He might look 15, but Will Collin began his career in media at BMP DDB almost 20 years ago. As a trainee planner in the temple of account planning, he rose fast, winning an IPA Effectiveness Award only two years into his first job. In 1994 he was a founding member of BMP Interaction and in 1997 he became the communications strategy director at New PHD. He co-founded Naked Communications in 2000. Naked has been voted Agency of the Year five times in three years and has won 24 industry awards.
Collin is seen by many as the brains behind Naked, an international business built on a media-neutral approach to communications. Campaign kicks off this new series of interviews by asking Collin about how he manages to pluck ideas from the ether and develop them as something practical and desirable for his clients.
Tell us about your inspiration.
It happens by chance, when I stumble across something in the weekend newspaper, for instance, and it happens to connect with a subject I'm already thinking about. Recently I was reading an article describing how David Cameron's team is applying the thinking of the behavioural economist Richard Thaler to solving intractable social problems. This sparked a thought: could the same kind of thinking be applied to government communications, which is something we're involved in via COI? I ordered Thaler's book, Nudge, and we've applied some of his thinking to a COI pitch.
More generally, I pick up little nuggets of ideas from reading articles, book reviews and so on. Mostly these nuggets won't be immediately useful, but lie dormant in my mind for months or even years before something clicks and I see a connection with whatever my current preoccupation happens to be.
- How do you make your working environment work for you?
I can't really claim to make an effort with my working environment. I like to keep my computer screen tidy: I couldn't bear having the screen filled with lots of file icons scattered around like litter, as some people do. By total contrast, however, my desk is a mess.
- How do you turn a good idea into a great one?
Torture test it: attack it from different directions. Punish weakness, hammer out inconsistency. Eventually only the good stuff will remain. This can be a thought experiment conducted in the comfort and security of your own head, but the best torture tests are conducted live between consenting adults.
- How do you unstick an idea when it's stuck?
Share it with other people. If it's any good they will see its potential. Even if their suggestions to improve it are not immediately applicable, they'll be an indication of promising directions.
- Give us a real example of how you came up with a good idea.
We were working with the global marketing team for Sprite, who had asked us to develop a series of ideas to demonstrate to their local markets how a new brand essence might be brought to life. We came up with a number of alternative platforms, one of which was all about creative self-expression. I had the idea of creating press ads where you could cut out characters and props to make your own mini-movie on a mobile phone. Sprite didn't use the idea, but years later, we found an opportunity to use it for an Orange campaign.
- Great ideas are often so risky that frequently they're hacked to pieces. What's your advice for nurturing a gem and selling it to a client?
This comes from ad folklore, or possibly Jeremy Bullmore. Always leave the idea unfinished in some way, or with a slight deficiency which can be readily corrected. The client inevitably points out the deficiency but, human nature being what it is, will suggest the change needed to remedy the weakness. The idea is returned to its ideal state and the client feels satisfied it is their contribution which cracked it, and so loves the idea as their own.
- What are your creative trade secrets?
I've had very few good ideas of my own. Far more often I've seen the potential for greatness in other people's half-formed early musings and have helped them turn these into something better.
- Tell us about a turning point in your career.
It was the final pitch for a mobile phone retailer. I had only been in the industry for three or four years, and this was the first time that I had a proper speaking role. In contrast with my faltering delivery in previous meetings, everything came together on the big day and I found myself actually enjoying the moment: words flowed, the client listened and in due course we won the business. I discovered the confidence to present.
- Name the most inspiring person in your working life.
Faris Yakob, who works in our New York office. He's infectiously enthusiastic.
- You have 24 hours away from professional responsibilities and a brief to re-energise yourself. What do you do?
I'd revisit one of Spain's medieval towns, such as Salamanca, Toledo or Segovia.
- What motivates you?
Finding an elegant solution to whatever problem I'm working on. As G H Hardy said in A Mathematician's Apology, "Beauty is the first test". You know it must be the right answer when it's simple and neat.
- What idea should we be taking more seriously?
Mobile marketing. No-one's cracked it yet, but when they do ...
TAKE THE TEST
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.
Will Collin is a ... Pioneer Catalyst Builder