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APG Noisy Thinking | Think Big and get in bed with your client. Oh, and friction is good

Whether strategists are impacting clients’ bottom line clearly hit a nerve and our speakers skewered it. We’re working as strategists at a time when we have exponentially more data available at every phase of the planning cycle and more information in real time about every aspect of the marketing mix so it should make highly effective, business building communication a piece of cake.

But it hasn’t really turned out like that so we asked three excellent people to give us their analysis and tell us what we should do about it.

Listen hard.

Pete Markey is Brand and Communications Director at insurance firm Aviva and he wakes up thinking about insurance. Incidentally he also has an excellent sense of humour, but he believes that unless we have a genuine interest in or passion for our clients’ products we have no hope of changing the fortunes of their business. That’s lesson One.

Lesson Two. He understands viscerally the need to balance short and long term in your thinking and planning. His experience working on More Than showed that even with a determination to over-reach the industry norms in delivering to your customers, an over emphasis on short term sales numbers can lead to a series of tactical errors: Taking money out of brand and into DRTV, investing too heavily in aggregators and in one heroic moment of short-termism, emailing the entire the database. His analysis is that you get onto a slippery slope when strategy stays inside the marketing team because it means you haven’t got buy-in from the senior people in the business, you’re working to unrealistic goals and the senior people suffer selective amnesia about what your trying to achieve.

So lesson three is about asking who is invested in your strategy and making sure that you have the right people signed up to it.

He then told the corollary of the More Than story. Aviva is one year into the Good Thinking campaign and one year post Paul Whitehouse when overall brand impact and health were in decline. The idea with the new campaign is to go beyond ads and to bring it to life in the real world, backed up with loads of consumer proof points and tackling societal issues such as road safety in the process. This is designed to be Big Picture thinking with a real heft in peoples’ lives, like creating an app that tells you how good your driving skills are or trying to wake the nation up to thinking about pensions.

And this is balanced with a drive to create genuinely edgy work that stands out, such as the David Coulthard execution which had us (like the couple in the back of the car) on the edge of our seats. Which leads us to Lesson Four. Creative ideas that impact peoples’ lives and the bottom line need the right nurturing: Strong sponsorship from the Executive Board, the ability to hold your nerve, the continuous promotion and marketing of marketing as powerful business lever and recognizing that success breeds success and confidence hence the importance of KPIs and external awards.

So if those are the lessons from inside the business, where does it leave us as strategists? Agency strategists need to be working alongside clients and really understand their business. We need to keep in step with the client absolutely understanding what matters to them as this can change fast; and be in the trenches with them. As a planner it’s your job to keep them on track with the vision or the objective, make sure you are not stuck in the London bubble and ensure that you keep giving them a fresh, outside-in view. In short it’s your job to be the conscience of the client.

Pete, we salute your refreshing honesty and excellent advice.

So on to Martin Hayward who has pretty much a 360 view of strategists and what they should and shouldn’t be doing; a one-time planner at Ogilvy he’s been a futurist running the Henley Centre and a data nerd running Dun Humby and now has a devastating analysis of why we’re where we are, and what we should do about it.

According to Martin (or was it Dickens?) it’s both the best of times and the worst of times. It should be a brilliant time to be a planner as we have all the data we need at our fingertips and instantaneously; but we no longer dominate the dialogue between consumers and brands and our ability across the board to strongly influence business results has not really improved. What has caused this?

Thinking too big. Martin’s experience at the Henley Centre for Future Forecasting (as was) taught him that even if you show people the future, they tend to ignore it because clients (echoing Pete) are obsessed with the short and medium term.

Thinking too small. It’s dangerous to get too obsessed with your bit of the pie and you need to remember that your advertising is far less important to your client than it is to you. And with the the 4 Ps being more inter-related than ever, they interact in really complex ways which makes your view of the problem or the situation necessarily partial and often lacking any real breadth..

Thinking too parochially. We’ve heard this a lot at recent Noisy Thinking events but we are in a bubble of London and the creative industries and this severely limits your field of vision.

Thinking too digitally and too short term. Digital drives short-termism. It also ends up delivering seriously underwhelming results. Martin had a compelling visual of a huge digital machine taking in vast amounts in complex user and other data and churning out 10% off vouchers and free cups of coffee.

Sales promotion got weirdly sexy. Digital has driven a push to purchase that is yielding almost nothing. Whereas you might have an expected a 4% conversion rate in the pre-digital era, the average click through rate is now 0.1%. According to Martin we are in effect just creating a ‘a whole load of sandwich boards’. Big brand thinking and investment in long running, memorable campaigns has lost out to the arts of short term promos. We have huge scope to make everything we do a load better but actually things might be just be a load worse.

The language we speak is influenced (for the worse) by tech speak. We are adopting phrases that have nothing to do with either the customer or the relationship and allowing them to skew our behaviour. Failing fast is a really poor recipe for successful marketing, for example. And we should be doing things for our customer not to them.

Friction is good. We’re obsessed with efficiency and frictionlessness, but there is no magic where there is no friction; the brand/consumer relationship becomes cold and inhuman. Brands need some friction to be able to build relationships. What is the good friction in your brand?

The way we segment is going to have to change altogether. There are big legislative changes coming through which mean that the consumer will be able choose what to release about herself. You won’t be able to find out about your consumer unless you a have a relationship with her.

We’re obsessed with sales over intermediate variables, in the same way that Fitbits don’t actually help you get fit, they just measure what you do. Whereas previously planners could have been accused of using intermediate variables as a proxy for business success, now we’re simply not using them enough to step back and really understand the impact of what we are doing and why it is working in the way it is.

So what can we do about about all of this? Underscoring what became the optimistic theme of the evening, Martin urged us to see that what is possible is actually amazing and it’s the strategist’s job to have the dream and push it through. Elevate yourself out of the detail and take back ownership of the consumer relationship. Go back to the future.

And to Bridget Angear, Joint CSO of AMV BBDO who had us mesmerised as she spoke so eloquently without charts whilst admonishing us for having become the presentation rather than the planning department…. You played a blinder, Bridget. And because you bothered to write it out, here is the text more or less in full.

‘I don’t have any slides because I found myself spending time trying to find interesting pictures to illustrate the point I wanted to make rather than just making the point.

When Sarah asked me to do this and told me the topic, my instinct was that strategy was indeed moving further and further downstream and that strategists were spending more and more of their time thinking campaigns should live and how they could be optimised for each place and space. Tactics not strategy. Tactics that might influence an ROI but not really drive real business growth.

And of course, the explanation for this shift is fairly obvious. The task of finding consumers and optimising executional messages has become a lot more complex. If I wanted to characterise this shift, I would describe it as a move from brand centric thinking to consumer centric thinking.

Once, finding consumers was pretty straight forward. They were all sitting in front of their TV so the only variable you had to worry about was the brand and what you could say about it that could shift consumer perception.

I wanted to work in advertising because of books like this:

Positioning: the battle for your mind’, a book all about how big brand thinking could fundamentally effect the fortunes of a company. “An essential read for all CEO’s and their marketing directors”. It declares on the back.

A thought such as the AA’s the 4th emergency service would have chimed well with the authors. Or indeed the winner of the APG Grand Prix in 2015, This Girl Can. (Although I note this has not been entered for effectiveness awards so I wonder about its impact in the real world).

How many thoughts like that have you seen recently? Ideas that change how you think about a brand?

So, that’s my first piece of evidence for suggesting strategy is moving downstream. The lack of big brand ideas. And I have a couple more.

There is another consequence of this shift to consumer centric thinking and that is the rise in importance of comms planning, which although I wouldn’t say is difficult is another set of skills strategists have had to learn. They’ve had to learn what works best by channel and become expert in mapping out the ecosystem of any idea they are presented with.

I recently saw a presentation that detailed an approach to comms planning that involved 9 steps, with each step requiring filling in quite complicated boxes and grids before you could move to the next step. I am not advocating it, but merely using it to illustrate how time consuming comms planning can be. Time that is no longer spent on solving bigger client issues.

I also don’t think its helped that we have fragmented our discipline. We have social strategists, cultural strategists, comms planners, behavioural strategists and brand strategists which has left me wondering who is doing the big thinking? Has this growth in specialists been at the expense of strategic thinking with each specialist looking at the world from their own particular point of view?

And lastly, I do think clients are in part responsible. I would say they have become increasingly short term in their approach in part because of the time pressures they are under being too busy to focus on anything other than the immediate. And secondly because they are also seduced by the new. How many of your senior clients have been driven around Google HQ in a driverless car and come back evangelical having ‘seen the future’? and told you to do something that involves Google, YouTube or Facebook?

However, the joy of doing what we do as opposed to politicians is that we can admit when we’re wrong. And I think I have been mistaken in my assumption that we are all moving downstream.

And the more I thought about things, the more optimistic I got.

Because actually, there has probably never been a better time to ensure we have a seat at the boardroom table.

Why? Because we know more.

Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg bass institute have given given us a formula for how they think advertising works. And whether you buy it or not, at least someone has come up with one that we can either seek to prove or disprove.

We also know more about how the brain works than ever before with advances in this area happening all the time. Books like 'Thinking Fast and Slow'.

Not only do we know more but we can also prove more. The IPA databank has over 1000 cases of successful communications that we can mine for learning. The emphasis of these papers is on business results, equipping us with the ammunition we need for the boardroom.

And there’s never been more of a creative opportunity. Thanks to the work of Les Binet and Peter Field we know that creatively awarded work is 10x more efficient that non creatively awarded work. So we should be pushing for work that punches way above its weight.

And because of all the complexity I talked about, clients have never needed more a clear POV on what they should do not just what they could do.

So strategy and strategists for all these reasons should be central stage.

And I think to ensure we do have a seat at the board.

We need to ask the questions clients haven’t got the time to answer; questions that might just change their business for the better.

At the same time, we need to be expert in what works and why because, if we know more and can prove more, we will be invited in.

The final thing that gave me hope was that I asked some of the strategists at AMV what questions they were trying to answer and here are just a few of them:

“How does a traditional insurance brand, that prides itself on it's quiet confidence, stand out among it's louder competitors?"

"What does snacking look like in an e-commerce world?"

"How can we get millennials playing the lottery when this generation has no interest in draw based games?"

And my favourite,

"Why does a 40 year old man with incontinence feel less embarrassed about his own DIY solution - usually involving condoms and tissue paper - than he does wearing a product that's purpose made for the problem?"

I think as long as we get to think about questions such as these, we’ll be ok.'

So where does this leave us? What is the prescription for the future?

You have to be your client’s conscience. Get under the skin of their business and ask the questions they don’t want to hear or wouldn’t think about answering.Think pitch mid-campaign. Be the visionary. Encourage your consumers to like you or you won’t have a relationship with them. Listen to what works and use the information to improve your thinking and planning. Don’t allow short term measures and day-after responses to hi-jack the longer term objective. Stay true to the vision. Create brand experiences that are human and magical, not frictionless and perfect. Don’t fail fast. Read the company report and use what you find out. Don’t allow data to become the maser of intuition. Have a purpose.

Sarah Newman

APG Director

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