Adam Cleaver co-founded Collective in 2003 together with two other creative hotshots from AKQA, where he was working as head of copy at the time. Despite an early attempt at a self-promotion campaign portraying the leadership team as dubious used-car salesmen (pictured above then and now), Collective has grown and thrived since then. 17 years on the digital commerce-focused agency has all the talent and resources to deliver integrated digital comms in-house, including its own tech and development team.
Rather than starting with technology ideas or digital channels, Adam and his team start by understanding people and their behaviours to create ideas that answer real human problems. Their work includes building a seamless Click to Buy website for Hyundai that taps into an understanding of how people want to buy cars, working with the NHS on a digital platform that aids the transition from primary to secondary school for young people, or building a second-screen experience to engage players with the themes of the epic PlayStation 4 game InFAMOUS Second Son.
LBB’s Alex Reeves spoke to Adam about his background, trajectory through the industry and the mistakes he’s made along the way.
LBB> What kind of kid were you and was there any inkling that you would end up in your current career?
Adam> As the youngest of three boys, I was definitely a mummy’s boy. As a result, I preferred Swap Shop https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multi-Coloured_Swap_Shop to Tiswas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiswas [click the links if you need these ‘70s British cultural references explained] and kept away from the naughty kids. Maybe because of watching lots of TV and liking being at home, I had a vivid imagination. I enjoyed drawing (mainly cars - and my obsession as a child, the Lamborghini Countach). My favourite subject was certainly design. I also had a very musical upbringing. So much so that when I discovered acid house in the late ‘80s, I bought a synthesiser and a drum machine in the vain hope of becoming the next Adamski. I didn’t. But I did get a record deal, and it’s fair to say the burgeoning dance music scene brought me out of my skin a little. OK, a lot.
LBB> Where are you currently based and how have you found the lockdown experience?
Adam> I’m currently based in my hometown of Market Harborough and go into the London office once a week. After 16 years commuting, the whole working from home thing has been rather lovely. The blurring of lines between home and work, less so. Don’t get me wrong, the reduction in commute time home from two hours to, well, a 30-second walk downstairs, is amazing, but I think we all miss the social/cultural side of working together and also the very clear distinction between home and work. I’m hoping we’ll get the balance just right for everyone over the coming year.
LBB> What was the project or piece of work that you felt really changed your career?
Adam> I vividly remember a piece of work that spawned my interest in advertising in the first place. My great uncle was (and still is) a lighting cameraman specialising in stop motion animation. He came to see us with a videotape showing a project he’d been involved with. It was Tony Kaye’s legendary film for British Rail, Relax. https://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/record/0f2c10c8-ad8d-44bc-896f-c1266a6ee892/ Firstly, I was amazed that I could feel completely differently about grotty old British Rail. Secondly, I thought “making that kind of stuff looks cool”. If dance music super-stardom didn’t beckon, I had another career path.
LBB> What was the most useful lesson you learned in the early days of your career?
Adam> Once I’d got over my initial inability to spell (a slight drawback for a copywriter, but very common for kids schooled in the ‘80s) I think it was the importance of the proposition. It’s easy to get distracted by other elements of a brief, and to go off on tangents. But being hauled back by senior creatives numerous times with “it’s off brief mate” soon taught me that the proposition is your friend.
LBB> Why did you start an agency with three other creatives? How did that go?
Adam> Yes, it was great in terms of creative output, but not in terms of everything else. I think we naively thought that our ability to ‘do’ the work would inevitably bring in clients and cash. After all, we could ‘carry our own bags’. In truth, we could carry our own bags, but it didn’t make up for having a really good strategist, account manager or finance guy as part of our senior team. Pretty obvious really, but we were quite young.
LBB> After 17 years in the business, you must have made some mistakes. What are the biggest two and what did you learn from them?
Adam> I think the biggest two mistakes we’ve made have really been around where our energies are best expended. We used to waste lots of time and money on pitches we could never win. And didn’t spend enough energy on finding exactly the right people. These days we qualify an opportunity to within an inch of its life and don’t pitch if we don’t meet our own criteria for pitching. And we put everything into ensuring the people we employ are not only great at their jobs but also are ‘Collective’ in their attitude to life.
LBB> On the subject of mistakes, tell us more about the used car salesman idea. And the picture.
Adam> This gives me nightmares. In the early days our website homepage featured a battered old caravan in a car park. Every so often a man in a chicken suit would appear at the window or open the door and leave - obviously. We thought it was brilliant. Then we decided it would be ‘funny’ to go to a new business event dressed as Del Boy-style suitcase salesmen. You know, the kind of people who might operate from a battered old caravan. It wasn’t the best idea, and work wasn’t forthcoming. Surprisingly.
LBB> Usually, we’d ask here what gets you excited about the industry but we know as an agency you do a lot of work in Unreal Engine. How does that manifest and where did you get the idea from?
Adam> Unreal Engine is a gaming creation platform that is changing industries and will certainly be changing ours. We started working with it thanks to our 3D and creative technology team coming to us with the idea to use it to reinvent the digital commerce space. With the rise of cookie-cutter online retail experiences, there’s never been a greater need for rich experiences to elevate brand, and this is what platforms such as Unreal can bring; mind-blowing content along with workflows and sign-off that are simpler, easier and faster than ever before.
LBB> What part of the industry do you personally find fascinating and bring to your work?
Adam> I’m absolutely fascinated with behavioural science and its application to what we do - spawned by discovering Robert Cialdini’s principles of persuasion many years ago. It just astounds me how much of our decision making is subconscious and just how irrational we are. As David Ogilvy once put it, “Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” Welcome to the world of marketing… good luck!
LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh?
Adam> I like to run. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and although I’m not built for it and often look close to death while doing it, I find it clears the mind and, as with swimming, delivers moments of clarity that are very welcome. And my 16-year-old daughter keeps me fresh. She’s way ahead of any publication.