Brew and a biscuit with…Matt Shepherd-Smith

Charlotte McIntosh, Marketing Manager at MerchantCantos sat down for a virtual cup of tea with Matt Shepherd-Smith, CEO to discuss his career, thoughts on leadership and of course, his favourite biscuit.

CM: Firstly, the important question, what is your go-to biscuit with a cup of tea?

MSS: I would say the McVitie’s Chocolate Digestive. I remember them from my childhood, and there is a real sense of nostalgia about them for me. They provide a real sense of comfort. Also, they have the right amount of chocolate and absorb the right amount of tea with minimal disintegration. A well designed product if ever there was one.

CM: You’ve been at MerchantCantos almost 5 years now. What makes MC unique?

MSS: At MerchantCantos we really want to present ourselves as a company that solves business problems with creativity. However, it is our partnership with Brunswick which truly makes us unique. MerchantCantos is a world-leading creative advisory firm and Brunswick are a world-leading corporate critical issues advisory firm, so this partnership provides a genuinely differentiated offer for our clients.

CM: How did you first start out in the industry?

MSS: My father used to work in marketing for Unilever, and I was always fascinated when he talked about the advertising side of his job. It prompted my interest, to the extent that i approached a lot of different agencies and got a summer job in the production department of one of them. After 3 weeks they suggested I might be good as a client handler. I interviewed and got the job and have been in communications ever since.

CM: What advice would you give to your younger self?

MSS: Be relentless. And learn more about your clients than anyone else. Your knowledge will surprise them, impress them, and make you valuable to them.

CM: Creativity is so important in everything we do. How do you encourage it at MC?

MSS: By encouraging curiosity. I like the quote from Koestler who said that “Creativity is the defeat of habit with originality”. So I like to think about how we might disrupt a conventional approach with something a bit different. It avoids the generic and helps your thinking or idea to stand out. So I think that curiosity is key in everything you do.

I would also say that very rarely does a great idea come from a ‘me’ solution. Its usually from a ‘we’ solution. An idea shared with like-minded and collaborative people will likely grow for the better. For a great idea to stay a great idea from conception to execution it always needs several people to nurture it to see it through to fruition…

CM: What are the most important decisions you have had to make as a leader?

MSS:  A leader’s role is to set clarity, vision, and purpose. Creating an environment where great ideas can thrive. When you are running a creative business that is very true. However, in a time where there is a lot of uncertainty around the coronavirus crisis, and the pace of change is so rapid communication is more important than ever. Ensuring we are communicating at the right time, to the right people and with the right message, whether this is internally or advising our clients. How you communicate has become perhaps the most important decision you will make.  

CM: Brands are constantly under scrutiny, what are the mistakes that you see them making more frequently?

MSS: There are two mistakes. One is pretending, or in other words not having substance behind the purpose you are articulating. We have all read a lot about greenwashing, organisations playing at something with no material behind it. Brands need to have conviction behind what they stand for, and it needs to have societal value. Secondly, I see a lot of brands represent themselves in a way which is very rational, but lacking in empathy. Increasingly audiences want to engage on a more emotional level, where there is a certain instinctive, human appeal beyond the hard information or instruction alone.

CM: Which brand or brands do you admire?

MSS: I admire brands that care. And I don’t just mean on a sustainability level, although that matters to me. I also mean on a product design level, an aesthetic level, a customer service level, in their communications, packaging, treatment of their employees, their tone of voice….everything. I want a brand to really be considered and considerate in everything they do.  Patagonia is a good example. They talk about being in the business to ‘save our home planet’. And what I really like is how they articulate that e.g. they are in the business of ‘sports that do not require an engine’. They have a genuine philosophy around sustainability and a fantastic working ethos. Their products are designed well, with consideration for the planet, their comms often encourage you to avoid conspicuous consumption, etc. Their founder is a fascinating man called Yvon Chouinard, and he wrote a great book called ‘Let my people go surfing’. It is a great story about what a brand should be all about.

CM: What advice do you have for companies building their brand identity?

MSS: What I talk to a lot of my clients about is the need to balance the rational with the emotional. Achieving that engaging, insightful and human aspect, as well as finding the right place to communicate key facts.

I would also say, do not be generic. If something is generic, then it is invisible, and certainly not essential if there are others out there that are the same. Finding a way to be relevant and differentiated is extremely important, whether that is in design, strategic positioning or everything in between.

CM: How do you think starting your career in advertising has impacted the way that you approach corporate communications?

MSS:  I think corporate communications has always been viewed as slightly less creative than consumer communications. I think that is a bit unfair. Creativity is critical to business success, and corporate communications must engage creatively just like anything else.

The reason I got out of advertising is because it was becoming less creative rather than more. And I saw corporate communications as being where the emerging creativity was taking place. It has never been more important to think creatively, and how a business communicates itself is critical. Corporate communications and creativity are not mutually exclusive.

CM: Where do you see the future going with corporate communications?

MSS: Corporate and consumer communications won’t be seen as different things. Brands recognise that investors, shareholders, colleagues, journalists, consumers…. everyone is a citizen who will react and respond to a message on an emotional as well as a rational level. As clients increasingly merge their corporate and marketing functions we will see a greater level of creativity across traditionally ‘corporate’ communications channels.

Matt Shepherd-Smith is the CEO of MerchantCantos. He has over 25 years’ experience within communications and believes passionately about the importance of creativity in business. If you would like to hear anymore about any of the topics discussed, please get in touch.

Stay tuned for the next ‘brew and a biscuit’ interview…

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