APG Presents is a series of interviews with Planners from across the globe that have been curated by the Account Planning Group Australia.
Each week The APG will get up close and personal with some of the most unexpected thinkers within our industry and get an insight into what makes them tick and how their minds work.
First up is Martin Weigel, head of planning at Weiden + Kennedy over in Amsterdam.
What was your first job?
My first ever job was as a paperboy. Six days a week, I was up at 6.30am.
A five-mile round later, I’d come home fully up to speed on world events. And have cash in my pocket. It was my first experience of the capitalist system.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Apart from “draco dormiens nunquam titillandus”? Hmmm. I can’t say I have listened to too much advice.
If I wasn’t in advertising I would be?
I shudder to think. I used to dream of being astronaut as a child, despite a terrible fear of heights. And I have had some near misses with alternative careers.
I got a place at law school and changed my mind. It just seemed too tedious. I got a place at Cambridge University to pursue a PhD in history and changed my mind. It seemed too small an existence.
I’d love to wake up one day and find that I have been bestowed with some incredible artistic talent. But if that wasn’t an option and I wasn’t in advertising… Frankly I’d be screwed.
What is your favourite word and why?
It’s the door to all life’s adventures.
Where do you do your best thinking?
I am not infrequently convinced that an evening spent with mates in a pub is where I do my best thinking. Calm reflection the day after usually leads to the conclusion that these venues are where I do my very worst thinking.
So I’d say at the gym, in the shower, on my bike… places where work and technology cannot intervene.
How did you get into Planning?
I started out as a qualitative researcher with the express desire to go into advertising. It took a bit longer than I had planned. Five years in fact.
However, five years of talking to normal people in their own homes (as opposed to the bleak environs of the viewing facility) was an invaluable preface to entering adland – where most of us spend our time talking to ourselves.
Eventually I was hired by the agency for whom I had done a project. (It was a great lesson. By all means stand up for what you think. But the world is small. So be nice to everybody. Chances are that you will meet them again).
What do you love about being a planner?
You get paid to be interested in the world about you. You get to work (and even become friends) with some of the most insane, talented, bizarre, and interesting people you’ll ever come across.
And you get to oil the wheels of capitalism.
What in your opinion makes a good planner?
I wrote this a while back – with a nod to the lovely folk at Good Design Advice.
I think I still stand by these words…
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing planning?
Planning manages to trip itself up in lots of ways that stop it from being as useful as it could be.
But I think I would go back to an essay written in 1989 by the father of account planning, Stephen King. In ‘The anatomy of account planning’, King posed a challenge to agencies and clients alike.
Never have his words seemed to prescient:
“Marketing companies today… recognize that rapid response in the marketplace needs to be matched with a clear strategic vision. The need for well-planned brand-building is very pressing. At the same time they see changes in ways of communicating with their more diverse audiences. They’re increasingly experimenting with non-advertising methods.
Some are uneasily aware that these different methods are being managed by different people in the organisation to different principles; they may well be presenting conflicting impressions of the company and its brands. It all needs to be pulled together. I think that an increasing number of them would like some outside help in tackling these problems, and some have already demonstrated that they’re prepared to pay respectable sums for it. The job seems ideally suited to the strategic end of the best account planning skills. The question is whether these clients will want to get such help from an advertising agency.
What agencies, and the account planners in them, would have to do is above all, demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job; apply ‘how marketing communications work’ thinking and R&D to a much wider area; probably bring in more outside talent, from marketing companies or other fields of communication; make more efforts to ‘go to the top’ in client contact (the one great advantage of the various specialists); and make sure that they get paid handsomely for the work. I very much hope that this can happen – I wouldn’t like to think of the best strategic planners leaving for the other sorts of company or of agency planners shifting wholly to adverttweaking.”
The question is (still) indeed whether clients want to get such help from an agency. And indeed whether agencies and their planners for their part, have the desire and ability to demonstrate that they have the breadth of vision and objectivity to do the job.
What’s your favourite example of unexpected thinking?
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
It is still recognisably a symphony – it’s still written for orchestra in four movements, with the first being in sonata form. So far, it holds true to the symphonic tradition.
However, the traditional scherzo movement follows the slow (third) movement – in symphonies the slow movement usually preceded the scherzo.
Furthermore, the fourth movement contains a symphony within a symphony – four movements played without interruption.
And to cap it all, the final movement incorporates Schiller’s Ode to Joy sung by a choir – the first time example of a major composer using the human voice on the same level with instruments in a symphony.
It’s a great reminder that what makes things original isn’t as Roger Scruton has put it, “their defiance of the past or their rude assault on settled expectations, but the element of surprise with which they invest the forms and expectations of a tradition.”
Nothing is created suis generis.
And this pushing back against, working with, reinterpreting and reinventing the past is essential to the production of new ideas. Triumphing in the struggle with the past, seeking to negotiate the past rather than be subsumed by it, to transform and reinvent its accomplishments through the injection of something new is the essence of creativity.
I hope you weren’t looking for an advertising example.
What’s your best tip for generating unexpected thinking?
I have two pieces of advice.
Clear your mind of the problem Do something completely different. Do something that stimulates the emotions.
It’s what James Webb Young called the ‘incubation stage’ of creative thinking. (He used to work at J. Walter Thompson. In 1939 he published a wonderfully wise and tiny book called A Technique For Producing Ideas that has more to say about the creation of ideas than many a newer and more fashionable text).
It’s a truth that clients and agencies can forget. Such is the pressure to deliver. People need the time to wander off. It’s an essential part of the process.
I owe my other piece of advice to the author Annie Dillard.
In her amazing book The Writing Life, she reminds us that our technical and emotional resources are the limits of what we may accomplish. She cites the painter Paul Klee who maintained that “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.”
Says Dillard: “The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.”
If we want as broad a palette as possible at out disposal, then we should ‘read around the subject’ as my teachers used to encourage.
And we should work at cultivating a personal hinterland. One filled with passions, crafts, skills, interests, and knowledge that extend far beyond the immediate needs and requirements of our jobs.
In the end, whatever it is, everything is input, everything is raw material.
Creativity after all, is joining dots no-one has yet thought of joining.
And if you’re reading and consuming the same stuff as everybody else, the chances are that you’re thinking the same as everybody else.
Which industry or group of people do you think are best at unexpected thinking?
They view the world through a very different lens. They’re unencumbered by convention. They join new dots and make new connections. They are masters of the unexpected.
At both a personal and institutional level I believe you need a wayward, childlike streak if you’re to have any hope of making anything truly fresh and surprising.