An Hour of Advertising with… Beri Cheetham

Every fortnight, I’m lucky enough to sit down with somebody in the industry for ‘An Hour of Advertising’. We always start with the same first question – do you remember a time in your career when you really fucked up? – and let the conversation flow from there. No script, no pre-empted questions, no fluffy PR bullshit.

Which is helpful, because Beri Cheetham is never afraid to go off script. Our conversation flows rapidly from work/life balance to building creative departments. From early agency memories (his first experience of a creative department was as a 3-year-old) to taking an awards hiatus.

And we finish our conversation discussing San Francisco. Because this week, Beri launches The Gate SFO, MSQ Partners’ newest agency. After three years at The Gate London, Beri’s relocated to the West Coast to help brands remove the barriers that prevent them from getting head turning and effective work to market at speed.

So it felt like the perfect time to put Beri in the Hour of Advertising hot seat. And start with our favourite opening question…   

Part one: An unhealthy work/life balance, Millennial clichés and the way to structure an enviable creative department…

Tell me about a time in your career where you really fucked up. 

I know you always start with this question, and I’ve been wracking my brains because there’s been a lot of them! That’s how you learn. But I think the biggest, by a country mile, unfortunately isn’t a funny or blasé one, but is reflective of what I was like in my late twenties. Because I was so driven and so competitive that I forgot what was important.

It was June 2003 and my wife was eight months pregnant. She passed out and was taken to hospital. I wasn’t allowed to stay with her overnight but came back to see her at 7am the next morning. She was up and we were chatting, and she was getting slightly better. And I think the right thing to have done would have been to have written off your day, take her home later.

I remember looking at my watch – which she caught me doing – and it was about 8am. My agency was about 15 minutes away from the hospital, and I said “I really should go, because we’re preparing for a really big pitch at 9am.” And I left her. I came back later and she sort of understood. But I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for me. I’d put work above everything, during one of the most important periods of my life. I was always putting work above my health, but now I was putting it above my wife and unborn baby’s health too.

It gives you perspective…

Advertising isn’t life or death. It’s a great industry – we’re highly privileged to work in an industry that we love, that’s as creative and free and flamboyant as it is, but it isn’t life or death. And you do have times when you think that it is. It was at that point where I realised that, for all the amazing work you do, when building an agency, you have to start with the culture.

You talk about being driven – how do you identify that within a person, and how do you make sure that you channel it correctly?

It’s tricky, because whilst driven people are obsessed by something, often they’re also worried by their own failure. They’re always questioning whether they’re good enough, whether they can really compete. The symptoms of people like that is they become massive insomniacs. I was having sleepless nights, and then I’d be in the office from 7am to 7pm. I remember at one point during that period I had a coach who asked me to write down what work/life balance meant, and I said “work is my life and life is my work.” And that is genuinely how I felt at the time. Holidays weren’t really holidays because I took my work phone with me, I just never ever stopped.

So how can you let that lie but still be driven in a good way?

Experience. I probably hit my mid-to-late thirties and I finally worked out how to be driven without it affecting everything. And now that I’m in my mid-forties it’s easier still. I know that I care and am passionate and good and fast, but I can also put things into perspective. In the old days, I was highly competitive with other agencies, but also highly competitive with people I was managing in my own department, which is also crazy. I wanted to be both the best creative and the creative leader. That’s another mistake – I now completely understand that you want to be the best creative leader but employ the best creatives.

I’m going to use the awful word ‘Millennials’, but this whole cliché of Millennials wanting things faster – is that when what you’ve been talking about becomes a problem?

It can be a problem, everyone expecting to be a Creative Director at 21. But the Millennial generation is a little different to my generation, in that starting the industry in the late 90s, we were coming out of a deep recession and we all felt lucky just to have a job. Whereas I think the Millennial outlet is that ‘you’re lucky to have me’. I’m not saying that either of those viewpoints is right, but it’s just two very different outlooks on a subject.

Millennials want things quicker, they want constant affirmation. And again that’s not me complaining about Millennials. It’s probably right to ask for appreciation and acknowledgement at every stage. Thanking someone is polite and easy. It’s just that my generation wouldn’t expect to be thanked – if anything we’d be thanking our bosses for just keeping us in a job every Friday.

How has the way a creative department structure changed over the years?

If you look at network agencies, there are still very rigid, hierarchical structures in place – you have a Chief Creative Officer, an ECD, a couple of Creative Directors maybe. There’s a very linear reporting structure and a linear sign-off structure. And I think that restricts creativity. It also restricts opportunity.

So what I’m looking for in an agency is a place with lots of leaders but no bosses. I hate ‘bosses’ – the term feels really derogatory. And I think that people eventually realise that titles mean pretty much nothing, too. What you want is a meritocracy, where you’re rewarded for the work that you do.

How does that change?

I think some clients still have that attitude where they want to know they’re working with someone of stature within an agency. They want to be put in front of the Creative Director, for example. In that title, you’re seen as a leader and that’s what they’re paying for. But if there’s a bunch of creatives who simply want to make award-winning work, then I don’t think incremental title changes are massively motivating. It’s perhaps easier to judge it in account management, I suppose. You go from account exec to account manager to senior account manager etc. There isn’t that in a creative department, and I think that’s what can make it a meritocracy and that’s what makes it interesting.

Part two: First agency experiences, finding creative heroes and how to hire well…

What are your first memories of being in an agency?

So my father was in advertising, at both Grey and FCB. Funnily enough he worked with Tim Lindsay (The Gate Worldwide’s chairman)! And he took me into a creative department from when I was three or four years old, and he recognised in me pretty early on that I was never going to be smart enough to work in planning where he worked, so every time we visited he’d lob me in with the creatives.

In those days you could smoke in the office, so it just felt like sitting in a pub. Everything stunk of smoke, there were magic marker pens everywhere, people with their feet up on the desks. It was like a utopia for me. I remember everything looking different by department. You really could see the lines between creative and planning and account management. And that was it, from really early on I knew that that was what I wanted to do. I never looked back. The only subject I really cared about at school was art, I did my A-Levels, went to design school and then into the agency world.

So you didn’t just tap your Dad up!?

I purposely never did that. He knew people in the world of agencies, and actually at the time I was getting in, he was a client so could have got me in anywhere. But we both hated the idea of nepotism. I somehow got in to Wunderman, where Steve Aldridge was the Executive Creative Director. I looked up to him as this sort of Godly figure. I remember one of the creatives said that if you did well, then he’d let you touch his hair! He had a TVR at the time and you’d hear this amazing roar when it left the car park. And I would think, that’s the man I want to be. Unfortunately I didn’t have the hair, the look or the talent…

And were you still on placement at this point?

It was a placement that seemed to go on and on and on. Then one day Steve took me aside and said ‘this isn’t going to lead to a job and I don’t want to lead you up the garden path here, so from a work point of view, you’re going to have to find somewhere else.’ And I did. Yet I still see Steve every so often and he is someone I will always still aspire to be. And I think the fact he’s gone back in to run Wunderman shows that, in an industry seemingly only obsessed with people under 40, that you don’t stop being talented.

You mentioned the divides between departments that you saw early on in your career. How has that changed? What’s your relationship been like between departments?

I think everybody can be creative and everyone is creative in different ways. It doesn’t matter where you work within an agency, it doesn’t mean to say that you can’t have an idea. In fact, some of the work I’m most proud of – the NSPCC work that literally changed UK law – came from an account handler.

You find many Creative Directors will shut down around account handlers. There was an ‘us and them’ mentality when I first started, but in an agency you quickly understand what your strengths are and what they’re not, so I made sure that I had good relationships with account handlers, because they could do what I couldn’t and we were able to form formidable teams.

Going forward, I knew that to make a creative department brilliant, you couldn’t separate it off from the rest of the agency. It needed to be a collective. And as I’ve said to many people over the years, I still believe that the best creatives are the commercially minded ones. Those who understand business and understand what keeps a client up at night. When you do that, you’re far better equipped to produce effective creative work.

If you’re structuring your creative department in a more democratic and meritocratic way, how does that change who has a say when you go about hiring people? Do planners have a say on the creatives you hire, and do you want a say on planning hires?

Yeah I do. And I think it’s healthy for people across departments to meet anyway. Some of the most senior account hires at The Gate London were ‘my’ hires, because it was important that we worked well together, and I could see us working well together. And a lot of the more junior creatives I hired I got to meet Jamie (The Gate London’s CEO) and Kit (The Gate London’s Chief Strategy Officer). I think that helps the candidates too, because they need to see how having a shit-hot planner like Kit or a brilliant CEO like Jamie could benefit them and their career going forward. They need to be asking them questions around how they are going to be given the best insights and how people on the team are going to safeguard their work.

So as a creative leader, what do you look for in a CEO?

I think Jamie’s a good example. I’m quite a ‘high red’ on the colour scale, and he’s sort of a ‘cool blue’. You cannot have two high reds running a company together, it’ll put it apart. So complementing each other is vital. I also like a leader to really understand the importance of culture. Because the key to creative output is what you stand for. People need to understand the vision, clients need to buy into it, and then you can galvanise everyone to go for it. A brilliant piece of work on its own won’t last forever. 

Part three: Career regrets, creative arrogance and what it’s really like moving from an independent agency to a network (and back again)…

What were your relationships like with your ECDs when you were coming through the ranks?

If I have one regret from my career, it’s that I didn’t get to work with more brilliant leaders early on. I think the last ECD I had was when I was, maybe, 27. I was made an Executive Creative Director at 30 – who was I learning off? So therefore, the partnerships that I had were probably with the MD or the Managing Partners. But they weren’t creative in the ‘Creative Director’ sense.

Where that really became obvious was at client meetings. I’d go into a working session with a client like Lloyds TSB, and there’d be someone like Ben Priest or Damon Collins sitting on the other side of the room, and they’d say something where you’d think ‘that’s really smart’ or ‘that’s really inspiring’. So I’d learn a lot by osmosis, because I was ludicrously young to be in that position. I hadn’t worked with a creative genius and that was definitely a craving. And is probably why I went into a network when I was in my late thirties.

What were the big differences going between independents and networks?

The fundamental difference – and networks can say this all they like – is that they are not entrepreneurial. They are structure-driven, they are process-driven, they are hierarchical, and there’s a load of bullshit, narcissism, pomp and circumstance that goes with those places.

An independent can feel a little bit reckless at times, it can be a bit ‘seat of your pants’, but you get to do it your way. You don’t have to deal with arseholes. You don’t have to suffer egos. You create the culture that you want. In a network, there’s a ‘network way’ established around the world. That can sometimes be a really good thing – there’s a lot of stuff you get to do because of that. But I found joining a network was like joining a weird sect, where people would quote the founder of the company. It all felt a little weird.

What about moving back the other way then, as you did when you then joined The Gate London – and has happened a few times at MSQ?

It’s like throwing a bucket of cold water over you. You’re not going to have the PA, you’re not going to have a team of six direct reports and let them get on with it. But that works for some people. I remember when I first got a PA, I was wondering what the hell this person was there for. They were very nice, but I found it a very odd thing having someone in that type of role. And they’d find it weird when I’d pop out and see if they wanted a cup of tea. I didn’t have any sort of expectations or see any reason to abuse people’s time or think that their requirements were any less important than mine.

That all sounds really trite, but in that big agency environment, it’d stimulate a culture of fear. People were ‘ever so important’ and work absolutely couldn’t leave until they’d seen it. In an independent, there should be a little less fear. People should be asking for forgiveness not living in fear of doing something in the first place. They should want to try things that are entrepreneurial, and they should have permission to fail.

Do you need some arrogance to be a creative? Where’s the bar there?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with people who would give honest feedback, and not fear hurting someone’s feelings. It helps to have people who can tell you when something needs to be toned down or comes across as a bit arrogant. But then sometimes in the industry you find this fleeting arrogance, where a Creative Director thinks that their opinion is genuinely more important than everyone else’s. And everybody is either too scared to tell them of how it really is or can’t tell them it because the creative can’t hear it.

But there is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. You have to be able to back your decisions. You just don’t have time to go around in circles – doing that loses people too. So you definitely need confidence to make and back decisions. But that’s belief, not arrogance.

When do you know a piece of work is award-winning? Have there been moments where at the very start you know something is going to be incredible, and times where you don’t know it’s great until it’s almost done?

The first thing I strive for is ‘is this going to be effective’? ‘Is it going to work’? I’d like everything I’ve ever done to be better crafted. But, for instance, there’s only ever been one or two things in a pitch process where I would have been able to say ‘that’s going to win a pitch’, or ‘that’s going to be award-winning’. I did a piece for the NSPCC called ‘I saw your willy’, which we presented in a tissue meeting and went down brilliantly. It won a lot of awards, particularly for effectiveness, and it’s probably my favourite piece of work I’ve ever worked on. And that may have been a time where throughout the whole process you knew it was going to be brilliant. But those instances are rare.

Part four: The effects of an awards hiatus, making the move to Minneapolis and finally launching The Gate San Francisco…

What’s your take on awards?

One of my biggest regrets was at Billington Cartmell, where we had a ten-year hiatus on global awards. We entered and won a whole load of the local ‘marketing effectiveness-type’ awards, but we just never entered the global creative awards because we just never thought it was important. Things like Cannes and D&AD – we have a few things in the back catalogue that would have won.

Then I moved to Leo Burnett, and it was all about awards. The amount of people crawling out of Leo Burnett saying they’d won a Pencil or they’d won a Cannes Grand Prix, when all that had really happened was that they’d been in the initial meeting room when the idea was conceived. It felt really fraudulent. That extremism is too much, but the passiveness of Billington Cartmell was too much too. You need to be somewhere in the middle.

Really, there’s no better feeling than winning one. That moment is great, it binds the team, you feel like you’ve done something and it does wonders for the CV. Even when I was applying for my American visa, I had to use it to prove that I was ‘an outstanding, award-winning individual’. You have to be able to witness it against something. Like it or not, people use it to judge people. Even if they have a great portfolio, you ask ‘but what have they won?’

You’re back in the US now, but what was it like working in Minneapolis the first-time round?

It was a very mad year. I’d been at Carlson for 3 years, and I was literally on holiday and decided I wanted to work abroad. I got back, told my ECD that I wanted to work in New York and he said ‘ok, let’s make it happen’. I got on a plane to the US and looked out the window as we flew over New York and into Minneapolis! Still, I went to Head Office with this idea of what Minneapolis must be like – my brain was fizzing with the idea of skyscrapers – and it turned out to be what I can only describe as an old aircraft hangar, with 5,000 people doing different things related to relationship marketing.

I’d suddenly gone from an environment where you’d create some quite nice DM that 5,000 people would get, to stuff that 5 million people would get. The scale of the operation was stratospherically different. The salaries were completely different. The lifestyle was different. And I loved it. The work wasn’t especially glamorous, but I learnt a lot about myself. It fuelled my love for American culture and opened my eyes to cross-pollination of creative talent from around the world. It doesn’t matter who you are, but having people be able to move around the world and go on secondment is huge. It inspires them and it inspires the people around them.

And it benefits the agency as well as the person?

Well in that aircraft hangar in Minneapolis there was no-one else there like me. People wanted to work with me because I was completely different and sounded funny and I was able to get away with saying the ‘F-word’. They found me funny and different and quirky, and I found them interesting and insightful and incredibly welcoming and kind. And we had different outlooks on creativity, which is important to open your eyes to.

What does that mean now then, as you start your new adventure in San Francisco?

Well it’s nice to be going to America this time with experience and an agenda, rather than as this young whippersnapper! Launching The Gate in San Francisco is a huge honour and a huge opportunity. I love the vibrancy of the culture, the sense of optimism, innovation, can-do tech that you just don’t get in other parts of the world.

And in sounds like bollocks, but the light is different. The feeling is different. The people are different. And having now done 20 years in London, where everyone is always fucked off about the weather, it’s something I’m really drawn to.

It’s easy to be drawn to this part of town, too…

I’m really drawn to the environment. We’re based in the oldest fire station in San Francisco, right next to the MOMA. It is creative utopia, without a shadow of a doubt.

What drew you to The Gate in the first place, having been at a big network like Leo Burnett?

Like any other creative, you get to a point where you want to do it for yourself. But I’ve done a few turnarounds now – I did one at Arc, and I liked the idea of doing one at The Gate London too. For me it was an opportunity to think and act like a start-up. We brought in Jamie and Kit soon after I joined and it felt new and exciting.

The bedrock of something very good was already there – having creative and media in one place was the bedrock of a solid, modern business. The problem was that it didn’t look or feel modern. We had to put modernity right at the heart of everything we did.

And how does that manifest itself?

You have to start with the people. As I said before, you don’t get consistently effective work unless you’ve got a great culture and something to believe in. We established a ‘boundless’ culture, underlined by five ‘Gang Laws’ that all of us adhered to. We measured ourselves by them, we measured our clients by them, and we measured the work by them. It helped us build solid foundations, built on a profound culture, and it’s allowed us to feel confident when we then take the proposition to new markets, like San Francisco.

Illustrations by Harri Cheetham