, always be clear in your definition of what you set out to do and then keep revisiting that objective throughout the process and you’re really going to hopefully see the fruits of your labor. And I could talk about qualitative and impacted creative for about a year and a half, but I won’t waffle on too much.

Rex: I think those points are all so important to keep in mind and I think this is something that we touched on a previous episode, but the promise of digital was always just like, oh, it’ll be easier, we’ll just measure things from A to Z and we’ll know every touch point. And as the world has evolved, that promise never really came to light in the way that I think we all wanted it to. And now we’re realizing that a lot of the right concerns around consumer privacy and behavior, not having full visibility into everything is the right direction and then how do we adjust our expectations accordingly. And I think going back to the core element of what is the outcome that you’re hoping to drive and taking those longer timelines and understanding that maybe we won’t understand every single touch point from A to Z, but we understand was there incremental lift? How does this compare to historicals? Like, what is it doing compared to competitors in the market? There are so many different ways we could get Robbins and his team back on this conversation to talk about research and all those different elements. So, I think taking that bigger picture into account is so crucial because some of that visibility is in some ways, we are going backwards in some of those measurables.

Simon: See, it’s interesting because I actually like the fact that we are going backwards. I know that’s probably not what I’m supposed to say.

Rex: No, I agree with you. I think to your point. I think go to what you’re going to go to because I totally agree with you.

Simon: Game on. It’s basically what it’s doing, it’s putting the emphasis back in the artistry. I think we overnumbered the games. It became money ball, right? And we were all looking for those incremental increases and it’s no secret, generally it’s about 18 months to two years that CMO will be in place, or Chief Marketing Officer, the one that is responsible for delivering results. By that very dint, they get time to get into the job, they have a first-year plan, and they’re measured against a twelve-month period. That’s mental, that’s bonkers. That’s like in soccer in the UK, you get someone in the Premier League, and immediately you see they are under super pressure because it’s a results-driven game and before, you know, within five, six, seven matches, they can be out.

Rex: Yeah, but then you get to complain about the transfer window, and do I have the right players for my scheme? It’s the whole thing.

Simon: We’re now moving into our fantasy football, which we’re in competition on, and obviously Rex is beating me, which is honestly, it’s a travesty. But it’s a really important point because the way we measure things is what and there’s a reason why we measure them like it right. And we all know that no one gets fired for making a logical decision. If you apply logic, most people go, okay, well, we can see the logic in it, therefore you’re safe, or at least you’re not in trouble. Putting your faith in something that’s more qualitative, that’s about exploration of creative, and allowing that to build over time is a quality that is frankly, I think some of these initiatives to look after and protect our data and make sure that it’s being used not for these incremental nefarious gains is a good thing because it means we have to start trusting creative more. And that means that it’s more of a qualitative thing. And I think it makes us think more about our audiences and less about click through rates and the amount of people that reach and visibility and so on and so forth. They’re obviously important factors, but fundamentally we have responsibility as marketers on both agency and client side, to really help develop a brand, its voice, its narrative, and make it human and relatable and something you can connect with. Looking at the numbers too much, that’s not emotion, that’s rational, so you’re not going to be able to do that.

 Nicole: It makes it more about hearts and minds and building trust, which, I mean, that’s the core of any successful brand, right, is one that can find a way to, regardless of whether they’re selling directly to consumers or to businesses or whoever, a brand that elicits trust, that’s kind of the ultimate goal.

Simon: And the trust element in today’s day and age is so different to what it was 30, 40, 50 years ago. In advertising terms, 60 years ago, if you got a doctor to basically say that they thought smoking was good for you or whatever, that would be enough. As a doctor, we’ll trust them. Now you have to demonstrate so much more empathy and appreciation. You have to be able to understand the Zeitgeist and also be able to create the Zeitgeist. And that happens so fast now. One of my favorite stats of the pandemic was that we changed tasks every three minutes in 2019 and then now it’s every 45 seconds. And so, we’re moving faster through things. Our attention spans are shorter, we’ve all completed Netflix, we’re all desperate for the next thing to come out. So, we’re desperate for things that are going to impact us and we’re becoming more discerning and more dismissive of things that don’t reach us on that personal level. And again, I think another huge component of this is if you’re thinking about how you’re executing from a creative point of view, and I know there will be other creators out here that won’t agree with what I’m about to say, but it is about moving at pace. Allow your instincts to drive your decision making around what you’re going to do to nuance your creative for different audiences and don’t dwell on it too long, don’t procrastinate. Because what you do is you rationalize it too much, you take the emotion out of it and distinctiveness, and the creative isn’t as good. And also, it may fall flat on its ass. And if it’s going to fall flat on its ass, I’d rather do it quickly and know that that wasn’t the best creative and you move on to the next one. So, I think we just have to show a little bit more pace in kind of the way we execute.

Nicole: The comment about moving at pace is a really interesting one. We’ve talked a little bit on this podcast about planning and how do you plan ahead when there’s so much uncertainty happening in your day-to-day environment. And I’m curious, Simon, what your take is on whether brands should be looking at sort of annualized creative budgets and plans or do you just have those moment in time triages every month, every week, every day, whatever that cadence is, and look at how to activate on what’s happening right now. How should brand sort of be thinking about the long and the short-term aspect of it?

Simon: It’s a really good question. I would like to how you shop for food throughout the year. So, if you think about it, you have an annual budget, but the types of foods that you’ll be buying in the summer are different to that in the winter. And I think you have to always be constantly aware and very in touch with what if you’re running a family, for example, which is a bit like a brand, you have to be thinking about what’s the weather like, how is it influencing the type of food it needs to eat? What’s that thing that’s going on outside? Also, what’s the dynamic inside the family? How are the family feeling, that changes the kind of food, what day of the week is. I think we’ve become overly burdened by this consistency of needing to have things known beforehand. Great brands listen and they respond quickly. That’s when you see them behave more instinctively and naturally. Some of the greatest ads or concepts I know, I’m talking about just adverts, but greatest marketing events have been because somebody moved instantaneously because of a shift. The one that always stands out for me is KFC. When they ran out of chicken in the UK, it was actually an agency called Mother that did the work and they rearranged the letters to FCK on the side of a bucket and said, ‘Sorry, we missed.’ I mean, the traction that got was insane. The coverage was endless, and it was all done overnight. It was an instinctive bang. There you go. That’s why I think that you can show personality, you can show humanness. If you move quickly, the slower you move, the more robotic it becomes. And again, that’s why I think to your point, Nicole, it really is about thinking how you are going to remain agile, but obviously know the rate of spend. You’ve got to be aware of that, but just be flexible. And I think that’s something we do now. We work with our clients, and we try to make sure, okay, we want to pivot for the next two or three months. We want to move into it, then we go off and then we do that.

Rex: I think one of the key points there is that it’s one thing to pivot for the sake of joining in on a moment in time, but if it’s not authentic to your brand or not relevant to your audience, you’re just spinning wheels for no reason. So, we kind of touch around the edges, about connection, but from an audience perspective, I know we talk a lot about audience lead. Where does the audience come into play throughout this entire process? Moving at speed, moving with your gut, moving with what you feel is the right move, tying that all together with everything you know about the core of your audience.

Simon: Again, it’s super interesting. We held a breakfast briefing about two years ago, pre-pandemic, and it was a room full of individuals, all from different businesses, all in a similar industry, and listening to the way they responded as they went round the table when you asked them what was keeping them up at night and what their core challenge was, it was all very, very different. You had some people who felt that they were way behind a status quo with their activities and in fact, they were way ahead, and vice versa. You have some people who are saying, we’ve got everything sorted, we know what we’re talking about, game on. And they were way behind. And so, when I think about that, that gives me a thought of how you engage with audiences. As a business, we get caught up in saying, we have this message, and we want to keep repeating it and we want to repeat it as many people in as many places as physically possible. Now, every single person in the audience has a slightly different experience, is in a slightly different part of their evolution and evolvement. They’re in different sized businesses. So, what it gets to the point of is you need to layer your messaging and you need to enable it to be able to shift and talk to different people at different levels and at different times. One of the comments that I heard, it was pretty blunt, and he referred to the fact, he said, thank you very much for making a website, describe to me what CRM is. He said, I’ve been in marketing for 20 years. I know what a CRM is. You lost me. And I’m like because everyone feels that they need to start at that first point and tell the story from scratch. Don’t get caught in that trap. Think about who your audience is and those layers. I’m not sure that answers your question. I think I might have wandered off there a little bit.

Nicole: I think it leads nicely into, Rex, personalization from your perspective. I mean, you probably share a similar point of view on audience and how frustrating is it when clients come to us and want to run a paid media campaign and aren’t taking the audience into consideration and just kind of have the same asset, same message that they want to put out regardless of channel or targeting. And I’m sure that you often have to hold hands and have those conversations of who are we actually trying to reach and what is their day-to-day pain point and how can we speak to it to try to run something that’s going to be effective?

Rex: Yeah, I think just because you can do something doesn’t always mean that you should do something and layering in every component to say, well, sure, we could run an ad for this audience, but what is the outcome that you’re looking for? And maybe that audience has flat out rejected advertisements of a type that’s product led. And so, you have to think about a different angle to approach them and more of a solutions based or more into the influencer space or relying more on third party voices, earned media, things of that nature where paid maybe isn’t the right journey stage. And I think back to the point around mapping everything out, like we have all been used to, to say, like, well, if somebody comes to the site, then I can retarget them with XYZ. That is so convenient for us to just skip a bunch of steps and get lazy with our marketing and say, well, the creative doesn’t matter. We know that the creative matters. We know every single piece of research says, you want to improve ROI, improve your creative. It’s sprayed out there. Everybody has done the research. Everybody has the studies to show better creative results get better results, but it’s like we sometimes get stuck in that because, well, that’s someone else’s job, I’m just here to execute and promote the campaign.  Where if we’re not having those creative conversations and we’re not looping people like Simon in from the start, we’re behind the eight ball already.

Simon: It’s a really important point because, again, coming back to this personalization. Personalization was a bit of a red herring in my view. It was something that came along, was big and noisy, and everybody was trampling over each other to try and achieve great personalization. When it comes to brands, there’s a truism that is if a brand reflects you more, becomes more personalized to specifically you, it loses its inherent brand tension and therefore strength, so you become overly personalized. We’ve all seen paid media that’s executed uber personalized down to the Nth degree. And excuse my expression, but it’s shit because you see straight through it. Some of the outbrain stuff, right, because it’s designed to go to the lowest common denominator. That’s not representing a brand that is trying to hook you into doing something that you’re going to distrust in the end anyway. So, I think that tension of great creative delivering a message from the brand in a way that is trusted isn’t by making it over personalized, it’s just making it diverse in the way that you’re delivering it, if that makes sense. It’s giving people options to tap into what they feel is the right message in the right tone for them.

Rex: Like sacrificing long term trust and long-term brand building and long-term conversion, customer acquisition, further purchases for the benefit of very short term, hey, look at me, I’ve increased sales by XYZ, let alone, you’re never going to have someone come back.

Simon: And again, that’s where somebody said to me the other day, do you think creative is what you need to invest more money in? And this is going to sound paradoxical, but it all depends on how you set that up. Because great creative comes from great insight, and that is through great research, great analytics, as much information as you can get in front of you at the beginning to give you the white space or the hotspot that you can use as a platform for that creativity. So that when you do go to those audiences, you know what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re responding to at large, and you’re not wasting your time, but you’re also giving creative the best platform to be successful. Great insight, great analytics, and great research gives you that chance to have a good strap, a great strategy that is the basis for what creativity can be. There is no point to throw in a bunch of creative people in a room and say to them, hey, we want to make this brand known for sustainability. Sorry, you may as well just throw your money out the window. Do your planning, do your research. And then the great thing is stick with that philosophy. Don’t chuck it out there and hope that all these leads are going to be coming in. Go again, incrementally. Go back and do your research. Check to see what the results are and see if it’s incrementally making a difference, because it will. You have to have faith in that. This industry would not exist if it didn’t work. So, it is having that faith, but making sure you do all the groundwork. You get your strategy. Right. Stick to that strategy, see it through, and then go back and research again to see if it was successful.

Nicole: Have the patience to let it breathe a little bit, right?

Simon: Absolutely. It’s weird because obviously I’ve spoken about pace, pace, pace move, and I do believe that. I do think that if you see an opportunity, get after it as quickly as possible because otherwise somebody else will. But then once it’s out there, have the patience to let it breathe, let it exist and see how it succeeds. Because the worst thing is, if you judge it too quickly, you may get rid of something that’s hugely beneficial to your brand and it could be having a huge impact.

Nicole: We’ve covered a ton of ground today and this has been a really fascinating conversation. Rex and I have both gotten to work with you for a long time, Simon, but it’s fun to just be able to have this back and forth and talk about where creativity is today and I think to close this out, I’d love to just ask one last casual small question. We’ve talked a lot about audience and connection, and I think you could argue on one hand we’re more connected than ever in terms of endpoints and digital and physical connections, but we’ve also never been more divided. I think the events of the last couple of years speak for themselves on that one. So where does creativity play into connection? How does it help foster it?

Simon: Good Lord, that’s almost like the meaning of life, isn’t it?

Nicole: Pretty much, yeah. It was a good one to end on.

Rex: 47 or 42, what is the hitchhikers?

Simon: Yeah, exactly. Creativity is the secret sauce that makes us connect with something in a way that we wouldn’t do without it. That seems overly simplistic, but you can put a message in front of somebody. Creativity makes it mean and feel and be responded to and gives somebody the ability to be distracted from themselves almost for a moment. Again, it comes back to my point earlier on when the lady walked in and said she wanted a logo, and I drew it and it was what was in her head. That’s it. That’s that moment. And I think that we all know, and I hate to say this because someone said, you know what good creativity is just by knowing it. And I was like, wow, is that true? And yeah, you know what’s good when you see it. And I think our audiences are becoming in more need of us being respectful of their time, of us treating them with huge amounts of respect and making sure that we put things in front of them that are worthy of that time. And that comes with investment, that comes with following the processes we’ve talked about and making sure that work is good and puts a smile on people’s face or makes them feel something, whatever that may be. Hopefully that’s what we do.


Nicole: We’re going to need to see that splash logo, I think, so if you could pull that one out of the archives for us, that would be great.

Simon: Yes. What I didn’t tell you was she was actually blind, and it was in braille, so I’m really joking. Honestly, I look back on it now and I think that was one of the worst things I’ve ever created in my entire life. You probably would disagree with that, having worked with me for the last couple of years, but yeah, bubble writing, who’d have thought missed that?

Nicole: The comic sands of the analog world.

Simon: It was the everything. I mean, literally putting the little highlights on the edge of the bubbles off when you are a great creative.

Nicole: Well, Simon, thank you so much for joining Rack myself today. This was fantastic. We feel very fortunate to have had you on the Outsmart podcast fast. And to our listener or listeners out there, hopefully plural, we will see you next week.

Simon: Yes. Hi, Mum.

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