As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Aki Spicer – Chief Strategy Officer at Leo Burnett Chicago – discussed how to make real progress on diversity and how strategy-creative-client relationships are changing with WARC’s Anna Hamill.

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

One of the biggest changes is the ever-increasing speed of turnaround, speed to insight, speed to a POV… particularly for pitches. There is increasing need for strategists to be able to go wide on exploration, yet drill down, quickly, into some viable strategic areas… listening closely at client ‘tissue’ check-ins and creative collaboration are vital to trying to get ourselves “a meeting ahead” to help give creatives more time to develop ideas.

What do you see as the biggest trends coming down the pipeline that you and you team will need to understand and adapt to? What steps (if any), are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for the future?

We are built to service big mass-market brands who are increasingly challenged by the realization that their mass market is a diverse mass. Across categories and across brands there is the recurring data point that future growth for many of our mass brands lies with better connection with black, LatinX, AAPI, LGBTQIA+ and ranges of abilities. Brands who like to say they are for “Gen Z” are realizing that Gen Z is synonymous with the most diverse generation ever, and they demand unique needs and nuanced understandings be met in our work. These needs go deeper than mere representation and presence but authenticity and relatability.

Agencies who have long championed that they navigate brands through culture are finding that more nuance is demanded to recognize and meet multicultural audiences who are often at the core of pop culture, and at the core of brand or category growth.

Beyond staffing our departments with the diverse backgrounds that mirror the audiences we want to connect with, it has become imperative to develop our Multicultural Intelligence program – a suite of processes, protocols and products to accelerate brand teams to bring more rigor and understanding to the briefs and creative development. Multicultural Intelligence offers tools (from audience insights tools like Pulse.AI and People Panels), and frameworks and a deep learning series for brand organizations to get proficient at “Writing Better Briefs Through a More Inclusive Lens”, or “Evaluating Ideas Through A More Inclusive Lens”, “Inclusive Production Practices” and more. These solutions go deeper than back-end tactics like on-camera blind casting and really asks strategists, and brand teams to ask deeper questions about where and who growth will come from and what insights shall we leverage? Whole teams have to be engaged, and fluent, or all these pressures fall on single individuals on teams who shouldn’t solve these existential brand challenges alone.

Did the upheaval of COVID change any of your working practices as team? What have you learned from that time, and continued? What have you discarded?

COVID lockdown accelerated 1:1 connection. I have always fostered that, but it became vital to know my people as people and really meet their needs more personally, and career wise. Casting people, not staffing people, and making sure they are aligned to the right growth opportunities. Really making room for health. The advertising industry has classically espoused a burn and churn approach, and I witness more humanity and kindness being factored in because it is good for our business (retention, productivity, recruitment, quality of ideas, etc.), not just because it’s nice to do.

How is your relationship with creative teams and clients changing over time? Have expectations from clients changed in terms of what strategists are expected to do?

I see a shift in expectation to have more of the strategy and creative ideas “fully baked” before being selected/awarded. There may have been a time where chemistry and demonstration of capability could win. But more likely that clients want to see a fully articulated idea across channels, across time, across partnerships and sponsorships and internal roll-out. It feels like agencies must fully demonstrate the elasticity of the idea, with deep detail and nuance before even getting selected. So much more is at stake on lower budgets, and less and less seems left to chance.

In the coming year, which of the following do you expect to be the most significant threat to strategists/planners?

I don’t know that I characterize this as a “threat” per se, but this coming year expects an increasing rush of multicultural insight and expertise being demanded from our biggest brands. And that puts an acute demand on us planners to be more informed and capable to recognize and celebrate cultural difference. The tension lies in the fact that our industry has not developed a wealth of tools, or resources, to answer such challenges. That puts a crush on the finite “experts” that agencies may have inside to deliver such answers. This opportunity of accessing a multicultural mass is more real and relevant than even the metaverse, in my opinion.

More of our mass brands (think CPG, Beauty, Tech, heck everything) can benefit more immediately by connecting better to the real-world needs of masses of undervalued and misunderstood people than they can immediately benefit from a virtual presence in metaspaces where they don’t offer products or services. And strategists are the translators of human needs… we will have to broaden our human understanding in this way very fast and at scale. I find it interesting to watch some organizations run faster toward the metaverse than they run towards real multicultural masses. I am a digital strategist at heart, I just prioritize the opportunity differently.

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

Don’t only wait for the opportunity briefs, but proactively mine for relevant business opportunities and creative opportunities as well. Sometimes the brief-in-hand from your clients are not always the freshest opportunities. Sometimes agencies are hoping for expanded growth from their clients… sometimes. I feel that all brands have fresh business and creative opportunities all around them, but you may have to solve the current asks while also proactively triggering expanded spaces for your clients. This is done by adhering to your brand foundations and audience needs, and solving for newer business problems that can spark growth. Don’t wait to be asked.

What sort of talent are you looking to hire?

I look for a planner’s ability to shape a strong and compelling POV. That ability wins over technical skills, which can be taught. Though I do stress that younger planners get hands-on in the data tools and come from a specific core skill and capability – perhaps their background could be digital strategy, or ethnographies… I like that planners are grounded in real skills that can be imported into other disciplines and tools. But it’s good to have some hands-on groundings, not just opinions.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a hugely important area that the industry has been working on. How do you think this is progressing? What changes still need to happen?

I see DEI two ways: transforming our workplace to meet the evolving demands of our co-workers and also evolving our product practices end-to-end to meet the demands of an evolving marketplace. Our industry is decades behind in evolving our workplace (the diversity numbers speak for themselves). I feel a slow industry realization that our product and practices have to evolve as urgently as well. Meeting the needs won’t be solved by progressive casting alone. Strategists sit at the heart of this marketplace demand – curiosity, insights and human understanding.