Interviews

Matthew Waksman, Founder & Chief Strategy Officer, Love or Fear

By placing empathy at the heart of the creative process and agency ethos, Love or Fear presents a compelling alternative to the status quo.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE

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In the age of disruption, big data and short-termism you would be forgiven for believing that empathy and emotion in advertising has fallen out of fashion. Love or Fear is out to change that. Matthew Waksman, alongside Dave Dye, Consultant Chief Creative Officer and CEO Allan Dutton are focused on creating what so many in advertising are talking about right now; a new operating system for marketing.

Of course, they wouldn’t call it that; in fact, they would probably think the marketing jargon implicit in an OS system slightly wanky. For as Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Matthew Waksman explains the agency is all about people, an approach which is mercifully jargon-free.

“When I look at the conversations happening in our industry about what is changing, it isn’t about X or Y dying. Our industry is in a constant cycle of change; it is just like fashion in that is cyclical. But regardless of whatever phase you are in you need to create the best work, you need to focus on people,” Waksman explains.

While this sounds straightforward, creating the best work isn’t always easy. As Waksman notes for the industry at large a focus in integration and then a pressure on delivery and making everything cheaper, faster and stronger is taking its toll. Then of course there is the looming threat of the rise of in-house production and creative capabilities.

Yet, refreshingly Waksman doesn’t follow the often-spouted logic that the rise of in-house agencies automatically equates to the decline of agencies. “What it means is that we as agencies need to focus on not duplicating services that clients can manage in-house. We need to instead openly work with in-house teams in a generous way.”

Generosity is something that comes naturally to Waksman, an openness that has seen him invest his time and energies into important initiatives such as the PrideAM Creative Review. While the fact that his former colleagues at Karmarama wish him well, and actually appear to mean it, is testament to his inclusive and thoughtful approach.

There is too much focus on the method of communications and not the people you are communicating with.

Matthew Waxsman

Empathy in advertising

So, what made Waksman make the leap into the thrilling yet at times brutal experience of start-up adland? “There is too much focus on the method of communications and not the people you are communicating with,” he explains.

In the midst of adland’s love affair with all things big data, it is clear Waksman doesn’t see the algorithm at the heart of great creative ideas: “To me data is just information. It is people who buy things that matter, not fixating on the method of delivery.”

It is this approach that he believes sets Love or Fear apart. He explains, “As a client it is easier than ever to find people to make stuff for you. There are thousands of agencies across the UK who say they can produce the same stuff. For us it is all about really getting under the skin of people’s emotional needs.”

Taking the leap

“The best way to describe it is like putting night vision goggles on,” says Waksman explaining the reality of leaving a big agency to build a new agency brand from the ground up. “My grandma was really very disappointed my name wasn’t on the door but for us the two most powerful drivers are love and fear. Putting that emotion into everything we do is so important.”

Of course, there were emotions involved in leaving Karmarama and Waksman talks with great affection about the years he spent working with the British Army on its ground-breaking ‘This is Belonging’ campaign. “I knew then the emotional drivers of a brand would always be important to me,” he notes.

Leaving Karmarama also came with its own emotional pulls for Waksman personally: “When you leave a big agency, it is like a family. As a planner there is a joy in coming together to solve those big meaty issues, you worry that you will be a bit isolated when you leave. But the truth is there is a genuinely supportive community network in advertising, and we have had so much support.”

To me data is just information. It is people who buy things that matter, not fixating on the method of delivery.

Matthew Waxsman

Learning to thrive in the age of disruption

Love or Fear is focused on solving marketers’ problems in new ways and the agency describes itself as a ‘psychologically-driven creative agency.” Waksman is eloquent on what the biggest problems facing marketers today are. “People are haemorrhaging trust and love for brands. People have more power and more choice,” he explains.

“New entrants are benefiting from raising huge amounts of investment, there is less regulation and technology means that brands can be more quick to market,” he explains. Pointing to the fact that a decade ago the notion of a whole range of challenger brands in the banking sector would be almost unthinkable, the wave of new brands proves the speed and opportunity afforded by change. The status quo is no longer assured.

Despite being in the early weeks of launch, the agency has already secured its first client, travel insurance disruptor Pluto. The first campaign launched earlier this month, with digital video, outdoor, CRM and content. The brand’s founder Harry Williams endorsed the process employed by the agency as the engine of a “genuinely distinctive campaign”. Brands who want to do things differently it seems, want their agencies to do the same.

Shifting values

Notably in the age of ‘move fast and break things’ tech-founders, Waksman is just as clear on his own boundaries as on the values of his new agency’s proposition. He explains, “Physical and mental health is so much more important to talent today.” While he notes that personally he has always been lucky to have bosses who were open and supportive in his career when he needed time, people starting out in their careers today are operating in an environment in which the whole mental health and wellbeing conversation is at the forefront.

“Living for two out of seven days a week isn’t really living,” he explains, adding that it is the responsibility of people in management to make sure there is an open dialogue on mental wellbeing. He notes, “Not saying something sets the assumption that you don’t want to have a conversation about the support people might need. Organisations are full of people with different needs at different times.”

People are haemorrhaging trust and love for brands. People have more power and more choice.

Matthew Waxsman

Advertising’s attitudes to age are getting old

The agency is tapping into the gig economy to bring in the best talent, signing up the likes of Rosie Arnold and Paul Edwards to underline its focus on bringing wisdom to the table. “There is certainly a fetisisation of youth in the industry,” notes Waksman pointing to advertising’s “weird obsession” with the word fresh. “People don’t go off or go mouldy, can you imagine how you would feel as an older person in the industry if you were faced with that?”

This obsession with youth is increasingly out of step with a client community who see the value of connecting, understanding and representing ‘older consumers.’ A disconnect underlined by marketers who routinely complain about the lack of ‘grey hair’ in the room at pitch process.

Of course, the colour of your hair is no barrier to creative brilliance, but there is no denying ageism is rife in adland. “Within our team we cover a few decades. I’ve never thought about it; I always wanted to work with people with shared values. We fixate on age, but the truth is there are far bigger things that connect us than set us apart,” he explains.

It is this human empathy, insight and focus on emotion that forms the red thread that will help set Love or Fear apart in the face of a highly competitive marketplace. Emotional intelligence is fast becoming the most important competitive advantage for brands in an increasingly commoditised and polarising consumer ecosystem.

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