Interview with Additive founder and The Drum editor at large, Dave Birss | Heart Internet Blog – Focusing on all aspects of the web

Dave Birss is the brains behind marketing and advertising consultancy, Additive and is also the editor at large of marketing magazine, The Drum. We caught up with him to talk about selling to marketing people, doing things that terrify him, and drunken Scotsmen.

This article is part of our “Power Up” series to help you learn new skills and take your website to the next level.

Hi Dave, tell us a bit about what you do? What’s Additive all about and why did you create it?

I think one of the vital things for businesses to do these days is adapt. And that’s certainly what Additive has had to do. I started the company to offer training courses for ad agencies. But over the last three years, the business has evolved several times. I still run training courses – but these days I spend much of my time consulting for businesses that want to increase their creativity. And only a few of them are ad agencies. 

I also run – which does exactly as the name suggests. We’ve run a code-in-a-day course from the very beginning of Additive – but earlier in the year we developed it into something bigger and spun it off into its own separate business. We’ve had nothing but brilliant feedback for it. Attendees start the day with little or no coding knowledge and end it by hand-coding their own web page. I think everyone should do it. Seriously!

So why did I throw in a career as a Creative Director to do this? Well, to be brutally frank, I became thoroughly disillusioned with advertising. There are so many layers of mediocre thinking between the business problem and the creative thinking that it’s impossible to make much of a difference. I wanted to get creative thinking further up the chain. And that excites me so much more than writing a press ad or coming up with a concept for a web banner.

You’re the editor at large at modern marketing and media magazine, The Drum. Give us a taste of what you’ve been working on recently…

My favourite thing I’ve done with the magazine is conducting an experiment to see if alcohol makes you more creative. If you want to find out who won, read the article!

What sort of people come to you for help?

Alcoholic Scotsmen, usually. I seem to look like the kind of guy who’ll have enough change for a cup of tea. 

Business-wise, I get a pretty varied mix. I’ve done lots of work with ad agencies, design agencies and digital agencies. But recently I’ve been working with the boards of large organisations. I’m just about to run a creative transformation project for a daily newspaper. The thought of it terrifies and excites me in equal measure!

I also get a lot of students coming to me for advice. I mentor at the School of Communication Arts in London, where I’m heading up the entrepreneurial and innovation side of the school this year. I’m like a vampire who feeds off the energy and enthusiasm of the students. It keeps me looking young and fresh. 

What are the challenges of marketing yourself to marketing people?

It’s the old cobbler’s children syndrome. Marketing people are awful at marketing themselves. There are lots of reasons for this. Part of it is a paralysing fear of other people in your industry judging your efforts. Part of it is too many senior people getting involved and making it impossible to make quick decisions. And part of it is that you’re just so damn busy you don’t get the time to do anything justice. 

How has the marketing and advertising industry changed since you’ve been involved in it?

OK. I’m about to show my age here. I got involved in the advertising industry in the year that Sir Tim Berners Lee switched on the internet. So for the first few years I mainly worked on TV, radio, press and poster. With the occasional piece of direct mail thrown in for good measure. So I mainly worked in five different media channels.

These days I wouldn’t even attempt to count the number of media channels you can work in. And it’s further complicated by the converging of media.

That’s the big difference to me. It amounts to more complication and more opportunity.

Are there any marketing or advertising theories or phrases you hate and why?

So, so many. But let me pick three:                             

“Ideation” – this makes me sick-up in my mouth every time I hear it. 

“Best practice” – I think this is the the most common excuse to copy what other people have done or to do uninspiring crap.

“Owning something” – I hate it when I hear marketing people say that they want to ‘own’ summer or the olympics or fashion photography. It just shows an arrogance and a misunderstanding of their place in the lives of their audience. Ugh!

There is currently a massive emphasis being placed on content marketing. Is it just a passing fad or is it the future of how we market our businesses?

I’m not a fan of buzzwords – and ‘content marketing’ falls into that category. It becomes a bandwagon to jump upon. Although it’s a very broad bandwagon that currently has some pretty undefined edges.

Bandwagons always make me nervous. I believe that you should zig when everyone else zags. Which means questioning each one that comes along and looking for the opportunity to be different.

That being said, I do believe there is an increasing trend for marketing activities to break out of the ad breaks. So I’d say that content marketing is not the future – but it’s certainly a future.

How do you find contributing to magazines like The Drum and writing books like “A User Guide to the Creative Mind” benefits you and your other projects?

I never planned to write a book or do anything for a magazine. I’m dyslexic! So it’s not a simple task.

As far as the book is concerned, I was testing out an infuriating piece of Apple software a couple of years ago and ended up writing a little guide to creativity in the process. So I published it. It just seemed like the sensible thing to do. It’s become surprisingly popular for a literary accident! And, if you haven’t got it yet, you can pick it up for a song right here!

Then I realised that writing a book wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. So I wrote another at the beginning of the year for my One Day Code School course. It covers everything you learn on the day – but you can only get it by attending the course!

I’m in the middle of writing another toilet-cistern book (that’s what my agent calls it!) about things I’ve learned from advertising. It should hopefully be available in all good airport bookshops some time in 2014!

I usually don’t plan to get anything out of my projects. I believe creative people create – so that’s my reason for doing this stuff. However, I always end up meeting amazing people, getting interesting experiences and ending up somewhere I never expected. Sometimes you don’t know why you did something until after you’ve done it.

We met you at Canvas Conference in October last year. How did you get started speaking at events?

I like to do things that terrify me until I get comfortable with them, so a few years ago I told people that I was up for a bit of public speaking.

I was probably pretty crap at the beginning but somewhere along the way I seemed to pass a standard that meant I was being approached to speak rather than asking to speak.

These days I get plenty of offers to speak all over the world. This year I’ve spoken in Singapore, New York, Moscow and the length and breadth of the UK. Next year I’m already booked up for China, Croatia and Bournemouth! 

It’s a fantastic way to meet amazing people and get a broader perspective on things. And to try unusual alcoholic drinks that you just don’t get in the Pig & Ferret.

If anyone fancies hiring me, have a look at my public speaking website!

What are the major benefits of attending creative events like Canvas?

For me it’s about meeting brilliant people, and being challenged. There was plenty of that at Canvas!

We’re running our Power Up campaign at the moment which is all about doing more with your website and getting inspired to achieve your goals. What are your top tips for getting creative and inspired?

Creativity isn’t something you turn on when you need it; it’s how you live your life. Or as Sir John Hegarty puts it – “it’s not an occupation, it’s a preoccupation”. 

If you want to come up with ideas that no one else does – you need to fill your mind with the inspiring stuff that no one else does. Spot things other people miss. Give yourself experiences that most people avoid. Be curious about everything.

And if that doesn’t work, go to the pub.


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