Dave Henderson

Creative Partner, Atomic

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


Dave Henderson - Creative Partner, Atomic

Career to date:

2016, Creative Partner, Atomic
2015, Chief Creative Officer, MullenLowe London
2011, Joint Executive Creative Director, DLKWLowe
2008, Creative Director, DDB London
2004, Creative Director, Saatchi & Saatchi

Creativebrief: As Creative Partner of Atomic, what’s your primary focus?

Dave Henderson: The primary focus, alongside my partner Guy Bradbury, is to lead and inspire our agency to be making the very highest quality of work possible, even where there seems little hope of outstanding answers or the communication problem seems too tough.

Guy and I have a quite a rare combination where you get a creative team who come from the two different sides of the tracks, my specialism being brand advertising while Guy is truly brilliant at the activation side of things. We’ve worked at various agencies together as CD’s, over the last 14 years or so, often on the same projects. Our primary focus is working together like that, making sure we are both working on every project.

Creativebrief: Could you just outline your career to date? How you ended up at Atomic?

Dave Henderson: I started at DDB back in 1986. I’d just turned 20 and I was still at college but somehow talked my way into seeing their new CD, Tony Cox, and was actually his first ever hiring.

I started at DDB for a couple of years then I went to Grey for about 5 years, then I went to what was then Y&R, which became RKCR/Y&R. I was there for 10 years. After that, my partner and I went to Saatchi & Saatchi as CD’s. I was there for 4 years, then I went to DDB again as a CD for 4 years and then from there I got hired as ECD at Lowe. Did 5 years there, phew you keeping up? Then I’ve just started here at Atomic, back in January.

“You’ve got to try and keep moving every 5 years, it’s a really healthy thing."

Creativebrief: What made you want to join Atomic? What do you think is unique about it?

Dave Henderson: I’ve always worked in big agencies and I was thinking what next? I’ve got this thing about 5 years. You’ve got to try and keep moving every 5 years; it’s a really healthy thing. When they called me I thought, I’m looking for the next thing. I thought I was probably leaving it a bit late to start my own agency, but here was a chance to come in and own an agency with a bunch of people who I knew and worked with previously, so that really appealed. That’s the main appeal, going somewhere smaller and trying to really grow it into something unique and wonderful.

Creativebrief: What do you think has been your best work at the agency since you started?

Dave Henderson: Well I’ve only been here 6 months! But we’ve managed to get some decent work out already for the i newspaper, some strong TV idents and a sweet press and poster campaign for the most recent election. We’ve actually just learned that over this last 3 month period we’ve helped grow sales by 2.3% while the newspaper market has declined 6.2%. Not bad at all!

I think in your first year, 18 months, you get that window where you’ve got to turn people’s heads. You’ve got to make people think, oh Atomic, I’m starting to see more and more stuff coming from them. We couldn’t go down to Cannes this year because we had so many pitches on. It was nice to have a year off actually. But we thought, we’ve got to do something, so we went to Canvey instead. We did a talk to a school hall full of working-class kids, to inspire them, and try to explain that this is something they can come into.

i newspaper Election
For a concise, quality election - i newspaper

Creativebrief: Industry wide, what work has excited you most over the last year?

Dave Henderson: Not much. The Fearless Girl was nice because it was so simple for a really dull client. It cost nothing and the global PR off it was enormous for the agency. But did it help the brand? I cant even remember them now. But I admire stuff like that.

Creativebrief: What work or agency from outside the UK are you excited by?

Dave Henderson: Outside the UK, I think Droga5 New York are definitely doing really good stuff. It’s all the usual suspects really, it’s quite easy to see who’s standing out. I think W+K Portland still do some really good stuff, often quite mould breaking stuff, that the world copies. But I think McCann New York are the guys that are probably on fire at the minute.

“What I'm liking is all the really best ideas at the minute are activation things and kinds of stunts and PR stories. And I like that. It just keeps things interesting."

Creativebrief: How do you see the creative industry evolving over the next two to five years?

Dave Henderson: I think, unless you’re one of the very best networks like a BBDO or a DDB, I think a lot of the other networks are kind of in trouble. There’s just less money in the game than there was and it’s getting harder to support those networks.

At a big agency, you spend most of your time as an ECD, just managing people and systems. That’s what I’ve loved about coming here to Atomic. It’s right back to the work, spending the whole day thinking of ideas. I can’t remember the last time I did that at my last agency. And I think that’s one of the problems with the bigger places. The best people end up running it but they’re doing less of what they’re best at, in a way. I think it’s better to drop down to a different size. You look at Wieden’s or Mother, that size, 80-100 people; the work speaks for itself.

Creativebrief: What’s your ambition for Atomic?

Dave Henderson: We’re absolutely dead set on becoming a top five creatively regarded agency. I’d say that’s the immediate thing within a couple of years. I want to be the one that everybody’s talking about. Every creative leader wants this.

We’d love to get this agency to about a hundred people, just doing some of the best work in the world. And that’s no mean feat. There’s a lot of really talented competitors trying to do the same. But that’s the ambition.

Fearless Girl - State Street Global Advisors
Fearless Girl - State Street Global Advisors

Creativebrief: To take it in a slightly different direction, the changing nature of the traditional pitch is something we’re increasingly interested in at Creativebrief. What’s your opinion?

Dave Henderson: I’m not sure how much they’re changing to be honest. They seem to be the same as they have for quite a while. But I think they should. If you talk to most Creative Directors, they’ll say the same. They’ll all say they really love pitching but deep down, the processes that a lot of clients use I don’t think are ideal.

Creativebrief: You think it hasn’t changed but it needs to.

Dave Henderson: I think it could be a lot better. I'd like to spend a day or two with a client discussing their world, not just 3 sets of 90 minute formal meetings.

Creativebrief: Personally, who or what are you inspired by outside of the industry?

Dave Henderson: The usual stuff like music, film, photography, art. I soak a lot of that stuff up and read a lot of it online. It’s the stuff that I use for work, 'cos I’m really into my job. I’m trying to be the best at it. I don’t see this as just being like a normal job; I see us as being commercial artists. It’s a bit like being a songwriter who’s trying to write a hit song. You’re always looking for influences, things that can help you. You don’t really switch off from it to be honest.

The only other thing that I do, outside of work, is gardening. It’s kind of like painting in 4D. You have to learn about so many things. I just suddenly got really into it because I guess again, it’s a lovely visual thing. And it’s definitely got all the meditative qualities.

Topic of the moment

How can brands give customers the tools to express their own identity?

The way I looked at that question was quite directly. I was really impressed when Nike i-D came out. The way you can actually personalise your shoes. I think the way tech has allowed people to interact with brands like that is really good.

The idea that you can actually spend more time on that site, using that tech; it’s just giving you more exposure to that brand. I’m surprised more brands don’t do it in other categories.