Meet The MD

What It's Like To Be MD Of St Luke's: "We are masters of our own destiny"

From almost getting into the diplomatic corps to his love of pop culture, Ed Palmer shares his journey to adland

By Avnie Bansal

There's a pleasing symmetry to Ed Palmer's career. Back in 1998 he started out at St. Luke's, rising to account director within a couple of years. Then followed stints at Leo Burnett, TBWA and M&C Saatchi but by 2016 Palmer was back at St Luke's. But this time as managing director.

Ed manages the day-to-day running of the account management department as well as heading up the online retail account for Shop Direct. He has previously worked on a variety of accounts ranging from Mars Petcare (Pedigree & Whiskas), and PlayStation to Heathrow Airport and TfL.

Ed is also the co-chair of the IPA's Client Relationships Group. We talked to him about his observations on how the industry has evolved, what he enjoys most and his advice for people wanting to start a career in advertising.

Having worked in the advertising industry for 25 years, how much change have you seen?

A lot, and mostly for the better. First of all the work: when I started, campaign shapes were pretty predictable, with TV generally at the heart. There was a golden age of amazing TV ads, from the likes of HHCL and Mother. But now there’s such a broad canvas for creativity and so many ways for brands to stand out. That can be exhilarating and daunting in equal measure. 

When it comes to culture, anyone of my generation will have experienced various forms of unprofessional behaviour in their formative years, and were told this was par for the course and that we should suck it up. Whilst the hedonism is less prevalent, there’s generally less twattery and more compassion for others. Which is a good thing. 

I think the industry is less arrogant than it was, with much greater respect for clients and partner agencies. We generally understand now that to create anything great demands the combined talents and imaginations from the whole team. We no longer view creativity as the sole preserve of a chosen few rockstars.  

What do you enjoy most about working at St Luke’s? 

It’s that old independent agency cliché I’m afraid, but it’s being masters of our own destiny. We never have to shrug our shoulders impotently and say to our employees and clients ‘the holding company said we have to do it.’ 

We are totally free to create the kind of organisation we want, the kind of culture we want, and are solely accountable to our clients and employees. The way it should be. Of all the places I’ve worked, it’s the one where we genuinely have each others backs, and feel like we’re all in it together. 

And there are appropriate levels of daftness in the agency. It’s advertising, after all.

What’s your favourite part of the job?

From a practitioner's point of view, I love it when we can make connections between the seemingly random and unconnected that lead to true originality. Those connections that will go on to create fame, and make an impact on our clients’ businesses. Those are truly special moments. 

I love seeing trust build in client relationships, where there’s the openness, honesty and good will that is the bedrock of creating great work. 

And of course those moments of exhilaration when you land a new piece of business.

Did you always want to work in advertising?

No, not at all. It’s such a small industry, it just doesn’t come on most people’s radars as a known and understood career path, unless they know someone else who does it. My mum always wanted me to go into the diplomatic corps, and 25 years on I think it is still a massive disappointment that I didn’t. But I think that probably some major international incidents have been avoided as a result.  

I’ve always loved working out what makes people tick. I’ve always loved popular culture. And I’ve always loved getting to know how businesses work. That’s pretty much advertising, I just didn’t know it when I was a student. Until my sister-in-law who worked in advertising explained it to me what it was all about.  

What are some of the best projects you have worked on? 

I love it when we make sense of complexity. When we can see a way through the tangle, and express it in a way that is simple and compelling. 

Working with intimidatingly complex organisations like Heathrow Airport, and previously TfL, Sony and BT, and providing a clear direction for the brand are the ones I find most rewarding. Working on the London 2012 Olympics with a double IPA Gold effectiveness winning campaign is still a highlight for me.

What trends are you seeing when it comes to recruiting new talent in our industry? 

The industry is being much more progressive and open minded about the kind of talent it wants to attract. The advertising monoculture of what was historically basically ‘public school misfits’ is gradually being eroded, but we’ve still got a long way to go. 

Salaries just haven’t kept pace with other sectors, meaning we have to work harder to attract the right talent. And demonstrating you have the right culture has become a critical part of the recruitment process. 

What is the one thing you’d like to change about the advertising industry? 

Time waster pitches. The average full creative pitch takes around £100k of each agency’s time (on top of hard costs), so when it turns it’s not a real pitch, the budget’s not been secured, or those running the pitch are not fully empowered, it’s colossal waste of everyone’s time and resources.  

It’s financially draining and demoralising. But in an oversupplied sector, the temptation to delude yourself overriding your gut instincts are high. The Pitch Positive Pledge is a step in the right direction, but we still have a way to go.

Finally, What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into the industry?

Whatever you want to do in advertising, you have to have taken initiative, and done something a bit different from the rest of the crowd. My journey through school and university was solid but uninspiring, and frankly, I wouldn’t employ 24 year old me today. 

This business deals in original ideas, which by definition have no precedent. A mindset that always gravitates back to the set path won’t tend to get you to them. You need to show that you have the aptitude for doing your own thing, breaking the process, and standing out from the crowd. 

It’s for good reason that our most long standing initiative at St Luke’s has been the ‘make yourself more interesting’ fund.


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