What I've Learnt: Neil Davidson, CEO at HeyHuman

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

HeyHuman uses neuroscience to help develop and measure the success of their campaigns. Neuro-measurement and eye tracking lets them test the effectiveness of clients' advertising.

The agency has worked with big name brands such as Oreo, Guinness and SlimFast, and recently was behind the Independent's Brexit March campaign. Its CEO, Neil Davidson, works closely on every project.

He's a winner of The Drum's Business Transformation Award, and regularly speaks at marketing and business events including SXSW, Adweek, Marketing Week, and the Festival of Marketing.

We found out the things he's learnt in life.

Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Time out. Whether that’s through exercise, reading or just sitting down with a cup of tea, you need time away from doing stuff - you need to get off the figurative treadmill.

Having time devoted to other activities means I’m not always thinking exclusively about the business. It keeps me sane!

What’s been your luckiest break?

My first advertising agency role. It was at Ammirati Puris Lintas - a massive agency now long forgotten. I was in my 20s and knocking on doors, old school. Eventually, my boss must have taken pity on the fresh-faced, rain-sodden Scot on their doorstep, and offered me a job.

And I was thrilled - full of beans and other pulses. So imagine my excitement when my first shoots were for Johnson’s baby powder and Carefree panty liners. They must have either been extremely desperate or running out of legs to pull; why you’d put a young Scotsman with pretty much no experience on those brands, I’ll never know. 

What’s your best failure?

It actually revolves around drugs - not like that, I promise. A long while back, I was working in the UK Government on European Drug Prevention Week - the idea was to create an Avengers-esque super crew of famous, street credible ex-addicts who could front it.

A ‘stories from the frontlines’ type of deal: "We’ve been to the bottom, and you don’t want to visit - trust us".

Unfortunately, the person calling the shots was quite conservative and religious, which didn’t exactly chime with that idea. So we ended up with a crew that consisted of the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Cliff Richard. It’s hilarious to look back on, and really hammered home the importance of everyone being on the same page for a brief, from day one.

What is the best investment you’ve ever made, either financial or time?

Education! It’s like the Mafia - once you’re in, you’re in. I took a year out of work to complete an MA in creative writing, and I’m also wading through an MBA.

As people, we’re naturally lazy, so you need to find ways to stimulate your brain and stay relevant. You’re not ‘done’ learning once you leave school - thinking like that is one of the worst things we do as we get older. It just closes so many doors. 

How would you describe your work/life balance?

I close the door when I get home, and that’s me closing the door on work. I don’t speak about work at home - they’re mutually exclusive, and I want to keep them that way. Otherwise I’d drive myself mad! If I need to work on the weekend, I’ll take my laptop down to Pret. 

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

You know what? I’m not going to put a business book. I’m going to pick 'Lanark' by Alasdair Gray. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and he was just a genius writer, painter, muralist, typeface setter… the list goes on. 

It took him 30 years to write the thing and it shows - it’s the benchmark for Scottish literature. Gray literally changed the city, with his art peppering subway stations, churches and even a swimming pool. He dedicated his life to Glasgow and Glasgow is dedicated to him. Stunning stuff. 

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Don't sweat the small stuff. Let other people do that. Focus on the big stuff. When your life’s happening and there’s work, people getting sacked, relationships falling apart, people dying - you’ll see people worrying about the minutiae. That doesn’t matter.

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

Probably just being from North-East Scotland, to be honest. It just gave me a real grafter ethic. It seems a bit weird that I’ve ended up working in advertising and neuroscience - my family have all been either farmers, railwaymen or oil workers.

The smoothness of my hands is often the topic of dinner-table discussion at Christmas. 

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

I have an unhealthy obsession with Japanese whisky - both sampling and collecting, especially for a Scot. I love Speyside whiskies, but Japanese whisky-makers have taken what is great about Speyside whisky to another level.

What does success look like to you?

It’s not about stuff, all that much. It’s about having a roof over your head with some books, whisky and happy people around you. I suppose an Audi R8 wouldn’t hurt, though.