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Getting to know: The ‘wonky mind’ of Simon Callender

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Simon Callender isn’t just Creative Planning Director at Initials, he’s also a keen motorcycle enthusiast with an Amazon series under his belt! But we’re not here to talk to him about that today, we’re here to talk all things creative.

We caught up with Simon this week to discuss his background in the creative industries, his highly team-focused approach to work and the power of ideas over budget in creating success.

Tell us a bit about your role

My role is directing the day to day strategic opinion of the agency through our client-facing creative work. In practice, this means curating an agreed team or agency viewpoint and ensuring this collective thinking is consistently represented through our final creative output. It’s a hugely collaborative process and I’m lucky enough to not only have a great planning team but also in-house channel and discipline specialists to keep me on the straight and narrow. 

Tell us about your background and how it has equipped you for today

At University I studied business with a final specialism in design. Following graduation, I worked at a collection of creative agencies earning my spurs as an account handler and copywriter before joining below the line specialists Billington Cartmell, working directly with the two partners. Here I was able to carve out a bespoke role centred on planning but with an extended remit within creative. This was the position that we badged Creative Planning Director, a position I held for over 15 years, during which time the business grew to nearly 200 people and became one of London’s most profitable agencies. After the sale of BCL, I joined Initials in a freelance capacity to help out on a few live projects before being asked to build a wider team as part of a new creative planning-focused permanent role.

Questioning pragmatism has always served me well

The eclecticism of both the challenges and the sectors I’ve worked on has given me an overarching insight into the often recurring challenges businesses continue to face. This, in turn, has taught me the importance of understanding the real issues behind any brief and the essential process of unpicking a client’s internal map to reveal the underlying levels of ambition, permission and resource. Questioning pragmatism has always served me well.   

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

An easy one. I’d be a travel journalist. 10 years ago, I rode from London to Beijing with a team of adventure-seeking motorcycle riders, three months of eye-opening wonder and a lifetime of stories. The six-part TV show we made en route is still running on Amazon. I’d love to present more travel shows, but for now, I’ll content myself with the occasional motorbike magazine commission. 

Tell us something about your professional life we don’t already know

Outside of my day job with Initials I still seek out work with small brands in a consultative capacity. I’ve created an online brand for a globally renowned furniture designer and have been involved with a number of projects in the adventure travel market. These challenges are always a timely reminder of the power of ideas over budget in creating success.

What’s your secret to staying inspired and motivated?

I don’t have one. I’ve always been really interested in society, people, motivation, behaviours and communication. I think it’s an essential part of the planning mindset. If you’re not naturally curious about how people think and act, then it’s going to make doing the job so much harder. 

My role actually validates how my wonky mind has always worked

My role actually validates how my wonky mind has always worked, seeking out and storing seemingly useless and obscure bits and pieces of information hoping that one day they can be purposed towards something productive. I think I’ll always see the world through a planning lens even when I don’t work in the industry anymore.   

Can you explain your creative planning ethos to us?

I have a strong belief that planning and creative should integrate seamlessly. Departmental divisions and baton passing often create a disjointed brand or campaign story. Planners should question the creative, the potential of their thinking upfront, be open to wider creative influence and debate prior to issuing strategic mandates. It sounds simple and logical but in practice, it takes hard-won permission and a truly collaborative mindset to make it work effectively.

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What’s the work achievement you’re most proud of?

There’s no one lightning bolt of brilliance that I want to use to validate a whole career - rather an evolving list of stand-out client projects. I’m still hugely proud of Green & Black’s brand-building work I was part of that resulted in the brand becoming a premium acquisition target for Cadbury.

There’s no one lightning bolt of brilliance that I want to use to validate a whole career 

More recently the award-winning brand and film work Initials created for the launch of the McLaren Senna was a particular high point. In truth, much of what I believe to be my best work has been for campaigns or pitches that never saw the light of day. I think all planners have a similar ‘if only’ list.  

Do you find it difficult to juggle the multiple hats you wear or do you find they actually complement one another?

I think I’ve learned to make it work but success depends on having the right team mix working with you. Respecting others’ responsibilities and areas of expertise whilst being pragmatically adaptable is central to keeping things progressing constructively.

How do you recharge away from the office?

Travel and riding motorcycles give me the feeling of escape I so often crave. (Motorbikes really should be prescribed for stress instead of antidepressants.) There’s always another trip in the planning, crossing Russia is the next target. Closer to home I enjoy a weekly kayak down the Thames in west London, an amazing way to appreciate nature up close and give your brain a chance to sift through a week’s worth of noise. Finally, seeking out new gastro experiences with my wife also has a disproportionate ability to fill me with joy.

What’s your one big hope for the future of the creative industries?

With people trusting brands more and ruling institutions less, there is an implicit role for the creative industries to transition their output from creating sales purposed entertainment to helping to actually shape and reflect the views of society. In concert with the brands we represent, this will mean thinking more about the long-term, avoiding opportunistic temptation and becoming more open to scrutiny - however, the possibilities could be transformative.

there is an implicit role for the creative industries to transition their output 

My big hope, therefore, is that this transition of influence could pave the way for a series of creatively driven, inspiring movements that champion social good and betterment outside of formal politics.

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