Our Under the Spotlight series aims to cast a light on industry peers we love, envy and respect so that more people can understand the work that goes into The Work.
Andy Nairn’s new book Go Luck Yourself is a collection of inspiring stories to help you engineer luck for your own brand. Drawing on his own experiences with huge brand names like Amazon, Paddy Power and The Co-Op, Nairn helps us to understand how luck plays an influential role in your brand’s success. As a three-time winning Brand Strategist of the Year (Campaign Magazine) and the Co-Founder of one of the most envy-inducing creative agencies going (Lucky Generals), I think it’s fair to say Nairn knows a thing or two about luck in all its guises. Discover more about Andy’s book and his career as a brand strategist in our latest Under the Spotlight interview.
1) The book is littered with stories of good fortune and misfortune. Which story do you find most memorable? Why does it stick with you?
There’s a story in there about George de Mestral walking his dog in the mountains in Switzerland. Whilst he was walking him he found a load of burs on his dog’s coat that he found difficult to get out. But, because he was an engineer, he put the burs under a microscope and did that extra bit of investigation that maybe the rest of us wouldn’t do. He discovered there was a natural mechanism of hooks and loops that gripped the burs to his dog’s coat. He realised this could be used to help with fastening clothes together which is how we now have velcro. I love this story as an example of getting out in mother nature and not being stuck at your desk all the time.
2) When a brand first approaches you with their challenge, what are the steps you go through to arrive at the brief? Is it done in isolation or as a team?
It’s very much as a team. When we first meet the client, we listen to everything they have to say. Right at the beginning, I quite like not to delve too much into the detail. I think it’s helpful to capture your first thoughts as that’s a bit more true to what consumers are like. Knowing all the detail of the product early can be unhelpful, in some ways. It’s nice when the client lays out the problem in really vivid terms.
Then, I always share it with the creatives as the best creatives are always really good at strategy as well. Creatives come at it from a slightly different angle as they’re the ones who will have to turn it into something. I like to be informal in those early stages as, in the old world, a strategist would lock themselves away in a room and work on the brief themselves then force it on everybody else. Whereas now I like to arrive at it together so it feels like it’s going to be strategically right and creatively fertile.
3) What are the absolute essentials that go into a Lucky Generals’ brief? What information has to be in it for your creative team to do their best work?
If you can describe the problem well, that is really helpful. The best creatives are good problem solvers. We don’t have a template we work to because sometimes it might be a huge challenge, like completely repositioning a brand, all the way down to a more tactical thing. All a brief is is a bit of paper that’s trying to get someone to do something to help you with something. But once we have the problem outlined, we do include the brand’s mission statement; what are they trying to achieve more generally as a brand? Outside of that, it’s the stuff that appears on every brief; tone of voice, target audience and boring must-do’s.
4) How do you go mining for the all-important ‘insight’ that goes into your briefs? What tactics do you use?
A fair bit of research including qualitative and sometimes number crunching as there can be interesting stuff in the numbers. Also, pop culture – not just what’s happening in the category but generally in society that might intersect with whatever your brand’s doing. I also like finding out the bad stuff. Right at the beginning of the process, when you’re first formulating the brief, I like to find the snarkiest bits of social media and find out what jokes people make about the brand. Do they talk about the brand at all? If they do, is there a running joke or a stereotype about it? Because that’s interesting; sometimes there’s a truth in a joke. It helps to answer the question; what do people really say about you when you’re not in the room?
5) The royalties from your book are going towards Commercial Break; an organisation that helps working-class talent break into creative industries. What do you think are the biggest blockers for working class talent breaking into the industry and what does your own agency do to help overcome those barriers?
Some of the barriers are functional. I’ve found even when we’ve found someone great for a role they won’t be able to afford the living costs of being in London, which is where we’re based. So, we’ve decided to do something about it called The Barracks where we’re renting a flat near the agency so interns can live in the city without having to worry about rent. Their accommodation is free on top of their pay, all the groceries are stocked by The Co-op (one of our clients), there are Amazon vouchers (another of our clients) and Yorkshire Tea (another client) so they have everything you’d need for three months to do an internship with us. That’s a simple idea others can copy.
Beyond that it’s the classic stuff; having role models, being conscious of class as a diversity factor (I find it’s often forgotten about and is at the bottom of people’s list when diversity conversations happen). Commercial Break did an interesting thing where they had some of their talent go into an agency and report back from the perspective of a working-class kid. Then, some of the stuff you take for granted as an agency (like going to a wine bar) starts to feel non-inclusive.
6) How do you feel about working with an exciting brand like Paddy Power who are famously brave in their marketing but whose ethics can be questionable? How do you reconcile the two?
Just to say we don’t work with Paddy Power anymore, but they were our very first client. For the reasons you’ve said, they’re probably not the first brand we would naturally have approached to work with. However, they came to us with a really unusual brief; to tackle homophobia in football. The way we reconciled it to ourselves is; they’ve got a really interesting platform and fan base and a reputation for mischief. They’ve literally got a mischief department with a Head of Mischief. Over the years they’ve done quite anarchic things, but also crossed the wrong side of the line sometimes.
We wanted to use humour to punch up rather than punch down. So we said, “Wouldn’t it be better to have a pop at the people who run football like FIFA or the rich owners or primadonna players or people who spread hate and spoil football for everyone else?”.
So, we set them up with Stonewall, one of the most chalk and cheese meetings I’ve ever been in, so that each brand could gain something from the other. Stonewall gave Paddy Power legitimacy and Paddy Power gave Stonewall the reach to get in front of fans. That’s how we came up with the rainbow laces campaign.
7) In your London offices there’s famously a drum kit as soon as you enter the room. What does this represent?
The honest answer is it doesn’t really represent anything. It was the first thing we bought when we set up. You’re so excited when you first start and you feel like you need to do something; the phone hasn’t started ringing yet. So my creative partner Danny suggested we get a drum kit. “Lucky Generals” does sound a bit like a band – but none of us plays the drums! For the first few years, I thought it would be great to take secret drumming lessons then come in one day and amaze everyone with drum rolls.
8) What has been your favourite campaign to come out of Lucky Generals in the last five years? Why did that story resonate with you?
There’s so many. But the one that springs to mind is a campaign against sexual harassment in our industry called Time To. The insight we came to was depending on the context, there are some behaviours that are ok in one context but not in another. We didn’t want to showcase extreme behaviour as it was too easy for people to say “Well, I’d never do that.” But we found that leaves a massive get-out clause for behaviour that could equally be sexual harassment. I think the campaign made people genuinely ask some questions. The result was lots of agencies signed up for training and agreed to a code of conduct to help stop sexual harassment in their workplace. Although there’s obviously still loads more to be done.
9) Sometimes luck is associated with rituals and encouraging luck through repeated actions. Do you have any lucky rituals or good habits you stick to ensure the best work can happen?
I’ve been given a lot of superstitious tat since writing the book – people keep giving me rabbit’s feet and the like. I think one of my habits is I don’t like to rehearse on the day of the pitch. I like to be spontaneous on the day.
10) You run Lucky Generals with a team of two other co-founders. How do you handle decision making so that everybody feels heard and invested in the future of the business?
We’ve known each other for a long time so that helps. We’ve all got similar tastes so we tend to agree on the big stuff. If we disagree on the practical stuff we tend to judge the vibe. The most important thing, however, is once we’ve made a decision we won’t go back to it or get into who said what. We’re all in it together for better or worse.
11) If you were to explain your job as a brand strategist to a five-year-old, how would you describe it?
That’s a horrendous question, it’s so hard! Honestly, I would probably lie. Or failing that, I would say “I make sure the ads work”. Cue confused five-year-old.
12) Finally, what do you think are the characteristics that make a good brand strategist?
They should be curious and have an interest in people and be able to bring that across lots of different categories. A diverse interest in all sorts of things. And the ability to make things simple. Briefs these days are really complicated so being able to distil everything to a really simple point is a massively important skill that not everybody has.
Go Luck Yourself is available now from all good book stores.
Want to meet more dead interesting people?
Read our Under the Spotlight interview with Andrew Boulton on his book Copywriting is…