As part of the Future of Strategy 2022 report, Nick Myers, Head of Planning, UK at OLIVER, spoke to WARC’s Anna Hamill about why the industry needs to be ready for Gen Alpha, remote collaboration and understanding data.

When it comes to the skills and expertise required from you and your team on a day-to-day basis, what would you say have been the biggest changes over the last few years?

I think it’s about the breadth of challenges that come in on any given day. Strategists and planners working on briefs need to be able to deal with that and have latitude in how they think and solve problems, rather having the mindset of ‘I only do broadcast planning, I can’t do content’ for example. I think that you’d be very limited.

What are some of those challenges that clients are coming to you with now that they might not have five years ago?

All those big, topical challenges, like ‘How do I make content work?’ It was probably less of a thing five years ago, although clients were dabbling in that space. How brands speak to diverse audiences is a key challenge. Obviously, there are clients, which are more tech-led which are thinking about the metaverse. For me, that is a new thing.

The sustainability agenda is key. We’re also taking part in things like ‘Change The Brief’ to ensure that when we’re thinking about a client’s problems, we can do it through the lens of helping them achieve net zero targets and objectives.

Media is changing, sustainability is changing. What are the biggest trends you’re seeing?

I think sustainability is a big one. The evolving web and the need to be upskilled for the metaverse and Web3.0 – all of those kinds of things are important. I think sometimes they seem a bit faddish, and yes, there are the things that will never change about people. But we know from the shift from analogue to digital comms that that was a big moment, and we all had to evolve. At the time, we had roles like ‘Head of Digital’ that just faded out as everything became digital. Same with social media, it’s just become baked into the day-to-day.

Now we’ve got this emerging world of the metaverse and Web3.0 and everything that that holds. Lots of us don’t really know how to fully take advantage of that yet. I don’t think consumers are there yet, either. I think it’s still at the innovative edge. But it will catch on because the next generation is coming.

Gen Alpha are on the way and if you’re still thinking about millennials, you’re way behind because they are now established adults. The generation that have always known the smartphone have grown up on streaming. They don’t live sifting through ad breaks because everything’s skippable. They speak to Alexa in their house to get the answers for things. That generation is coming and I’m not sure that we are really prepared for them. That will be a big challenge coming.

What steps are you taking to develop your team’s capabilities for that future? What does that upskilling look like?

We’re heavily focused on investing in and learning about the metaverse through the brand tech group in our company who are specialists in that area. That’s an advantage for us. We are, as I said, taking part in things like Change The Brief, which is a sustainability initiative. We are a part of that across our brands to make sure that we are ready.

In terms of the generational thing, we’re constantly bringing in fresh blood and pairing up younger kids with older heads to get that experience and that leverage. This goes beyond just planning, but I think over the years agencies have not invested as much in growing their own talent, or helping people kind of transition from being an account handler to being a planner, for example, or developing their careers from the bottom up. We were actively taking steps to do that, and that’s giving us the kind of perspectives that we wouldn’t have had. It’s helping to keep us honest in the solutions that we are developing, how we’re thinking about people in terms of how we are preparing communications, and thinking of different kinds of answers to briefs.

To the diversity point, we’re just constantly working to build an eclectic mix of talents from different backgrounds, social classes, etc. That helps in this present challenge with the cost-of-living crisis and empathizing with people who may be really struggling in these times… Again, that just gives us an edge when talking to marketers and clients.

Did the upheaval of COVID change any of your working practices as a team? What have you learned from that time and decided to continue versus what you’ve discarded?

We’re different because OLIVER operates in-house models. So we have strategists on site with clients, as well as the central hub. We were already very Zoom-focused and virtually collaborating. So I think we had a business model that was more ready for COVID.

But what I’ve done – and what I would definitely take out of the pandemic – is spent a lot more time bringing my team together and engaging with them as a collective, jointly solving problems together in groups, and just helping people feel connected. I think that won’t change. Because we’re still coming out of the pandemic there’s a lot more flexibility in how people work. For example, somebody’s down in the southwest, somebody’s up north, the office is in London, the clients might be in Basingstoke. We allow flexibility as much as our clients will also allow it. We’re allowing people to come to work from anywhere for a certain period of time. Remote working won’t go away.

What was your biggest lesson coming out of COVID in terms of how the function is changing or needs to operate?

The learning was that you can really crack big solutions at absolute pace. We were working with clients and working through communications programmes in a matter of days, on the fly and constantly iterating and refining. It can be done, that’s what I learned. Do we want to do it all the time? No, because it can be a killer as well. I guess I learned that you can do a lot more than you think, and be a lot more nimble and agile. We’ve adapted. But [in terms of] ‘news at ten’ speed, I wouldn’t advocate for that.

How have you managed to regain that balance? I suppose a lot of your clients have become used to the ‘news at ten’ speed, and they know you can do it.

The thing is, clients using ‘news at ten’ speed puts clients under pressure as well, and they don’t want that. Typically, the story has always been in agencies, as in ‘can you do that’? Well, we can do it as soon as [the client] can approve and respond. So typically, the throttle on some things is not always the agency, it can also be clients and their internal machine and time. I don’t think clients will certainly want to [increase speed too much] as well, because they value their time.

What do you expect to be the most significant threat to the role of strategists or planners within an agency?

The beauty of automation is a good thing, and I’m advocating for that to do scalable, repeatable things. But that might be a threat to the role of a strategist as well, as machines get smarter. You know, we think our role is so specialized that a machine couldn’t do it. I don’t know, could it? That might not be in the next 12 months.

For me, I have a personal problem with the word strategist. Because it’s bandied about so much, I think that is a threat. There are so many people wearing the label of a strategist, and actually, they’re not. They’re a tactician at best. People who are able to really deliver the goods versus those who are just wearing a badge or are just tactical, for me, is a thing. Whereas I personally prefer ‘planner’, because at least it’s clear on what you get. I think the likes of Mark Ritson have said that as well.

What do you see as the biggest opportunities for planners to bring value to brands in the next 12 months?

It’s not a new one, but it’s a big one: just being able to make sense of a load of data. There is more information at our clients’ disposal than ever about their customers. Just being able to sift through it all, and make sense of it.

There are like 10 different research debriefs saying different things… just being able to synthesize it and make sense. It’s the planner’s role to be the voice of the customer to the client, but it is also to bring clarity. Don’t aim to be clever, just aim to be clear. And if you can help bring clarity, then that matters. Most CMOs, do they understand the metaverse? No. Do they understand the latest modern stuff? No. Do they need somebody just make things clear? Yes. Can strategists do that? Absolutely.