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Twist or Stick – Dare's Ben Wilkinson on going slower to go faster in advertising

The Drum and Twist Recruitment catch up with Dare’s head of account management, Ben Wilkinson, who shares the story of his career so far and offers advice for anyone looking to make it in the industry. His advice? Take your time and get things right first time.

As routes into the ad industry go, Ben Wilkinson, head of account management at Dare, has had a pretty enviable one. Fresh faced from university in 2000, he joined the graduate scheme at TBWA where he spent three years learning the ropes in account management – alongside being star-struck by agency “bigwigs” – before being offered the unusual opportunity of working directly with the agency’s then president of Europe, Paul Bainsfair.

Likening the pair’s relationship to that of The Simpsons’ Smithers and Mr Burns, Wilkinson says the two-and-a-half year tenure was a privilege and far surpassed what was intended to be a six-month experiment. But the world of account management at TBWA called again and he stayed for a further three years, until opportunity came knocking.

“I got a phone call to meet a lady called Leigh Thomas who was the new head of account management at Saatchi & Saatchi. I wasn’t particularly looking but went to meet her and was bowled over. She’s brilliant; she’s the reason I’ve come to Dare [Thomas was appointed chief executive in 2013] and the reason I stayed at Saatchi for about three-and-a-half years and did some amazing work.”

Creativity, it seems, is ingrained into Wilkinson’s psyche. Whilst at university he wrote a spoof script of the 1999 BBC documentary Walking with Dinosaurs, named it Walking with Students, and bagged some funding from the BBC to create it. The programme went on to win Best Comedy at the National Student Television awards, which Wilkinson describes as his “one and only personal creative moment”.

Despite dabbling in the world of TV, Wilkinson’s feet are firmly placed in the ad world and he reveals that one of the best things about the industry is that there are lots of bright people to bounce ideas off and to absorb pithy bits of advice from.

“My favourite one at the moment is go slower to go faster,” he muses. “I keep hearing myself saying this in meetings, but it’s the point where you have clients who demand things the next day and you’re running around so fast, but it’s often a model of inefficiency.

“If you build the time upfront and build the time to have better creative reviews, its normally better for a client because if you go back with creative work that’s bang on the money it’s brilliant; it’s an easy meeting and you get that solution first time rather than rushing, doing it badly again and again, and costing the agency money.”

Wilkinson cites the launch of mobile network EE, which was handled by Saatchi & Saatchi, as the best creative brief he’s had the chance to work on, not least because it was in an area that “people don’t care about”.

Quick fire questions

Favourite current brand?

Mr Porter

All-time favourite brand?

Really unhealthy but probably true...McDonald’s

Double espresso or green tea? Double espresso

Brightest person worked with?

In no particular order: Neil Dawson, Tom Morton and Ben Milligan

Most creative person worked with?

Paul Silburn

Independent or network? Independent

Money or happiness? Happiness

Twist or stick? Twist

“Magnus Djaba, chief exec of Saatchi, grabbed me a few years ago and started talking about this thing called ‘Everything Everywhere’, which I hadn’t heard of, and how we were going to combine these two brands and create something.

“I hadn’t even got my head around what he was talking about, but it was the launch of EE. It was a new brand and a new product [4G] in a category that people don’t care about. People are more interested in their choice of yoghurt than their telco provider. It was incredibly high profile with a huge budget, so 2012 was an exciting year.”

Another memorable pitch comes from Wilkinson’s time at TBWA when the agency was looking to secure an account for Channel 5. The team managed to get hold of an 8ft model of one of the main characters from The Bear in the Big Blue House – a programme on the broadcaster’s Milkshake kids TV strand – in an attempt to impress the Channel 5 team. The idea paid off as its marketing director, David Pullan, had a then four-year-old son who was huge fan of the character.

“He [Pullan] stopped the pitch to get on the phone to his wife to say get down to TBWA, so when we came out his son and wife were there and had their photos taken. I’m not saying that won the pitch but it didn’t hurt,” laughs Wilkinson.

Despite enjoying some incredible briefs and anecdotal moments over the course of his career, Wilkinson says there are still some aspects of the industry that he would like to see change, especially the ratio of people who say ‘no’.

“When you’re selling in a job like we do it’s about navigating stakeholders and it just seems that every year I spend in this industry there are more and more of them; more people who have the ability to go, ‘No, I don’t like that, can you change it?’ And only one person who says ‘yes’.”

Gripes aside, Wilkinson hails the ad industry as a meritocratic place that rewards those who are proactive and determined, a piece of advice he would perhaps offer up to the younger version of himself, who was less forthcoming.

“It’s something I’ve had to learn to do, it didn’t come naturally to me, but don’t wait for things to happen, go and make them happen.

“It’s the same with clients as well – don’t wait for the brief. That’s something I learnt from Magnus [Djaba]. We do the briefs, make them and take them to the client, and you’ll find you usually get more effective work, better work and happier clients.”

Interview by Paul Wood

Words by Natalie Mortimer

This feature was first published in The Drum's 6 August issue.

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