Digitas’ UK chief strategy officer Matt Holt takes pride in being something of an all-rounder. Having begun his career account side, he soon realised that gaining experience across disciplines would help him to think more broadly. This has served him well, leading him to a depth of knowledge in customer experience, digital and data.
Before coming to Digitas he’d put in stints at agencies including Havas and Ogilvy, leading thinking for a diverse range of clients including BA, GSK, EY, Nestlé and American Express. And since he joined Digitas in 2019 he’s played a key role in fascinating work like fighting online hate through BT’s Hope United, helping young people navigate the internet with EE PhoneSmart and providing an antidote to lockdown cliches via Oreo’s Playful Network.
LBB’s Alex Reeves got to know Matt a bit.
LBB> What sort of kid were you and did you have any strong opinions about advertising growing up?
Matt> You’d have to ask my mum to get an objective point of view – but I was totally sport-mad, especially football and athletics, so I was often out on the playing fields. When inside, I loved watching sport on the telly, which is where I probably got my early inspiration for doing impressions of adverts for my granny when I was three or four years old – Daz washing powder being one example (“Nah, I’ll stick with Daz thanks”). That example shows my age as well as the importance of ads being memorable – I can still recall it vividly now.
LBB> How did you become a strategist? And what were the key decisions along that route?
Matt> I started off as an account handler then moved to join a tech startup where I was suddenly writing strategies for blue-chip clients (at the same time as buying toilet paper and getting chairs sorted for our new office). When that startup became part of a bigger agency, strategy became my full-time job and from that moment onwards every decision I’ve made has been to gain much experience across as many disciplines as possible, becoming as broad a thinker as possible. I’d like to think it’s made me a better strategist for it.
LBB> What's the knottiest strategic problem you've ever had to find an answer to and how did you work through it?
Matt> There have been many and it’s those that are often the most fulfilling to work on. One where I learned a lot about how I work through knotty strategic problems is from early on in my career. I was asked to help a well-known brand devise their customer experience strategy. I struggled with a lot of the complexity – an unclear corporate strategy, many brands, many audiences, many channels, many paths open to us. But strategy is sacrifice and it was only when we decided what we weren’t going to do that the strategy became simpler, clearer and more achievable. A change in perspective following a conversation with someone not on the project was all it needed.
That experience provided an early blueprint on how I work problems through. Read and research for an intense period. Go and do something else. Then come back to it – write, rewrite, talk about it. The subconscious will get to work and fill in the blanks. The trick is to trust in it.
LBB> What was the transition like from being a planner to leading a team of planners?
Matt> I won’t lie to you – it’s a different job. It’s about getting more out of everyone, not just yourself. It’s about raising the quality of the agency’s intellectual output through teaching, tools and inspiration. It’s challenging but seeing people develop and grow through the environment you’ve created is incredibly rewarding.
LBB> What do you wish you'd learned earlier in your career?
Matt> That strategy isn’t about having the perfect answer, but having an answer which has the best chance of convincing people. Strategy is about winning arguments (in the mind of the target audience but also with the people that you need to convince to get the strategy bought) and so it’s all about making that argument as simple yet as compelling as possible. I also wished I’d learned that the negative side of the job (e.g. making mistakes, the fear of the blank sheet of paper, feeling like you need to ask for help etc.) are actually positives and a necessary part of the strategic process.
LBB> What do you think is the biggest misconception about strategy?
Matt> That strategy’s role is to be ‘smart’ when it’s actually about providing clarity first and foremost (hat tip to Richard Huntington who I have shamelessly nicked this from).
LBB> I loved the work Digitas did on Hope United for BT alongside Saatchi & Saatchi. What did you find most interesting about that campaign?
Matt> The internet, for all its amazing societal benefits, has an enormous, dark underbelly – so aside from the benefits of the programme to the client, the opportunity to equip millions of people with the tools to tackle online hate (working with our sister agency Saatchi & Saatchi to create an integrated experience) was immensely interesting and rewarding. I find the notion of making us better digital citizens in this country very compelling and something that we all (citizens, parents, business leaders, politicians, teachers) need to play a role in improving, given how many of society’s problems are baring their teeth online.
LBB> What other work have you been particularly proud of recently and why?
Matt> Highlights have been… our work for EE PhoneSmart
, because it’s about helping young people become good digital citizens and to keep them safe when they’re online… our DMA Gold-winning work on Oreo (Playful Network) because it’s a great example of a modern connected experience with a great idea at its heart…and last but not least I’ve been really proud of how we used our tech and data smarts to create an internal CV anonymisation tool, designed to limit the influence of bias upon recruitment decisions, a vital part of our DE&I agenda.
LBB> In these talent-crunched times people are asking a lot of their employers. What would draw you to Digitas if you were looking for a new job right now?
Matt> I’d boil it down to three main things:
1. Culture - we have a culture where everyone belongs, where diverse points of view and different perspectives are celebrated.
2. Work - we blend ingredients together in new ways to create work that is future facing and pushes the art of the possible.
3. Impact - we are all about coming up with work that makes the difference – commercially to our clients and in the lives of their customers.
LBB> Finally, what's inspiring you outside of work at the moment?
Matt> I am reading lots at the moment (Christmas presents) including Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library which has a genius conceit about your life choices. After that I will move on to The Broken Earth Trilogy, which I hear is brilliant – sci-fi meets a chilling message about the environment. Also, I am making my way through the Book of Boba Fett on Disney+. Nothing like a bit of sci-fi to inspire me.