Gareth Kay is the cofounder of Chapter, a creative company based in San Francisco dedicated to solving wicked problems facing pioneering businesses. He's a strategist by trade. We caught up with Gareth to ask a few questions about his career to date having worked at the likes of Zeus Jones, Goodby Silverstein and Partners, Modernista!, Lowe, and TBWA.
Why did you decide to go into strategy?
Like a lot of people I stumbled into advertising. I desperately wanted to work in the music industry but after failing in bands and hating work experience at a record label (all business, no music) I had to find something else to do. I studied politics, philosophy and economics at university and really enjoyed economics - at it's heart, it is about why people choose to do things and behave in a certain way.
"I couldn't face going in to finance or management consulting like a lot of my peers as I wanted to do something that had creativity involved."
I couldn't face going in to finance or management consulting like a lot of my peers as I wanted to do something that had creativity involved. It suddenly dawned on me that advertising might be a path - I grew up in the golden age of British TV ads. I applied to a dozen agencies for work experience and one offered me an interview, a small company called Harari Page that did Harvey Nichols and some of the nascent satellite channels.
I started as an account man but because of the size I got to touch all aspects of the industry. We had a lady who worked three mornings a week doing planning. I'd never heard of it but realised very quickly this was the role for me - it combined creativity with human behaviour. I spent a while looking for an agency who would take me on full time as a planner and was lucky enough that Chris Baker at Bainsfair Sharkey Trott (soon to become part of TBWA) was prepared to take a chance on me.
After reaching such a high level at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, why did you decide to go out and start your own agency?
I love advertising, and I loved working at GSP. I learned more from Rich, Jeff, Derek Robson and all the folks there than I had learned in the rest of my career.
"I was becoming frustrated with the limited role ad agencies were playing."
But it also became apparent to me that I was becoming frustrated with the limited role ad agencies were playing. We had a machine that was designed to make a certain type of thing and a client and new biz base that was looking to buy a certain type of thing. And I was concerned that type of thing was increasingly not what clients needed.
"In all conscience, is this what we need to do to solve the problem?"
Many years ago, Mark Earls taught me that the best question a strategist can ask is, "In all conscience, is this what we need to do to solve the problem? And increasingly I realised that in all conscience what a lot of clients needed was not a new ad campaign but instead the application of creativity earlier and more expansively: different products, services, experiences that solved the fundamental business issue they were facing. I increasingly felt I was making expensive band aids. That realisation made me realise I had to do something outside the limitations of advertising and try to build a different type of creative company, one designed from the ground up to offer creative solutions to clients' fundamental challenges.
What is your day-to-day work like as a Founding Partner of Chapter?
I'm doing less managing and much more hands on work across all our clients. The biggest changes have been learning to run a company (something that's scary and exciting and I doubt I'll ever finish) and trying new ways to work. We have deliberately kept the structure of the company very flat and are doing all we can to remove the silos that exist between disciplines.
"We expect strategists to be creative and creatives to be strategic; the whole team owns the problem we are working on."
We expect strategists to be creative and creatives to be strategic; the whole team owns the problem we are working on. We're also working in a much faster way and 'jumping to the end' (something I learned working with the Google Creative Lab). It's about less charts and thinking and showing what it means in some form of low fidelity concept, be it a poster, wireframe or prototype. A lot of how we work has been informed by the process used when developing product.
You’re based in San Francisco – how does the advertising scene there differ from places like New York?
It's obviously much more focused on tech but I think the biggest difference has been how amazingly generous people have been with their time to give us advice. There's a real sense of community here both amongst other agencies and clients. We've been given chances to work on big projects for big companies and young startups here that I don't think a company of our age and size would have had in New York.
What is the most exciting project you have worked on so far in your career?
It might sound trite but it's honestly the next one.
I've been lucky enough in my career to work on some awesome projects with some awesome people but it's always the next one that excites me. The chance to learn new things and try new ways of working. That sense of "I have no idea how to solve this but we'll find a way".
How do you practice/improve your skills as a planner?
I think it's all about learning by doing. The more you work on stuff and try new ways to tackle challenges, the better you become. It all comes down to the most important traits of a strategist: curiosity and an open mind.
"The more you work on stuff and try new ways to tackle challenges, the better you become."
I'd also encourage folk to try and work with different people and learn the skills they use. There is no one way to do strategy and you'll build the style that works for you by picking the bits and pieces from others that work for you.
How does a junior planner sell themselves into an agency these days?
Portfolios help but what really matters to me is showing you have curiosity, an ability to simplify rather than complicate and lots of interests outside the day to day industry. Also, being able to ground your thinking in an understanding of the commercial reality of a client is a critical skill that is far too often missing today.
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