Campaign Promotion: The Ideas People - On The Record - Mark Holden

In this Ideas People interview by Campaign for The Economist, Mark Holden explains his unique creative approach. Including thinking like a London cab driver to unstick an idea.

From his new job as the managing partner of PHD Australia, Mark Holden no longer has direct access to London cabbies but thinking like one, he swears, equates to the cheapest consultancy in town. Since his early career at Saatchi & Saatchi, through BMP, OMD and PHD, Holden has inspired clients and colleagues with his passionate belief in ideas beyond the norm. Here's how he does it.

- Tell us about your inspiration.

Whenever this question comes up, I find myself searching for an appropriate answer - grazing through stumble.com or shifting through galleries. But the truth is much more dull. The truth - I don't typically draw inspiration from the external world. My inspiration comes from the dark internal world of my unconscious. From unformulated and unmanifest thought. From that din of mental chatter. So if in need of inspiration I do what I can only describe as allow myself to fall backwards into my head. I think we all have the same capability.

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

Messy and noisy is good. Soft furnishings. Low lighting. Natural light. Peppermint tea.

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

Polarise. In other words, try to make some people dislike it. With this you create conversation. And with this you create zealots.

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

First I would go back to the problem - ideas should pop out easily if the problem is well defined. To do this I try to think like a London cab driver (as in the archetypal, no-nonsense Londoner). They seem to have a binary approach to thinking that provides tremendous clarity. They may respond to a complicated brief by saying: "Well, forget all that stuff, I just wouldn't buy that product - just too busy. You'd have to get my wife to buy it for me and she's only available if you can get the kids down there. School holidays are coming up - they need something to do." Struggle to do this by yourself, then just step into a cab - it is the cheapest consultancy in town.

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

Working with an airline that needs to stand for something. I tried to imagine myself as a consumer that doesn't work in advertising. I temporarily forgot everything I knew about the airline. From this place I could ask what would shift my perception. I found myself thinking about the in-flight magazine as a significant brand touchpoint and, at the same time, something that frustrates me. Could this standard glossy magazine format be revolutionised? Perhaps we make it genuine, caustic and edgy - so it includes bad reviews of restaurants/bars etc. Perhaps we get consumers to review online and we post the reviews in the magazine. So it is user-generated. Perhaps we print it weekly on a newsprint stock so it has a more up-to-date feel. More like Time Out than Conde Nast Traveller. Perhaps we then advertise the magazine instead of the airline - but say "available on-board".

- 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?

Involve clients in the idea-generation process. When anyone is presented with a new concept, they are expected to incorporate a new pattern of information into the information they already have stored. The more information they have stored, the harder the assimilation. That makes it tough for a client who has been in the role for a long time or one who has taken in a lot of data about their market. The optimal technique is to align the receiver's information pattern so that it is ready for the new concept. This is best done through involvement in the creation of the idea. In short, invite them to the brainstorm.

- What are your creative trade secrets?

Spin to within an inch of a lie.

- Tell us about a turning point in your career.

Early on, Mark Palmer (then the head of planning at OMD UK) said something that stuck in my mind - that media people need to feel comfortable having an opinion outside of media planning.

- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.

Richard Maddox, the executive creative director of Clemenger BBDO. Mind like a firework display.

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

Let's assume my family wasn't around for the day ... I would probably meditate. Seek websites about quantum weirdness, consciousness, nanotechnology, technology, complex systems, the future and design. I would play PS3/Xbox 360. I would call my wife and ask what time they are coming home. I would open the fridge a few times and then close it, realising it is hard work turning fresh vegetables into food. Go to bed early.

- What motivates you?

Clients turning to look at each other when I present a new idea.

- What ideas should we be taking more seriously?

Fluid intelligence. In a world with information at our fingertips, classical intelligence (knowledge stored) has to be replaced by thinking ability. Obviously, this has implications for the educational system. It also has implications for us; we should train people to think, not to remember. We should recruit based on thinking ability, not knowledge.


The Ideas People is drawn from major research conducted by The Economist in 2007. It's 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.

Mark Holden is a ... Pioneer Catalyst Builder.