Should’ve played the long game

Liz Baines, Head of Planning at Specsavers on freeing yourself from the conveyer belt of micro meetings to make a long term impact.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief



“We are hard-wired in the pursuit of the new, there is a constant need for reinvention for agencies.” Liz Baines, Head of Planning at Specsavers, is discussing why there are so few examples of brand campaigns that have endured the test of time, as Specsavers’ marks twenty years of its iconic brand platform ‘Should’ve gone to Specsavers.” A campaign that has become such a part of the fabric of society that it has taken on a life of its own; becoming a shorthand for poor eyesight, mistakes and mishaps. A depth which never would have happened if the brand had played stick or twist with its strategy; or, as in so many cases, the agency and brand team tired of the positioning before their consumers did.

Notably the ‘Should’ve’ campaign is the work of The Agency, Specsavers in-house creative agency. “External agencies have this constant need to reinvent themselves or rebrand. For example, the CRM planner has become the Customer Experience head. This need to keep changing things is almost an insecurity amongst agencies,” says Baines. 

A lot of clients still talk about trust as an input and you still see ‘trust briefs’ in the market. A lot of the time clients want the quick fix but that doesn’t work

Liz Baines, Head of Planning, Specsavers

Playing the long game

Baines is currently riding the wave of her own change after being poached from Engine, where she was Head of Strategy, to become Head of Planning at The Agency, where she oversees the strategic direction of Specsavers’ creative across all regions, including the UK, Canada and Northern Europe. 

So what made Baines make the leap from Holborn to Guernsey? “I’ve spent over a decade at Engine and twenty years at agencies. I wanted to do something where I was going to learn and develop,” she explained. 

Notably, Specsavers’ commitment to a long-term brand platform was key to Baines’ decision to uproot both her life and career. Having asked herself the question that is all too easy to overlook in pursuit of the next shiny job title: “Where have I done my best work?” The answer was in her work with The Royal Navy where she spent 7 years immersed in the ‘Made In The Royal Navy’ brand platform. A link between a long-term strategy and brand agency partnership along with meaningful work that is easy to overlook. 

This link is equally easy to overlook when it comes to building consumer trust; a challenge that is at the very top of the brand agenda. “Familiarity is a huge thing when it comes to trust,” explains Baines. “We are programmed to trust what we are familiar with, we like what we know.”

“A lot of clients still talk about trust as an input and you still see ‘trust briefs’ in the market. A lot of the time clients want the quick fix but that doesn’t work,” she adds.

There is no other agenda apart from the work

Liz Baines, Head of Planning at Specsavers

The myth of the in-house agency

While years may have passed since BBH’s John Hegarty’s conference quip that in-house agencies are for ‘boring creatives’ there remains a fair amount of misconceptions and stereotypes when it comes to in-house agencies. Baines notes that her decision to join Specsavers elicited a range of reactions from agency peers, but ultimately it was the breadth of the work that really attracted her to the role. 

“The Agency is forever changing shape, we have an in-house CRM practice and a store design discipline for example. But that change is always for the sake of the positioning, not just for agency positioning,” she explains.

“There is no other agenda apart from the work,” she notes, explaining that the culture is almost like a start-up but with the strength of a creative legacy and financial backing. A culture which means the team is very united around a clear and common purpose. 

A culture for creativity 

As a founder owned and led business Baines points to the fact there is ‘no ego’ as key to the culture at The Agency. She explains: “Specsavers is a really purpose led organisation and everyone is very single minded in that and we all know our place within it.”

“Having worked on countless purpose briefs where you are shoe-horning it on, it feels great to be working somewhere where purpose is core to everything,” she explains.

For Baines, Specsavers is a true ‘democratiser’ brand in that it is really focused on democratising accessible, quality eyewear. She believes this clarity and transparency is key to building a creative culture, explaining that: “You need to be really clear on your role and what you contribute to the process.”

Delving into the conditions in which people can create their very best work is clearly a passion point for Baines. Referencing her move to the picturesque island of Guernsey she notes that numerous studies point to the way in which inspiring nature - that horizon of sea or landscape - helps to broaden your mind. “When your literal horizons are blocked it's harder for your mind to be open.”

When our horizons were collectively reduced to the four walls of a zoom screen it’s difficult not to conclude that the demands of the pandemic and the meeting culture it spewed have collectively suffocated that ability to look up and outwards. It is a topic which Baines has dedicated time to unpacking within the APG.

Making work better 

Alongside Charlotte Mulley, Dubose Cole and Sarah Newman, Baines has put a stake in the ground when it comes to making work better. Following on from the ‘Right to Disconnect’ manifesto in 2019. 

Early on in the pandemic, the APG sent out a survey to see how planners were faring; revealing that many people were working longer hours and experiencing burnout. In November last year, a survey on hybrid working revealed an added layer of complexity. In short, it revealed a loss of time to think. As the APG warned: “This is something we need to be very concerned about. Without time to think, the quality of work suffers, so the agency suffers. And planners start falling out of love with their jobs and looking for something different.”

If you are interrupted it takes you 20 minutes to get back into the flow. The greatest killer of creativity is interruptions

Liz Baines, Head of Planning at Specsavers

Freeing yourself from the conveyer belt of micro meetings

So how do you free yourself from the conveyer belt of micro meetings? For Baines, it is about being laser-focused on where it is you actually add value. “Creativity is not a myth, it is a competitive advantage,” she explains. A fact that means as a creative industry we need to be mindful of the effect of the zoom treadmill on creativity. “If you are interrupted it takes you 20 minutes to get back into the flow. The greatest killer of creativity is interruptions.”

She points to the wisdom of John Cleese, who talks about creative thinking needing two modes. The first is an ‘open mode’ where you can be playful and curious without the pressure of deadlines. The second is the more purposeful ‘closed mode’ where you need to be productive and just get things done. 

As the APG’s Time To Think report explains: “The challenge with our new ways of working is that we are forced to work always in ‘closed mode’ - forever productive, forever getting things done. But without the opportunity to go into ‘open mode’.  A state that means we lack what Cleese calls the ‘space/time oasis’, the freedom to find the right space and time to open our minds to the possibilities. 

Growth mindset

At Specsavers, this focus on creating the conditions in which people can create the best work of their lives whilst also having a life is a conscious work in progress. Baines points to the investment in learning and development as a reflection of how future-focused the organisation is. While its 6-week long induction programme reflects the fact that doing things properly requires both time and investment.

“We celebrate our success but we don’t dwell on it. What has really struck me about Specsavers is they are so humble and it's all about making things better and really having that growth mindset.”

When that growth mindset is driven by authentic, humble experts such as Baines, it is clear that it is more than marketing jargon, it’s a way of working that opens up new possibilities. A timely reminder that playing the long game is often the very best marketing strategy personally and professionally. 

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