What transformed your thinking in 2016?

30 Nov 2016

It’s a good question, and with a year like 2016, rich pickings for the thoughtful strategist. It’s also the reason why we have chosen Transformational Thinking as our theme for the 2017 APG Creative Strategy Awards.

 

So unable to resist a little branded theming we decided to soft launch the awards at the final Noisy Thinking of the year by asking ‘what transformed your thinking?’ of the people who lead the strategy in some of the most interesting agencies. We gave them 6 minutes each which may be yet another unwelcome sign of things to come. Fast strategy, anyone?

 

Lilli English of BBH set the political and cultural tone by musing speedily and elegantly on what had reset her thinking in 2016. And the Trump/Brexit shocks were the underpinning. She reminded us that feeling trumps all else and drives the success of emotional campaigns in the long term. For a couple of years it’s easy to have been distracted by performance and science, and data and algorithms but it’s a timely reminder that not only Peter Field and Les Binet, but the Harvard Business Review assert that emotional connection drives behaviour change.

 

We don’t need to be told now that most of the London business community exists in a bubble of ideas, understanding and belief that is pretty much in opposition to much of the rest of the country. So maybe it wasn’t surprising that we were lulled by the pre-Trump satire and the excitement of the political debate in to believing it couldn’t happen. We understand better now that it’s a product of people who are angry and disenfranchised but we need to do something to mend the disconnect.

 

How do we let the light in? For Lilli the wisdom of crowds only works if people are exposed to different ideas. Tolerance, understanding and welcoming of difference is what creates happy and functioning societies. We’re in our own industry echo chamber so it’s incumbent upon us all to feel for difference beyond the walled garden.

 

Stuart Bowden of MEC took complexity as his theme. He skewered the community by noting that strategists are the worst offenders when it comes to detailed abstract conversations and that wallowing in complexity is appealing and makes us feel clever but ultimately pointless and self serving. We should resist this at all costs for our own sake and our clients. So what transformed his thinking in 2016?

 

His first example was the Geico ad where a clever bit of playing with formats and the clear recognition that people visit YouTube to watch videos and not to watch ads resulted in brilliantly successful advertising campaign.  A simple answer to a simply framed problem.  Cleave to simplicity, it’s often the right answer.

 

His second was personal and came from a family trip to Edinburgh last summer. The play was ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ and based on the patient and disciplined exercise of mindfulness. Write down every single small thing that makes you happy. Your list could amount to a million brilliant things. We know that reasons to be grateful – simple things – can transform the way we feel about life and work.

 

Just remember that in satisfying our egos and revelling in complexity we just make things worse for ourselves – and our clients.

 

James Caig is a former media planner turned digital strategist; and Londoner turned Bristolian, so personally exemplified contemporary transformation before he even got on the stage. Way to go, James.

 

He juxtaposed two experiences with apparently no connection other than his personal passion. His first transformative experience was starting to build the community of APG West: Essentially an experience not a brand idea. (Of course we at APG Towers might note the fact that it’s essentially a brand extension but we’ve never been known to cavil or quibble so we won’t start now). James had the experience as I had when I took over the APG of having to think quite differently about how to apply your skills to business, and thinking primarily in terms of user experience and customer response. James’ transformative learnings to date are about making every interaction relevant and meaningful, how opinion – whether you like it or not - will shift the centre of gravity of your operations, and the importance of being realistic about what you can achieve straightaway.  It’s all about the long game.

 

 

And so from the operational to the sublime, He turned his attention to the impact of Bowie’s death on him personally; the sense that assumed certainties had gone. But the impact of Bowie’s passing has crucial lessons about willing the future into being, taking Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself and inspire whole movements as our guide. We strategists have to be bold and confident. We need to execute strategy as a value judgement about the world. Our tools are confidence, ideas and imagination and with these we can dream the future: Think long, aim long and write the future using discipline and rigour to make it happen.

 

Kevin Chesters’ first transformative thought was about time and stress; the latter being caused by our dysfunctional relationship to the former.  So he started with a wonderful, practical prescriptions to help us change the way we deal with time.

 

  1. Take your watch off

  2. Protect your time and don’t let people mess with it

  3. Don’t take your phone with you if you have something important to do

  4. Give yourself less time to do any task than you think you need. It prevents procrastination.

  5. Walk a lot. You’ll have ideas and things will start to make sense

 

(This transformational bit of sensible thinking wins the APG prize for practical application of common sense and complete usefulness.)

 

His second was inspired by Brexit and is a useful lesson in theory and, once again, practice, for us all. Sea Containers, the luxurious new home for O&M and MEC fronts the Thames and is a hymn to glass and chrome and a living metaphor for the ivory tower we all occupy in London.

 

Kevin’s answer is to get his planners out and round the country talking to real people about their lives. He estimated that 2% of creative briefs he saw were inspired by proprietary research and aims to change that by collecting the real data and open sourcing it. Starting in Boston Lincs. the murder capital of GB with the highest ‘Leave’ vote and the most segregated community he’s aiming to check the temperature of the whole country. Go for it Kevin. We’re listening hard and taking note.

 

And finally Fern Miller of DigitasLBi stepped up to the plate to look at the question from her new vantage point of CMO. Another personal transformation, and as with James her new role has forced a complete reappraisal of ours. She sees the market of agencies of different kinds through the eyes of clients and realises it is ludicrously complex. Clients barely understand it and we do nothing to help them. Further, we are driving the value of our offering by focusing on fluff not business and profitability, and allowing our agency brands to stand for almost nothing.

 

Our industry is being fundamentally disrupted, and when you’re in Kodak moment it’s hard to see it and we are the ones who are paid to see, understand, have insight and prescribe the right actions.

 

Her prescription is simple and deep. And much like Fern herself, radical and far seeing.

 

So we need to focus on delivering brand building thinking that creates value, behave properly and respectfully to our clients, be dignified human beings and prove we have value. And it’s the strategists who can save the industry from total disruption.

 

So the customary Noisy mix of bold thinking, vision, fragments of Armageddon, humour, useful advice and brilliant people. Thank you all.

 

Sarah Newman

APG Director

 

Videos for this talk are coming soon. Check them out here when they are ready

To view more of our Noisy Thinking series for 2016, click here or on any of the events below:

 

 
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