Neil Davidson is Managing Director of Hey Human (London), “the behavioural communications agency.” Hey Human started five years ago – the world was changing, brands were changing, and people were changing (and all of them still are), but agencies? Same old, same old.
Neil questioned, “What could be done to change the way agencies work . . . so they could effect change in the way brands behaved?” Hey Human is an attempt at an answer. The company may be structured by classic relationship strategy and creative skillsets, but team members are not siloed in their roles. Anyone can contribute to the client relationship building, to strategy development, to the creative piece . . . the work is done through collaboration.
How is branding different today? Neil notes that the relationships between people and brands are shallower and more fleeting than in the past. Brand loyalty is tenuous. Brand LOVE is rare. Brands that are thriving in today’s marketplace connect with people in more human ways than legacy brands have in the past.
How can brands better connect with their customers? Neil discovered that what a brand could do depended on its category. Some categories, like sporting or alcohol brands engender high, positive emotional engagement. People are likely to feel less-connected/neutral to negative with other categories; e.g. financial services.
A new brand in a category where people are less connected may benefit by projecting more human-centric content in its marketing communications. Hey Human relies on behavioral sciences and neuroscience to identify ways to reinforce connections with people, and develop more connective content.
Neil presented “Advertising Detox: How to Reduce Cognitive Load” at the 2019 South by Southwest Conference in Austin, TX, where he and Hey Human’s neuroscience consultant, Aoife McGuinness, utilized brain monitoring equipment to “demonstrate the cognitive effects of different forms of advertising.” His company applies this knowledge with its clients, with the goal of “creating effective content that stimulates rather than drains [potential customer’s] brains.”
He feels strongly that companies need to recognize their key brand assets. Even though most people know that a logo is not the same thing as a brand, they often shortcut their thinking to that conclusion. The proof of that statement comes in those cases where a marketing communication is shown to be more effective without the company’s logo.
Hey Human won the Drum Agency 2018 Business Transformation Award and was a finalist for the Thought Leadership Award. The Business Transformation award recognizes Hey Human’s application of new ways of thinking and working to unlock growth for the agency and its clients. Their byline: “We grow Human Brands through changing behaviours” sums up their approach to working with clients.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I am your host, Rob Kischuk. I am joined today, live at South by Southwest, by Neil Davidson. Neil is the Managing Director of Hey Human based in London. Welcome to the podcast, Neil.
NEIL: Thank you, Rob.
ROB: Glad to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Hey Human and where you excel?
NEIL: We launched Hey Human almost 5 years to the day. I suppose the big thing for us was the world’s changing, brands are changing, people are changing, and yet agencies all work in the same way. We’re all very good at talking about how the world’s changed, but not very good at doing much about it apart from saying, “Maybe we’re all doomed,” or something like that.
Our big piece at the start was, what do we do about that? Our starting point was actually, if brands need to behave differently, what can they lean on to help them to do that? We looked into behavioral sciences, behavioral economics and neuroscience, essentially to get us clear about our strategies and content. More effective, more creative.
But the challenge then is how do you use that insight and fit it into an agency process and a client’s process? That for us is the interesting bit, the challenging bit.
ROB: Right. It sounds like that would potentially be a very bespoke process that would require some big brains in the room. How do you handle multiple clients and steady work like that and grow it? Because you seem like you want to grow it.
NEIL: Yeah. When I look back – lots of agency leaders want to talk about agency change with me and us now. I always go, it’s really simple. You need time and money. You need time to actually work through what is the best way of changing what we do. We’re actually doing research with real people to understand what the changes are and what we can do about it.
You have to invest that time, but also you’ve got to invest money in new ways of thinking, new ways of working. I think that is probably why a lot of agencies haven’t yet done it and why, when we launched, we said we thought legacy big agencies were going to fall off a cliff at some point.
I think we kind of got it right; we may just went a bit too soon. It feels like, particularly in the UK, we are now starting to hear all those stories in terms of agencies really either merging, cutting staff, or recognizing they’ve got to change.
ROB: Yeah, definitely see that here as well with some of the holding company agencies. There’s just this portfolio of undistinguished brands sometimes.
NEIL: Yep. We as an industry have been too slow to react. I worked for many great big agencies, and I think the biggest thing that made me move on was I always say the agency process is the worst way to get the best out of good people, as it stands.
ROB: [laughs] You mentioned this process. What does the process for a client loosely look like now? Maybe even if you have an example to walk through.
NEIL: I touched on it. The trick and the hard bit to make work was to do something different, but not make it hard for people that work with us. We go through many of the stages that we all know in terms of briefing, presenting, feedback, etc. The bit at the heart of it for us is post-briefing, post strategy work.
We have a 90-minute – what we call a 3 Question Session that is based on an uber-simple fashion of behavioral economics. That’s making the hard bit easy. We base it all on three questions, which is: What’s the behavior we’re trying to change for people? What’s the barrier to people doing that? And what are the mental comparisons that people make about it in the real world?
The simplicity is the great bit, but the big bit for us is that everybody in the room has a role. The client is part of that, the creative team is part of that, the planners are part of that, and the cane people are part of that. That’s before we’ve written a brief – obviously the client’s had a brief – so we kind of know where we think the strategy is going, but everybody shapes the thinking and initial comms territories. The collaboration bit is key.
ROB: Right. There are some people who would be skeptical when you say you want to change behavior. They would say you maybe don’t change behavior, you catalyze it. If someone’s a skeptic on that, how would you talk to them about how you can actually change behavior in ways that you want as a brand, as a marketer?
NEIL: The behavior change thing gets a bit of a bad rap because sometimes people see it as the “dark arts,” a bit Machiavellian and all that. I suppose what we’re trying to say is, we’re not trying to necessarily always change people.
We’re trying to tap into the things that we talked about at our South by Southwest talk, which is we’re all lazy. Cognitively or physically, we have our lazy moments. So how do we make it easy for people to make better decisions that hopefully involve our brand? We’re not trying to manipulate people.
My point, getting a bit bar and sharp, would be we all buy into a repertoire of brands. All you’re trying to do with that behavior change is really, 9 times out of 10, make them choose your brand more often.
ROB: Right. It sounds like you’ve probably got some interesting insights and stories into ways that you have reduced cognitive load for people to do something that you want to do. What are some things you figured out along the way with clients to make it easier for a client to do what you want to get to?
NEIL: The bit that I really love – and people all go, “Yes, I know that,” but do we all really know it? – is knowing what your key brand assets are. When it comes to actually creating content, if someone recognizes and engages with your brand quickly and you can help them connect with the emotional parts, that’s brilliant.
But the neuroscience research we’ve done shows that quite often what we talk about as key brand assets aren’t the logo – which, shock, horror, probe – some agency can go, “Do you know what? This piece of communication is more connective and more emotionally engaging without your logo, and strangely enough will be more branded.” Which seems like a strange thing to say, but a brand isn’t a logo. We all know that, and yet sometimes we fall back on that piece.
We’ve made client work without a logo in it that you would swear you’ve seen the logo because your brand is saying, “That is that brand.”
ROB: That’s tricky. People think they see things and they don’t see them. It’s a pretty interesting lens on things. If we rewind a little bit, you talked about why you started the agency a little bit. Tell me a little bit more. What did that starting process look like for you when you cut the cord and jumped off a cliff?
NEIL: In a way I wish it was just cutting a cord. Essentially I’d been brought in to work as part of a company of a group of agencies that was owned by a private equity company. They had been great, but like any private equity company, they had a runway. At that point they wanted to move on.
So we had a group of companies; we sold off part of that, and then we were left with a lot of clients from what remained of the agency, and then we decided to start that agency again. New brand, new proposition, new name obviously, new specialisms, new clients, mostly, over time, a lot of new people, and in the last 6 months we’ve just got a new building.
ROB: What did the team look like that you were able to bring over?
NEIL: I think the only thing I could say that team looked like was a mindset thing. They were willing to change. Change is a strange thing. Most people say they’re up for change; it’s human nature not to be, whether you can admit it to yourself or not.
So it wasn’t really this seniority, this skillset, this whatever. They were genuinely up for change and recognized what we recognize about the industry, and were happy to eulogize to clients and prospects about what we were trying to do.
ROB: How many people did you bring over?
NEIL: We’re mid-50s in terms of agency now, and I would go probably a max of about 15 people now.
ROB: Even on Day 1, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. Did you have the clients lined up enough that that felt low-pressure, or did it feel a little bit concerning?
NEIL: We had the luxury of existing clients, but existing clients that we knew wouldn’t necessarily – we might not be fitting together down the line as we changed everything as we went. But we did do slightly scary things like we had offices in another country and we gave over the clients in that agency to the team there, so we waved goodbye to that income. We did that in another country as well.
We did actually cut off a lot of long-tail clients, etc. – which makes me feel slightly ill now when I look back, but it was completely necessary. When you’ve got offices in other countries and you’re trying to fix things in your core office, you realize that all your best people are on planes. That becomes a problem.
ROB: Is there a particular summary, some sort of slogan or motto or core values, that you summarize the way that you do things differently?
NEIL: Yeah, we talk about, “We grow human brands.” That goes back to the brands that are thriving and surviving now connect with people in more human ways than legacy brands and they recognize what we talk about: that brand relationships now are much more fleeting and shallow than they ever were. That can be absolutely fine. You can still have a meaningful relationship, people can still spend money with you, etc. But that legacy piece of brand love, etc., is really, really rare.
So for us, we talk about, “We grow human brands,” and it’s brands that have those values and behaviors that are more connective.
ROB: If a brand comes to you and they don’t feel very human, but they really want to change, how do you step them through that process and help them find how to not be a robot, how to not be just buying an ad on one of the four TV channels and ramming your brand down people’s throats with your logo?
NEIL: I think the good thing is if they’ve come to us, they have recognized something in us and something in them, so they want to change. We’re fortunate in that some of the money we spent early on was a big bit of research into the kind of relationships that people have in different categories. It helps with a really honest conversation about, what’s your category like? What’s your brand like? Therefore, what can you do?
Some categories – say like sporting brands or alcohol brands – high emotional engagement, positive things. So you’re starting in a good place and you can move to a better place. Say financial services, now that’s a different challenge in any country. What we found was people might talk about their relationship with their bank like a marriage of convenience on a good day, or an enslavement on a bad day.
So, when we talk to a client who’s in that place, we can at least go, look, this is where we are as a category and this is the stretch that’s possible. If you’re a new brand, say in financial services, you’ve got a new proposition like some of the more human-centric financial services brands we have now, great. But if you’re not, we can show you the possibilities within that category if you’re in the challenging areas. And we’ve got a lot to back it up.
Then leaning on behavioral sciences and neuroscience means we can be more connected with people and also more connective content.
ROB: Right. As you’ve been on this journey – it’s about 4 years now?
NEIL: Five and a bit years. We launched 5 years ago and then we did all the prep for about half a year before.
ROB: Okay, and we were talking a little bit before; you’ve got at least some awards to show. What was the work that you’ve done that was award-winning?
NEIL: Really exciting in terms of particularly some of the work that we’ve done with Guinness in Africa. Guinness in Africa is a great brand. It’s been there almost as long as it’s been in Ireland. It’s massive. We do a lot of work, from broadcast to in-bar in say Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and other African countries. It’s such a great brand anyway. It’s a great brand there.
We work with their media sponsorship of the English Premier League, so it’s Guinness football in-bar in some fantastically exciting growing countries. We’ve done influencer work. We’ve just done something that hasn’t even gone in for awards but was an experiential event in Lagos to bring to life the flavor of Guinness. It was inspired by some of the sensory work we’ve done, which was people turning up to go into different rooms, different environments, different spaces that brought to life Guinness as a liquid and then was amplified by social media influencers, etc.
ROB: That seems like an interesting challenge, then, being UK-based, speaking into the culture of Nigeria. How do you understand the culture well enough to do that? You don’t have an office in Nigeria, I don’t think.
NEIL: No, we don’t. We did have an office in Africa, and that was one of the ones we closed. For me, we are conscious about tapping into and understanding the market. We get involved in a lot of the research that either the client does or we do.
We have a very good relationship with the global team and the local client team, and whenever we’re out there, we always – even if it’s for a shoot or for workshops or whatever – we always get stuck into that market and try to find out one particular aspect, whether it’s how people watch football or whether it’s how people drink together and just get under the skin that way.
For me, if you’re curious and you speak to people – I’m actually just curious about football. I think sometimes the work that’s done around sports is quite thin in terms of the insight, whereas, particularly in Africa, the insight we’ve got about how people relate to football and what it means in their lives – other than just scoring a goal – has been brilliant. We learned that about 3-4 years ago. We take that to every brief, because I think once you put in the time and the effort, it’s not a problem.
So the distance actually – if you’ve got a structure and an approach and you’re curious, I think sometimes you can do a better job because you’re curious and you’re not too close. You can spot things by being in and out.
ROB: What are some of the perhaps unexpected insights into how people watch football together and how they drink Guinness together?
NEIL: I suppose the biggest insight for us was just how the English Premier League – you could go get some insight about football, but as we delved into it, the insight was more about the English Premier League and how, particularly, Nigerians see it – it almost mirrors their aspirations in life, because it’s a different kind of football. The players who play it, including African stars, lead an incredibly aspirational lifestyle. Because it’s so intense as a game compared to other leagues, it’s a massive outlet for young African men.
Those things – I wouldn’t say that we even have that same kind of depth of insight about viewing behaviors of football in the UK. Also, the relationship is much more interesting for a brand in Africa than it is in the UK, actually.
ROB: Is Guinness popular throughout Africa, or particularly in Nigeria for some curious reason?
NEIL: Yes, particularly in Nigeria and the other countries I mentioned. But I think part of it is the history of Guinness being there a long time, but also, Nigeria is just a massive market in terms of population.
ROB: Nigeria, Kenya, these are the more fluid economies.
NEIL: Yeah. Nigeria, just the scale – if you ever go to Lagos, it’s tens of millions of people. It’s just growing and growing at an incredible rate. It’s really that.
ROB: Sure. Neil, you’ve been building Hey Human for roughly 5 years now. What are some things you’ve learned building the company that you might did differently if you were starting from scratch?
NEIL: I think the one thing that I would do differently would be – I always talk about grasping the nettle, dealing with the things that, in your heart, you know are not quite right and need to be fixed. Sometimes you might have a chat with somebody and they go, “I think it’s okay, actually. I think there’ll be a way through it.” or whatever; 6 months later you realize you’ve lost a lot of time and a lot of energy and you’ve still got to fix that, whatever it is. So go with your gut. Grasp the nettle. Just do it sooner.
ROB: Got it. Sometimes that probably involves people, sometimes it involves clients and strategy. Have you grasped the nettle, so to say, in even firing a client at times?
NEIL: Well, we did. Very early on we said goodbye to a lot of clients that we didn’t think were the right match for each other. We had one particular client that was big in one particular sector and we had another opportunity with another client. We made a call on it. We didn’t have to, but we decided that it’s probably not a healthy thing, whether a client thinks it or not. So we have done that quite a few times.
ROB: I’m curious – I have some advisors that I talk to about stuff I’m dealing with, and sometimes they have these brilliant observations. One situation I was dealing with, they said, “It sounds like this situation is taking a lot of your time and energy.” I didn’t really realize it until they put it so clearly.
You are the managing director; who do you find is your sounding board that helps you realize the things that need to be grasped and rip the Band-Aid off or whatever other metaphor you like to pull in?
NEIL: There’s people in the company that we have a partnership. We’re working and we’re pretty open with each other, which helps massively. We’ve been through stuff together, so we can be straight with each other. But if I’m really honest, one of the things is I do quite a lot of distance running.
It’s not running per se, but I think if you’ve got anything in your life where you can let your mind wander and not be distracted, things just work themselves out. That would be probably my other bit of advice. I always talk about sharpening the saw, and one of those things with sharpening the saw is make sure that you’ve got time to do things like exercise – whether it’s your brain, whether it’s your body.
ROB: Yeah. Running is almost like a form of meditation for you, in a way.
NEIL: Certainly. One of the unintended positive consequences of moving the agency is that I’m now eight miles further away from my house than I used to be, so I now run in. [laughs] And I usually get in sooner than if I’d commuted.
ROB: That’s a solid tip. It’s kind of like being around Austin this week. You run much faster than commuting by car. I’ve certainly seen what you see. When I’m lifting weights at the gym, my body is engaged and my brain is empty. It can process things. It can tell you things. It really is an amazing thing.
NEIL: Yeah, and I’ve been running into Austin.
ROB: [laughs] Excellent. You’ve been here for a few days?
NEIL: Yeah, I arrived Wednesday evening.
ROB: And you’ve got some more days ahead. You’ve certainly taught some people some things. What have you been learning while you’re here?
NEIL: The thread for me – and I think threads emerge as you go through South by Southwest – I think the biggest thing for me is still the creativity. That’s what I really like about South by Southwest. It always goes back to that. But I think with that in mind, it’s the ongoing debate about AI and creativity.
I love how we seem to swing from one year, going, “The robots are coming, run, run!” whereas it seems like this year, so far, it’s more like, “No, this could be good for us, particularly creatively.” But I think going back to the UK, like Brexit, nobody knows. Nobody knows what’s really going to happen with AI, but I know the theme has been it’s kind of banged us to shape.
But I would love to think that AI can take away some of the mundane stuff, make it better, but also help us be more insightful in terms of data that also gets us to better insights for creativity. But also just help creativity, just generally. We’ve just got to be open-minded about it.
ROB: Right. It’s interesting because technology has often created new and unexpected jobs, but by contrast, I feel like within agencies, the roles really haven’t changed much in quite a while. Do you have different roles in how you structure? Is there room for new roles with AI in the picture?
NEIL: Yes, I certainly hope so. I think there’s two bits to that. We are structured by the classic relationship strategy and creative skillsets, but I think the difference for us is we have a much more collaborative way of working. Anybody can be part of the client relationship piece, the strategy piece, or the creative piece, and there’s no, “You can’t say that, you’re not a creative,” “You can’t say that, you’re not a strategist,” etc.
One of the things that I feel is the next phase for us is taking a step back with those definitions of those roles. But I think you have to start with a mindset of the legacy way of working has to change for the same reasons that – we feel like we’ve genuinely changed the ways of working in an agency and with a client. Probably the next thing is, what are the actual roles going to be going forward?
ROB: If you are back at South by Southwest next year and you’re giving an updated version of your talk this year, what do you think may have changed by this time next year? What would you say differently, or what would you hope to say differently?
NEIL: Our talk this year was about cognitive load and creativity particularly. It was basically saying we get obsessed with definitions of what is creativity focused around enjoyment, whereas everything we looked at said yes, creativity as we define it through neuroscience as divergence – other people might talk about “standout” – is really important, but it doesn’t work if you’ve got really high cognitive load.
That’s the first time we’ve said that anywhere, because we just finished the research. We had a hunch based on some research that we’d done about 6 months ago, and we’ve basically looked at a load of what are considered great, great ads and went, actually, these ones worked better than these ones. It goes back to cognitive load.
I hope next year we’ll have some work to show that proves that not just by looking backwards, but by looking forwards – so that’s the exciting bit. You can call me on that. [laughs]
ROB: For sure. This is not an accountability podcast, but it can be done. [laughs] Notably, this festival environment is cognitive overload. Who have you seen here that’s doing something interesting and they’re doing some things right? What’s a good takeaway of somebody putting their brain in front of people, but in a way that really works? They’re reducing cognitive load for people there.
NEIL: Wow, that’s a tricky one. I’m in a bit of a challenging situation at the minute because all we’ve been doing, or all I’ve been doing, is presenting or running, if I’m really honest. The bulk of my stuff is going to be the rest of the week.
Having said that, we were part of the UK piece in the British Embassy. What I really liked about that – and sometimes these things happen by happenstance rather than anything – is everybody just told their story. Everybody got up for 20 minutes, chatted it through – in the middle of what looked like a setup for a gig. But they knew their stuff so well that they weren’t selling it.
Then the bits that don’t work – and I don’t think South by Southwest is bad for it, but when you see it, it is just charts that demand to be read and feel like they’re a dissertation. I would ask people – and I’m really conscious that we’re a creative agency, so we don’t do good charts. If I was a client I’d call us on that, because you’re not living your brand. Whereas I saw a slide, naming no names – it would say “12 Principles” on it, and it looks like PowerPoint 1.0.
So I would say that cognitive load piece, we talk about the standout piece, the cognitive load piece on motivations – think about that when you’re doing your charts. Get somebody to design them. Don’t have more than three words on them. Go crazy. Have a bit of animation.
ROB: Right. I think in some ways you have embodied that reduction of cognitive load in your motto. “We build human brands.” There is not a spare or wasted word in that. You’re really walking the walk.
NEIL: Yeah, I like to think that my year and a half doing a Creative Writing MA wasn’t wasted. Also, I’m Scottish, so I’m a man of few words. I try to live my brand.
ROB: Right. I think another takeaway – over here in the States, when we are hearing news on Brexit, we feel like we don’t know what’s going to happen, so it sounds like we’re getting the news correctly. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
NEIL: Nobody knows. If anybody says they know, they’re either an idiot or Theresa May. But sadly, I think it’s pretty clear at this point that she doesn’t know either yet.
ROB: [laughs] That’s fantastic. When people want to find you and Hey Human, how should they find you? And what are you excited about?
NEIL: You can easily find us on the web. The big thing for Hey Human – and it has been for the last 5 years – is thought leadership. We’re always creating content because we want to lead the way and the change. So you’ll always find us on LinkedIn, always find us on Twitter. I do a lot as well.
We are putting up some posts, South by Southwest whitepapers, based on what we’ve talked about here. So you can track us down on Twitter. That’s one way to sign up for that, or go to the web and just email email@example.com.
What I’m excited about? Doing this creative work that’s got the sweet spot cognitive load. But I am genuinely – we’ve got some really interesting briefs coming up on an exciting set of clients. Here’s something brand new; how can we make this sing with your work?
ROB: That’s great. Fantastic, Neil. Thank you for coming on the podcast. Great to meet you here in Austin, and we’ll look for those predictions to come true next year.
NEIL: See you in a year.
ROB: Take care
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