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  • David Meikle

If I could only ask one question in an advertising pitch

There was a time when it was enough to have a reasonable non-vocational degree from a reasonable university to make it in the advertising business – because you could learn the rest on the job. You’d learn about advertising strategies and ways of working, you’d learn about marketing, and you’d pick the rest up through some sort of process of osmosis. And on top of that you’d get a bit of training once every couple of years.

It’s not enough though, really, is it? And I doubt it ever has been enough.

Things have improved a lot, not least thanks to the continued efforts of the IPA. You can now tell the agencies that take learning seriously. They’ll have gold or even platinum IPA accreditations which mean that they have identified how their own business has measurably improved by their deployment of a training and development strategy.

This is all good stuff, but what about self-education?

Before the days of kindles and hot desks, there would be some account people whose offices were lined with books, almost like a library – but they were few and far between. More often there would be a few standard books that had either been collected as they’d been chanced upon or had been given as gifts. The difference is that the libraries’ books were usually well thumbed and the few standard books were usually pristine.

Self-education seems to be something that comes more naturally to planners. In my experience planners are intrinsically more inquisitive and want to find the answers even when they know there aren’t any. But people in account management and creative departments, as smart as they are, seem to read a lot less.

Smart people are not the same as smart and educated people in the business of advertising. The autodidacts who voraciously digest any new learning and constantly think how they can apply it – these people stand out in a crowd from those who don’t. As a friend of mine, once a creative director for one of London’s biggest agencies, used to say to aspiring account managers who asked him how they can succeed – “If you want to be really good at your job, just read 5 books about advertising. It can be any 5…I’ve got a bunch here you can borrow…and you will probably be better read on this business than most group account directors in London.”

When I ran a creative pitch for the Post Office in 2014, we used a question about self-education in the shortlisting process. We didn’t run a chemistry meeting where the client and agency traditionally show each other their well-rehearsed and well-dressed best selves, instead we ran a Q&A session. We wanted to really test the mettle of the people who would work on the business. Among about 18 questions we asked each of five agencies about advertising, brand strategies and their businesses, we asked this:

“What interesting books have you read about advertising, marketing or human behaviour in the last year or so?”

The answers were scored fairly and objectively according to a scale, so there were no right or wrong answers about which books anybody might have read (except if they listed Ogilvy on Advertising we agreed that it shouldn’t count – everybody should have read that at least). We graded answers according to the appetites for learning they indicated – nothing in the last year = 0 points, one person had read something = 1 point, and the account person and the planner who both had things to say in their answers rated 1.5 points.

What interested me was that, although it was a low-weighted question, as an acid test for the identification of talent it turned out to be highly illuminating. The agencies that fared best overall all had stellar answers about what their people had been reading. These agencies were seeking out and employing people with a constant hunger to learn more about their craft, people with an appetite to be better tomorrow than they were today: and who simply tried harder and aimed higher. And quite logically by aiming higher they hit higher.

The book question didn’t carry the score that determined whether one agency went through to the next round or not. But such were the differences it identified between people – those people to whom you would be entrusting your brand and your business – it made me think that if I had to pick an agency and I only had one question I could ask – this might just be it.

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