My career in 5 executions: Pinterest's Alastair Cotterill

From Vice documentaries to Super Bowl party planning, the head of Pinterest's in-house studio strives to create something of real value.

Name: Alastair Cotterill
Title: Head of The Studio at Pinterest
Years in ad industry: 16
First job in ad industry: Data analyst, Wunderman

Alastair Cotterill began his career in a data center at Wunderman. In his spare time, he taught himself HTML and learned how to code. Those skills landed him in the start-up world, where he helped to launch a tech job board.

The success of that endeavor let him live on the beach in Western Australia for a year. When it was time to return to London, Cotterill joined DLKW Lowe, now MullenLowe London. Two years later, he moved to Dare Digital, then followed his mentor at DLKW to Mindshare in 2008.

His work at Mindshare on projects for social media networks piqued his interest in these emerging platforms, and he joined Facebook’s fledgling Creative Shop. After Facebook bought Instagram, Cotterill worked with that company to incorporate branded content, too.

In a move that may seem familiar to many millennials, Cotterill left Facebook for Pinterest in 2016. Newly arrived in San Francisco, he heads The Studio, the social network’s in-house creative team. "We have a huge responsibility to people on our platform. It's on us to make sure ads are entertaining, inspiring and useful, to make sure they add to people's experience and are worthy of their time," Cotterill says. "Come and add something of real value, or don’t show up at all."

Here are the 5 executions Cotterill says define his career.

Agency: In-house
Work: Brand and website launch
Year: 2002

While working at Wunderman, Cotterill became friends with a group of budding entrepreneurs who brought him on board to design a new jobs website. He took inspiration from the simplicity of Google. "It may not be the sexiest work, but it taught me everything about web design and effective advertising," he says.

He was paid on commission, based on the number of people who applied for a job through the site, so he quickly became well-versed in marketing techniques. "Nothing sharpens your focus like that," he says. "The key came down to relevancy—using data to put the right message in front of the right person at the right time." Soon, the site had a 25 percent marketshare for IT jobs. And in the years since, aside from a name change, the site hasn’t changed much. 

"It’s pretty identical to how I left it" 14 years ago, Cotterill admits.

Client: Unilever
Brand: Sure Girl
Agency: Mindshare
Work: "Sofia’s Diary"
Year: 2008

After several years at advertising agencies, working at a media agency was a shift for Cotterill. His position evolved to focus more on social media as those platforms were becoming increasingly relevant. Mindshare had structured a deal with Unilever’s deodorant Sure Girl to sponsor an online teen drama running on Bebo, then a network akin to MySpace. Cotterill worked with the scriptwriters to insert product placements naturally, and ran contests where fans could win walk-on roles.

"It was maybe a little bit ahead of its time in terms of internet speeds and the ability to actually watch video on the internet," Cotterill says, "but it showed how brands could work with content in a way that people want to engage with."

It also introduced him not only to Bebo, but Myspace and Facebook. "It tweaked my curiosity about how to create for these new formats, how can we bring a brand into this space," he says.

Client: Bose
Agency: Facebook Creative Shop
Work: "Scene Unseen"
Year: 2014

By 2014, online video had come into its own. "Facebook Creative Shop was in its early days," Cotterill says. "It was initially a small group trying to understand how were people using Facebook, why were people there, what types of content did they want to see." 

Working with Bose, Spotify and Vice, Cotterill helped create a video series with a production budget much larger than typical for online video at the time. "Each partner played to their strengths—with content informed by Spotify data, told through the lens of Vice and distributed through Facebook’s News Feed sequentially based on engagement," he says. Teasers for the series ran in the News Feed, and viewers who watched enough of the teaser would then be served the entire episode. If they watched that, they were presented with the Spotify playlist tie-in, then a photo album. "It was hard to pull-off but a great example of pushing the tech on the platform to really enrich the way we were able to tell each story."

Client: adidas
Brand: Supercolour
Agency: Instagram Creative Shop
Work: "Super Colour"
Year: 2015

Up until this point, Instagram had been ad-free. "We were introducing ads on a new platform that people are deeply passionate about, so it was crucial to get it right the first time," Cotterill says. "We were constantly playing with it, wanting it to feel native and authentic. People would be not just judging the brand but judging Instagram as well." 

The team worked with a young photographer who was already posting on Instagram, and he used his friends as the models. "We were super conscious of user trepidation," Cotterill says, so the team maintained editorial control over every ad that went out on the platform, "making sure that brands were adding something of value to the experience." And those initial ads set the tone for future ads for both Instagram’s team and brand partners going forward. 

Client: Sargento
Agency: The Studio at Pinterest
Work: "Pinterest's Most Valuable Party Planner"
Year: 2017

More than other social platforms, people come to Pinterest because they want to take something away. "People come to design and plan their lives," Cotterill says. He knew users would begin looking for ideas for the Super Bowl about one to two weeks before the game, so the Party Planner debuted a week-and-a-half before the Super Bowl. 

Pinterest partnered with Sargento, the sole brand whose messages appeared on the Partly Planner. Users were presented with a mix of organic pins from other users, pins created by The Studio team and pinned ads for Sargento."This was an early glimpse at the opportunity on Pinterest," Cotterill says, "Ideas from brands that add real value to people’s everyday lives."

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