Interview with George Bryant

George oversees the agency’s ‘Make It Up’ team of multi-disciplinary creatives, designers and strategists. He is passionate about ideas that change things for the better and has led the modernisation of brands as diverse as The Olympics, Orange, Guinness, Tate Modern and the country of Iceland. Previous roles include:

Head of Planning for AMV BBDO, Head of Strategy at Mother London and TBWA LA. He has been widely published and recognised in Campaign’s A-list every year since its inception. 

Happiness is the most important thing and happiness is defined by the set of relationships that you have.

Can you tell me about your background?

One of the things that really characterised it was not fitting in. My parents are both teachers and we were very middle class from South London. I had an education gene in me so I wanted to stay at school. I lived on the wrong side of my primary school, everybody lived on one side and I lived on the other. I went to a secondary school and I lived about four miles away and everyone else was two miles away. It was cool but I always felt I was the middle-class kid in quite a working-class school.

I was only middle class really because my parents were teachers, and because of the education gene so I ended up going to Oxford. I went to a school where there were two hundred kids and it was voted the worst school in London. It had no sixth form and it closed down two years after I left. Out of the two hundred kids, three of us went on to further education at sixteen.

But I was very happy and I think I wouldn’t be where I am today if it had been a little bit different in the gene pool and because of a home environment that clearly valued learning. My dad always said part of going to school is learning how to learn, and you don’t realise it at the time but that’s exactly what it is.

So you were a good student?

Yes I was. I didn’t love it but I could do it. As the ‘middle-class kid’ what got me through secondary school was being good at football – I was the captain otherwise I would probably have had the shit kicked out of me!

When did you know you wanted to get into advertising?

It was late during my last year of university. I am quite an organised person so I didn’t want to leave university and be in the outside world. I wanted to leave to go to something. I went to a few milk round things like city stuff etc and then I saw advertising and thought I quite liked it. In hindsight it was obvious because I’m obsessed with film and culture. I love films and music and all that stuff. I’m good at numbers, logic, and patterns. So I said  ‘OK, well advertising is all about looking at culture and patterns of business and merging them’.

In simple terms what is planning?

Planning is basically a strategy in an agency. You have account people who sell work and you have a creativity base that writes the ads. The strategists effectively identify the problems that need solving and then make sure they are solving them with the right solutions. You have to understand people, research, culture, and the real world.

This is because advertising, development, and clients live in this hermetically sealed thing called advertising, research and marketing. So the planner’s role is to be out there but inside. It starts off with the consumer but actually it’s really about understanding the way culture will respond. Research, listening to people, and talking and watching things.

What made you decide to go for planning?

I started as an account person, although I would have loved to have been a planner from day one. The reason for planning is because I did psychology as a degree and although it was science, actually it was an art. I did engineering, economics and management in my first year at Oxford and I hated it, because it was the same answers to the same questions every year.

There was either a wrong or a right and a black or a white – there was no scope for invention. With psychology, it all seemed to be an invention. You would find different sources, put them together, and tell a compelling story. That’s what I do in planning.  People think it’s a science but it’s an art. It’s about finding different sources and weaving them into a tale.

How important do you think education is to get into advertising and planning?

I think education is fundamental. Planning is ultimately all about people and insight. It’s having that thirst for the next great idea. I always say half of my salary is paid in great ideas. I could have got a job in the city and doubled my salary but I’m obsessed with ideas. This is because I’m obsessed with learning and because I think every idea you come across is like the next chapter.

I think you have to be obsessed with learning because you have to be obsessed with ideas. That’s the fuel of planning. It’s always looking at the thing a different way or hearing someone say something unlocks something else. It’s looking at what they’re doing over there and saying ‘Look, we could do that over here’. It’s listening and repurposing and in a way, I think that’s learning.

So you walk down the street and you have an idea. Is that part of your role something you get involved in?

Yes. For example, I worked on Orange twice and the whole thing with mobiles today is getting you to use the phone for more than talking. It’s now about getting more out of your mobile, not just texting but video messaging and downloads etc. So they said we want to do an advertising campaign which gets people to use their phones more. We said ‘OK but we think we’ve heard that brief before – you’re not the only ones’.

Ultimately my role is to solve business problems creatively. So from day one I look at the business problem, but you have to be creative about identifying which problems because people can be confused. They think they are solving one problem but actually, they should be really solving another. The planner’s job is to identify the right problem to solve to begin with.

So that’s your job before it gets to the creative department?

Yes. But I would argue that planning is about creativity because a client like Orange will come in and say we need to get more out of the phone and you say ‘OK, what problem do we need to solve?’ They will say ‘You need to tell people you can get weather forecasts and football scores’. What we did was say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result.  So we worked out that a billion euros had already been spent on exactly that brief in the last 3 years in Europe. Orange had about £15m to spend on advertising.

Every mobile company in Europe had tried to say ‘Use your phone for more! You can now get the weather and sports!’ Less than 1% of revenue in any company was in that context, so it was like pushing water uphill and it was madness. So we told them they were solving the wrong problem or at least trying to solve the wrong problem. The right problem isn’t that people don’t know how.

95% of the UK can’t program the video recorder. They might know that there’s stuff in there but they don’t read a manual and find out how. So we said to Orange that they had to dedicate themselves to helping people learn. We re-trained 13,000 sales staff to help people learn; we called them ‘OrangeTrainers’ and then we did a whole lot of things. It was phenomenal; we quadrupled their WAP use in three months. For me it’s about creativity and identification of the problem, then making sure that when the creative department gets hold of it, it stays tethered to the problem.

Would you hire someone who didn’t have a degree?

I’ve hired people without degrees.

So as important as education is it’s the person that matters?

Yes. A lot about advertising is about the right time and right place. When I recruit I do it in two dimensions. One – ‘Do I think the person is obsessed by culture and interesting stuff, where business meets it and problems and ideas?’

The second is “Do I want to be in a room with them?’ So much about planning is about solving the thing together. Conversations are powerful. If you and I were in separate rooms we would do really interesting things, but if we were in the same room we would do something better together. It’s both for me and I don’t say it’s because they have a formal education. However, most people who really get it together to apply to be a planner at an agency have kind of had some kind of formal education in order to know about being a planner at an agency.

Creatives study in colleges. Would a planner go through the same channels?

No. You learn planning on the job. It takes about seven years on-the-job experience to really get to grips with it and then it takes a lifetime to mess around with. It’s about learning to sing first and then finding your voice after that. The great thing about planning is you can grow into it and it grows into you. So the more me I become over time, the better able I am to do what I do.

So it’s like creative business?

Yes. That’s exactly what it is.

What types of people are suited to planning?  Do you see character differences in the creative department and planning department?

Not really. Traditionally yes, increasingly no. There is so much bad planning because planning is a reasonably recent thing; it’s only about thirty years old. Planning until five years ago thought it was a science with pure logic, when actually what you got to was herd mentality, because if you look at the thing rationally we pretty much all get to a similar response at a certain level.

Actually it’s always about going the other way, it’s about saying ‘Right, there’s the rational solution’ and then turning the paper over and saying ‘But what are we going to do?’ I want people who are going to go their own way, who are going to do the bedrock thing and can see the thing rationally, then turn it over and impose themselves on it.

Is it difficult to get into?

Yes because in traditional planners’ eyes junior planners don’t have a lot of value. You are advising businesses on creativity within their business, their core competence and their future, so who is going to listen to a junior? You’re not talking about how long it takes to make a ten second TV ad. So, who is going to listen to a two-year-old planner in an agency – but it’s just perceived wisdom. I look at it the other way, I love juniors because they inject the thing with an energy and fresh perspective and it’s about making sure they keep that.

What impresses you when you are hiring?

I want every person in my department to be different. I like people who are themselves but have this unhealthy obsession with life, and people I want to be in a room with and talk through problems with.

What are the most important lessons you have learned since you started?

I started thirteen years ago. The more you do it your way the better you do it – once you have got a bedrock of ability. You take people with you. Happiness is the most important thing; I believe happiness is defined by the set of relationships you have. Junior planners and junior people in advertising seem to have it and then they say ‘It’s my way or the highway’. So much about growing is being open to a conversation and not trying to prove a point, but saying ‘Let’s just go places together because it’s more interesting together’, and I think that has been a lesson for me in life. Take people with you because it’s more interesting, it’s quicker and it opens you up to more things.

Would you consider taking on someone who had three years unrelated work experience?

Yes I have done. I’ve just got a girl who was working at Selfridges, and a guy who worked in a film production house in Soho.

Is there any one piece of advice you would give to young people in education?

Stick with it, it opens so many doors and it’s easy street compared with the alternatives.

How do other people’s negative opinions about your work affect you?

I get defensive; I run out the room and stamp my feet. It’s interesting I think in two ways. Sometimes I say ‘What do you know anyway?’ and then actually it’s made me want to prove them wrong. I like to prove people wrong when they are critical of me.

What motivates you?

Ideas, I love new things, I love being able to take a white piece of paper and build on it. I love doing things which are beautiful and which aren’t shoddy and half hearted – beauty is in the detail. I love doing things where the closer you look the more beautiful they are. People don’t do beautiful things enough, they do good enough things.

Did you ever have a mentor?

I constantly try and have one. It happened a bit by accident to begin with because you just get one – there is always someone more senior than you in life. There is learning in folks and I think the way I do what I do is shaped by the people who I have looked up to. Planning is a small industry and I have worked with three or four greats and with the great creatives this side of the Atlantic, and I know the way I do the job is shaped quantum leaps more by the people I have looked up to, more than the people who I have done the job with on a day-to-day basis.

Have you made sure that you have connected with those people in an environment where you can learn from them?

Yes absolutely. I’ve worked in really good companies, there have always been at least a couple of people who were in my orbit – you said, ‘You know what, I love what you do and the way you think’. If I respect it then I want to do it myself. I don’t think it’s being a chameleon, I think it’s being a magpie.

To summarise, can you give me a few steps or pointers to success in account planning for someone that is about to go into it?

Practical things in terms of getting in – apply for graduate schemes. That’s the best foot in the door. When doing graduate applications make sure your form isn’t just you filling the boxes out, make it the one in two thousand. Make sure you write it in a way that makes you happy, don’t second guess the judges, write it for you because you don’t know the judges so that it’s your voice rather than just the answers you think they are looking for – that’s what everyone else is doing. If you’re obsessed about film, write about it in your way.

Write it with ideas that are about you. We are all each our most important target audiences. So often we say ‘We are going to do an ad for forty-five year old women or sixteen year old kids’, and the response I hate from creatives is when you ask them ‘Why did you do that?’ and they say ‘Because it’s right’. It’s never right, that’s the worst answer. The best answer is because actually it’s like a scene I love in Bartley Fink where he runs down a corridor and the flames come out of the doors, and I want to see that and recreate that because passion is everything. It’s the passion and energy behind the idea that is actually going to make it great. So I think unless you are feeling it and giving it eleven out of ten no one else will.

So – come up with ideas which are personal on the application form. Be cheeky and send something in. Make something, do something, create a point of view on something, go do a photo journal of your local football team and give me ten insights about them and send it to me and say ‘I was just watching the world and look at these people they make me laugh; I’d love to tell you about them’. Create conversations, send something that might capture my imagination, find out and chase it.

Get in by any means necessary and then find your way to planning if you can. I started as an account person and switched once I was in. Become a researcher and get in. But always tick the planner box on the form if you want to be a planner. When you are in, be respectful, be a magpie, go and find people and go and give people more than you think they are asking for every time. If people come back having done what they’ve been asked then that’s fine, but as a junior planner taking things further is fantastic.

Is that what you attribute your success to?

I don’t know. I think we are lucky; I have the education gene. Learning how to learn really. Being obsessed by knowing more. I love soaking up and knowing more and learning more. It’s that obsession with ideas and an idea for me is always a thing I haven’t quite heard before. Ideas are like the building blocks of life. Campaign magazine once asked me what I love about my job and I said ‘The chance to work around great ideas everyday; I am very privileged’.

What is your one life principle you live by?

Happiness is the most important thing and happiness is defined by the set of relationships that you have.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you think young people who want to get into this side of the business should know?

It’s as good as I thought it was going to be before I got in; it’s better when you get in because you love it.

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