At the APG’s Noisy Thinking, planners and strategists got to discussing the business of strategy and what makes it stick in people’s heads, what makes it interesting. WARC’s Sam Peña-Taylor was there to hear.
The Account Planner’s Group (APG) is a boring name for an interesting idea. Somewhere between a support group and a speakeasy, its weekday evenings harbour a bunch of people who do a job so weird that it seems to require constant redefinition, a perennial conversation about what this discipline even is.
Contrast that with a less-fluid agency role. Sophie Lewis is the Chief Strategy Officer of VMLY&R, who recounted a moment in which she was caught reading a copy of Closer magazine by an “account man” who asked – incredulous – “you’ve got time to read?!” Well, yes, it is reading, but it’s more than that: it’s about understanding a target audience that might read this publication, who like the headlines and pictures, the snappy stories: the way a civilian might spend the moments they don’t spend thinking about work, or Brexit, or their kids and just indulge. Anything capable of that is gold-dust to a strategist.
People do this job because they’re interested in ideas. Many people didn’t even know it existed before they started doing it. And part of the pleasure, Lewis suggested, is its magpie quality. And thanks to the smartphone, stratgists can indulge in that more than ever before. Her photo library is a trove of odds and ends, but a common thread is that they tend of feature people. She talks to them, too. All strategists should.
“People are vital. You have to talk to people. You have to understand what they think about the thing they’re thinking about the brands that you’re thinking about.” Because it’s easy for planners – and clients – to mistake themselves for the target audience. “We’re pretty far away most of the time, and our clients are – as a rule – even further away.”
And then there’s TV, books, magazines, lyrics: all of them are made by people and they all contain ideas. The route to interesting strategy is hunting them down. “And I keep them. Until I find a way to use them.”
A typical creative may be working on between five and ten briefs at any one moment, according to Nick Hirst, Executive Strategy Director at adam&eveDDB. In this context, cutting through the noise in their world is paramount, and interesting strategy is memorable. “You want your brief to be the one your creative director is thinking about when they’re out on a jog.”
But there are pitfalls to wishing for this: namely, wishing. All too often, Hirst suggested, the problem or target audience isn’t associated with the new new thing, or the brand isn’t particularly cool. It’s tempting to pretend the problem is different and then find yourself designing strategy around this wish rather than the actual problem at hand. Moreover, if a problem appears too boring, we tend towards: “overcomplexification,” or even “overthinkification.”
Failed strategies often bear a common hallmark: they’re unwieldy; working with them makes it harder for others to act on and create rather than giving them direction. It’s unlikely that the “overcomplexificated” brief will be the one popping into the creative director’s head when they’re running. Or worse, it might be the one they’re dreading.
There are a couple of steps to try before admitting defeat. Hirst suggests the following:
- Start with people
Like Sophie Lewis, Hirst maintained that planning is first and foremost about human beings. “I defy you to not find them interesting if you’re a planner.”
- Make the problem interesting
Hirst worked for years on anti-smoking campaigns, and for most of those the orthodoxy held that you had to make people want to give up smoking. The problem – and the strategy – only became more interesting after they went to talk to people. Ultimately, most smokers want to quit smoking, but they’re scared that they lack the strength. This led to the Stoptober idea, which continues to help people.
- Make it a story
There are a handful of tactics that can spur this:
- Where’s the jeopardy? “It doesn’t half up the drama.”
- Why is it hard?
- Whose quest is it? Is it the brand or is it more useful to think about the consumer?
- How are you the underdog?
- Where’s the enemy no one else saw?
- Up the stakes, and if they’re already high, be honest
Hirst recalled a handful of car brands for whom the marketing challenge played into a problem larger even than the business’s bottom line. In one instance, his agency was asked to sell an odd model of car, one for which there was no clear reason or call in the market. The agency needled and the client was eventually honest: the reason for the car was not the consumer but the workforce. The brand was marketing a car in order to keep a factory open. Eyes – of both strategic and creative perspectives – lit up.
- Are you interested enough?
This is kind of the point: it’s a strategist’s job to geek out on a problem and look for the interest. Be interested, and you’ll probably find more that’s interesting. Because, ultimately, “boring people find it hard to make interesting strategy.”
Relevance or resonance?
Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy, EMEA, at R/GA, leads an interesting life. Having spent over 20 years away from his native United Kingdom, including time in China and the US, he has a variety of perspectives that have been invaluable. Go to China, he said, go to China and see that “nothing makes sense”. And it’s not the Chinese who are wrong, it’s you who is wrong.
And it’s not just about curiosity, he maintained; anybody in any profession can be curious but it’s a planner’s particular role to become interested in an idea, however obscure, identify the interest and then go on to infect others. “You’ve got to want to make it interesting.”
In this he echoed Lewis. It’s all about culture – and not always the kind of culture that advertising is comfortable talking about. Campbell once worked on a car marque – it’s significant how often car brands pop up – and to dispel any illusions, he went off with a photo of the new model and those of competitors which he showed to a hundred prostitutes and asked them to put them in order of the wealth of the driver. “The client’s car came bottom, so you have a problem.”
But culture, raw and unfiltered, can burn. That’s what makes it interesting. Take, for instance, the British climate research ship, the RSS Sir David Attenborough. It was somebody’s smart decision to let the people decide the name of the vessel, and the people in the froth of culture chose Boaty McBoatface. The story made international news but was actually a colossally missed opportunity to do something creative about a topic – the impending doom of this planet’s climate emergency – while the government had everyone’s attention. There could have been toys, cartoon series, actual engagement with the idea.
What’s more, there is inherent interest in the things that organisations don’t want people to do. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it means it’s worth exploring, Campbell suggested. There’s always a dirty little secret. One that makes you go, “wow, that’s fucking interesting!”