Steve Henry

Co-Founder of Decoded and Non-Executive Creative Consultant at G2 Joshua.

Ben Somerset-How

Client Director



Tom Holmes talks to Steve Henry, Co-Founder of Decoded and Non-Executive Creative Consultant at G2 Joshua.

Previously Steve was Founder and Creative Partner of HHCL & Partners (Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury) – ‘Agency of year’ Campaign Magazine 1989 and 1993 and ‘Agency of the Decade’ Campaign Magazine 2000, Chairman of HHCL/Red Cell, Executive Creative Director of TBWA/London, and winner of various awards including a D&AD gold pencil, and a Grand Prix at Cannes.

Steve is also two time winner of The President’s Award at the Creative Circle and in 2008 was voted one of the most influential individuals in British Advertising over the last 50 years.


Creativebrief: What does the Steve Henry brand stand for?

Steve Henry: Feels a bit presumptuous to answer in those terms! But… innovation and irreverence, I hope.

Creativebrief: In 2011 you founded Decoded, what was the thinking behind that?

Steve Henry: The internet is the most amazing tool ever invented for commerce, for creativity, for communications. Funnily enough, we’re in the business of commercial creative communications – but only about 3% of people in our industry can write code! So that’s what we wanted to change. There’s a real sense of disempowerment, and even resentment at how much change is happening in our industry – as one person put it to me, they feel like in every meeting they are “only one question away from disaster!” So it was simple really – could we help with this by teaching people about code? And could it be done in a day – because people in marketing are incredibly time-poor…?!  It took us 8 months to develop the “code-in-a day” course, but we did it. The key thing for me is that it’s supportive, nobody gets left behind, and it was put together by people who didn’t get it – this isn’t an initiative by techies for techies. This is to bring everybody up to speed, to let everybody in, to create a more level playing field. On a personal level, I just hate jargon, mystification, and being kept out of things. And the testimonials we get are amazing. After a long career in advertising, I actually feel like I’m finally doing something that definitely makes the world a better place…!

Creativebrief: What sort of businesses do you want to work with?

Steve Henry: Our heartland right now is the marketing and media industry – agencies, media companies and client marketing departments have all sent large numbers of people. But our ambition is to see how this could work in other industries – insurance, real estate, finance, travel, you name it.

Creativebrief: Who are the leading members of your team?

Steve Henry: My partners are Kathryn Parsons and Richard Peters, both strategists by training, and Ali Blackwell, a developer by training.  I’m very lucky to have such brilliant partners!

Creativebrief: Can you tell me about your plans for Decoded internationally?

Steve Henry: We’ve just done a pop-up in Dublin, which went really well. We’re also talking to people about doing workshops in Singapore, Hong Kong, New York and SFC. We know there’s a huge market for Decoded, because right now we’re the only people in the world who do this form of face-to-face training, and we’ve had hundreds of email requests from all over the world.

Creativebrief: What has been your proudest achievement?

Steve Henry: Setting up HHCL and setting up Decoded. As somebody said to me the other day, they’re both game-changers! Both companies kind of just jumped in at the deep end.

Creativebrief: What was so special about HHCL?

Steve Henry: It was the most collaborative agency in London, the most innovative agency in London, and probably one of the top 3 most respected agencies in the world at that time.  We got Campaign’s award for Agency of the Decade, and I think we got it because we just wanted to challenge rules and assumptions wherever we saw them. Initially people thought we were just being “wacky”, but then they saw that it worked, that we were bringing intelligence to it as well as creative courage – that our work was always innovative, but always focused on real business needs. For about 13 years, we had a lot of fun …

Creativebrief: What was your social agenda?

Steve Henry: On every brief, I always ask – how is this going to make the world a better place? I see brands as being part of communities, and having responsibilities within that role. The emotional role the brand plays in people’s lives has to be something very positive – and ethical and responsible elements are going to become more and more crucial. Having said that, you have to entertain and engage people as well !

Creativebrief: Looking around now, which agencies most impress you?

Steve Henry: Droga 5. Goodby Silverstein. CPB. Wieden + Kennedy. Mother. AKQA. R/GA. The obvious ones, really.

Creativebrief: And internationally?

Steve Henry: See above.

Creativebrief: Which brands have you most enjoyed working with?

Steve Henry: All the great HHCL success stories – First Direct, Tango, the AA, Pot Noodle, egg, …

Creativebrief: Of the leading marketers you know, who are the most impressive?

Steve Henry: Too many to single out a few!

Creativebrief: What is the most important attribute in a client?

Steve Henry: Ambition.

Creativebrief: How do you think the advertising industry is going to look in five years’ time?

Steve Henry: I fear it will just be a bunch of crappy, interchangeable ads in which people dance around the product, and the logo is projected onto increasingly larger areas. But in certain corners of the world, interesting people will be making intelligent, thought-provoking, engaging work – ideas which become part of culture rather than interrupting it – and those brands will be the ones with the most energy.

Creativebrief: How do you think the quality of UK advertising compares globally?

Steve Henry: Not great.

Creativebrief: Do you think marketing’s contribution is really valued across industry and government?

Steve Henry: Not nearly enough. But then again, most marketing is a waste of space. We need to get better at producing really stand-out work, and then maybe industry and government would be more interested in what we could do.

Creativebrief: What advertising campaigns have you done, make you particularly proud?

Steve Henry: All the HHCL classics, from the launch of First Direct to Tango to the AA to Pot Noodle, through about 40 case histories.

Creativebrief: What new brands have recently caught your attention?

Steve Henry: Rude Health, a healthier cereal company.

Creativebrief: What established brands, do you feel, most require a makeover?

Steve Henry: What letter of the alphabet would you like me to start with?

Creativebrief: When choosing an agency what top three things should a client consider?

Steve Henry: Just one thing. Creative integrity. Does this agency care more about doing the right work for the brand than just picking up the cheque every month?

That’s the most important one. Because when your remuneration system is based on the number of meetings times the number of people in those meetings, it’s not wildly conducive to problem-solving. And funnily enough you won’t find that creative integrity in more than a handful of agencies, so that’s the main thing to look for.

However, I must stress that I’m not talking about an agency being argumentative or obstinate for the sake of it, just one that can talk about creative ideas intelligently and credibly and constructively.

Creativebrief: What do you think of pitching, is there a more efficient way to select an agency?

Steve Henry: Meeting for lunch would be more efficient. Most pitches are decided by chemistry, anyway.