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How do you keep strategy interesting?

APG Noisy Thinking | 22nd May 2019

Living in times as ‘interesting’ as those that assail the UK right now, it may seem strange to ask the question: How do you keep strategy interesting? After all, a turbulent and rapidly changing cultural and political situation must surely be influencing everything we do. Indeed, the conversation amongst the speakers before the event was all about the on-going impact of Brexit, the extraordinary atmosphere here in the UK, and pointy questions to Rob Campbell about why he chose now to pause his globe trotting and reside in London.

All of which somewhat misses the point, that whatever is going on in the macro culture you still have to attend to the micro problems that clients set us; to define and re-define the problem in better, more precise and more helpful terms and develop ideas and thinking that can help unlock growth in brands and change behaviour.

The question also has several interdependent strands: How do you stay interested and engaged in this most nebulous of ‘professions’? How do you stay interesting to others? How do you vary and change and your sources of insight and inspiration so that your thinking is fresh?

As always with Noisy Thinking, we aim to be useful and inspirational in equal measure. And as I’ve had the privilege of having already having read the feedback from the event it’s clear our illustrious speakers did just that. So what did they say and why?

Nick Hirst is Executive Strategy Director at adam&eve DDB. With his mildly philosophical mind-set and a self confessed tendency to live a Twitter meta-life, Nick started by questioning the question. He is a planner, after all.

Does strategy need to be interesting or is it just the output that needs to be interesting?

If distinctiveness is far more important than differentiation, and reach is everything, surely ad strategy can be generic? But it depends who is the target for your interesting ideas. The audience for your thinking is not the consumer, it’s creative, clients and (in the case of Noisy Thinking of course) other planners.

For Nick the absolutely main thing is that strategy should be MEMORABLE. Your client may be presenting it on, and the more engaging and fun it is, the more it will stand out. And if your creative team are working on 8 briefs at a time, you want them to be spending the most time on yours.

So how do you do it? Here are the Rules Of Interestingness, According to Nick.

First of all what to do ….

1. Start with people

People are endlessly fascinating, and in a curiously amusing misquote of Samuel Johnson Nick maintains that a planner who is tired of strategy is essentially tired of people.

2. Make the problem interesting

If you can re-define the problem in such a way that a completely new solution is suggested, you get breakthroughs like the Stoptober smoking cessation work.

3. Make it a story

There are tricks you steal that are not about ‘storytelling’ as an approach to PPT but really telling a story that is going to engage the creatives with jeopardy, threat, and increased drama. Think about why the challenge is hard, whose quest it is, in what way your brand or business could be the underdog in the saga and how can you up the stakes.

4. Try total, brute honesty

Nick worked on a brief for a car manufacturer who wanted to advertise a car that clearly didn’t warrant the investment from a consumer/business point of view. But after delving, it became apparent that the reason was to keep the factory going as it sustained a whole geographical region. And as soon as the creatives discovered this their eyes lit up and the ‘battle to save the factory’ was begun.

5. Are you interested in it?

If you’re not, no-one else will be either. Geek out and find the nuggets that grip you properly and you have the beginnings of something good.

And then what not to do….

  • Don’t indulge in target audience wishful thinking. Be rigorous and stick to the facts as they are. (And are millennials in the least bit interesting, anyway…?)

  • Don’t use ‘lipstick’ language. Tell it like it is.

  • Avoid over ‘complexification’. Keep it simple.

  • Don’t get too heavily engaged in the literature around strategy which can be unwieldy and complicated.

  • Boring people can’t produce interesting strategy so use yourself as an interesting source.

So how do you make yourself interesting?

Engage in random things. Read a different specialist magazine every month. Immerse yourself in different worlds and create weird analogies and links.

Seek out opposite opinions and sources of insight that provoke you.

Know how you re-charge and do it as often as you can; don’t operate on panic and adrenalin.

After all, it’s only marcomms. And who gives a shit? Get out of fear mode. No-one is going to die.

And this provided the kind of neat segue way into Sophie’s talk that an events organiser such as I could only dream of.

Sophie Lewis is CSO of VMLY&R.

And this short summary does not do justice to the subtlety and charm and deep passion of her ideas and convictions.

But luckily we filmed the event so hear this from Sophie when the video is up, not just from me.

She is unambiguous in her love for ideas and the fact that she looks for them everywhere. She admits to being healthily ambivalent about brands and comms and agencies, but she is completely thrilled by ideas.

She turns out to be an inveterate phone photographer and her random snapping of people, places and things is none of her most powerful sources of inspiration.

Living in Brighton she has a long commute to work and every day she takes a very short piece of video footage of the Balcombe viaduct which represents a divider between her work and home lives and which she finds beautiful and fascinating. And it’s given her an insight into why painters like Monet painted the same thing over and over again.

She is strongly of the belief that you can’t re-cycle strategies as no two problems are ever the same. Like the view at Balcombe which changes subtly each day, you have to think about each new problem completely differently and find new ways to stimulate your thinking.

Sophie also likes to walk places. She thinks that ideas are everywhere and to be found in everything that people do from being sick at bus stops and fighting to sitting outside the same café every single day. (Nice area, Camden.) She takes pics all the time on her phone, and in a sense the more uninspiring and ‘real’ the better.

And she firmly believes, like Nick, that real people are the key to everything and we need to understand them properly and what they really think about the brand, to unlock answers.

So look at images whenever you can. Read and plunder books, mags and newspapers. Read indiscriminately; use snippets and quotes from magazines, and get good at connecting things together.

Engage in all aspects of real life and use them too; from the hell that is Soft Play for kids, to the moon over the park at Brighton Festival.

Plunder music and lyrics for ideas and watch lots of incredible TV, from Mum to Fleabag and get inspiration from the incredible writing and ideas.

And keep on keeping things until you find a reason to use them.

But most of all….

‘The quieter you become, the more you can hear’


Rob Campbell is the relatively newly appointed European Head of Strategy of RG/A.

He’s spent 25 years out of the UK working around the globe and he likes Nottingham Forest, Queen (not The Queen), Monster Munch, Diet Coke, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and his cat. Of whom he has had a portrait painted.

I got the impression he also likes his wife and son, but they clearly hadn’t got to the portrait stage in his affections.

Rob is apparently 48 years OLD (his emphasis on old; not mine) and enjoys his job. So what can we learn from him?

What is interesting?

Anything that messes with normal situations. It might not always come off but any point of madness or epicness is interesting. He talked about being involved in the re-design of the Virgin Atlantic lounge which glanced off a brief from Branson to ‘make people want to miss the plane’.

He thinks interesting stuff comes from reality but there are lots of impediments. And to come up with an interesting strategy, you have to live an interesting life. ‘Curiosity’, the abstract noun beloved of planners, is for Rob the characteristic of the lazy person. You have to really throw yourself into things.

What’s his advice? It takes the form of 10 Quick Things

  • Follow brilliant strategists who aren’t strategists. Like Rhianna.

  • Play in the jungle, not just the zoo; by which he means Planning is an outdoor job and you need to feel the culture for real, not via a keyboard. Be interested in what other people are interested in. Care about what is going on and find about about it.

  • Try new things all the time. Read magazines; the more powerful and freaky, the better.

  • Make better mistakes. Don’t be too fast, accept failure and put yourself out there.

  • Look for creative opportunities in everything and don’t go into a process hole.

  • Live overseas or try and work on an overseas project. You lose a lot but you gain a hell of a lot too; in his case, a wife, a son and a cat all in different countries. These experiences can change the way you look at the world and how you value it.

  • Make your passion a part of your process and bring your life with you to work.

  • ‘We’re all guests on Jeremy Kyle’ (or we were till last week). People are fascinating. Try and find their ‘dirty little secret’, hunt out their quirks, and get different perspectives. Rob engaged a group of prostitutes on a BMW project to help him rank the perceived wealth of the driver of each model…So find a different expert and bring them in to shed new light on a project.

  • Fight for more female leadership and get different kinds of people running the show because they can alter your perspective brilliantly for the better.

It’s not about being right because we’re all making it up as we go along.

And one final thing…You’ve got to want it, to be interesting.

So three radically different characters bringing completely different ideas and experiences to bear on their jobs and the theme of our evening.

But what they have in common is a deep belief in the absolute necessity of bringing real life and real people into the heart of strategy. And this is the theme for the APG this year.

APG in 2019: Putting the People Back into Planning

We will be producing podcasts with fascinating social and cultural commentators like Ruby Pseudo and Dougal Shaw.

We’re getting together with the Nursery to develop a training course in the autumn for junior planners and strategists teaching them the art and craft of interviewing and insight.

We’re going to bring business leaders to the APG like David Pemsel, CEO of the Guardian to tell us how putting people at the heart of the Guardian’s business strategy has caused a turn-around in the paper’s fortunes and brought it profit for the first time in its history.

And we’re going to make this the heart of Noisy Thinking later in the year.

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