Campaign Promotion: The Ideas People On The Record

In this Ideas People interview, produced by Campaign for The Economist, Sue Unerman shows that real world language and experience beats jargon when it comes to ideas.

Delivering a strategic edge to the UK's largest media planning and buying agency is a big challenge, but Sue Unerman has found plenty of ways to leaven the process in her near-20-year career at MediaCom. At work, she draws her inspiration from mixing up everything from crime fiction to karate, her kids, Bette Davis, Joan of Arc and Mary Wollstonecraft. Coffee, sunlight and moving about help too. Read on to find out how the planning brain at MediaCom creates, perfects and sells ideas to clients.

- Tell us about your inspiration.

I like to think that my inspirations are from a wide and eclectic range of sources and good ideas come from mixing them up. I'm a fast reader, but I never read fiction (except detective fiction, which as far as I'm concerned is a constant guilty pleasure - ideally as old- fashioned as possible). So I've usually got a few factual books on the go. They'll include something from the communications and behavioural sector, books that everyone seems to read at the moment (Predictably Irrational; Nudge etc), something historical like a biography of Joan of Arc or a history of the Aztecs. And I love a single subject book - my favourite of all time is about coffee: The Devil's Cup by Stewart Lee Allen.

The fact that I spend lots of time with kids (that's my own and their friends) and with non-working mothers, means a lot to me. And I'm not in an exclusively North London bubble either, due to my involvement in the karate community. So, specifically, my inspirational sources at the moment include: Joan of Arc, Bette Davis, Marion Woodman, Jan Smith, Margaret Mitchell, Yehudi Gordon, Marc Chagall, Bob Dylan, Stan Lee, Merlin Stone, Betty Friedan, the Pankhursts, Archie Goodwin, Harriet Vane, Mary Wollstonecraft, Marija Gimbutas, Alice Miller.

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

I need good coffee, and I need to be able to move about, talk to people and have somewhere to retreat to when necessary. Sunlight is good.

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

This goes back to what makes excellence excellence, and it's to do with attention to detail. Good conceptual ideas are relatively easy to deliver. The thing that makes a good idea a great one is great execution. The other thing is knowing a good idea when you see one. I've worked with really brilliant people who produce a stream of ideas but can't distinguish the great from the nonsense. Staying grounded in reality is the answer again here.

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

I'm a huge believer in pushing past a pain barrier. In fact, I don't think that you can get a good idea comfortably. If no-one is in the slightest bit alarmed by a thought, then you haven't pushed it far enough. Specifically, I've put together a number of prompt cards based on a wide selection of sources - books I've read, courses I've been on and experiences I've had. They were originally based on Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies cards, but as they're designed specifically for musicians I've added my own. "Push the idea till it breaks" is a good one and so is "Reverse". Overall, don't be afraid to be uncomfortable.

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

OK, here's an example of reversing - going backwards in order to move forwards. Faced a couple of years ago with the challenge of integrating dotcom expertise with traditional media practitioners, it became clear that simply training traditional media experts in how to plan and buy online wasn't enough to get us anywhere. To make progress, we needed to take the dotcomers back to basics and train them in traditional media skills.

- 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?

Dispassionate passion! Summon up really clear and logical evidence as dispassionately as possible, and then sell it with every ounce of passion in your body.

- What are your creative trade secrets?

I don't think it's a secret ... the whole thing is about the consumer. However complicated a problem is, if you focus on the consumer you'll get there.

- Tell us about a turning point in your career.

The day I discovered that the only person who can effect whether you have a good day or a bad day at work is you, yourself. I just woke up one day realising it. So there's no such thing as a bad boss, or a bad brief or a bad meeting. Not really. There's only how you deal with it.

- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.

Mark - my other half.

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

Spend as much time as possible on and in the river.

- What motivates you?

Exercising my curiosity, learning, discovering stuff about consumers, working with people who have similar values to me, inventing stuff, helping people be brilliant, being allowed to be myself.

- What idea should we be taking more seriously?

The internet is being used predominantly as a cost-per-acquisition vehicle by advertisers. But its potential to deliver increased brand empathy on comms plans is enormous.


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 and find out for yourself.

- Sue Unerman is a Pioneer Catalyst Builder.


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