Matt Williams is back with a new series of An Hour of Advertising, in which he grills the great and good of the ad industry about their career highs and lows and the lessons they've learned along the way. First up in the hotseat this time around, it's one of modern adland's most outspoken characters.
Tom Goodwin is simply one of the most compelling, refreshing and recognisable thought leaders in our industry.
He began agency life at TBWA (via GlaxoSmithKline and an ill-judged TBWA Grad day, but we’ll get on to that later). His career path since then has been anything but linear. From new business roles at Lowe and Huge to strategy roles at IPG and Havas, he’s covered ground at some of the world’s biggest shops and is now the head of futures and insight at Publicis Groupe, helping clients understand how the world is (and perhaps as pertinently isn’t) changing.
At the same time, Tom has made a name for himself as one of advertising’s most engaging keynote speakers, building up a large following on social media thanks to his sharp mind and ability to call out the bullshit that our industry so often spouts.
He’s written for Forbes, the Guardian, TechCrunch, Wired, British GQ and more. And his book, Digital Darwinism, is an important read for anyone with ambition to drive their careers and companies forward.
In a fascinating conversation which took place just before Covid-19 changed our world forever, Tom reflects on what he’s learnt throughout his career, looks at the power of building a personal ‘brand’ and wonders why agencies still end up making such stupid mistakes…
Part one: costly timekeeping, misguided expectations, and why young people are both incredible and far less useful than they’ve been led to believe.
Do you remember the first time in your career where you really fucked up?
I’m not sure I remember the first time, because my career has been quite a gentle series of binary errors, rather than having one monumental fuck up. It sounds slightly trite, but I do quite enjoy making errors and being wrong. The awful embarrassment that some people have when they’ve made a mistake hasn’t really occurred to me. To answer your question more helpfully, I suppose the most dramatic time I fucked up was failing to turn up for a massive interview on the correct day.
That seems like a pretty impressive fuck up to me!
This was even before I got into advertising. I had a temporary summer job and when I was speaking to my boss, he told me that he thought I’d be great in advertising. It was the first time I’d ever really thought about it as an interesting career – I didn’t really know what it was before that. At that time, there was only one graduate scheme that still had time left to apply for the following year, and that was TBWA. So I applied for it – I didn’t really know how to answer any of the questions, but I did so honestly, and I got a letter back saying ‘congratulations, this is the day of your interview’.
There were going to be 300 people there on the day, they would do lots of interviews and workshops etc and whittle down the people as the day went on. I wrote down the day somewhere, and about four months later I was doing some work experience at a terrible PR agency, and I was walking to work when I got a phone call. It was somebody from TBWA asking where I was. I was completely shocked. I told them that I was pretty sure the interview was taking place tomorrow. It was down in my calendar as tomorrow and they were the ones who’d got it wrong. They said, “well, you might be right, but that means that 299 other people, plus the three of us on the reception desk, have got it wrong.” What was I to say to that!?
And what did you say?
I said “is there any point in me coming now?” And they actually said "yes, don’t worry, we’ll forget this happened, if you can arrive in 45 minutes and have all your speeches prepared and have your prop ready then you can still make it." I said "of course! I’ll be there."
I panicked, obviously, but I got there and actually ended up making it all the way to the final stage. I didn’t get the job in the end though, and the feedback I got was that I seemed a little bit arrogant. It was actually quite useful to hear that. For some reason, when you grow up in a small village, and go to a local school that’s not very special, you somehow get ordained with this presumption that you’re right until you’re proved wrong. So it was a good thing that it all happened as a very humbling experience.
But you still ended up at TBWA?...
Yes, because though I didn’t get picked, I remember loving the day – there was this beautiful experience where every time I said what I really believed, the person listening to me would smile, as if somehow I was ‘one of them’. I just loved it and really believed that I was right for advertising.
I ended up taking a job at GlaxoSmithKline, on its marketing graduate programme. And after about two-and-a-half years, I was very aware that this wasn’t what I should be doing. So I wrote to Jonathan Mildenhall, who was at TBWA and who I met on the day. I said "Jonathan, I work at GlaxoSmithKline, I get paid more than I ever thought I expected and I do much less work than I ever wanted to do. I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’d like to work in advertising and do the opposite." He invited me into the office and I was taken on as an account manager. And then proceeded to be one of the worst account managers that TBWA had ever had.
For someone who’s now had some rather interesting and eclectic job titles and roles, starting in account management seems quite traditional for you…
I think there’s a couple of reasons for that observation. Firstly, you don’t really get permission to do anything that interesting when you’re young. Because you’re not really that useful. I wish we could imbue within young people these two contradictory thoughts, in that one: they’re amazing and they’re going to be incredible and the world needs their knowledge and their skills. We should be massively in awe of what they have. But then at the same time two: most young people are far less helpful and far less useful than they have been led to believe.
I think when we’re young we feel like we have all this amazing value in different spaces and that companies should find ways to exploit that and create jobs around us. And the reality is – I can only speak for myself – I wasn’t particularly helpful. The things I thought I was very good at either weren’t very interesting or weren’t very helpful.
Part two: the benefits of working client-side, the lure of entrepreneurialism and what really sells Ribena…
Was there ever a time that you sat down and tried to shape a career plan?
Definitely not. There were definitely stages where I felt like I was swimming upstream – everything felt very hard in a way that it made me realise that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there also were moments where I felt like everything was easy and that I was definitely in the right place.
And it amazes me – I’m now 40 years old and there are times when I now realise I may finally be wise about some topics. I’m just starting to be aware of things like our obsession with salaries. We all have it early on. This need to get a promotion seems like a very, very big deal, until you look back on quite a few promotions and pay rises and realise that actually, none of them made anywhere near as big a difference as you thought they were going to. And the pay rises never really made any difference, because you just go from buying own-brand shampoo to Procter & Gamble shampoo to some sort of shampoo based on self-actualisation.
This sounds quite cliched, but it’s the situation that your job allows yourself to be in that’s really important. It’s about what you’re given the freedom to do, the knowledge that you’re able to pick up. It’s the culture that you can belong to. It’s very hard to know that when you’re outside the industry walls. I think everyone just has to relax a little bit about their career and know that there’s no point them thinking that BBH is perfect for them, or JWT is perfect for them, or R/GA is perfect for them. You just have to slowly sniff the bums of agencies and know when to join and when to leave.
Did starting client-side help you in understanding agency life?
It was 90% extremely helpful and 10% not helpful. What was really great is that you learned a lot about corporate politics and corporate rewards. You realised how massive these companies were and how huge things felt when you were in them. How keen everyone was on KPIs and annual performance reviews. It was a very orchestrated structure, based very much in a ‘command and control’ way.
You felt like you were part of a big army. It was all about compliance and going to conferences and clapping at the right lines. So I learned so much about ‘companies’. I learned so much about ‘marketing’ and ‘sales’. I have a lot of respect for GlaxoSmithKline off the back of it and I can see how some people really thrive there.
But I’m guessing that wasn’t necessarily for you!?
Personally, I was awful in such a big company. Because I have this weird, quite radical streak, where I don’t really like feeling the same as everyone else or being treated as a mass.
My other issue was that whatever perspective you had in marketing and sales, you believed that was the only one that really mattered.
What do you mean by that?
Well my particular role was very much about boosting distribution – ensuring establishments around the country were selling Lucozade and Ribena, doing sales promotions around it. You’re led to assume that the only thing that really mattered was how many facings of Ribena there were in the north, and that was the thing that drove sales.
Then, when you work at advertising agencies later on, you presume that the only thing that matters is how good the Ribena commercial is. Of course, then you get to my age and you look back and think what really mattered was simply something like whether it was hot that summer.
Staying broadly on your career path, you left TBWA and joined Lowe. Having spent so long trying to get into TBWA, what signalled the move?
This was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had, because it was probably the point where I’d say my career started to go well. I left TBWA partly because they realised I wasn’t very good as an account manager, and partly because I realised that I definitely wasn’t very good as an account manager. But I also wasn’t really part of this ‘advertising rah-rah’. At TBWA, the creative directors were these small ‘gods’ that everything was orchestrated around. The 60-second TV ad was the atomic of their world, and I didn’t really buy that as a single solution.
So I decided to leave and I ended up joining Lowe to work on a series of Nokia projects. I became a ‘producer person’. Basically, whenever they had a project that they didn’t really know how to do in their conventional process, they’d ask me. And it meant that I got into ‘making things’. I was doing things that were much more experimental and on the periphery of advertising. It was my job to be entrepreneurial and make stuff happen.
What type of work did you end up making?
Well for example, Nokia had a phone that was very good at making videos, so my brief was to take $250,000 and go and find some famous people to make short films on a phone. And things like usage rights hadn’t really been designed for phones then, so I’d just go on forums and print my own contracts, just do what was needed and think a bit differently to make things happen.
It was at that point that I really fell in love with the tonality of what we did. I loved that we could be entrepreneurial. I loved that we could take risks. That we could look ahead to how these devices were going to change the world. That’s when things started going really well.
Part three: the importance of mentors, the best way to decide your next career move, and why agencies end up saying such stupid things…
You went on to take a role as a business development director at Lowe. How useful did you find that, looking more internally and being less client-facing?
It was a totally different role to anything I’d done before. That’s one of the many wonderful things about advertising – there are so many jobs within an agency that you can learn from and help shift your perspective. Understandably and respectfully, often when you work in client service, then your universe is 90% that client. I remember when I was at TBWA and worked on Nivea Sun – on a Saturday I’d go in to Boots to see how it was faring and do mini ‘competitor reviews’ with other sun products. Maybe I didn’t have enough friends. But still, I was 90% Nivea and 10% TBWA account handling.
Then, when you do something like new business, your entire world is that agency. You care about all the work that the team has done, you care about consultants and you care about other competitive agencies. You see the world in a very different way.
Was that what you expected at the time?
I went into new business because the guy who ran the Nokia account I was working on had become a bit of a mentor to me. So when we lost the Nokia business, he pulled me into his office and said, ‘let’s do some new business together’.
It was a huge moment – I don’t know if mentorships are much of a thing anymore, but the notion of finding people who you respect and you can learn from – and then asking them for help – is something we don’t do enough.
So you picked the person, not the job?
It’s probably becoming a theme throughout this chat and I’m sure it sounds a bit hopeless, but the most positive, aggrandising way at looking at how I’ve made decisions throughout my career is that it’s driven by emotion and gut rather than strategy.
I think young people today are expected to have plans straight from university because they have bigger debts and life seems a little more overwhelming. There’s more pressure these days. I did a degree because I found it interesting, I thought I’d probably end up with a decent job afterwards but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I stayed in advertising because I loved the spirit of it. I moved to America because I knew I always wanted to live there at some point. I made decisions based on feelings – and I don’t think that’s a bad idea actually.
What makes you think that?
Because so much of what we do is about how well you get on with people. It’s easy for people to think on social media that I’m so anti the ‘Kool-Aid’ of the industry, that I’m so angry the whole time. It’s definitely not that I don’t like advertising; my cynicism and sceptical feelings come out because I love this industry. I think it’s a privilege that we get to have the conversations we have. I just get really frustrated that so often we end up saying and doing stupid things.
What is it about agencies and the industry that pushes us into making such stupid decisions then? Is it ego? Is it the way we’re set up?
I definitely don’t have an immediate, brilliant answer to that question. Part of it is that our industry has been pressurised in the last 15 years into feeling that it needs to be more like a ‘business’. I would say that 25 years ago you could sell yourself on being these quirky, creative, interesting people. And over time it’s become that you’re selling yourself through case studies that contain lots of data and clever processes. You sell your agency by the number of awards that you’ve won and the number of dots you have on a map.
And that shift has got to a point where we now need to speak ‘the language of business’. We wrap ourselves up with expressions that come off the tongue quite nicely, because it’s the shared language of expertise – things like ‘core capabilities’ sound like something from a McKinsey diagram. We talk about five-step attribution models and cloud-based data systems that drive personalisation. We’ll say terrible things like ‘data-driven insight’. Which doesn’t actually mean anything, but is an expression that makes everyone feel better.
So are agencies now scared to be different?
I think so. It always shocked me – particularly when I came to America – of how many pitches we’d go into where we still wouldn’t really know if we wanted to win them, and where we’d still be afraid to say anything different from other agencies in order to win them. You got the feeling that it was more important to follow lots of logical and safe steps that meant you could never be blamed for anything, rather than do something that was different but could maximise the chance of having something good happen. It's created a culture of risk aversion, which I think means that people feel safest when they use the same language as everyone else.
Does that mean you feel like you’re sometimes floated as the ‘wildcard’ by your agencies when it comes to things like pitches and client meetings? Let’s bring someone in with ‘innovation’ in the title?
The notion of innovation has only really developed in the last five years or so. And I think it’s only been in the past five years where I’ve become a little bit ‘notable’ and a little bit ‘known’. And even then, you don’t really know how ‘known’ you are, because people take great pride in making sure they come across as if they’ve got no idea who you are.
So for the first few years of ‘innovation’ being a big thing, I was definitely some sort of anonymous, shiny thing in pitches. And you’d always be the token bit. You were the ‘and finally…’. "Tom’s going to show you what we could do with a VR headset", or "Tom’s going to say that millennials use their phone a lot." Normally the time had run out by then anyway.
Then I think it got to the point where people realised that I wasn’t necessarily the most compliant person, and that I would say things that would either go down so spectacularly well that they would be jealous of me stealing focus, or so badly because it made people feel undermined… so after a while I wasn’t really invited to do many pitches!
Part four: the oddities of agency thought leadership, building the Tom Goodwin ‘brand’ and what ‘innovation’ really means…
As someone who is a ‘thought leader’ in the industry, do you ever feel pressure to ensure what you write is best representing your agency?
For some reason the industry is obsessed with the idea that an agency needs to have a point of view. Which to me is extraordinary. If I was a client, I’d love to have an agency that had someone who thinks that insights are the most important thing ever and they must all be informed by data, but then also someone who thought that was complete nonsense and a total waste of time. Because then when I was bored, I’d just phone them up and ask them what they think about something. I’d listen to their argument and realise that something wonderful actually comes from when people have differing opinions.
For some reason we’ve become obsessed with the idea that all our thoughts have to be neat and tidy, and we need to have an agency point of view that everyone needs to belong to. I’m not sure that should be the case.
How conscious are you about your ‘brand’?
I suppose it’s worth knowing the ‘reasons’ why I have a degree of an audience. One is that I was brought up with parents who are quite subversive people. They were both teachers, they’re not ‘liberal, granola types’, but they’re both people who question things. They have an inherent sense of self-belief in the notion of debate and question. And somehow that’s imbued me with this sense of not really believing things immediately. I’m not a wild, rebellious person, but I’m open to the idea of debate and having your own opinion. I believe it’s important to question things. My parents showed me you can do that whilst also being happy and optimistic. You can be sceptical without being cynical.
So how did you ‘break through’ in this space?
When I first started writing, I didn’t have any corporate communication department to send things through, because I’d just left IPG Medialab. I could just be honest about stuff. That all created this slightly carefree, slightly energised, slightly subversive person.
I wrote a lot about how content marketing was a complete waste of time. It was talking about how we’ve got more content than ever before, a lot of it is really good and we don’t even have time to watch that, so who really gives a shit about what fabric softener says about the story of their founding?
And I think because the world isn’t actually full of interesting external opinion pieces, it was picked up. That doesn’t mean we don’t all have interesting conversations – I think in the pub we all share opinions and they can be genuinely fascinating and provocative – but suddenly when they get put into the press, they become pretty boring. So because these were different, they seemed to take off. It was never my intention to have a ‘brand’; I have a personality, I have a viewpoint, and increasingly over time I became a little more ‘authenticated’ and ‘approved’ and it appeared to be quite useful.
But nothing was ever run through a ‘Tom Goodwin brand filter’?
I don’t think there’s ever been a piece to date where I’ve thought ‘is this on brand?’, ‘is this tweet in my brand tone?’ or ‘where is my brand going?’ And I refuse to. I do have to be slightly more mindful that I don’t accidentally mess up people’s careers, or don’t accidentally ruin pitches that other people are working on, but I’m not going to change who I am because of it.
A lot of your roles within the industry have been working for the networks. That surprises me, because the general consensus is that the ‘rebels’ and the counter-cultural individuals tend to shun them…
I think it would be easy to overthink this. Until about 2006/07, I worked for places that just ‘happened to be’ networks. When I was at Lowe I made the active decision to work at one, but that was because it was the only way to get a visa to move to America. And then when I was in America, I had to work at one because that’s the only thing my visa would allow me to do.
Hopefully this doesn’t make me sound too dismissive of myself, but the reality is that in innovation, you are an overhead. The only way you can do your job in a way that is intellectually pure and interesting is to be an overhead. The moment you start getting billed out to clients is the moment that you end up being somewhat contaminated. And because I was always not particularly client billable, I could only really work at big agencies.
A lot of your early musings were on brands – and particularly agencies – being engaged in an awful lot of ‘talk’ but not a lot of ‘doing’…is that still a problem?
I think it’s an absolutely massive problem in a lot of places. There’s something about scale that makes ‘doing’ very hard. When I go to Australia and New Zealand, the quality of work I see is absolutely incredible. Because you’re at a scale where you can really make a difference. But there’s something about the scale of many of the clients that exist in America in particular, where these companies are so big and sell so many products and make so much money, that you end up with these vast teams of people. And vast teams of people are very hard to get anything you want to do through.
I spent a long time really trying to change that. Literally barging into meeting rooms saying "hey, we should just do this". I spent a long time putting my own career at risk by going several ladders up to more senior people, avoiding all the right processes, and I’ve realised that even then it’s hard to even get close to making anything happen. We somehow think of innovation as this fun thing to do on a Friday afternoon that involves lots of Post-it Notes. And it’s almost like the more Post-it Notes, the more successful it’s been. But for me, innovation is the opposite to that.
Innovation is literally forcing yourself backstage at the AGM, grabbing the CEO and showing them a prototype that you’ve made, with a budget that you’ve stolen from procurement.
Part five: improving flexible working, embracing social media and the industry’s ‘talent crisis’…
We talk a lot about side-hustles and we talk a lot about mental wellbeing in the industry right now. As someone who works quite unconventionally, what’s your take on that?
I think there’s a danger with people like me that I look at things I’ve enjoyed and succeeded from and presume that it’s what other people also like doing. So I can only speak for myself. But I think our industry would be much better served by changing many things. I think we should be much better at remote working – this idea that we should have working hours is nonsense. This idea that we should have a set number of days off, or all go into an office at the same time and check emails whilst sitting next to each other is nonsense.
I think we need to radically change many of those assumptions. And for me I would love to employ people who spent 50% of their time in advertising and 50% of their time doing different stuff. It might be writing a book, being a teacher, playing an instrument – I just think that anything we do that allows our brains to develop in different ways develops our skills and perspective on what we do.
And you find that personally too?
I’m quite lucky in that I have about 20 different income streams from about 20 different things. And actually, in the time it takes to set up a Shopify site to sell my book and to take out Facebook ads to promote it, I learn more about media than I do in about five weeks going into the office.
I think somehow we feel like all the ‘other’ stuff is the edge of our career, whereas really it’s the centre of our career. What we say in meeting rooms in our agencies should almost be this wonderful accident that happens on the side.
We’ve mentioned your prominence on social media – what’s your take on things like Twitter and LinkedIn as places to grow our industry community and to learn off each other?
I’m kind of overwhelmed by how magical the internet can be. I’m very aware how lucky I am, so I never want to be seen as out of touch or smug, but I always struggle with the amount of negativity that I see on places like Twitter. Now there are lots of things happening in the world that’s really worrying – whether it’s climate change, income and equality, the treatment of women in corporate America, or a whole host of shitty topics – and the internet can be a dangerous place to hurt as well as help those issues.
But you also can’t deny that the fact that something like Wikipedia exists is absolutely incredible. As a teaching authority, Wikipedia has probably brought more value to mankind than the combination of every university in the whole world. You can go on YouTube and learn how to do pretty much anything, and I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about how incredible that is.
In what way?
I believe everyone is born curious, and then life tends to batter that out of people. Because life tells them that they have too many pages open on their browser, or they get told off for looking at their screens for too long. But we have curiosity and we have the internet – put those things together, and it basically means that anything is more possible for anyone than ever before.
Your new role has an emphasis on developing diverse talent – so what do you look for when you hire talent?
A lot of large companies still do recruitment in quite a traditional way. Following recruitment processes that involve structures and processes which I find quite frustrating. I think things like resumes and CVs are deeply unimaginative ways both for someone to express themselves and for others to judge them.
I also think that a lot of recruitment is driven by reducing the chance of something going wrong, rather than maximising the chance for making something amazing happen. Because we’re always going to pick someone with a university degree because it’s quite an easy way to justify that a person can only be so bad. I’d almost prefer it the other way around, where we get seven completely crazy looking characters, where five of them will make things really challenging for us, but two of them turn out to do something amazing.
Is this one of the cases though where agencies will say nice things but never really change their ways?
I wish as an industry we could be more comfortable with many changed assumptions about talent. What happens if we recruit people to work 50% for us? What happens if we recruit people who are ‘surprisingly old’? Why don’t we actively find people who have had businesses that have just gone bankrupt? People who have been through hard processes, who need our support but who have lots of learnings from the mistakes they made? There are so many interesting things we could do that would be nice to experience.
So does the industry have a ‘talent crisis’?
This is me being slightly moany at the end, but I don’t think we’ve done as much studying on the ‘talent crisis’ as we should have. People stand on stage and say ‘we’re in a talent crisis, we’re losing all of our best people to Facebook’. I don’t know if that’s the case. Perhaps we’ve never been the number one choice of industry for people. And perhaps we’re not really losing the best people to tech companies, perhaps we’re just losing the most compliant or slightly greedy people to tech companies – and I’m not sure we really want those people.
I do think there’s a problem with the interface between the education process and going on to do a career. When I have interviewed graduates, quite often they know very little about our industry. And I do think that across industries we need to do a much better job of nurturing people and being supportive of them. And whilst this might sound contrary to some things I said earlier, when people have been in the industry for a while, we should do a much better job in working around them, rather than expecting them to work to our needs. When there are remarkable people, we have to be able to facilitate them.
Illustrations by Nancy Giordano