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Interviu - 21 Iunie 2017
Talking to Saul Betmead: from the ad business to brand coins to politics and more

Talking to Saul Betmead: from the ad business to brand coins to politics and more

Saul Betmead, Chief Strategy Officer Young & Rubicam EMEA is one of the strategic minds behind the Vodafone Red Light campaign, awarded Grand Prix in Media at Cannes 2016 and Warc Innovation Prize, and the McWhopper campaign, awarded Grand Prix in Cannes 2016.

de Raluca Turcanasu

He was the president of the Romanian Effie jury this year and held an Effie Talk: „Creativity in a new world order of expectation”.

We wanted to go deeper in the topics he presented at the seminar and had a long, lively & lovely chat with Saul:

Tell us a bit about your first steps in advertising:

If you want to have a degree to work in Strategy, you should probably go for Psychology and Anthropology, because Psychology is looking inward, understanding people, what makes them tick, behaviour, while Anthropology is about culture and.. the relationship between the two works really well.

I wasn’t very much aware that there was anything else than Client Service when I started, I applied for a job at Saatchi as Grad Trainee. I just got a job. And I think it was as much luck as skill. 2000 people applying for 4 jobs. I just started doing Client Service and I did that for a long while, I was Managing Partner for Saatchi Australia...I ended up doing that and then I had some time off.

This is a classic planner thing, I ended up doing 2 circles.

Yeah, the Venn.

The classic Venn. And I was – what am I good at and what do I like doing. And in the middle was „I like thinking about bigger problems and just  trying to analyze things”. I am better at that than just day to day tasks. I am not very good at Project Management, I am not very organized. I am very good at deconstructing things and putting them back together and building... I am good at writing case studies and also just interested in things and people.

And I think, when you get to a certain level, and in this business, you need to be good at marketing, at business, you need to be a good strategic person, a good creative person, you need to understand finance.

If you look at my relationship with my creative partner, Jamie, he’s very good. We have quite similar skills, there’s a lot of crossovers. He’s a very good strategist, I have it fairly good as copywriter. But you know, he is better at certain things and I am better at other things. I’ve always had an issue with the strict definition... So what, if you’re an Account manager you can’t have a view on the strategy or the creative?  And it’s disempowering: why would you stay in the business if your job is to always look at timelines?

When I’m in meetings I always ask more junior people „Hey, what do you think?”. Most people, if you give them permission, they are usually smarter than they think they are. They are usually smarter than me.  But Y&R is much more different, it’s much flatter, it’s much more open and friendly.

For example, I spent 2 years, with a good degree from university, photocopying and laying out the table, make sure there are pens. 2 years! Don’t get me wrong, it was great fun and I learned a lot about clients... But seriously? And my friends were bankers or management consultants earning 8 times as much and actually having proper conversations. We get there in the end but I don’t think we are very good at managing people at the beginning.

You had quite some stamina going from this junior exec position to Managing Partner and then crossing over to Strategy...

Yes, but I suspect this was because I’ve never really known what I wanted to do. Like my father and my brother are musicians, my dad is a folk musician, my brother is a producer and hip hop musician. They had a calling and they are both very talented. I am good at lots of things, I am not veeery good at anything and I couldn’t think about anything else to do.

Have you heard of The Onion, the online satirical magazine? It’s very funny. 

It steps out of line sometimes, but once they had this... when the merger between Publicis and Omnicom was announced, the headline was „A company announces the largest gathering of people with no discernable skill”.

It is true, most people haven’t got any real training. It is an on the job training.’s a job that allowed me to travel the world, it’s still interesting, because it’s constantly changing, and I can’t think of any other job like that, without having to retrain or finish my PhD in Psychology. Also, I’m quite scruffy and I get to wear suits, and I like suits.

So, to answer properly, It was a question of not knowing what to do and I also started enjoying it more the more senior I got. It’s stressful, but it fits my psychology: I get to work on several projects, I get involved in the creative process, I get to meet really interesting clients with really interesting problems, I get to do things like this, I get to come to a completely new country and experience it, you can’t get wrong with stuff like that.

And what would your advice for other account people who think about making this crossover? to wait there in Account Management until they gather enough experience and then make this crossover?

Good question. I think it depends, agencies are very different from each other...So for example I worked for some friends of mine who were bought by Accenture. They are called The Monkeys – a very impressive agency in Australia,Mark Green is the CEO and he is a very good judge of creative work. Agencies like that, or like Anomaly, are quite organic. When you’re in a room you can’t necessarily tell who is a creative person and who isn’t, by who wears a suit. My gut feeling is that you are not happy you should change. Nobody should stay in a job they are not happy with. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it... But agencies have very different relations with different functions so if you are not happy go and try something else, and you can always come back. Just have a really hard look at yourself and be honest.

You know, the functions are quite similar, building relationships with the client, who’s job is that? It’s everyone’s job.

But as a business, are we good at training people? Probably could be better.  I think we tend to not put enough emphasis on the actual skill. Cause it’s quite difficult to actually explain... Like accountancy, I know what an accountant does, but  what does an advertising person do, what is that person like? I don’t know.

I think you just need to listen to yourself: „Can I keep doing this without feeling it will destroy me?”


Referring a bit to your talk earlier, you were mentioning the Golden Age of Marketing, that we currently should be in. What do you predict will follow it?

Well, for me the really exciting stuff is the fact that we have the ability, with technology, to really really help clients and customers with the stuff they got going on with the product or with the brand. I think we will evolve, the really good companies and agencies will evolve to being those sort of companies that will really help partners to take the next step. Cause I think just doing communications is not going to be enough anymore.

We have this company called Icon Mobile which is this kind of anomaly in our network. All they do really well is to create...well, you’ve heard of the Internet of Things, they are basically that. They did very very impressive business. They did the Oral-B Bluetooth Tootbrush: you get your dentist to help you program it, it tells you how to brush your teeth. They gamified it so if you brush your teeth for 2 minutes in the right way, you get access to this next level of the game. But it’s a black box, quite frankly when I’m brushing my teeth I have no idea what I’m doing. But it monitors it and it says „you are missing this bit at the back” or „you are pressing too hard on this bit”. They do the operating systems for BMW and VW.  Really interesting.

And is that our business? Arguably it is now. Where is the line? If you’re looking at brand experience, where is the line between what we do and what a technology company does, that is involved in brand experience? I don’t know, that’s interesting and it’s also extremly hard. We need to define what are we.

It’s extremely complicated. You know, the Vodafone Red Light App, that involves a brilliant client with a great bunch of creative people. Who’s to say whose job that would be? It’s really exciting!

So the question would be... shall we help clients create better functionalities for our customers or shall we be smarter in communication?

Well, I think it’s both. If you have it within you power to do that, yes you should.  I think the AQUA Scanner it’s a great example. It’s a communication device but it’s also brand utility. It’s taking what it’s essentially something people don’t have much of a relationship with and making it useful to them. Water is quite difficult to have a relationship with, so it’s quite clever. And then you have the part of communicating it as part of the problem, but maybe if you do something so smart you don’t have to...that is the communication cause we have something to talk about.

So this is where we are headed after this golden age J

Yeah. If you look at Cannes for example, the work that comes out is extraordinary, it’s like „ahh that’s really good shi*”

yes,  it’s a blend of reshaping technologies and communicating them in a brand-proper way.

We should ask ourselves what business are we in. If you look for example at The Monkeys in Australia or our Y&R office in Turkey. They sit in the middle of technology, entertainment, comms, what are they? They do TV programs for example. And why not? if you’re good at creative things, if you’re good at crafts, why not? It’s fascinating.

It’s a very exciting time to be in our business,  but it’s slightly terrifying.

About technology – how do you think virtual currencies will be impacting our business?

If you look at it from a loyalty point of view for example, if you’ve got lots of interactions with a company, can you earn points that you can then use outside that company’s sphere? So for example I’ve got Vodafone and I earn credits with them, can I then use those outside their business?  I think O2 do it really well, where you can actually use credits in the real world, outside their business model. And that’s interesting.

But the line between the value a client can give you through an interaction with them, making it useful outside that category is interesting. Maybe it’s not bitcoin, maybe it is...

And there’s a whole conversation about investing in time rather than money. And I’ve done this along the years, I’ve been consulting and in return I got equity. I also have a friend who does this, he’s an architect and instead of getting paid he gets equity in the bars or restaurant he designs.

Let’s go a bit more in depth on the trends. People want more experiences instead of owning products, we have Pride (and now the pride like)...we don’t trust our governments, it seems like the world keeps changing.

Well, it’s all fake news, fascinating. Who do you trust, you know? We were with Facebook a couple of months ago and we were trying to think how will they tackle this because it seems what we see in the Newsfeed had a profound impact on the political situation and the security of the world. People believe what they see in their feeds and given how powerful they are, companies have a responsability to try and check, and help us navigate what is good and what is bad.

The traditional press at least fact-checks and tries to make sure it’s doing the right thing. It makes mistakes, I’m sure, but still... That whole area is fascinating.

Who do you trust, with information? How do I know that what I’m being served is accurate and true? That’s interesting.  Cause it defines my reality. I mean, look at the elections. People, because they live in a social bubble...for example I just assumed we were going to vote in, because of my social bubble, because I didn’t know anybody, not one person who was going to vote out. And then, the next thing you know, I was in Cannes and we decided to leave.

People share things they believe in. There is this psychological theory, limiting beliefs, and it starts off very young. It’s very simple, you construct stories around things that happened to you when you were young. And you keep doing it, you look for things that build a story rather than go against it so if you’ve got a political belief that is slightly left wing or right wing you look for evidence in that direction, cause it makes you feel better. And it’s hard for you to challenge it, it takes a lot of effort to challenge it.

I was thinking that young people don’t really trust the system anymore, like it happened in France now, they didn’t trust any of the two candidates. They had banners saying „Ni Le Pen, Ni Macron, Ni Patrie, Ni Patron”. It becomes quite an obsolete system.

Yeah, it’s an interesting point. For me, coming back to the point that most people, especially younger generations, have an understandable lack of trust in institutions because they have been covering stuff up for so long, politicians do it, corporations do it... The global financial crisis, that was fundamentally people lying to people trying to sell them mortgages, so it is not surprise that a group brought up with Social Media can challenge (in social media) easier what an authority is. There was a time when someone said something and people believed it. Same with the medical pressure, people believed doctors because they were doctors.

So inherently it’s a good thing, we have much more informed group of people, who have a moral compass, they are much more likely to make decisions based on values, much more likely than my generation.

And the French, I live in France and they make better decisions than the British. If you look at it from 11 candidates 5 candidates could have won it, it’s very unusual. It’s the massive change...look at Melechon, he won a lot of votes, he could have easily been up there. And the people were disappointed, he represented what they wanted. I suspect Macron is going to be interesting, he is clearly a highly intelligent person. And I think he is going to shake the system because somethink like 70% of the people he works with haven’t been involved in politics.

Brexit again is close to my heart, look at the way young people voted versus older people. I think we should consider the idea of weighting the votes in a referendum, based on how long the person will be living with that decision. If you’re 25 and you voted in the referendum, your vote should value more than the vote of a 65 year old, who is going to live with it for 20 years. So, like this we would have stayed in. In the US election it wouldn’t have worked like that... But it’s fascinating the decision process of the younger generation versus the older generation.

Where do you think advertising is headed in this ever changing context?

I think the nature of self, of what we perceive ourselves as human beings is much more fluid than it used to be. So it’s ok to be different than our parents generation. But in advertising we need to make sure we don’t deliver stereotypes to people. Stereotypes is oversimplifying how people communicate.

And this conects with what you were saying about fluid brands.

you’re right and I think you don’t need to be structured in everything you do, not every little thing. You just need to be open minded about who you can be and what you are representing.

Since we were talking about the blend between technology and communication, how do you feel about artificial intelligence?

I think the debate of how it will impact our future is interesting, I am not a specialist in this topic, but as long as it serves the brand purpose, of making the customer experience easier (like chat bots for example) and it’s helping you, it’s a good thing. But I don’t share the concern that we will have Terminator-like technology, that AI will take us over and so on.



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