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Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy, Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai

9 min, 47 sec read
12:00 PM | 21 November 2014
by Jim Compton-hall
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After spending time at HHCL, Y&R Asia and Google, among others, Rob Campbell is now the Head of Strategy at Wieden+Kennedy, Shanghai. Rob is also the guy behind one of adland's most influential blogs The Musings of an Opinionated Sod.

"The rules of the past don’t dictate the outcome of the future."

Why did you decide to go into planning? 

I didn’t ‘decide’ to go into planning, I sort of ended up in it. 

Previously I was a session guitarist for bad 80’s and 90’s pop stars but after managing to get myself banned by the music union (don’t ask]) I fell into advertising. 

My first job title was "sponge" which was basically a weird way of saying ‘intern’ but it was great because not only did they send me to every department in the agency to get an appreciation of what they did and – even more importantly – the way they approached it, they also sent me out to do a bunch of weird research assignments/projects because they wanted me to have breadth of understanding, not just depth. 

Years later I was told it was because they knew I’d end up getting paid for my opinion and they wanted to ensure they “filled my head with the right stuff”. 

At the time I didn’t appreciate what they were doing for me, but now I look back and I am so grateful for their madness and that's why I believe no one should "aspire" to be a planner, they should simply aspire to be able to get away with the things a planner can do in the quest for making a difference… to the work, the agency, the client, your colleagues and – without wishing it to sound like some pretentious bollocks – the public at large.

Why did you move to Shanghai? That’s pretty far away…

You’re not the first person to ask that and I get why people want to know… but I can’t help think that behind the question is the perspective that it was a strange move – maybe because of things like distance or cultural context.

But the fact is, it all makes sense – at least to me.

You see apart from the fact it wasn’t that far away (I was in HK before here and I’ve been moving countries since 1995) the fact is China is arguably the most economically influential - but culturally misunderstood – nation on earth so why on earth would I not want to move here and get a better understanding of what’s going on… especially when it meant I was going to be working at Wieden. 

The fact is I’ve always been fascinated with "different" and luckily, I have a very understanding wife … so while some may regard moving to China as mad, I saw it as being more mental if I didn’t.

"You can thrive in any country and in any industry as long as your attitude and mindset is right."

What’s the advertising scene like over there? Is it a place where young people can thrive?

In some ways it’s like the advertising scene everywhere – busy, demanding, fighting to prove it’s relevancy and value – but obviously, the cultural context of China has nuances that creates differences.

That said, I believe you can thrive in any country and in any industry as long as your attitude and mindset is right.

If you come in thinking you’re right about everything and don’t listen and learn from others, then you’re going to be doomed … and so you should be.

And that’s why working in adland in China is fascinating because the attitudes, context and appreciation of "creativity" are different to the West and you have to embrace that or you’ll get nowhere. 

That doesn’t mean people don’t appreciate good work – they do – but it has to be good work that has local cultural relevance.

Some people interpret that as meaning it has to be simplistic and status driven, but that’s bullshit … it just means you have to appreciate local context and frames of reference.

For example, while "all Mum’s love their kids", how they express it in somewhere like Wuhan is going to be different to how a Mum in Washington DC would express it… and not appreciating that and the cultural context that influences it, is the difference between telling and engaging.

For me, if you’re interesting and interested and want a life rather than a lifestyle, then you’re going to love it here.

It’s not a case of lowering your standards (that is both patronising and wrong), it’s just a case of changing your perspective.

"Do stuff that is interesting, rather than try and appear interesting."

Are there any huge cultural differences that affect your work as a planner?

Loads. You have to relearn "normal", so to speak.

But the thing is that while there are some major cultural differences, it’s the little things that you have to know to ensure you don’t get tripped up.

Everything seems to be presented in very black and white terms, but for me, what really goes on is all in the "grey areas" and if you can see/appreciate that, then you have a chance of being useful.

What’s it like working at Wieden+Kennedy Shanghai?

Lovely. They let me be me, which is both reassuring and liberating.

The other thing is they demand we do clever things rather than the easy or superficial.

I love that. It keeps you on your toes and pushes you to find ideas that are creatively infectious, exciting and crafted.

And I’m not even saying this because I am about to be a Dad and have to earn a salary… I really mean it. That’s how much I like the agency and the people here. 

How would someone go about getting a job there? What kind of people do you guys hire?

Well the easiest way is to do stuff that is interesting, rather than try and appear interesting.

We want the best people to come and do the best work of their lives… and that is about application of creativity rather than the conversation of it.

And there’s a reason I use the word ‘creativity’ rather than "advertising"… we want people who love what creativity is and can do rather than just have a desire to make ads.

Of course making brilliant advertising is part of it, but we want to influence, infiltrate and push culture and that tends to need more than just a 30 second spot to achieve it (or should I say, "to stand a chance of achieving it").

Oh, and don’t be a dick. We don’t like dicks.

"Invest in your own development... that’s important regardless what you do or what you want to do."

The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod is brilliant. But why keep a blog at all? (What’s the point? Should young people blog?)

Hahahahaha… I don’t know if anyone would use the word ‘brilliant’ to describe my rubbish, but thank you.

I started it to be a little outlet for my thinking. I was finding that I was having less and less time to just think about stuff (beyond just advertising) and I wanted a place to dump my brain-farts.

Then a bunch of old colleagues, clients, friends and business partners saw it and decided it would be fun to continually pass comment and judgement on what I was saying… and it sort of went on from there.

But it’s always been for me (which explains why I don’t think there’s anything wrong writing a post about the size of my best friends appendage)… and I’m always surprised when people tell me they check it out.

As for "young people" blogging? 

God that makes me sound soooooo old. If you asked me that question a few years ago, I would have said yes… because it forced you to make your brain work as well as help craft your writing/communication skills. 

But now there’s so many ways you can/should do this, I know it's not a case of blogging, it’s just a case of committing to invest in your own development and I think that’s important regardless what you do or what you want to do. 

The only advantage of blogging is that it opens you up to immediate feedback.

It forces you to really hone your argument or stops you falling into the trap of believing your own bullshit.

I’m very grateful for the daily abuse I get on my blog because it is actually making me better at my job. Or at least that’s what I tell myself to feel better about it.

What advice would you give to someone who wants your job?

I don’t think I can answer this. I would tell them to go speak to my bosses and ask them what they should do.

I’d imagine "swear less and wear real shoes” would be part of their recommendation.

"Find out what the real problem is, understand why that’s the real problem."

Are there any projects you wish to explore in the future?

The older I get, the more I realise what I don’t know and that’s both exciting and frustrating.

Exciting because it drives me to learn, experiment and explore with stuff… a lot of which I never even thought/knew about.

But it’s also frustrating, because the more I do, the more possibilities it opens up and I realise I'll never be able to experience and understand it all.

That said, with a massive (and I mean massive) bit of luck, my next project – after learning how to be a good Dad – is to become a teacher.

Whether that happens is anyone’s guess, but that would be exciting for me. Not for my future students, but definitely for me.

What’s your method of tackling a brief/challenge? How do you approach it? (Question submitted by Asad Shaykh, Planner at Founded) 

I wish I could give a fancy answer, but it’s the old standard… find out what the real problem is, understand why that’s the real problem and understand how solving it will help the client in their short and long term ambitions.

How do you know the solution you have come up with as an agency is the best one? (Question submitted by Marie Larsen, Creative Strategy Intern at BrandPie)

"Best solution" is a very ambiguous term.

So much of what we do is influenced by factors beyond our control… so it’s a case of making sure that the bit we are in control of, has been approached with clarity, honesty and understanding.

If you have that - and great people who have been let loose on it - then you can be confident that what you're moving forward with stands the best chance of making the biggest difference.

But – and it’s an important but – you can never be 100% certain. No industry can say that – whether you’re agencies, brands or governments and anyone who says otherwise is either delusional or lying.

Obviously experience, history and talent makes a big difference … but as we have seen countless times, the rules of the past don’t dictate the outcome of the future, just ask the newspaper industry.

Alongside other great planners, Rory Sutherland, Jon Steel, Agathe Guerrier and Gareth Kay, Rob features in our "5 things you should know before you get a job as a planner" article. Check it out.

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