Adland's most creative clients

Campaign polled the ad industry's top creative directors to find out which clients they think take the boldest approach to creativity. Alexandra Jardine profiles six of adland's favourite marketers.

Ask agencies what makes a client creatively brave and you stir up quite a debate. Is it simply a matter of who has bought the great ads? Or is it about bringing fresh ideas or a different approach to a sector? Does a client need to get closely involved in the creative process, or do they just need the ability to pick a good agency and trust its expertise?

Creative directors naturally praise clients who give them freedom and value creativity. "There is a feeling among some clients that agencies want to do great creative work for their own benefit," Rosie Arnold, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty creative director, says. "It's a misconception you have to fight against. A really creative client can see through that."

But to be truly creative takes more than the ability to green-light brave ads. Certain clients can inspire creatives with their personal charisma, or by handing them an exceptional brief. Richard Flintham, Fallon's creative director and managing partner, describes this as "creating a bubble in which great work can happen".

Decisiveness is key, as is willingness to stick up for brave work internally - particularly in a business environment where marketers are increasingly required to justify every last penny.

Another barrier to creativity is an increasing tendency to allow junior marketers, who are less likely to risk their careers by making brave decisions, to be given sign-off on ads. It isn't only agencies that see this as a problem: the Britvic category director, Andrew Marsden, cites inexperienced decision-makers as one reason many companies produce sterile work.

Senior clients who know their business inside out can be the bravest.

Kate Stanners, the creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, says: "Often, the most creative marketers are not what you would expect - they're not the young, trendy ones but the people who have been around long enough and feel in control enough to let the agency come up with something left-of-field."

Some argue that it's easier to be creatively brave in some sectors than others - a hard-hitting charity call to action, for example, or a fashion brand. But who would have thought that a low-budget ad for a directory enquiries service would win creative plaudits or that Honda would break the mould for car ads? As The Number's chairman, Chris Moss, who has previously worked for Lloyds TSB, Orange and Virgin Atlantic, argues: "There is room for creativity in any sector - as long as you are willing to stick your head above the parapet."

Steve Miles, the marketer responsible for Unilever's hugely successful Lynx Effect campaign, is not your average FMCG marketer. He's a classically trained pianist, played in a rock band and has dabbled in poetry. But his artistic bent is also a commercial one, he says: "I love watching ads, and there is a bit of my brain I can't switch off when I see other people's. You've got to know which directors and agencies are hot." To this end, Miles studied Levi's advertising before, as the Lynx marketing manager in the mid-90s, he moved the account to Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

He bought the very first BBH ad, "house party", precisely because it threw away many of the golden rules about the brand. "It was a very controversial step internally and lots of people were opposed to it," he explains.

But Lynx sales subsequently soared and Miles' work won two gold Lions at Cannes (for 2004's "getting dressed" and 2001's "ideal woman").

Buying "getting dressed" was also brave, Rosie Arnold, the BBH creative director, says, because "in some ways, it was quite a crude script. But Steve could see that the way we wanted to do it wasn't crude."

Miles championed the ad, in particular fighting to acquire the soundtrack, Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, in the face of a complicated and expensive copyright. He says: "I get very mouthy about music. Most agencies don't really get music, but it plays a huge role."

"Getting dressed" changed the tone and formula of an already successful campaign. Both Miles and Arnold recall an excited late-night conversation in which they decided to go ahead with the work, knowing it would either be a great success or a miserable failure.

Miles is now the global brand chief for Vaseline, so will this be the next Unilever brand to get a Lynx-style makeover? He admits that he wants to make Vaseline advertising famous - and has moved the account to BBH New York. The first work will appear next year, so watch this space.

Steve Miles - Unilever 1989-2004: Various roles on Unilever personal care brands, including brand development director for Lynx/Axe 2001: "Ideal woman" wins gold Lion at Cannes 2004: Second gold Lion, for "getting dressed" 2004-present: Global brand president for Vaseline, Unilever

Andrew Marsden defines creativity as the acceptance of risk. "You work hard to reduce that risk and sometimes it works," the Britvic category director says. "But you've got to be right more often than you are wrong."

Marsden's stewardship of the Tango brand for the past eight years has proved he's willing to stick his neck out for a creative idea. In the late 90s, Tango's work through HHCL & Partners was seen as the benchmark for quirky advertising. Its campaigns provoked both controversy and praise.

Marsden is known for his enthusiasm for the creative process. Despite his seniority, he is still involved at every stage, from approving briefs to viewing initial drafts of work.

He gives sound commercial reasons for his close contact with the creative team. "There is an inherent problem at companies where the most junior people have sign-off on advertising," he says. "It leads to sterile work, and given the cost of advertising and its strategic importance, I'm at a loss to understand it."

Marsden is also unafraid to take tough decisions. As the Britvic marketing director in the 90s, he oversaw HHCL's "you've been Tangoed" campaign. When the relationship foundered in 2002, Marsden hired Clemmow Hornby Inge, and reintroduced the original creative idea. Many people questioned the wisdom of returning to a previous campaign, but the ads restored Tango sales and CHI won a gold Lion at Cannes a year later. "Consumers own brands, so it's about what is important in their minds," Marsden says.

"Some of the greatest campaigns around have been running for years and years."

More recently, Marsden has worked with Bartle Bogle Hegarty on an animated campaign for Robinsons. The BBH creative director, Rosie Arnold, says of Marsden: "You can take a really raw preliminary thought to him that wouldn't normally be shown to a client, and he will completely get it."

Andrew Marsden - Britvic 1978-1992: Various roles within Unilever 1992-1994: Marketing director, then joint managing director, Vileda 1994-1997: Marketing director, HP Foods 1997-present: Marketing director, then category director, Britvic Soft Drinks 2003: Tango campaign wins gold Lion at Cannes

Two years ago, not many in the marketing world had heard of Simon Thompson. Now, he is feted as one of the most creatively brilliant clients around.

Thompson is the marketer behind Honda's transformation from dull Japanese car brand to cutting-edge innovator, via advertising including 2003's groundbreaking "cog" and "grrr", the animated commercial for diesel cars that won this year's Grand Prix at Cannes.

Since the ads, created by Wieden & Kennedy, first broke, Honda's brand awareness has risen from 12 per cent to 28 per cent, while sales are up by 35 per cent.

Thompson does not come from a traditional marketing background. He rose through a sales and manufacturing route within Honda and admits he is probably not even the most qualified marketer in his department. Instead, he describes himself as an "innovative entrepreneur" who just happens to be working in marketing.

He explains that five years ago, Honda was perceived as sensible and dull, "dead from the neck down". "I realised that this was just not true - Honda is in fact a very passionate organisation, and what we have to do is tell the world what we are, not just what we make," he says.

He chose W&K for the advertising task because "they were the most creative agency in the business, but they didn't know how to make car ads".

Thompson says he does not believe the subsequent campaigns were creatively brave - although he admits that there were some mixed views within Honda at first. "We have simply told the truth about the brand. I judge the creative work on two criteria: does it transmit the brief, and does it sound like Honda?"

His agency says Thompson believes in letting the creative department get on with its job. "He asks good questions and is very interested in the creative process, but he's no frustrated creative," Kim Papworth, the creative director at W&K, says. "He just gives us the stuff that we really need to know: for example, he'll come and relate to us exactly what an engineer at Honda has said about a particular car. His understanding of the internal culture of Honda, both in the UK and globally, is amazing."

Also, Thompson knows a good ad when he sees one. Papworth says that when Thompson first viewed "grrr", he said: "My only concern is that this should change as little as possible."

Simon Thompson - Honda 1980-2002: Various roles within Honda 2002-present: UK marketing director, Honda 2004: "Cog" wins first prize at US Clio Awards 2005: "Grrr" wins Grand Prix at Cannes

On a dark December night last year, Fallon presented a new creative idea to David Patton, its client at Sony Europe. "It was a bit of an eleventh-hour idea and it was just a two-line brief," Fallon's group account director, Chris Willingham, recalls. "Basically, it was: 'Go to San Francisco. Let thousands of bouncy balls loose down a hill.'

"Most clients would have run a mile but Patton has an innate sense of what a good idea is. You could see from his body language that he was sold."

The resulting ad, "balls", broke on 6 November and is already being talked about in some circles as this year's equivalent of Honda "grrr".

Not bad for a product ad for a colour TV. But then Patton was until recently the marketer behind Sony PlayStation, where he commissioned award-winning creative work including "mountain" through TBWA\London, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2003. Last year, he was promoted to head PlayStation's older brother, Sony Electronics, across Europe, and the company is clearly hoping he will bring the same creative sparkle to its advertising.

Willingham, who also worked with Patton on Sony PlayStation while at TBWA, says he sets out to build successful brands through unconventional communications. "He sees beyond the normal boundaries and will fight to give the agency creative freedom. And he has the courage to take existing work off the table and go with something more risky."

Fallon's managing partner and creative director, Richard Flintham, describes Patton as "someone you look forward to doing the right thing for". "He's not afraid to disrupt stuff to give us an opportunity," he says. "But he also knows when that window of opportunity has closed - he knows when to say no, as well as when to say yes."

Patton says a single-minded proposition is the key to great creative work. He agrees that approving the creative idea for "balls" took ten minutes, because it answered the brief perfectly. But, he points out, it took six months to come up with the right brief.

"As long as you have good consumer insight, the right planning process and a well-prepared brief, you can deliver the right creative work," he says. "My job is to define the parameters in which the creatives can work and encourage them to explore that."

David Patton - Sony 1991-1995: Marketing manager, Nintendo UK 1995-2004: Vice-president, marketing, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe 2003: Sony PlayStation "mountain" wins film Grand Prix at Cannes 2004-present: Senior vice-president, communications, Sony Electronics Europe

When the US-owned The Number launched into the UK's liberalised directory enquiries market, it had to build a strong brand from scratch and see off several powerful rivals, including BT. So it called on Chris Moss, the marketer famous for persuading Hutchison to adopt the brand name Orange instead of Microtel, and for taking on the might of British Airways while at Virgin Atlantic.

The result was the "twins" campaign for 118 118 by WCRS, featuring two identical runners. 118 118 went on to dominate the directory enquiries market despite charging premium rates, and the campaign won gold at the IPA Effectiveness Awards in 2004.

The campaign was vintage Moss, those who know him well say. Cameron Saunders, the planning director at WCRS, worked with Moss both in his early days at Orange and at The Number and recalls: "We had ten or 15 different ideas before we came to this one - and then some of the team said they were worried the client wouldn't like it. But having worked with Chris before, I just knew he would go for it."

The work was shot on a deliberately low budget, to allow for many different executions to keep the campaign fresh. Moss was undeterred by the reactions of focus groups. "Some people, particularly older ones, absolutely hated it," Saunders says. "But Chris just said 'brilliant'. He knows it's better to get that sort of response than someone saying 'perhaps they could be a bit more modern'."

"Working with Chris is like working with a creative," he adds. "He will have an idea and really believe in it, despite being presented with any amount of research or numbers. Often clients will buckle when they get in a room with their finance director but Chris will never compromise.

His enthusiasm is infectious, and people who hire him know that they're not getting your standard marketing director. His charisma rubs off on other people." Moss himself, now busy launching The Number across Europe, says the key to being creatively brave is not to take no for an answer. "If someone says no, then I will go out and find out how you can make it a yes," he says.

"The best bit of my job is often talking to the creatives. Even some creatives can tend toward the conventional so I will encourage them to be more lunatic. If you push them to go further, you can get fantastic results."

Chris Moss - The Number 1985-1993: Marketing director, Virgin Atlantic 1993-1995: Marketing director, Orange 1995-1998: Director of brands, Lloyds TSB 2002-present: Chief executive, then European chairman, The Number 2004: 118 118 wins gold at IPA Effectiveness Awards

When the mobile network 3 ran an ad featuring two Japanese cowboys finding a giant jellyfish in a desert, some consumers were undoubtedly baffled. But Gareth Jones, 3's chief operating officer, says he knew it was the right thing to have done when his teenage daughter saw the ad, not knowing her father was involved. Her verdict was "really cool". When he asked her what she thought it was about, she replied: "Dad, you just don't get it, do you?"

Since then, the "welcome to our network" campaign by WCRS has continued to appeal to the company's hip, media-savvy, young target audience and has transformed the mobile brand from struggling newcomer, with 215,000 customers at the start of 2004, into the fastest-growing mobile network, with 3.2 million customers in August this year.

Part of the Orange launch team in the mid-90s, Jones was hired two years ago by his former Orange colleague, the 3 chief executive Bob Fuller, to help turn the brand around following a lacklustre launch. First, he decided the product-led ads were all wrong.

"I cringe when I think about it now. As a new brand, we had to create a positioning and grab attention," he says.

He replaced the launch agency, TBWA\London, with WCRS, the agency he worked with at Orange, briefing it to differentiate 3 from the more established mobile brands. He freely admits that the brand he most wanted to emulate was Apple.

Jones recalls going home one night during the development of the first ad. "It was a little scary; what we were doing was very different. Then I saw a Vodafone ad where a guy in a pork-pie factory talks about what mobile technology could do for his business, and I knew we were right. I didn't want to be in the pork-pie factory, I wanted to be in the land of the giant jellyfish."

Jones, a former professional golfer, started out in telecoms as a salesman.

But, as one former colleague says: "He's transformed from his days as the Orange sales director who would have said 'what's all this creative bollocks, put a phone in the ad', to being a real brand guru who understands that being brave and creative is the only way you're going to cut through."

Gareth Jones - 3 1993-2001: Worked on the Orange launch team in roles including sales director 2003-present: Chief operating officer, 3 2005: 3 wins Best New Brand at Marketing Society Awards.