Campaign Promotion: The Ideas People On The Record - Marie Oldham

If at first you don't succeed, then the idea may be flawed. MPG's Marie Oldham tells Campaign, in her Ideas People interview for The Economist, why the quick route is often the correct route.

Rather than plug away at an idea that's stuck until it's perfect, Marie Oldham, MPG's head of strategy, reconsiders the validity of an idea that's not falling into place. Good ideas, in her 23-year career, tend to fall into place quickly.

Her career has taken her from agencies (including Wilson Hartnell, FCB and Leo Burnett) to the weighty role of business development director at the BBC.

Oldham now works mainly on The National Lottery and the BBC at MPG, two giant accounts that require her to follow her mantra very closely: nuture a consumer obsession and, above all, make it your aim to deliver measurable business results. Here's how our last Ideas Person of 2008 works her magic. More pieces will follow in 2009.

- Tell us about your inspiration.

When your job is to help clients understand consumer behaviour and change it in favour of their brand, it helps to be nosey and to constantly wonder why people do what they do.

Therefore, I get my inspiration by watching and listening to real people on the street, on the bus, at the supermarket, at mums' groups, at school etc. I am curious about the battle between logic versus emotion. For example, logic says that the opening of Westfield Shopping Centre should have been a disaster given the economic climate. However, human emotion over-rides this and people think "we'll just go and have a look, and maybe award ourselves a little treat because we need cheering up". I worry that the rarefied atmosphere of London WC1 is not a good place for inspiration so I vary where I am and how I do things.

- How do you make your working environment work for you?

My workplace is inside my head, and that makes it beautifully portable, though difficult to turn off. My favourite working environment is anywhere I can talk with interesting people and debate issues, ideas and insights. That can be on the sofa with MPG people, with clients, coffee with media owners and creative agencies, or just chatting to shoppers, friends and my mum. Desks are dangerous, drain energy and can lead you to believe that the answer lies inside your PC.

- How do you turn a good idea into a great one?

Talk to people about it and build it together. Look at it from the point of view of the person at the receiving end. Take the idea into another category or problem situation, and build it/stress test it there before bringing your learnings back to the problem. This brings fresh thinking and eliminates barriers or negativity.

- How do you unstick an idea when it's stuck?

I do something else and come back to it later. I talk to "naive experts" about it and listen to what they have to say. I'm always wary of being stuck and will seriously re-consider the validity of an idea at this point. I find that good ideas, based on genuine insight, fall into place easily and I can see my way through very quickly.

- Give us a real example of how you came up with a good idea.

Watching my 11-year-old niece and nephew source music and build friendship groups on Bebo 18 months ago got us thinking about two particular trends:

1. Trusting strangers to make recommendations on music, games etc.

2. The importance of potency as a needstate, particularly for super-influencers. If you can feed this audience with the right content, you can really grow brand penetration rapidly. We have put these insights into action in our digital activity for BBC Three, iPlayer, Radio 1 and CBBC.

- Great ideas are often so risky that frequently they are hacked to pieces. What's your advice for nurturing a gem and selling it to a client?

It is a key responsibility of a team leader to get behind brave ideas and ensure they are sold through in the strongest possible way. You should never walk away and assume that a team are okay to take a great idea forward. Stick close, nurture it, help it through barriers, find solutions and don't give up. Bring it to life for clients so people can see that it "must happen". It is not enough to deliver the idea, you need to deliver process (and often the resource) to make it happen.

- What are your creative trade secrets?

Insight lies in understanding human nature, not just statistics. A one-day brainstorm is half-a-day too long. Have fun.

- Tell us about a turning point in your career.

Simon Broadbent showed me how to work through a media brief on Mercedes to size the potential market, scope the value and source of future business, predict the sales and ROI - and tell the client how much rubber they would have to buy to produce the tyres they would need to meet demand over three years. Media planning was never the same again.

- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.

The ones who really understand the value of search, how to use mobile as a channel, and what a spotlight tag is.

- You have 24 hours away from professional responsibilities and a brief to re-energise yourself. What will you do?

Go out on a fast motorbike with my hubby to a mountain in Wales; climb mountain to great hotel; have a massage; eat huge dinner; go to bed.

- What motivates you?

Growing sales. Recruiting new customers. Building measurable brand loyalty.

- What idea should we be taking more seriously?

Global chatter and its power to build or destroy brands, categories and markets: ask anyone who works in finance!


The Ideas People is drawn from major research conducted by The Economist in 2007. It is built on essential truths about the world we live in and The Economist's readership. One is that ideas, not products, are the currency of the modern economy. Another is that Ideas People are the stars of the 21st century. They produce and implement new thinking, they influence others, they have stamina. They are turned on by new ideas and opportunities. Are you an Ideas Person? Go to the quiz at www.theideaspeople.economist.com and find out for yourself.

Marie Oldham is a ... Pioneer Catalyst Builder.