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Nick Woods, Waggener Edstrom

Nick Woods is Head of Consumer & Creative Director, Waggener Edstrom UK/EMEA: he is either a strategic creative or a creative strategist across a number of WE’s biggest European accounts. His role involves developing sharable, relevant, multi-channel content for both consumer and business audiences, building an agency-wide “experimental mindset”, and working with partners to continually widen the agency’s integrated offer.
Nick has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands and organisations including Harley-Davidson, Johnnie Walker, Sky TV, AVG, British Airways, Unilever, KFC, Remington, Russell Hobbs, Nestle and Energizer.

Can you talk us through the creative process at WE?
Like a lot of big agencies and probably some smaller ones too, there’s always creative in development somewhere in the agency, ranging from small tactical social content creation through to big brand-wide concepts.
As for process, it all starts with planning: our insight and analysis team do a lot of social listening and use tools like TGI and Mintel and tech like programmatic advertising to help define audiences, motivations, paths to purchase and so on.
Then the account team and the creative involved will work with the I&A guys to hammer out what is an insight or two that is worth taking into creative development.
The creative development itself depends on the scale of what we’re trying to do, but if for instance we’re in a pitch situation and trying to come up with one big central idea, what we’ve started to do is almost an ad agency approach, dividing the agency up into two-man teams, giving them a written brief and two or three days to think about it whether that’s in the shower or at the pub or in the gym – the places where our subconscious works. Then each team comes back and feeds back to a central individual and more often than not there’s a nugget of something that can get exploded into something bigger.

That ad agency model seems like an approach that’s starting to catch on in PR.
It democratises the whole process and means briefs are being thought about in different places, consciously and subconsciously. It means the people who are quiet in brainstorms have their voices heard more clearly and the people who come up with 30 ideas have to edit them and only give three or five.
Traditional brainstorms are pretty restrictive… a bunch of people in a room, in the agency, being pushed down certain paths. This approach allows people to create and explore their own paths which almost by definition will lead them to more varied and interesting places.

Do you use any tools?
The creativity tools that I know well tend to be brainstorm-facilitation tools but because we’re not doing so many brainstorms there’s just not as much need.
Traditionally the view was that you have to run a brainstorm well in order to get good ideas, but that presupposed that the people in the room were capable of developing the creative that you want developed.
What I think more agencies need to focus on is getting the teams who enter the room more aware of what’s going on in the world around them and how to bridge that into their client work or to their new business work.

Do you formally assess the team’s creativity?
We assess it in that we ask clients on a six-monthly basis about the creative input from the team – as well as the strategic input and the general account handling – as part of our overall health-check with clients.
And we’re probably at a point where we’re beginning to think, “How do we reward people who actively try and increase the size of their creative muscle?” I think that’s important, because there are some people who naturally gravitate towards doing creative work and there are others who, for whatever reason, just don’t. The world of PR these days is very broad with coders, planners, account handlers, researchers, media relations experts – a whole host of things. I think if we’re assessing for creativity we shouldn’t be punishing people for ‘not being creative’, but we might want to look at rewarding people for their deliberate growth in that field in the same way we reward planners, researchers and account handlers for improving their technical skills.

Do you feel that clients currently prize genuine creativity over a desire to tick all the boxes/cover all bases, or do you tend to feel that the opposite is true?
In most organisations they want genuine creativity, but genuine creativity varies by client. One client’s subversive, disruptive, original thinking is another client’s “meh”.
The skill of the agency is in judging where on the spectrum a particular client and client organisation sits.

If you could only change one thing to improve creativity either in your business or the wider industry, what would it be?
I can’t pick just one thing.
I would have a more diverse workforce – such as more non-Londoners, more people from non-white middle-class backgrounds, more mums, more jocks, more artsy-types, more coders, mathematicians; I’d have better training – creative abilities can be innate in some people but most people need to exercise their creative abilities; better education of clients – how can we expect stronger briefs and braver responses if we’re not prepared to help clients develop in these areas and give them the tools and language to help sell our thinking deeper into their organisation; a clearer definition of what a good idea is because most agencies have no agency-wide agreed view; and more insight developed to ensure that the ideas are more consistently rooted in something that has genuine brand meaning.
Those are just thought starters.

What do you think the PR agency of five years’ time will look like in terms of creativity?
Hopefully all of the above.
PR used to be, “Can you come up with an angle that is right for the Sun and The Times and Cosmo, and they all needed slightly different angles,” which requires a very clear amount of creativity.
Today, given where we are with social, digital, mobile and that whole explosion, and the way that the media has reduced to become just one, indirect, route to reach people, our creative development has to mature.
At the moment it’s a relatively immature offer from most agencies – though some, obviously, are very good, with consistently creative processes – but I think in five years’ time we will see more specialists operating in this field, we’ll see more consistent use of tools, we’ll see more awards at things like Cannes. The whole thing will just feel slightly more grown-up, slightly more mature, slightly more professional on a wider and more consistent basis across the industry.

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