The Ideas People: On the Record - Peter Field

Can you really be an Ideas Person and an expert on the dry topic of marketing accountability? Peter Field, a marketing consultant and former planner, has mastered the two disciplines.

Peter Field cheerfully admits that being fired from his big agency job was one of the best things that ever happened to him. It gave him the freedom to become an expert on how advertising works, addressing once and for all Lord Leverhulme's damning quote about Unilever's half-wasted advertising budget.

Field has been a marketing consultant for ten years. Before, he ran the account planning departments at Bates and Grey. He was a member of the IPA Advertising Effectiveness committee for five years and set up the IPA DataBANK of effectiveness in 1996. Applying creative ideas to analysing effectiveness - or indeed any data - is a rare skill. Here, Field explains how he has and sells his ideas.

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

Total peace and a light and airy environment are vital - no music, no voices: I simply could not function in a typical London office environment. I have worked from home for more than a decade and have just about got my home office right. I know I am more productive there than I ever was in "an office".

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

You keep pushing it, you don't think about its shortcomings, you keep trying to make it more intense, more provocative, more bold.

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

I try thinking about it from another perspective. If it is a brand idea, I ask myself how would other inspiring brands approach the problem: what would they do? It is from these juxtapositions that I think many good ideas originate. If it is an hypothesis, I keep asking myself: if it were true, what else would I expect to find? Eventually, you find something or alternatively realise you are barking up the wrong tree. And whether or not my thinking is stuck, I always allow a "let go" period - drop the problem and go and do something else: a walk across the Common, food shopping (I am a foodie), a run or a bike ride.

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

A number of people have asked my where the idea of writing Marketing in the Era of Accountability came from - though usually it is expressed more as: "What on earth possessed you to write it?" In truth, my co-author Les Binet and I had the same idea independently. For me, the idea came when I was asked to write a chapter for the Sage Handbook of Advertising. I wanted to write something more than just another "opinion piece" backed up with carefully chosen case studies. So I examined the IPA DataBANK to see what could be gleaned from it objectively. The DataBANK contains collected hard data from 26 years of effectiveness case studies - in all, around 200,000 pieces of data.

The key breakthrough in making sense of all this was in developing the measures of success, so that you could test various marketing and communications hypotheses against these measures. Although less refined than the work Les and I did together subsequently, it paved the way.

- 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?

The first step is to stop thinking of clients as "them" and "to sell to" and instead as colleagues whom you share a task with. If you do this, then the next step comes easy. It's a cliche but true - share ownership of ideas with clients. Of course, this means taking on board other people's ideas and suggestions rather than expecting them to drool over something they have been prevented from shaping.

- What are your creative trade secrets?

Create time - steal it from wherever you can - and never reveal how long it really took you to crack it.

- Tell us about a turning point in your career.

Being fired from my last job in advertising. I knew that my next move was self-employment. It offered the freedom to focus on what I most wanted to do and none of the drawbacks of working in dysfunctional organisations like agencies. But it helps hugely (and financially) to have someone push you into it.

- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.

Adam Morgan, the founder of Eatbigfish. Working alone means you value hugely people you know who have interesting and intelligent insights and observations. Adam is a goldmine for these.

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

Go skiing. No other escape can so engross you. You haven't lived until you've stood at the top of a 3,000m peak in brilliant sunshine with ice crystals sparkling in the air around you and a virgin piste snaking downhill from your ski-tips.

- What motivates you?

The desire to get the work-life balance right. In practice, this means periods of intense work (I'll happily work every waking hour on projects that I find stimulating) but knowing that I will be able to bunk off when it is over.

- What idea should we be taking more seriously?

Sustainability. I think we pay lip service to it: a bit of recycling here, a bit of carbon footprinting there. Fundamentally, most marketing plans are predicated on volume growth, posing an inherent contradiction to sustainability. The marketing agenda (downturns aside) needs to shift radically to value growth, so that we don't have to rely on unsustainable endless growth in volume consumption.


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.

Peter Field is a ... Pioneer Catalyst Builder