Sunday 3 August 2014 8:49 pm

Sally Weavers of IPG Mediabrands’s Initiative agency on thinking laterally

Liam Ward-Proud talks to Sally Weavers, UK managing director of IPG Mediabrands’s Initiative agency.
Initiative holds a fairly unique place among UK media agencies. It’s big, placing thirteenth in last year’s rankings, with billings of over £169m, but nowhere near the scale of the outfits owned by the industry’s behemoths. According to Sally Weavers, its managing director, this allows Initiative to be faster and more adaptable than its competitors. She talks to City A.M. about the importance of technology in achieving this, and how to avoid the pitfalls of formulaic media plans.
Initiative’s tagline is “fast, brave, decisive and simple”. What does this mean?
We’re pretty unique in the UK in that we’ve got the strength of a global network, but also the spirit of a startup. There’s only 70 of us, so it doesn’t feel like a great big global organisation. “Fast, brave, decisive and simple” informs the way we approach our work, the people we employ, and the type of clients we work with. They tend to be faster to market than most – very results-driven, and they demand solutions that are rooted in analytics and insight.
How big a role does technology play in all this?
A huge role. We have a relationship with The Bakery, a Shoreditch-based matchmaker for tech parters. You put a brief into The Bakery, and it gets pushed out to a load of developers who come back with ideas. We used it to find a few pieces of technology for internal use. One of them is a metaphorical search engine called Yossarian Lives [you type in a word, and it uses an algorithm to return results that are disparately or metaphorically related to the search]. 
It really helps to banish that blank sheet of paper syndrome. We get a brief through, and we know there’s interesting territory that we want to explore (the concept of “performance”, for example). We’ll then use Yossarian Lives to prompt new ideas around that territory. 
It’s important because there’s a bit of your brain that almost dies the longer you work. It can be difficult to keep the focus on lateral or genuinely creative thought – it’s a muscle that needs regular exercise, and Yossarian Lives helps. 
Is a lack of lateral thought a big danger for those working in media?
The industry need to banish “computer says no” planning. We need to get back to using our brains, and thinking creatively and laterally about clients’ problems. Of course, you then use data to back that up. But I think the initial thinking needs to be done by human beings, not computers. There’s a danger of having a “box-tick” media planning culture, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve always kicked against the idea of a formulaic planning process. I’m not sure people’s brains want to work like that, and it can close your creative thinking down. 
What’s the biggest challenge facing agencies at the moment?
There’s the lateral thinking challenge, but also the intelligent use of data. There’s no getting away from it, and we’re starting to use more econometric insights within our clients’ plans these days. I always used to have a big problem with econometrics. It would cost clients thousands of pounds, and then sit gathering dust on a shelf. It felt insightful for a while, and then the business moved on and those insights weren’t kept up to date.
But now we do a lot of ongoing econometrics, feeding all the data back into our system so that we can plan against real sales as opposed to reach and frequency, which is the normal way of planning media. The data really start to live and breathe when you do it this way, and we use it to lay down campaigns, or to help inform investment across different channels.
What’s the state of play with mobile advertising in your view?
I think mobile has become quite a fat word. There’s lots of different ways you can use it as a platform, but I think the most interesting thing is how you can incorporate mobile into the wider campaign through near-field communication and location-based technology. We do lots of mobile work for Tesco, and that’s about integrating their data into a mobile campaign – if I know that you buy loads of wine, for example, I can send tailored content and offers directly to your phone when you pass a store.
We’re past the stage where people are just plonking banner ads straight into apps – the industry sees it as a unique channel in its own right. And as the technology progresses, we’ll see more campaigns that are mainly mobile-based.
What’s the most interesting campaign you’ve worked on?
I absolutely loved working with MINI as part of its launch campaign back in 2001. It was a point in my career where I was starting to understand how I enjoyed working, and the client was actually encouraging us to break the rules. At the time, the campaign was completely different to any other car campaign that had launched, and I felt hugely privileged to work on something so unique.