As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Hans Lopez-Vito, a former CSO and now Chief Operating Officer at BBDO Asia, shared with WARC’s Anna Hamill thoughts on agency operations as an ex-strategist, the difference between skills and expertise, and recruiting diverse skill sets to the strategy team.

When it comes to skills and expertise required in China on a day-to-day basis, what have been the biggest changes over the past five years?

Planning skills are one thing, and expertise in strategy is another. For too long, the industry has built up great expertise in planning – which is about mining cultural insights, crafting creative brand propositions, and working out consumer experience maps based on insights about the media environment. But there is a real gap in expertise in the industry when it comes to helping clients navigate more upstream marketing and brand-related issues.

Clients will always require the former from their agencies but are increasingly seeking counsel on the latter as slowing growth prompts a real shift in emphasis away from simply driving excellence in short-term market activation, towards creating a sustainable competitive advantage for brands. Planners have a real opportunity to step up and reframe themselves as strategists and this requires a slightly different set of skills and experiences that the current generation of planners (aka strategists) often do not have. This is an industry problem, and we need to call it out: many planners can plan but cannot write strategies.

What do you see as the biggest trends/consumer behaviour changes coming down the pipeline in China?

The most significant change that our industry needs to contend with is this new era of slower growth. Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the fresh COVID lockdowns, China’s economy was already slowing down in ways not seen before since its opening up 40 years ago. For a market long accustomed to double-digit levels of growth in consumer spending, the new economic realities feel like a recession. Campaigns will require more deliberateness than ever before – both in terms of research/data analysis and time spent – in determining where future demand would come from, and what specific consumer behaviours need to be triggered to deliver that growth.

What steps (if any), are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for the future?

We are taking on more planners with diverse backgrounds from mainstream media, social media, and eCommerce agencies. We have also experimented with hires from digital consulting firms. We seem to have had more success in bringing this type of planning talent into the agency and then training them up in brand strategy than in doing the opposite, perhaps because we are simply better at teaching things related to consumers and brands than we are at teaching our staff about media and engagement. It’s been clear that this growing diversity within our planning teams is proving to be a real strength for the agency.

This is a no-brainer: we are also tapping into the power of Microsoft Teams for training. We hold monthly Planning Masterclasses across China (and beyond). This allows us to capitalize on a specific subject matter expertise wherever they are in the region – be it Shanghai or Mumbai – for the benefit of team members in Beijing. We are also investing more in single-source consumer panels and expanding our BBDO Voices insights program beyond China.

How has your experience as a CSO informed how you approached the COO role?

In two ways:

First, it is always very tempting for agency management to also cut costs that do not immediately impact an agency’s topline performance – and that is to cut planning headcount. There is a long list of agencies in China that have decimated their planning teams, either in terms of quality or quantity of headcount. Having a COO with a planning background helps ensure that the agency’s planning community is represented at the top of the decision-making chain and continues to thrive.

Second, we are generally quite good at applying our strategic thinking to our clients' businesses but are often too busy doing the same for our own businesses. Having a COO who is also a planner ensures that the same level of strategic rigour is applied to how the agency operates

Have expectations from clients and other internal teams (such as creative) changed in terms of what strategists are expected to do?

Planners have always had to be good at connecting the dots when it comes to understanding consumers. What has changed is that there are now more dots to connect than ever before – media behaviour data signals, consumer surveys, cultural insights, social media listening, etc.

Moreover, there are now more people than ever who come to the party bringing those dots – media agency, social media agency, etc. Planners, who were mostly highly introverted thinkers by nature, now need to bring forth a new skill – collaboration and diplomacy.

In the coming year, what do you expect to be the most significant change to how planners need to operate in your market? 

As someone who has been a planner of sorts for over 25 years, it is safe for me to say that planners are thinkers who cherish the space to be able to do so. In today’s fast-moving, highly connected world, however, the best planners are also those who know how to scrum – not just with other teams within the agency or with the client, but also with teams from other agencies and partners. Collaboration, co-creation, and diplomacy are essential planning skills for the new age.

In the next 12 months, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for planners/strategists to bring value to brands? 

WARC and the IPA have done work to enhance our understanding of how marketing works through empirical analysis of data from countless campaigns.

However, there is still a raging debate if the same learnings apply in a market with such a unique digital ecosystem, where new marketing theories/principles are being written and rewritten every day. Our multinational and local clients operating in the market deserve an equally objective and empirical view of how marketing and brands really work in the Middle Kingdom. The burden is on agencies, and the strategists within them, to set aside competitive differences to work together as an industry to take our understanding of this topic to a higher level.

What can strategists do today to upskill themselves for the future?

The media environment continues to fragment and evolve so quickly that I somehow believe it is impossible for every planner or strategist to know everything about everything. The key is not expanding on one’s specialism, but embracing the far more universal and timeless skill of working, collaborating, and co-creating with a growing roster of strategic specialists.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is a hugely important area that the industry has been working on. How do you think this is progressing?

Compared to the broader mainstream society, agencies tend to be relatively progressive places and serve as a haven for staff who do not always feel as accepted outside the agency’s walls. However, focus groups among our staff tell us that subconscious bias within the agency world persists, and we wanted to change that. We are about to launch an internal “Kill the Label” campaign aimed at helping people be more conscious about their own personal biases and stereotypes we use to label others.

However, the industry needs to do more than just launch internal DE&I campaigns and DE&I-themed posts on their Wechat or Weibo pages and drive real tangible change within our organizations. BBDO China is thus following the lead of our colleagues in BBDO New York who are putting in place real measurements of how well people feel they really belong at the agency. Only once real measurements are in place can real issues be identified, tangible solutions developed, and then progress can be tracked.

How do you expect issues such as sustainability, DEI, and the cost-of-living crisis to impact strategy in China in the next year?

I believe that the sustainability conversation has largely not yet impacted the conversation about brands in China unlike the rest of the world. However, I believe this will soon change. We track the Chinese youth’s level of agreement to over 200 attitudinal statements and we have not really seen any wild swings in people’s responses in the last four years, except in one area where we have witnessed the most pronounced growth: their concern for the environment.

Today, brands barely talk about this topic or advocate for any societal purpose for that matter ([and if they do], it is a side tactic that is not boosted by paid media) and they arguably never really had to. However, this type of content will find its way closer and closer to the central messaging of brands as growing societal problems – sustainability issues among them – will push them front and centre of people’s lives.

In terms of technological and media transformation – i.e., Web3, media fragmentation, e-commerce, measurement, etc. – which changes do you see as making the biggest impact?

All of the above! We were all told to be T-shaped planners but this is no longer enough. It is also crucial for agencies to ensure T-shaped planning teams – having planners with diverse backgrounds and sets of expertise who love to collaborate and connect the dots with other types of planners.

The last two years have disrupted so much about consumer behaviour and how we work. What’s your biggest lesson?

That humans – at their core – fundamentally do not really change. We tried to do an analysis of our consumer panel data to see how consumers changed pre- vs. post-COVID. As expected, we saw significant shifts in some lifestyles and behaviours. But their fundamental attitudes, values, and life drivers did not change that much. This shows us that while we need to keep abreast of the fast changes in the digital sphere, planners/strategists should also not forget the aspects of our jobs that do not change as quickly.