Paul Burns – “Skills without the right attitude is a fail and the right attitude without the right skills is a fail too!”

Paul Burns is a professional with an extensive background in advertising. He spend 24 successful years in Saatchi & Saatchi London as an Account Executive, later promoted to the Board. Paul took the role of Training Director and later on, became the first Director on Knowledge Practices, chairing the Management Board for the Agency. He launched the specialist Training and Development business The Burns Unit tlc in 2009. Since then, the company has worked with over 70 agencies, clients and trade bodies, helping them create strategic approaches to Learning and Development to meet their goals, with the help of over 40 specialist trainers.


1. Why did you decide to quit working in an agency and start consulting advertising agencies?

It was a decision forced on me by the financial crisis of 2008. I was lucky enough to have spent 25 fantastic years working at Saatchi & Saatchi in London. I was an Account Handler working with amazing colleagues and great clients.I was lucky enough to have taken on the additional role of Training Director. Through this role I chaired the IPA (the UK Advertising Agency trade body) training forum.

When I left I explored many new opportunities from working client side, other agencies, charities and also to be the Commercial Director of a Premier League Football Club.

In the end I decided to set up my own business. The Burns Unit tlc. Its aim was to help agencies create a more strategic approach to Learning and Development where training is more aligned to the agencies business objectives, secondly to run a number of agency and client specific training courses and finally to act as a one stop access point to over 40 specialist trainers who run topics that I was unable to deliver.

It’s been a wonderful experience and a great way to give back to the industry I love.


2. What are the obstacles facing agencies? Why do they need specialised consulting services?

Agencies today face a number of challenges.

· They are struggling with fees being reduced and constantly being asked to do more for less.

· An industry that is in faster and continuous change making it harder and harder to deliver more specialist offerings but at the same time having a broader business

· Attracting and retaining top talent with the growth of higher paying, more exciting and creatively challenging tech alternatives.

· Clients who have lost respect for their agency partners demanding work quicker and cheaper.

So how can consulting services help?

They can’t always help!

A good outside consultant can often provide a new perspective on the issues. They can bring years of experience to address a challenge not experienced by the team before. They are not bound by answers the team want to hear but more on what needs to be said. They are not restricted by internal politics and ego. They will have the benefit of seeing issues in a crystal clear way, which is impossible when you are stuck in the middle of the issue.

But beware… a poor outside consultant can sometimes bring old and failed solutions to new problems. Years of experience doesn’t mean they can empathise with todays challenges. Sometimes the team may already have the answer to a problem but just need more time to realise it. Sometimes there is no simple answer and the answer is in the detail and all that internal knowledge is what’s key to solve it.

So like a mechanic fixing a problem with your car, a great mechanic will magically get you back on the road and a poor mechanic can sometimes make the problem worse!


3. What are the most valuable skills for employees in the advertising business?

There is no one set of skills that will guarantee success in our industry.

It’s also important to recognise that ‘skills’ aren’t the only way of achieving success in our business. Attitude, empathy, enthusiasm, judgement, a sense of humour, resilience, tenacity, a passion for creativity, a love of people and a deep rooted sense of  curiosity are the attributes that help you succeed. These are hard to ‘teach’ and are more about character and personality.

But there are skills that are important and need to be developed. These are the training sessions that The Burns Unit tlc and other specialist training businesses tend to focus on.

· The skills to understand your clients business

· The skills to understand the basic strategic planning tools

· The skills to understand how to write compelling and inspiring creative briefs

· The skills to understand how to motivate and lead your team

· The skills to understand how to run a successful new business pitch

· The skills to understand how to negotiate internally, with clients and other agencies

· The skills to understand how to run a brilliant workshop or brainstorm

· The skills to understand how to present your work in a compelling and persuasive way

· The skills to understand how to write a brilliant presentation

· The skills to understand the role of different media channels

· The skills to understand Project Management

· The skills to understand the production process for all media channels

· The skills to understand and value the role and contribution of other communication channels that your agency doesn’t specialise in.

So skills without the right attitude is a fail and the right attitude without the right skills is a fail too! It’s and and.


4. How to recognise a good idea – one that will work for the client, but also have value for the agency itself and could eventually win an award? 

In my view the sole focus for agencies should be about building your clients brands, businesses and reputations. Aim to do this in the most innovative and creative way possible, but never lose sight of why we do what we do.

There can never be a formula for recognising a good idea. I hate the ideas of check lists and scoring because ultimately an idea must create an emotional connection. As we know it’s impossible to create a universally acceptable emotional connection.

My recommendation for judging an idea is simple…

Does it answer the brief? Does this idea achieve what it intended to make the intended audience think, feel and do (not what it makes ME think, feel and do!)?

The only way an idea will ultimately add value to your agency is if it answers this question. This is always about judgement. Research can help, but like a lamp post, use research for illumination not to lean on!

But please, please, please don’t judge an idea based on if it will win an award. This is a recipe for short term client relationships that will do nothing for your clients brand, business or reputation and even less for your agencies brand, business or reputation.

Focus on work that works. Do this brilliantly and in the most creative way possible and awards, fame and fortune and your agencies value will grow.


5. What are our useful moves when we have a bold idea but the client is not willing to try it?

There is no one thing that will move a client from ‘no’ to ‘yes’. You will have to have built up a solid bank of trust, a real and genuine passion for the idea and real understanding of the reasons ‘why’ your client has an issue with the idea.

· Is it the idea, or the execution?

· Is it the perceived production cost?

· Is it the perceived time to produce the idea?

· Is it a fear of the internal battles the idea might trigger?

· Is it that they just don’t like it?

· Or is it that they don’t understand the link between the brief and the idea?

In my experience, when the client/agency relationship was a trusted and respected one (this has to be earned), we were passionate about the idea and we and the client were rigorous in writing and agreeing the brief then major creative differences were reduced.

One tip that worked very well for us was to ask the client to feedback on the idea by answering the following questions:

· What I love about this idea is ….

· What’s working for me in this idea is …

· What’s missing for made in the this idea is …

· What would make this idea bigger for me would be…

This forces the client to begin the feedback in a positive way which aids and open discussion…  try it.


6. What do you think the advertising business will look like in 5 years?

I see two scenarios:

The growth of clients running their comms internally will increase, agency fees will continue to be reduced, the big consultancies will continue to grow and claim the strategic relationship from agencies and agencies will be increasingly treated like studios judged purely on speed and price, not creativity.

Or… agencies re focus on creativity for a purpose. A purpose focussed on using creativity to build their clients businesses, brands and reputations. To achieve this agencies MUST understand their clients business better. How they operate, how they make money, what their underlying business objectives are (not just the one or two brands the agency work on), how is marketing helping meet these objectives, not just how communications are contributing to meet them.

Fundamentally agencies need to earn the trust of clients. Not the trust to produce creative communications, but the trust earned by being valued and trusted business partners.

The big consultancies are acknowledged for developing creative business strategy but criticised for lacking the skills for creative implementation.

Agencies are often acknowledged for creative implementation but criticised for  lacking business understanding and strategy.

The future of this battle will depend on how well agencies grasp the business and strategic challenge. This requires an emphasis on core fundamentals and creativity for a purpose will flow from this.

The future can be a vicious or a virtuous circle for agencies. The choice is still in their hands. How they develop the skills of their people will determine their destiny.


7. Could advertising be considered an art?

What is art.. a definition… “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Advertising is not art but we use the attributes of art, creative skill and imagination but primarily to benefit our clients business, brands and reputations. This is a subtle but distinct difference.



Paul was a guest lecturer at FARA 2019 – the annual festival of the Bulgarian Association of Communications Agencies (BACA), giving his workshop “Create opportunities by understanding clients businesses.” In this article, we are presenting just a little part of his great advices and insights, do not stop following us for more inspiring meetings with such amazing people. 😉

Alex believes in the magical power of words to transform reality. She says she’s a dreamer and visionary, but is aware that the world is changing when you take responsibility, roll up your sleeves and get the job done. She’s a PR graduate, but quickly realizes she’s a copywriter at heart. She likes to know all sorts of things on all sorts of topics, to delve into one’s thoughts, or in the books, or in the stars.