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5 minutes with...

5 Minutes with… Sarah Golding

IPA President and CHI&Partners CEO on embracing our new machine overlords, taking pride in advertising and the joys of staying in

5 Minutes with… Sarah Golding

In May this year Sarah Golding was named the new President of the UK Institute of Practitioners in Advertising. 100 years since the association was created by the government to help them with their recruitment and propaganda efforts, she joined at a momentous time. As only the second female IPA president, with diversity a bigger topic of discussion than ever, she might have been expected to make this her crusade. Instead, her agenda ‘The Magic and the Machines’ took a long view, looking ahead to the next century of advertising and focusing on the seismic impacts emerging technologies will have on the industry.

Aside from leading the way for British agencies, she’s also got her day job as CEO of CHI&Partners to manage, not to mention all the TV she likes to watch.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Sarah.


LBB> You said in your inaugural presidential speech as IPA president that advertising "took you in when you had no other career in mind." What were your first encounters with the industry?

SG> I joined an agency that doesn’t actually exist anymore called Lowe Howard Spink and it was at the top of its game, creatively. Everyone was focused on the work and the craft. I think that has had an influence on me as I’ve carried on. I’ve always found the work to be the thing that drives me. I want to do better and better work at CHI and I’m very proud of any good work that the industry does. I think it’s very important that all agency leaders celebrate that.

Everyone worked really hard but they really enjoyed it because there was a point to what you were doing. Particularly at that time Lowe Howard Spink was producing work that your mates or your parents talked about, whether it was the Weetabix ad with Robin Hood, or the Smirnoff ‘Through the Bottle’ advertising. People talked about it outside of the industry so it gave everything you did a point. And I think that was incredibly motivating and drove everyone to work harder and focus on the work and craft and get it absolutely as perfect as you could. It had a cultural resonance. I think the best work today still has that.

I think it’s just as hard, probably harder, to create brilliant, brand-building work now. I think there’s an over-reliance between the short term and the long term. Binet and Field and the IPA has proven that the most effective marketing is 60% brand building, 40% tactical. I think there’s been an over-reliance recently on the short-term tactical, people focusing on hitting quarterly sales results as opposed to game-changing brand-building work that actually changes businesses and drives profit. CMOs turn over every two years now. That’s mad. Why would they worry about the long term?


LBB> The IPA recently had its centenary. For you, what are the most important lessons to be learnt from its first 100 years?

SG> I still think that, looking back at the last 100 years, it reminded me of what a transformative business this is and I think that will continue to be true as we move forward into the next 100 years. Because I don’t think there’s any other industry where you can create as much cultural change, business change, and you can save lives, shift boxes. You can create more profound changes in culture than I think you can in any other industry. You’ve got case studies. You can prove that it works. I think that’s what’s exciting. It’s still one of the most transformative businesses you can work in. 


LBB> Looking to the next century of advertising, you asserted that "creativity can't be reduced to an algorithm." What makes you so sure of that?

SG> Creativity doesn’t always make sense. That, to me, is proof that creativity can’t be reduced to an algorithm. There’s lots of evidence around at the moment to prove that. Sony worked with an AI platform to write music and lyrics. I think the song was called Daddy’s Car. If you look at those lyrics they are buttock-clenchingly bad. I think a school band would be embarrassed to admit they’d written those lyrics. That is evidence that great creativity cannot be produced by an algorithm and I’m sure there are many other examples. 

I referenced in my speech an AI platform called Albert and immediately after that the founder of that platform, a guy called Or Shani, contacted me and I met him. One of the things he said that stuck in my head was that “AI comes in peace”. The reason he said that was because he realised that the power and potential of his platform is nothing in isolation. So he said he wants to work with creative agencies because they don’t have the talents and skillsets we have. So together we could be awesome and create the most amazing, transformative ideas and creative work.

There’s a reason I called my agenda ‘The Magic and the Machines’. It’s not the magic or the machines. It’s the two of us working together.


LBB> Has becoming IPA President changed the way you approach your role at CHI&Partners in any way?

SG> Here at CHI we’ve totally embraced the future and ‘The Magic and the Machines’ on the back of my agenda, which I think is a great thing because I was worried, and I’m still worried, that people are fearful of the future, they’re fearful of the machines and I think it’s only by understanding the machines, trusting them and embracing them that you can see the potential, start to work with them and do brilliant things.

What I’ve done here at CHI is try to give people the tools and opportunities to work with them and learn about them, so we can start to apply them to real life briefs. We’re working with the big platforms. We’ve got training programmes in house with Google and Facebook. We’ve had AI companies like Filament come in and talk to the teams here. I’m bringing in an evangelist of IBM Watson to talk to everybody here. 

I’ve even asked my team to put it into people’s appraisals. So people are now appraised at the end of every year to see how they’ve applied some emerging technology to a creative idea - either what they’ve done using emerging technologies or what they’ve learnt about emerging technologies. I think that’s partly my responsibility. It’s about inspiration and education. I want everybody in the industry to not be afraid to say they don’t understand something. I think once you do understand it, you’re not afraid anymore, you can see the potential and I think the potential is huge. 

I’ve referred to them as ‘the new tools of our trade’, just like television was a new tool. We just had to understand it and how to get the most out of it. And now look at what amazing work is made for TV. So AR, VR and AI - it’s the same thing. We just need to learn how to work with them so that we can create transformative business ideas.


LBB> It’s great you’re addressing that because it seems clear to me there’s a lot of fear in the creative industry.

SG> Particularly at senior levels. So many agency heads have said to me “I’m just getting away with it.” And I think that is awful. I’m not sure I was actually getting away with it, but one thing I found quite interesting - I’m going along to all these training programmes at the IPA which are brilliant. I’ve created this platform called IPAi, which is an education platform. The most amazing, inspirational speakers, sessions, training programmes. I feel like the oldest graduate in the room. Basic things, like I didn’t realise that AI wasn’t one thing. It’s actually lots of different things. At a couple of the sessions now I’ve seen other agency heads come along too with their notepads and start to write stuff down. The younger members are more open to these training sessions. They feel they aren’t expected to know everything. So hopefully it’s helping everybody, top and bottom.

That said, I think we’re always down on ourselves as an industry. I think we are still incredibly innovative. We do take risks and embrace change. A few weeks into my presidency London Tech Week was on. I hosted the industry’s section of the creative tech day. We were up against other creative industries. There was an architecture session, somebody from the film industry, from all these different creative industries. And I was really proud of our industry because we had live case studies and examples of where we were embracing AI, whether we’re in a media agency or VR in a creative agency. We stole the show that day and I felt really proud because we are already working with these emerging technologies in a way that many other creative industries aren’t. There’s a long way to go but we’re doing ourselves proud.


LBB> You've talked about how virtual reality and other emerging technologies haven't quite found their Pokemon Go-style breakthrough moments. What would sort of clients will it take to allow that sort of progress to happen?

SG> I think it will only really happen when a mainstream brand adopts an emerging technology. At the moment the case studies and user examples are small so they’re not mainstream brands and clients. But if British Airways, for example, adopted one of these then I think that would make a huge difference. If I was a betting lady (which I am from time to time) my money would be on AR over VR because I think the headsets, even in the short to medium term, are so phenomenally expensive. So I think that’s a huge barrier.

We work with British Gas and we’re presenting lots of ideas at the moment which are in the tech space. They’re very receptive to those ideas, so hopefully 2018 will be the year when you see some of those collaborations between British Gas and CHI.


LBB> How do you get creatives excited about data when they often see it as an opponent to original ideas?

SG> I don’t think it is. I think you need to translate the data into human insights that creatives can build on. Data’s only scary when it can’t be interpreted properly. In my experience the very best creatives in the industry are those who want as much stimulus and information as possible. Data gives you that but it’s our responsibility to make sure we translate that into workable human insights for them.


LBB> And AI can help sort through that data to deliver those insights.

SG> IBM Watson is a brilliant example of that. They refer to Watson as IA - an Intelligent Assistant. I think that little switch is super clever because it explains the role and benefit of Watson to a creative person.


LBB> You've spoken about how advertising has lost the swagger that you experienced when you first joined it. How can it regain that confidence?

SG> I think that is the million-dollar question. The answer, for me, is by more people who work in it having more pride. I think there are too many people in advertising saying they don’t want to work in advertising. And if some of the highest profile leaders in our industry are saying they’re embarrassed to work in it or are vocally saying they don’t want to be considered as an advertising agency then what chance does it have? I work in advertising and I’m really proud to say that I do, wherever I go. It’s a great industry.


LBB> What’s the key to that?

SG> People having more pride. By remembering the power of our industry to transform businesses, lives and culture. You can influence conversations.


LBB> Last year CHI&Partners launched your new inclusive recruitment programme, Spark. What impact has that had on the agency? Have you learnt anything from it personally?

SG> It started to bring in people from different backgrounds, with different opinions and points of view. I think that’s made the agency more interesting and more fun. You don’t want to hear the same ideas, opinions, points-of-view all of the time. What Spark’s started to do is bringing in people who’ve got something new, different and interesting to say. We also work with the Prince’s Trust and we just launched our big idea ‘Youth Can Do It’ and as part of that we’re going to take in a Prince’s Trust intern ever year, so that’s somebody who’s from a less than privileged background. Creativity can come from anywhere.

There’s loads still to be done. Spark isn’t a silver bullet. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And I think the big idea of ‘Youth Can Do It’, talking to that audience themselves as opposed to corporates. It’s an empowering big idea.


LBB> Mentorship is an important component in building careers. It's part of Spark, too. What makes a good mentor for you?

SG> I’m lucky because I reckon I’ve got the best mentor in town. My mentor is Carolyn McCall [Chief Executive designate of ITV]. If I follow what she does I would say that to be a good mentor you have to be really honest, sometimes aggressively so, you’ve got to tell your mentee the truth, pull no punches. I think you need to be available. And this seems ridiculous but it’s really important - you need to give a shit about the person you’re mentoring, genuinely. 

Carolyn is not afraid to have an uncomfortable conversation with me, but she’s brilliant. She’s so warm and approachable. She came to the launch of my agenda and that afternoon she was meant to leave at 2:30pm to go and talk to the City about easyJet’s results. She had everybody waiting for her. Probably the press. And we overran. She just said to her PA, “I’m really sorry but I’m not missing Sarah’s speech. I’ve come to listen to this, to support her, and the City will have to wait.” How cool is that? That’s a proper mentor and she’s all mine so you can’t have her.

I saw Carolyn speak at an event and went up to her. I found her frightening. She said “I said I’m not going to do this anymore, but given you’ve had the balls to come up and ask me, yes I will.” Be brave. Be bold. If you see somebody or read something that somebody’s done and would love a few pearls of wisdom from that person, the onus is on you to choose your own mentor. Then you’ve got a genuine personal connection to start from. 


LBB> What motivates you in your work? Can you think of a particular moment or event that recently reminded you of why you do this job?

SG> A recent one was when I was made IPA President. A lot of people expected me to have a female-based agenda because I was the second female president in the history of the IPA, but what I’ve found is that a lot of women are coming up to me and saying they’ve found it more motivating me being a female leader than talking about gender diversity or those kinds of issues. I’ve found that incredibly motivating and it’s a responsibility that I want to make the most of. It makes me feel so good when women come up to me and say they love the agenda, love the fact that it’s a woman. That makes me want to be the very best president I can be for an industry I genuinely care about.


LBB> What's your biggest passion outside of work?

SG> My massive passion is fashion. I totally love it. I guess it’s not that dissimilar to this industry because it’s creative and competitive. Obviously, it troubles my bank account quite a lot. And I can be found late at night scouring websites for the odd pair of shoes, much to my husband’s absolute disdain. It’s a great way to express yourself.


LBB> You're a vocal fan of TV. What have you enjoyed watching lately?

SG> I loooooooooove TV. I talked in my speech about the fact that I’m not a big joiner. I don’t sit on loads of committees and I’m not a socialite. I like sitting on the sofa at home and watching brilliant telly. Quite a few women came up to me at that lunch and said “I’m so glad that you can actually do OK at work if you don’t want to go out all the time and be seen at every single party, dinner, event. It makes me feel like maybe I am in the right place and I can succeed.” I thought it’s so awful that people think they have to be going out when there’s so much good telly to watch! It makes you appreciate the craft that goes into the making of Game of Thrones. How amazing is Game of Thrones. Not sure I can wait 18 months for the next series. I’m already going a bit cold turkey.

I like anything with Elisabeth Moss in it. My love affair with her started in Mad Men, which I also miss. But the Handmaid’s Tale was so good! So relevant for today. And in a non-cheesy way. Oh God, the music was good! One that really stuck in my mind was when they used ‘Feeling Good’. I’ve got goosebumps thinking about it. I thought “this is such good telly”.

That is what I like - sitting on that sofa. My husband, who also works in advertising, sits next to me and goes, “Jesus Christ, if anyone could see you now…” I’m there with my hot, milky drink, a bar of chocolate, settling in in my PJs. I couldn’t be happier.

Genre: Strategy/Insight