5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly
5 Minutes with… Mary Catherine Mills
Director of Strategic Intelligence, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, on why it’s the best time ever to be a planner

‘But why, Dad?’ Yup, Mary Mills was one of those kids. You know, the ones for whom every answer is but the catalyst for a new question. Still, her childhood curiosity has stood her in good stead – these days she spearheads Strategic Intelligence for Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, driving forward the Saatchi & Saatchi ‘Lovemarks’ ethos by finding better, more incisive ways to answer those nagging questions.  She fell into advertising when Ogilvy & Mather accepted her on a training scheme and since then she’s refined her research skills at JWT, Y&R and, since 2002, Saatchi’s. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Mary to find out more.

LBB> How did you first get into advertising? Was it something you were always interested or was it a bit accidental?

MM> At the time, it felt as though I just fell into it, but looking back, it almost feels like destiny. I had been a post graduate student in the social sciences for four years, and decided I wasn’t going to be an academic, so looked for ways to work in business. My dad was in marketing and I had grown up with dinner conversations on branding, positioning, insight… and so I thought maybe research would be the right fit. 

But then I interviewed with Ogilvy and Mather and felt right at home. They put me in the account training program. That was over 30 years ago, and I haven’t looked back.

LBB> What kind of kid were you? I’d be fascinated to know if, looking back, there were any hints that research, strategy, insight would go on to form the bedrock of your career?

MM> I was curious about everything, the classic ‘but why Dad?’ kid. And still am! I was one of nine kids, so we learned to think for ourselves pretty quickly. I was called a tomboy, a multitasking, athletic, smarty pants interested in everything, fearless, the first to jump in, first to go over the hill, non stop chatterer. I loved ‘red rover’ as much as I loved puzzles, spelling bees as much as painting.

The hints of curiosity, resilience, leadership, and interest in ideas were all there at an early age.

LBB> What piece of advice do you wish you’d had at the start of your career?

MM> Don’t assume everyone else knows what they are doing, bravery even bravado counts for more than you think. And the corollary – as my dad used to say, ’if anyone tries to intimidate you, just imagine him on the toilet’. I still use that one.

LBB> How is the role of strategists evolving within the industry?

MM> We were all ‘strategists’ in the 80s, and we were truly respected client partners. We knew their business better than they did themselves. It was never the job of one person to strategize. Account planning was initiated to incorporate consumer research and insights into the process, not to give sole proprietorship of strategy to one group.

Planning in the early 2000s I think veered too far into intuition and ideas and creative expression, discarding data and research in favour of inspiration and brilliant breakthrough ideas, at least at some agencies. And we lost the due diligence of discovery of the right direction through data first. Sometimes it worked, often it didn’t.

Now, best of both worlds, planner/strategists are getting back to understanding data, and combining that with intuition and insight, we’re getting great storytelling and brand building ideas.

LBB> Your role is a global one and you’ve worked everywhere from Canada to Australia and New York, so I wanted to pick your brains about if and how the role of strategists varies in different markets. Is there much difference in the ‘culture of strategy’, so to speak, around the world?

MM> At Saatchi & Saatchi, planning was fairly similar across the globe. So I don’t think it differs by geography, more by agency philosophy and chronology.

LBB> With the seemingly endless rise of ‘big data’ and the industry’s fascination with neuroscience and the growing opportunities afforded to researchers by wearable technology, it seems that quantitative research has never been sexier… where does that leave qualitative research?

MM> Nothing replaces qualitative work. Our goal is to create empathy, and you just can’t do that with numbers that indicate what they are doing, where and how many times. The ‘why’ will always be key, and that takes qual.

LBB> And following on from that, it strikes me that strategy and intelligence requires an ability to be analytical and empathetic; a problem solver with an eye for business, creativity, psychology and… good old fashioned ‘real life’. How tricky is it to find people with that combination of thinking styles? 

MM> Very! But not impossible, and it seems to be easier to find these days. I think our education system is more balanced on the 3Rs and on creative thinking.  Most planners fall somewhere along that continuum, and I’d rather train a very strong intuitive intelligent planner to understand business and data easier than the other way around.

LBB> How do you work within the Saatchi & Saatchi network to help create the famous ‘Lovemarks’?

MM> Broadly, my role is to drive Lovemarks even more purposefully as our company focus, by developing, adapting, implementing and ensuring training of core research tools, which will inspire bolder strategies and bigger ideas. These tools include Xploring, strategic branding, concept and creative testing, social listening tools and more, all under the ‘Lovemarker’ umbrella. 

LBB> And which recent Saatchi & Saatchi projects have you found particularly exciting from a strategic point of view?

MM> The Canadian ‘Tourette’s’ campaign. Stunning world-changing ideas, very gratifying.

LBB> What does your average day (if there is such a thing!) look like?

MM> Starts with email, about a 30 per cent of my time, another 20 per cent meetings, calls with global teams and research partners, 30 per cent writing, and ends with 20 per cent of my time reading. Best. Job. Ever.

LBB> How do you keep abreast of new research and insights?

MM> Through industry associations and conferences… WARC, ESOMAR, CES, SxSW, etc. And I surround myself with keen (young) planners who feed me information that I would never discover otherwise. 

LBB> Outside of work, what inspires you?

MM> Nature, raw untouched nature, as far away from people as I can get, as often as I can.

My daughter and son everyday.

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