‘If you are not confident about creativity why are you here?'

Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, on making mundane moments matter and the power of honesty in marketing

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


‘What the fuck is going on?’

In an agency ecosystem dominated by self-serving jargon, the sharp edges of an honest question are so often missing in marketing. It is typical of Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, to not only ask the important questions, but to have the guts to slice and interrogate the answers in their full complexity. Even when the answers might not align with what the industry wants to hear.

Huntington went from Kinross to Bristol and Belfast to Maidstone to meet people in their own homes. Alongside Mark Hadfield from Meet the 85%, the Saatchi & Saatchi team achieved what so many agencies talk about yet fail to achieve: authenticity.

As he animatedly describes the research Huntington brings the listener into the homes of people across the UK. As Huntington speaks you can feel the cold in their homes and understand the singular promise of a holiday through the hand-written ‘Zante’ sign, pinned above the back door of one of the participants Matt’s house in Otley. A commitment to joy that a generic statement or statistic on why consumers would choose a holiday over heating their homes couldn’t begin to articulate. 

Navigating the cultural soup of 2023 

It is clear that Huntington is talking about ‘people’ rather than tightly segmented, or worse still completely invented consumer groups. The research skillfully highlights the industry’s missing thread, namely compassion for its audience. For despite the fact it is 2023 some marketers still don’t flinch to describe or diminish their audience as ‘Tower Block Traceys’ or any number of one-size-fits-no-one segmentation shortcuts. Let’s be honest, ‘real people’ are still a gimmick in marketing, despite the fact that stereotypes are where creativity goes to die.

It’s a status quo that Huntington is frustrated enough to actually do something about. In place of these shortcuts and stereotypes he instead leads through the lens of lived experience. It is an approach which may well have been a differentiator for Saatchi & Saatchi as it successfully won the pitch for John Lewis, one of advertising’s most iconic brands.

‘What the fuck is going on?’ endeavoured to help business leaders make sense of the swirl and 'cultural soup' of 2023. It has been 15 years since the global financial crisis, 12 years since the beginning of austerity and 3 years since Britain left the EU. Yet, however many trend reports we collectively consume and create as an industry, are we actually getting any closer to the honest reality of people’s lives?

With EE we have a brand that is celebrating those tiny mundane moments in their customers lives.

Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi

The power of mundane moments of connection 

For Huntington, the research shone a light on a fundamental disconnect between brands and their customers. He believes that too much of marketing is fundamentally narcissistic in its outlook. “The question is how do brands create culture with their customers and really understand how they live their lives,” he explains.

He points to the example of EE, which has recently eschewed the big-ticket marketing moment in favour of focusing on how they serve their customers. “With EE we have a brand that is celebrating those tiny mundane moments in their customers' lives," he explains. This includes the chaotic period between school finishing at 3.30 and bedtime, with EE providing wifi settings to allow users to switch off their kids devices in the midst of the chaos. "Brands want to do these really big moments of sponsorship, but those moments of connection can come in the smaller moments,” he adds.

Cult TV series Detectorists is cited as evidence of the power of thinking small. “It is such a tiny comedy, it's a nice gentle viewing and it could be about anything,” he adds. Sharing the George Orwell quote on Britain being a nation of ‘coupon cutters’ Huntington believes that there needs to be a sea change of approach in marketing. One that recognises the significance of the small. He explains: “We need to get closer to the ordinary. Actual people want good, not hyperbole. It’s not always about being extra.”

In marketing there is no future in nostalgia.

Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi

Never knowingly nostalgic 

In an industry which is never not leaning on nostalgia, Huntington is acutely aware of the toxicity of always looking backwards. “We are on a hiding to nothing when we get nostalgic. When we started working with BT one of the first things we did was go round and take down all the old pictures in the foyer, such as the old Bob Hoskins ads,” he says.

It’s a critical point in an industry which is at risk of looking to the past for a roadmap to the future on everything. “You have to believe as an organisation that your best days are ahead of you,” he explains. Crucially you also need to be able to tell that positive story to your employees and customers in a meaningful and honest way.

So what about the creative industries' ongoing love affair with the past? From Just Like That to the seemingly endless reliance on sequels and prequels the question remains: ‘are we afraid of the new?’ Increasingly this reliance on looking backwards is out of touch with the reality of life. “In marketing there is no future in nostalgia,” Huntington explains.

Nostalgia risks giving marketers a view of the future, through the lens of a past that may not have even happened. “The whole Hovis thing is overstated, we have to be able to suggest to our customers that their future might be better than their past,” says Huntington.

He points to the example of Cadbury as a brand embracing the joy of those little treats that go a long way. A brand that could have drowned itself in a vat of nostalgia is instead rooting itself in the present moment. “We have always had this misogynistic view of the ‘lipstick treat’ but those little treats go a long way,” explains Huntington.

He points to the example of one of the research’s interviewees, Bethan, who describes getting her nails done as a ‘non-negotiable.’ It’s so easy to diminish or judge a woman’s spending priorities if you don’t understand how central that small moment is to her very sense of self. At a time when so many people are having to compromise so much, the desire and ability to control or protect the ‘non-negotiables’ whether a manicure or a holiday is palpable.

Huntington is clear that brands need to shift their view of what constitutes community from a manicured PowerPoint presentation to the reality of the lives of the people they seek to sell their products to. From the British way of using humour to deflect to the importance of decency, the research underlined distinct British values travel across culture. “Ultimately that is what did it for Boris, he lied, decency still matters,” he quips.

You have to think big or get your nose pressed up to the minute detail of your customers' lives.

Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi

The myth of marketing culture 

That decency also matters when it comes to marketing and how agencies and brands seek to serve, as opposed to stereotype, the people they are marketing their products to. He explains: “There is a huge disrespect and it is about thinking more critically about who it is we are serving. The culture of the one-way glass where the brand is sat behind the glass judging the customer is over.”

He recalls the advice of Steve Henry, the Co-Founder of ad agency HHCL, who said simply: “All I want is planners to talk about the audience in a way that makes me, the creative, love and respect them.” The question then becomes as a brand how do you show up in a way that shows that you love and respect the audience? Perhaps the industry debate on ‘profit vs. purpose’ wouldn’t be so polarising if that purpose showed up in the products and services brands created, rather than just in a strapline.

“I have no problem with segmentation, but the trouble is when it becomes about stupid names that aren't real people,” he explains. In the John Lewis pitch, Huntington talked about a real family rather than a generic marketing statement based on a large data set.

“When you see groups like ‘indulgent imitators’, I never understood who they were or what that meant," says Huntington. "I have no problem with segmentation but when you get those two-word alliterations, the generic personas. The insight that says ‘meet Nicky’ and then it just isn't you,” he continues. 

Huntington believes the power of segmentation comes with its ability to uncover the universal human truths which bring people together. He points to the example of Nike being for the ‘athlete in everyone’ as a standout example of that broad brush approach.

He points to the example of Ansel Adams, the American photographer and environmentalist who took expansive, huge black and white pictures. Then compares that approach with the painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose art makes space for that minute detail. “You have to think big or get your nose pressed up to the minute detail of your customers' lives. Don’t be in the mushy middle,” he explains.

Embracing that level of detail and understanding can simply be too scary for some brands. If your house of cards is made up of generic marketing statements is it in your interest to knock it down if making the work better demands admitting you don’t have all the answers? 

The data delusion 

For Huntington spearheading a shift towards more honesty in marketing is a vital change. He explains: “It is not revolutionary to ask: Do I have a relationship with my audience or my customer which is just defined by love and respect? Or is there something I am doing as a brand that is in some way disrespectful?”

Advocating for a shift in the way brands approach consumers’ lives, he is asking brands to contribute 20% of their research budgets to simply asking people about themselves. It is a call driven by a desire for greater understanding of their ordinary lives. Rather than just focusing on their (often entirely imagined) ‘relationship’ with any given brand as if it were the lynchpin of their entire being.

“I've been encouraging clients to think really clearly about what community they could make the greatest difference to,” he continues, adding: “Stop thinking about the massive global sponsorship deal and think about what community you can really make a difference with.” He cites the example of luxury fashion brand Anya Hindmarch’s partnership with the Women’s Institute as an example of a genuine community-led approach.

To connect with these communities brands need to invest in a genuine understanding of them. One that doesn’t simply translate to acquiring more data points. Huntington has written extensively about the truth that data is understood and yet rarely felt.

“We have an enormous amount of data about what is going on,” he adds, pointing to the impact of rising inflation on many people's lives. He continues: “It was bizarre that everyone in marketing was panicking about their mortgages but they weren’t thinking about their customers who are coming off fixed rate mortgages. A lot of marketers are going ‘hopefully things will change.” Hope may well be eternal, but it is not a meaningful marketing strategy.

The challenge for marketers is to ensure they don’t confuse talking about change with the act of meaningful change, particularly when it comes to generic marketing buzzwords. “The great lie is that anyone is customer-centric,” says Huntington. He continues, getting into his stride: “Unless by ‘customer-centric’ they mean it they mean we have built frictionless customer journeys which turn people into factory farmed consumers with no value apart from the transaction they will create.” 

In the midst of this jargon, he asks a simple question: “How can you be customer centric unless you spend time with your customers?”.

“If you are not confident about creativity why are you here?”

Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi

Creative crisis of confidence 

For the creative industries, this question of where employees spend time has been central to the ongoing debate over the future of work. Alongside a growing concern that the standard of creative work is falling. So is a creative crisis of confidence afoot?

“Objectively there must be a creative crisis of confidence because of the standard of the creative output,” says Huntington. Yet it's a crisis which sparks opportunity. As he explains: “Organisations struggling to find growth need to be capable of imagining more prosperous futures.” He points to the example of management consultancies as examples of businesses that can’t imagine new futures. While creativity can build a bridge of over uncertainty.

The question is simple, as he explains: “If you are not confident about creativity, why are you here?” Pointing to the example of Direct Line’s huge growth fuelled by its role as a ‘fixer’ of customers' problems, he believes there is a huge future in creativity.

“Creativity has a huge future value, we all got excited by Uncommon selling,” he explains. An excitement which, contrary to the stereotypes of ageing, has no signs of abating.

“I don’t think of myself as a 56-year-old Chief Strategy Officer. I still get intimidated with clients and peers and I know it is glib to say it but it's important to stay childlike. It's the only way you survive in an industry that fetishes youth,” he explains. 

The power of being interesting and interested 

Yet Huntington has done far more than survive and thrive in the traditional sense. Certainly, he has the receipts of years of campaigns and case studies that have provided a bedrock of marketing effectiveness papers. But he also possesses the intangible. It’s the ability to remain interested in everything which counts.

Being interested is a skill that is particularly vital in new business, where becoming as obsessed as your client in their singular problem armed with an expansive lens can be nothing short of business defining. Huntington points to that well-worn quote that is remarkably simple yet singularly challenging to live up to: ‘I am only interested in everything.’

It is this lens which he views as crucial to building a culture of creativity in his broader team. “Being interesting is such an easy metric. If you have something new if you have a different approach that is magnetic,” he says.

Yet he recognises when it comes to ‘packing our agencies with different people, from different experiences and backgrounds’ there is still much more to do. “The real challenge we face is how do we change the culture, by which I mean the soup around us,” he explains.

“We think we are so informal as an industry but we create very rigid rules,” he adds. For Huntington, the challenge lies in ensuring the industry both attracts and retains diverse talent. A change which will only happen if the industry tackles the nuts and bolts of employees' everyday experience. As he explains: “We own a pub yet so many people don’t want to be close to alcohol. So you can’t have a culture where your source of advancement is going to the pub.”

I want to destigmatize antidepressants. I take one every day and they have changed my life.

Richard Huntington, Chairman and Chief Strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi

Driving a real innovation agenda 

When truth is such a differentiator it's clear that Huntington’s drive to bring reality back to marketing is a genuine one. “For the first time in my life, I have been operating in a management team of three women and one man. The fact that the future is female-dominated environments genuinely excites me.” He believes this action, a step-change from the historic inequality, has the power to change culture. Driven by communication through demonstration, genuine understanding and the courage to do things differently.

In an industry that has long conflated youth with innovation, Huntington's career is fuelled not just through expertise and experience, but with the energy that comes with embracing the unique transition which comes hand in hand with the privilege of growing older. For Huntington that shift has involved embracing a level of honesty not often seen in business, particularly when you hold a high profile leadership position at arguably the only advertising agency the average person would have heard of.  A level of universal recognition which means Huntington faces far more scrutiny than the average advertising leader. Yet instead of choosing to shrink himself, he has instead decided to talk publicly about his own experience of depression.

“I want to destigmatize antidepressants. I take one every day and they have changed my life,” he explains. For an industry that has often adopted the language of bravery to sell cheese, the grit and generosity of this transparency lives up to the true meaning of the word. Honesty which is the springboard not just to creating better work as organisations, but living happier and more fulfilling lives as individuals.

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