Collaboration

May 2016 | James Caig

James is Head of Strategy at True Digital based in Bristol and is the energy behind the successful launch of APG West

His theme this month is collaboration. An over-used word, but nevertheless one that indicates a skill – a mindset, even – that is essential to effective planning today.

Week 1
Work with the right partners, find the best format, and ask the right questions
Week 2
Scenius! Planning in a post-genius world
Week 3
Process, People & Perspective
Week 4
Clients are collaborators too
Show More

Collaboration is essential because better work comes when we allow different inputs to shape our thinking, and those inputs are more various than ever. We work with multi-disciplinary teams who see the world in different ways. Strategy unfolds in real time as much it is fixed by a written brief. All this changes our role and demands we get better at collaboration. Our job is often to facilitate others, to join dots, and to provide structure.
 
That takes confidence and a comfort with uncertainty. Over the next four weeks I hope to colour in this idea of planners as essential collaborators. How do we collaborate with others? How do we behave in teams? What about within and between agencies? With clients, too.
 
I hope it’s useful, or at least interesting. I’d love to hear what you think. But then I would say that, wouldn’t i?

 

APG West: work with the right partners, find the best format, and ask the right questions

5 May 2016

 

I went to the theatre last week. It was in Bristol, a city that has been my home since I left London a year and a half ago. It proved a very Bristol experience.
 
This was a scratch night – a method theatre-makers use to test new work in front of live audiences. At the end Lucy (a friend of a friend) came out of character, and invited the entire audience to come back after 15 minutes. She wanted some feedback.
 
It was a privilege to watch an artist take such risks. This was a 90-minute solo comedy show, largely improvised, with a huge amount of audience participation. That seemed incredibly brave. And it seemed even braver to then expose yourself to the instinctive commentary of friends, peers and strangers like that.
 
But to Lucy that’s not brave at all. It’s just a way to improve the show. To her it would be scarier to plough on with something that wasn’t working, and this was a chance to make sure she was on the right path. She saw her audience as collaborators, and craved the perspective she could never have – that of the people she wanted to entertain.
 
It struck a chord. The previous week I’d been involved with launching a new chapter (in more than one sense of the word) of APG. That was something of a scratch night too. A chance to find out if we were on the right path. A way to work with the audience as active collaborators.
 
APG West will be a community built around the needs of planners, agencies and creative businesses in the South West. It’s an exciting initiative, and one we approached carefully. Bristol, Bath and the surrounding area offer a very different scene to the one in London. There are fewer traditional ad agencies. Planning functions, if they exist at all, are smaller, and often less valued by clients. While UX, Design and Technology communities thrive, planners are more isolated.

We want to change that, but we need to do it in a way that harnesses the innovative and creative ecology that exists here.
 
Bristol’s default setting is collaboration. You don’t just find this at the theatre. It’s there in the music, and even its food. It’s the same in the world of technology, creativity and communications, though it’s a different kind of collaboration to the one you find in London. This isn’t just media and advertising agencies, divided by a common language, finally getting over their hang-ups. It’s bigger and more profound than that.
 
I’m talking about a well-established relationship between academia and the start-up community.
 
I’m talking about the worlds of art and technology sitting happily side by side.
 
I’m talking about the universities, the council and big business collaborating on a huge smart city experiment.
 
And I’m talking about endless combinations of people from these worlds. Co-funded initiatives and meet-ups in co-working spaces and incubators that help these genuinely cross-discipline collaborations to flourish.
 
Since Bristol is so small it’s pretty easy to bump into all this.

 

Everyone here knows what everyone else is up to, and the boundaries blur. The ‘what do you do…’ conversation pretty soon bleeds into ‘do you know…’, and I’m pretty sure it’s this blend that has resulted in an influx of talent, the kind that adland desperately wants to attract.
 
More than 61,500 people work in digital jobs in the Bristol and Bath region, making it second only to London in scale. Its working age population grew at twice the rate of the national average, and 60% of that increase came from 22–33 year olds. According to Tech Nation, digital companies incorporated in the region grew by 65% between 2010 and 2013. According to a UCL study earlier this year, if you want to start a business in 2016, then Bristol is the place.
 
So in many ways, Bristol and the South West is already where London wants to be. More diverse skills, digitally native, an entrepreneurial and collaborative mindset. There’s a lot to learn from the South West. But planners here don’t have the same support that London planners do. So if we wanted to use APG to help both sides benefit from each other, how might we do that?
 
In short, how do we involve rather than impose?
 
Here are the three things we learned.

 

Work with the right partners:
Our scratch night aimed to introduce APG properly to the region, but also to invite the community already here to help shape the programme APG West will deliver. We worked closely with local organisation Bristol Media, who saw the value to their members of a greater focus on planning and strategy. Their ready-made network was something to work with, rather than against, and they were instrumental in supporting and promoting the event. That meant we had agencies, clients and freelancers in attendance.
 
Bristol Media put us in touch with Ovo Energy, a rapidly growing challenger brand, based here in a brand new office, and a brilliant example of a Brand Entrepreneur. They hosted our evening, largely because they are exceptionally nice people, and they thought it was an interesting initiative.
 
Plan a format that enables an effective contribution:
Our APG chair, Dom Boyd, came out west for the evening, and delivered a keynote to unpack the Brand Entrepreneurs idea and paint a picture of what strategy means today. We also explained what APG did, what was available to members out here, and shared some thought starters about what was possible.

And then we brought it all together with a break out session. The hundred or so attendees were split into groups, each moderated by a planner from the area.
 
Ask the right questions:
Because we people from different backgrounds, it was important to structure the discussion. That meant prioritising what we needed to know. We asked the groups three questions:
 
What are the key issues you face in your role when it comes to planning and strategy?
We wanted to know this because we know our community is as likely to involve brand owners as well as agencies, MDs as well as CSOs. It was essential to get the perspective of as wide a constituency as possible.
 
What can APG West do to make you a better planner?
With so much on offer, we wanted to know where the appetite really lay. Training? Networking? Events and inspiration? Should we focus on experts here or access the experience of the APG centrally?
 
How should the APG West community come to life?
We want to add value, so what would the people who already work here find valuable? A digital network? How should events work? How about buddying and mentoring?
 
The event was a great success. We got so much feedback. Already ideas for events and training are starting to emerge. And we’ve whetted appetites too – people are excited about what will happens next. We knew we might tap into something, but now we know more about what exactly that is. We can build a programme that sets the right tone.

 

We’re still consolidating what everyone said, but we’ve already learned a lot about what people want, and what they don’t.
 
Planners here want training. They want to educate their agencies about what planning is, and how to convince clients to appreciate it. They want to connect to the sharp thinkers in their community. They want more energy around planning to fully unlock the potential of the innovation and creativity that exists here.
 
They want inspiration, naturally. And self-determination – a sense that the South West is its own thing, not simply a shadow or echo of London.
 
And, of course, they want more collaboration. It’s the way of things round here.

 

Scenius! Planning in a post-genius world

12 May 2016

 

Week 2 of looking at collaboration, and in the spirit of fresh perspectives I wanted to bring in a different voice.
 
Scott Brenman is Strategy Director at MEC, and one of the sharpest minds I’ve had the fortune to work with. He recently completed the IPA Excellence Diploma, and his final essay was awarded a distinction by the judges. I’ve asked him to write about what that essay might mean for planners.
 
Its central idea explores an appropriate topic. Last week we talked about launching APG West in Bristol, and how a spirit of collaboration can shape an entire scene. Scott’s paper is about how a scene shapes our own creative output. That’s a big thought when it comes to the kind of creativity we’re used to seeing in agencies, and it points us towards a better way of operating in our current reality.
 
Scott happens to work at a media agency. I used to work there too. Each of us has also worked in what our industry refers to as ‘creative’ agencies. Media is not as well represented as it should be within APG, and that’s a shame, because of all the agency disciplines I think planners are the most adaptable.
 
They should also be the best at working with each other. Scenius is an idea that planners across every discipline can get behind. A manifesto that makes cross-agency collaboration our default setting.

 

Over to Scott.

I get annoyed by the prejudice our industry has for solo genius. Column inches, pay packets and industry accolades are still peddled to the superstar geniuses of agencies. It’s true of Planning too. The history of Planning is a history of superstar planners, from Stephen King to Jon Steel.

 
Most planners would admit that they still want to write strategy themselves. Indeed, many planners were trained in an era when that was possible. An era when campaigns carried a single idea across a small set of media channels.
 
But the challenges we now face require the contribution of a variety of individuals with a variety of talents, from a variety of agencies.
 
In this era of fragmentation and specialism, we need to bring together planners, researchers and creatives from different disciplines to solve the toughest marketing problems. Planning has become a post-genius discipline.
 
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Scenius recently. The term ‘scenius’ was coined by the musician Brian Eno. The word combines “scene” and "genius", to emphasise that genius is the talent of an individual but scenius is the talent of the collective.
 
Eno’s argument is that great work emerges out of intelligent “scenes”. In these scenes, groups of people are inspired by one another, they push boundaries and they reward each other for taking risks. Leicester City’s triumph is a good example of Scenius. Other examples are The National Theatre, 1990s Brit Pop, The Manhattan Project and The Government Digital Service.
 
Scenius provides a model for how agencies can continue to produce brilliantly effective work. I’ve written a fair bit about the actions agencies need to harness Scenius, but in this post I want to focus on one in particular.

 

An infamous location
The location of a Scenius is an essential ingredient of its success. The most creative and productive scenes take place in legendary places. Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project, La Masia for Barcelona FC, Cupertino for Apple.
 
There are three reasons the location of a Scenius is important. First, to create Scenius you need members of the scene need to meet and form bonds. Second, you need shared spaces for knowledge and ideas to be exchanged and third, you need a forum to celebrate successes.

 

The office as a creative instrument
Planners tend to be well supplied with techniques for how to have good ideas. But we don’t know enough about the spaces where good ideas happen. Yes, we may have our best ideas in the shower, but unless we’re prepared to install more showers in our agencies, we need to make the best of our office spaces. We need to design collaborative spaces where Scenius can emerge and Planners have a vital role in leading this.
 
My favourite APG case study is the Honda Cogs campaign. It’s a wonderful story about an outstanding piece of work. There is so much to admire: the Wieden & Kennedy team, the idea, its production, Garrison Keillor’s voice and Russell Davies’s account of how the work was developed.
 
But for me the real star of the case study is the W&K’s office. The team created a space in the office where a team of Creatives and Planners came together, let go their lone genius tendencies and started creating work, guided by a ‘house style’ of Honda.
 
The team used the room as a creative instrument in itself and as a result, Scenius emerged. The following is an excerpt from the case study:

 

We wanted a way that strategic and creative people could collaborate on strategic and executional decisions, before we got on with making the advertising.
 
So we suggested that our first task, our tool for simultaneous creative and strategic exploration, should be a book designed to sit in the glove-box of every new Honda and explain The Power of Dreams.
 
It was simply a thinking tool for exploring the Honda voice with maximum creative flexibility and maximum strategic input.
 
We found quotes and images which expressed the Honda voice. We scribbled poems and doodles and thoughts which did the same… It was real creative/strategic endeavour, not just playing. Then we stuck it all on the wall and worked out what felt like Honda and what didn’t. We wanted a ton of different approaches which still all felt like Honda.
 
A week of thought and hair-tearing gave us what we needed; a ‘brand brief’ which outlined Honda’s voice; something which integrated what we say and how we say it; the strategic/attitudinal backbone for two years of creative work.

 

I think Planners should be emulating Russell Davies by creating these studio spaces within their offices. I call them Scenius Studios.
 
Scenius Studios – The collective brain of a team

A Scenius studio is at its best the collective brain of an agency team. Campaign development might become akin to competitive group therapy. The aim is to gather a group of people who can work well together, challenge each other, play well together and complement each others' strengths.
 
If you get the right people into the room (which is probably a small cross-agency team) you can assemble contributions not just into strategies or ideas but an overall feeling for what a year's worth of activity is going to be like.
 
Get a room!
The nature of the planning challenges that lay before us, require the contribution of many individuals from a variety of disciplines. Planning is now a post-genius discipline. To that end, we need to design our working practices to create Scenius. Scenius emerges when a variety of complementary factors align. The next time a big brief comes into the agency, the Planning department can do its bit by getting a room and turning it into a Scenius Studio.

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I hope that’s got you thinking. If you’d like to read more, then you can find Scott’s full, distinction-winning essay here.

 

Process, People & Perspective

17 May 2016

 

Hopefully by now we’ve established that collaboration is more than just a good thing. It’s an imperative. A challenge. The only natural response to the complex interplay of factors at work in our industry.
 
This week I thought I’d share a broader range of inspiration. But I also want to highlight perspectives and models that might make collaboration easier. Because barriers do exist, and they’re not always structural or logistical. Quite often the biggest barrier to effective collaboration is emotional.  Fear, lack of empathy, a sense of losing control – each can make it less likely collaboration will work.
 
We need our tools for collaboration to be familiar and accessible, so sharing and discussing different perspectives is something that we often do at True. It helps initiate conversations about what we could do better, and the more we try the more we learn. There’s no single way to collaborate, and each project is unique, so ideas are always welcome.  And, as one of these posts claims, “success today is not driven by the resources you control, but those you can access.”
 
I’ve divided some links worth sharing into three areas – process, people and perspective. I hope you find some of it useful.

 

Process
Let’s start with a couple of models taken from Google Ventures. First is a breakdown of the design sprints model they use to start out on an idea. The sprints use time constraints to help focus minds and avoid costly periods of exploration. And here you’ll find a more practical take on how to run a sprint end to end.
 
Process is more than workshops, of course. New ideas need to take hold within an organisation, and continuous improvement rarely happens without ownership. In large businesses innovation is a networked, and therefore collaborative, exercise. Here’s a useful HBR piece on how it should be everyone’s responsibility.
 
And just as process isn’t only workshops, so workshops aren’t always useful. I think the first step to collaboration is always asking whether there’s a need to do so. Phil Adams has some wise words on when to avoid them.

 

People
No process works without the input of the people who use it. Collaboration can’t be made to happen for you – you need to work at it. Often that means working on you, and getting yourself out of the way, or developing your empathy for others. Happy and effective teams can sometimes emerge on their own, but they will be more likely to if you nurture and enable them. Equally, it might mean making an effort to bring your authentic self to the project, or formalizing the kind of values that it takes to engender effective collaboration, as this impassioned take on the need for boldness in the civil service suggests.  
 
It goes beyond individuals, though. It’s essential to engender a sense of teamship, and the wider culture plays a role in that.  One of the pieces that those of us at True have found ourselves quoting over and over is the mantra of design business OMATA, captured in the title of this wonderful post, No Dickheads! It’s a healthy reminder that acting as people, rather than as colleagues, is the quickest way to collaboration. If you’re an agency, maybe something like Big Spaceship’s model of is more within reach.  Whichever works for you, each is characterized by fluidity, positivity and empathy.
 
Collaboration is difficult without empathy, an essential condition for a team that wants to talk openly and honestly with each other. This is not just project wash-ups or performance appraisals.  It’s about teams where leadership necessarily changes hands frequently, and where people with different mental models of the task in hand must be able to communicate clearly. Digital product studio ustwo have worked to inculcate a feedback culture that lets them continually and collectively learn, as this post shows.

 

Perspective
If you see the inherent value in a collaborative exercise, you’ll unlock something you see as good – something bigger than you – and learn from the experience as a bonus. You’ll view collaboration as an inherent good, beneficial to you and the wider team.

 

If you see accommodating other people as a burden, though, or you only superficially commit to a process, the output isn’t likely to surprise you and you won’t be convinced of the benefits.
 
So perspective determines not just where you start, but also how far you’re likely to get.
 
If you fit the first description then it’s likely you’re inspired by those who seek out alternative point s of view. Those who see things differently. The interesting ones who don’t confuse ‘what I’ve done’ with ‘what we always do’, who aren’t afraid to stray from the suffocating path of ‘best practice’.   
 
Some examples.
 
Matt Edgar is a consultant in service design and innovation. Earlier this year he wrote convincingly about guarding against prescriptive processes. High performing teams, in his view, all exhibit “a magical quality” that was less to do with forward planning and more to do with “ambient awareness.”  Members were “spontaneous, personal and collaborating as equals.” He called this quality ‘productive informality’ and you can read more about it here.

 

Keeping things informal when they get big is difficult. The Francis Crick Institute – a biomedical research facility due to open in late 2016 – is trying to do that with architecture. It will house 1,250 researchers from different fields and use its labs, offices and canteen to create what its director calls a “gentle anarchy.” It wants at all costs to avoid silos, knowing what Crick did, that ideas are more likely to connect at a smaller, more human scale.
 
EF Schumacher was all about small. The title of his book, called Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, set him apart in the 1970s as someone whose perspective questioned some assumptions largely taken for granted. Many of them still do. He was interested in what people can do when they come together to make life better, not simply make more money.  His ideas have found their way into education, business, energy and the maker movement. Check out this 30 minute listen from Radio 4 the other week to see how they hold up today.
 
What happens when institutions like the BBC, education and the welfare state are focused on a collective public good? What does that mean for culture and the connections we can make with each other and with our ideas? What do Linux, art school, altruism and finger painting have to do with all this? Listen to Brian Eno’s John Peel Lecture from last year and let him make sense of it all.  It’s great. And one last, joyful, example, proving that seeking out surprising collaborators can be rewarding in itself. If like me you’d never heard of colour guard, an American high school discipline somewhere between rhythmic gymnastics and marching bands, then David Byrne’s recent attempt to merge it with performances by artrock musicians may have passed you by too.  Read the article, then watch the clips where the kids meet their musician counterparts. You can see the inherent joy of worlds colliding is there on both sides.
 
That’s it for this week. See you next time.

 

Clients are collaborators too

31 May 2016

 

So, what are we collaborating for, exactly?
 
Sometimes, ‘collaboration’ feels like one of those words. You know the ones. Words like ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’, or ‘data’. Clichés. Vessels too easily emptied of meaning. Ideas fetishized as achievements in themselves, rather than nurtured as a mind set, one with which far greater things can be achieved. These are ideas that are important but end up as so much planning soufflé – full of air and always likely to fall flat in the wrong hands.
 
Of course, there is always a higher purpose, and it isn’t to show off at conferences or on Twitter. It is to solve our clients’ problems.  
 
Collaboration does one of two things. It brings together perspectives so we can understand those problems in the round. And it unites diverse skills in developing the most effective solutions. In either case the factors we are dealing with are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and so we ignore our clients’ perspectives at our peril. They understand their problems as well as anyone. And as our ideas become less bound by traditional disciplinary modes of thinking, and their relevance to people increasingly relies on functions beyond marketing, our clients are now integral in helping those ideas come to life.
 
Clients are collaborators too.   
 
The relationship is therefore central to success. Two weeks ago I presented at a conference with a client, something I’d never done before. Though we’re in relatively early days of working together, just coming out of the discovery phase, our topic was how creativity can help nurture a client-agency relationship.  There’s no work yet, so instead we reflected on the techniques we’d used to create the conditions for creativity later in the project, and shared what we’d do differently next time.  It was an attempt to be honest, to reflect on what we’d each experienced, and to take some valuable lessons that we could each apply to the way our own teams worked.
 
Here’s where we netted out. Creativity needs collaboration. Collaboration needs relationships.  Relationships need to be worked at. That demands fresh ideas, and fresh ideas take creativity.  Simple really. Like Henry Ford said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progressing; working together is success.”
 
Or, as former IPA President Ian Priest said when speaking at a joint IPA/ISBA event a few years back, “relationships are the high road of collaboration.”
 
Our paths to that high road weren’t revolutionary. Encouraging joint client-agency team to come together in multiple formations, ideally in informal settings. Opening ourselves up together to external sources of inspiration. Overcoming multiple perspectives with the neutral ground of the user journey.
 
But probably the best thing we did was the presentation itself. Since the conference I’ve already re-thought our discovery process to help teams internally focus more on the relationship side of this phase. Writing it forced reflection and discussion between the two of us in a way that rarely happens within the usual shape of client-agency conversations. We understood a lot more about each other.  We liked each other a lot more too. I can recommend it.
 
I think this is the realm of collaboration that we too often miss.  As planners we explore problems, but we shouldn’t forget people.  New projects and relationships need empathy to mitigate our human impulses: we are erratic, fearful, uncertain.  No client-agency team can establish itself without addressing these challenges.
 
I like what creativebrief do in this space. They are perfectly placed to see what marks a successful client-agency relationship in its early stages. Their BITE LIVE events bring client and agency audiences together to get under the skin of need-to-know trends within marketing, and to discover key case studies that illustrate these. Each event captures the working relationship as well as the fruits of collaboration – combined agency and brand teams talk through their case studies side by side.

 

In the past they’ve had talks from Jamie Oliver and Skype, Paddy Power and Lucky Generals, Saatchi & Saatchi and Mumsnet, with useful insights not just on what they did and why, but how they made it happen. Last week’s event had Icelandair and The Brooklyn Brothers talking about the ingenious Stopover Buddy idea – you can watch the talk here.
 

(As a side point, creativebrief’s BITE – a monthly digital briefing on marketing trends – is also brilliant for case studies. During my research into collaboration I found some lovely examples on finding the right brand partner, crowd-sourcing ideas, entertainment partnerships, and joining forces for social good. Well worth signing up if you haven’t already.)
 
It’s not always easy to engage clients in this way. Not everyone wants to. But as planners our job, as Tracey Follows said at this week’s APG conference, is to understand people’s needs, not just what they want. Why should clients be any different? They are as susceptible to emotion as anyone else.  We are in the field of persuasion and behaviour change, so give it a go. Be creative. Get on that high road to collaboration.
 
And if you need any more inspiration, try this piece from IDEO on how they go about persuading companies to accept change.  It’ll leave you wanting to practise human-centred design on your clients too.

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