Neil Perkin is the founder of consultancy Only Dead Fish and host of Think with Google’s Firestarters. As the series marks 10 years, Neil shares what he’s learned about effective marketing leadership.
The marketing landscape is more complex than it’s ever been. Whether it's technology, people, or trends, change is endemic, and it’s accelerating.
I’ve spent the past 10 years speaking to inspiring figures from across the advertising community for Think with Google’s Firestarters series (and newly launched podcast). The aim: to gather insight into how these industry leaders have kept pace with such intense transformation — and how they’ve helped shape it.
One theme that has stood out among all others is agility. It’s a difficult quality to pin down and an even harder one to master. Below, I’ve identified five defining characteristics, along with tips to put them into practice, derived from a decade of provocative conversations and live events.
Blending maths and magic
The evolving relationship between data and creativity is complicated. But where many see only challenge, agile leaders see opportunity.
Rishad Tobaccowala, author of the book 'Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data’, calls that dynamic “the math and the magic”. He describes data as “like electricity — you can’t operate without it, and it illuminates the way ahead”. But he points out that companies require design and storytelling too. While marketing increasingly takes place in a digital world, audiences are still people with feelings. Injecting data with creativity, or magic, is a powerful differentiator.
In other words, you need the spreadsheet and the story. Agile leaders can bring together human insights and technology in a way that makes sense to their customers and the bottom line.
Learning from other professions
The need to blend different skills and connect often disparate specialisms is a common theme across the Firestarters series. What’s clear is that the best marketers don’t box themselves in.
Take Amelia Torode, co-founder of The Fawnbrake Collective and celebrated strategist. She watched barristers work at the Old Bailey so she could understand how they make their arguments and persuade people. She then drew connections with effective marketing: building the argument, thinking about the people they need to convince, crafting memorable soundbites, and sowing the seeds of doubt as well as conviction.
Torode also advocates thinking like a detective and shaping stories like a journalist. If you’re only planning like a planner or marketing like a marketer, there’s enormous value to be had in looking beyond your industry for inspiration.
Seeking diverse inputs
True agility comes in not just observing best practices elsewhere but in introducing a range of diverse perspectives into your business and decision-making.
Trevor Robinson OBE is the founder of advertising agency Quiet Storm and a leading voice on the need for more diverse and underrepresented voices in the industry. In one of my favourite Firestarters, he argues that diverse teams can help generate new ways of interpreting data and bring innovative ideas about how the work should be executed.
True agility comes from introducing a range of diverse perspectives into your business and decision-making.
A willingness to operate outside your comfort zone and take on new perspectives is a common trait in high-performing leaders — Jim Carroll, former chair of BBH London and co-founder of Carroll Jones, explained how diverse inputs can lead to better outputs.
Following your inner beginner
A beginner’s attitude is key to remaining flexible, innovative, and open to the new in a fast-changing world. As the Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki once said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
According to Ian Fitzpatrick, global director of brand strategy and operations, New Balance, having such a mindset is essential for challenging corporate norms. It makes you curious enough to question the internal dogmas that so often curtail innovation in bigger companies.
A beginner’s attitude is key to remaining flexible, innovative, and open to the new in a fast-changing world.
Indeed, there’s a strong argument that curiosity will take you further than knowledge. The secret to agility lies in leaving assumptions at the door and always being willing to look at things afresh. Sara Tate, former CEO of TBWA London and author of new book ‘The Rebuilders: Going from Setback to Comeback in Business and Beyond’, says everyone should remain open to being proven wrong. You can have strong opinions — just hold them lightly.
Balancing vision with iteration
With the speed of culture as rapid as it is now, agility — and the ability to change your mind in response to external shifts — is critical.
Agile leaders may have a strong notion of what the future looks like, but it’s one that is loosely held.
If there’s one quality all Firestarters share, it’s the capacity to balance vision with iteration. Agile leaders may have a strong notion of what the future looks like, but it’s one that is loosely held.
Rachel Mercer, co-founder and CXO of innovation consultancy Proto, explains how you need a “5-foot view” and a “20-foot view”. That’s the power to distinguish between a fad and a more important longer-term shift.
All too often, agility can be confused with speed. What the good, the great, and the successful have is velocity. If you want to be truly agile, you need to move fast but with a clear sense of direction and purpose — and remain adaptable in how you achieve it.