Cat Botibol fell into advertising by accident. After graduating with a fine arts degree, Botibol was busily creating internationally renowned installations and working in a shop when a colleague suggested she give adland a punt. In 2005 she joined pd3 as an office assistant and by 2008 she was a partner in the burgeoning creative agency. Not bad for three year’s work – but then Botibol is all about ‘making things happen’. Laura Swinton headed over to pd3’s HQ in London’s Shoreditch to meet Cat and learn why the key to creativity is to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in.
LBB> What makes pd3 unique as an agency?
CB> I find it really interesting when I see how other agencies are structured - production is kept in a completely separate department, which is going to affect how producers see themselves and work. I believe in making things happen - an idea doesn’t exist unless you make it. If creativity is about making things happen, then the production process itself is creative.
That philosophy influences how we do things here. Our producers are important. Obviously having the idea in the first place is important but then there’s a whole ‘creative development process’ that involves producers, project managers, creatives and designers and working together. You need all of those different inputs. You’ve got to make it work for the money, it’s got to be physically possible, the client’s got to buy into it – all of these things are as exciting as the conceptualisation process.
Our project managers and producers all sit together, there are no separate departments and it’s all very fluid. Our planners are all ‘creative planners’, which is something that I really believe in. Our planners and strategists are very instinctually led. In my more idealistic moments I think ‘let’s give everyone the same job title’… Sometimes the strategy comes from the planners because that’s how their brains work but sometimes it comes from somewhere else entirely.
Making things happen: Cat recently made her directorial debut with The Joy Formidable
LBB> And how does that production-inspired pragmatism inform your approach to ideas and creativity?
CB> I read an interview with Will Gompertz, the former director of Tate Media and who is now the Arts Editor for the BBC, and one thing he said just stuck with me. He said that anyone can sit in the pub and have an idea but he really believes that true creativity comes from making these ideas happen. I’ve always been a do-er. I’ve always been interested in ideas, but I’m not one for pontification. Personally, the most exciting thing about ideas is seeing them come to fruition. I completely agree and live by that philosophy.
A few years ago I used to get really annoyed when we’d pitch something, and another agency would win the job but you’d see a bit of your idea in the finished product. Then about 18 months ago I realised that I just had to get over it. Now I’m cool with it. I’m like ‘fine, steal my ideas, I don’t care, I’ve got like a million other ones. If you need to steal that one, that’s your problem’.
I have a philosophy that you create these random connections between things that you see, read, experience and pick up. Your brain needs to figure out how to slot all of these things together before it can go ‘oh, this could be the next big thing’. So when I see my idea in someone else’s work, maybe they haven’t stolen my idea, maybe they just happened to stumble upon it in the same way as the same time.
LBB> What kind of kid were you?
CB> I remember going on a school trip to France when I was about 14 or 15. At that age I was really into grunge music –long black hair and black Levis and long baggy T-shirts. I was really excited to see what the kids in Paris were wearing. It was really different to our gang in Bournemouth, where I grew up.
Last year I worked in Toronto, went to Colombia at Christmas and I spent some time in California - and I realised that in every city I’d been to, the cool kids all wore the same clothes. There is no distinction any more. Obviously that comes from the Internet and everyone seeing the same stuff at the same time, but it got me a little bit sad. It used to be something I really enjoyed when I went to different cities; you would see something cool you’d never seen before and appropriate a bit of it when you went home.
LBB> I guess you’re part of that generation that bridges the analogue and digital world.
CB> I first started using the internet in 1997, with super slow dial up and sitting in random chat rooms on AOL. I was 18 and it blew my mind. I’m so conscious of how different everything is now. I started art college in 1999 and was given an email address by the university. If the tutors sent an email, the notice would also be posted on a wall outside their art studio because we’d go and look at that wall every day, whereas I’d look at the email address once a month. I think it’s interesting because that was over10 years ago and now there are people who don’t know any different. We’re really lucky in a way because we are the last generation that has seen what it was like before and after.
LBB> How did you get into advertising?
CB> When I started at pd3 I had never worked in the advertising industry before. I went to art college thinking I was going to become an artist. Half the course is art history and the other half of the course was making our own art. At Goldsmiths, the setup is very much focused on your ideas. They don’t care about your painting technique. It’s about your opinion on the world and how you translate that. Looking back, it’s the perfect training ground for advertising.
I got into the industry completely by accident, by meeting the husband of a girl I worked with at Art Angel. I came here to help out, as a ‘general assistant’. I made tea, swept the floor, got everyone’s computer out and helped the office manager. When I saw the speed at which things happened I thought it was amazing! I remember the first time I saw someone have an idea and then seeing that idea come to life. I think I’m really addicted to that constant cycle. It makes me excited about the next project. It’s a good story to tell the runners.
LBB> Do you think that experience of coming into the agency and working your way up, learning the nuts and bolts about how the place actually runs, has influenced your leadership style?
CB> I very much believe in leading by example. I would never ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself and I don’t feel comfortable asking someone to do something they think I couldn’t do. Having said that I very much believe that the people you employ should be better than you. It’s an interesting contradiction. I want to believe that I could do something myself but I also want to believe that you could do it better. It’s important to be humble and able to say ‘you are younger and better and more attractive’.
I’ve heard a few people trying to get a job at an agency say that they want a more creative role. But you don’t just get given a job that’s creative, you creatively input into your role. After a year or two here I realised it doesn’t matter what job you have as long as you have a creative brain. Whatever job I have done in the past, working in shops and restaurants for example, I would naturally bring ideas to the role. It’s funny that in advertising there’s a job called ‘creative’ – in fact I think it’s quite weird. You meet some creatives who approach it like it’s a job whereas the creatives who we hire and who end up staying, think about ideas day-in-day-out. It’s more of an affliction than a career.
LBB> And how do you find these people?
CB> One of the most successful ways we find people is through recommendations. I always hate saying that because it’s quite defeatist. It’s hard to get into the industry if you don’t know anyone. But I have a recruitment company who I think are really good and ‘get’ us. I’ve shied away from most recruiters in the past because I’d found they’ll just basically bombard you with random people who aren’t what you’re looking for. Now I’ve found a recruiter who does genuinely get the difference between agencies.
In term of recommendations, if you know someone as a friend and they respect you, they’re not going to suggest someone if that person is completely awful at their job because it makes them look like an idiot. I feel really bad saying that because people who don’t know anyone feel like they can’t get into the industry. I always say that for people starting out in any industry, the best thing you can do is to be interesting. And interested. If you’re interested in talking to and meeting other people, and you’re interesting, you’ll get chatting to random people and they’ll want to hear what you’ve got to say.
LBB> What work has particularly excited you recently?
CB> We did something for O2 in April which was very exciting and a really fast turnaround. One of the great things about O2 is that there are a lot of senior people at who are very agile. I really respect them as a brand.
O2 had bought the rights to Little Boxes, a very distinctive song by Malvina Reynolds with a lot of meaning in the lyrics. We got Walk Off the Earth, who did the Gotye cover, to play the whole song using instruments made from cardboard boxes.
If you want to make something famous on the internet there are multiple ways you can do that. You can pay to make it famous; you can have someone really famous in it, or you can do something really shocking. Or use cats. At the time, everyone was forwarding the cover of the Gotye song, ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ by Walk Off the Earth where the whole band plays the song on one guitar. The band had had 75 million views so we knew that they’d have a ready-made audience; everyone would be wondering what they were going to do next. All their previous videos were very low budget. We had a really simple, but creative idea and we were able to give them higher production values than they’re used to, so there was a reason for them to get involved.
O2 loved the idea and I was very keen that it should be done quickly because for that idea to work it had to be done really quickly because we were capitalising on the ‘now’. I think it took eleven days to complete, between coming up with the idea and finishing off the final edit. That speed was really exciting for me. Being agile is so important, and having clients that support that is amazing.
LBB> Indian Soapstar was another big project for O2 a couple of years ago that was pretty interesting – how did that project come about?
CB> We were briefed with promoting a bolt-on for cheap international calls, ‘International Favourites’. We suggested to O2 that should focus on one or two nationalities because grouping everyone together as 'international' didn't really mean anything. We identified the Indian community as being one of the largest communities in the country. We looked at the number of calls going to India on the O2 network and they were really low, so we saw an opportunity for growth.
The idea was that you could win a part on one of the biggest soaps, Pavita Rishta, and go to India. The best thing about that campaign was that it was so effective and really increased the volume of calls to India.
It was about creating something that people really wanted to get involved in. It’s the differentiation between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’. You can just deliver a message or you can create something that people can get involved in. It doesn’t have to be an event, it can be online. I’m not sure how long just ‘saying’ things is going to last in advertising. Brands can’t hide anymore. You can say something but when consumers get to your product and you’re not actually delivering, you’re going to get found out. There’s nowhere to hide anymore.
LBB> Your relationship with O2 has obviously evolved to a really creative point now – how do you nurture these relationships and what do you look for in a client?
CB> We’ve made things happen for them multiple times and they know we can make the seemingly impossible possible. It’s amazing to have that sort of trust from a client.
There’s a real symbiosis in the relationships that have evolved with pd3. We started working with JustEat this year. They are such an awesome brand to work with. They’re a challenger brand; they’ve got that rebellious, irreverent mentality and a great brand personality. They are a brand that really encourages us to push ideas further, which is amazing. It’s very rare to get clients like that.
They are the perfect kind of client for an agency like us which is agile. Although we all have a super skill or super talent, everyone is hands on. You can be an account manager and a producer; you’ve got people who can put multiple hats on. That mentality means the agency works well with growing companies that are ‘on their way’. We love helping people grow. It’s exciting because we can help them become more successful. They grow and we grow.