What is the role of a planner in planning and a strategist in strategy? It can be such an ambiguous role you can spend half your job figuring what to do when your actual job should be helping brands figure out what to do. If you embrace the ambiguity it means you get to make it what you want it to be, put your energy where you want to get the most out of it and find roles and projects that excite and intrigue you.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the role is how every day is different. Different categories, clients and contexts with novel problems, practises and proposals. As a result, the role you play on each project is often different, even within the same agency. Sometimes you may be used as a specialist, sometimes a generalist. Sometimes leading, sometimes supporting. Sometimes dealing with functions and frameworks, other times propositions and platforms.
If you like investigating strange behaviours, solving tricky problems and uncovering new solutions then strategy could be a gig for you. If you don’t believe me, I asked my department what’s some of the different roles they’ve played, where has strategy taken them and what have they taken on to get the job done. Enjoy.
At my last agency, our CEO had some really odd friends. One of them was a hugely rich geek who’d made his money betting against the trend just before the banking crash. He was building a radio telescope in the Arabian desert. But this one was designed to transmit not receive. Its signals were to be trained on stars with newly-discovered earth-like planets in the hope of sending messages to other civilisations.
The kicker was that he wanted to sell these messages as media space. He was convinced that global brands and others would be interested in the ultimate market growth opportunity. I had to write a brief for a mailing to go to individuals he had identified as potential clients. Which I think included the pope.
I once spent a day in Leeds with Moisturising Scientists learning about how the skin works and why moisturised armpits are important.
About 1 week into a new job, I spent 3 hours in a studio hugging my account director for a photoshoot after the client refused to sign off the ad because they didn't like the female model's arm & hand. They used my arm in the ad. Great way to break the ice.
Last year in November I spent one day with our supermarket clients in a broccoli field.
I asked the insight team to see if there's much social media chatter around getting medicine injected DIRECTLY into the eyeball.
I boxed against my detergent clients and then smelt different BO types out of a jam jar.
I Interviewed an elderly lady at a car dealership in Derby about car servicing. She was absolutely chuffed to get a £25 gift card and only too happy to tell it like it is, praising the former team and slagging off the current staff to their faces.
I talked to menopausal women about their vaginas...
I spent a whole week living in a hotel in Illinois, doing 2-hour in-depth interviews with people about their portable speakers and soundbars, and what they'd improve about them. The hotel was in a sprawling commercial wasteland. It took 25 minutes of walking along highways to reach a Whole Foods. Other than that it was just chains like Olive Garden, McDonalds, Cheesecake Factory etc. I was with a colleague who got sick. So I basically lived a solo life in the hotel, using the gym and making trips to Whole Foods to avoid going mental.
I've met the man at FMCG company who invented a new technology" which is basically a cotton-based product that is flexible and 10x as absorbent than other pad materials. He's white-haired and has his own lab...he's an institution at the company, been working tirelessly to innovate pad products for over 30 years.
I flew to the middle of the Amazon jungle on a non-commercial flight to learn how to extract petroleum from the forest soil in an "environmentally friendly way".
I helped cast "very small and sick-looking" babies for a painkiller ad. Closest to a diplomatic incident I have ever been.
I went to Leicester to interview retirees about breakfast options. Living the dream.
When I was working on personal care, I visited quite a few consumers for face to face interviews. Nothing like taking several pictures of a stranger's bathroom, at 6pm on a Friday.
There is also that time when I did ethnography for a pizza chain, and the father who was hosting us opened the door wearing nothing but a towel and a quite dirty t-shirt. But that wasn't part of the brief task. I hope.
For an H&M pitch, we were asked to be mystery shoppers. I took it very literally and spent a few agency dollars. People were not happy.
I conducted 30 interviews with Moms & Daughters and Dads and Daughters at a coffee chain in Cincinnati where we discussed girls periods. Fascinating, awkward, all the emotions. Also didn't help that my two male clients insisted on hopping from table to table to "listen in".
I had to run a WebEx in Italian pretending to be my client, who is Australian and could not speak Italian (at least she is a woman).
I attended a Food & Wine Festival in the Hamptons with a client. I was "undercover" researching craft beer - which wasn't sold at the event. He and I walked from table to table to casually asking people if they enjoyed wine over craft beer. What kinds? Had they ever heard of X brand, etc. Our craft client was creating a new product targeting predominantly wine drinkers.
On another "undercover" day I spent two days at bars in NYC meeting with bartenders about the best equipment / retail materials they receive from brands - i.e. towels, coasters, table menu stands, lights, bottle openers, floor mats, etc. Our beer clients were trying to better understand what undiscovered "brand swag" opportunities were out there, as they wanted to create stronger relationships with bar staff/bar owners with a new campaign. I made loads of bartender friends in Manhattan and ended up riding a mechanical bull at last stop thanks to a dare by my 56-year-old client. #america
I had to be the official translator of the director and producer of a tech brand video shoot in Milan: English speaking director, producer + crew, filming Italian fans who had no idea what to do/how to move/ what to say and were not fluent in English.
I worked on a supermarket brand where we had to work at the store for two full days. I ran the cash register, stocked the back room, cleaned the floors, etc. It was the hardest two days of work I've ever experienced.
I dined alone on a nearly empty Casino/hotel boat on a Tuesday in November. Sounds glamorous, was actually a bit weird and sad. Would make a good setting for a melancholic Bill Murray film.
I once went to a textile factory for a whole day to better understand how they made beach towels.
I helped run a kids' STEM workshop with Wallace and Gromit.
I had to spend some afternoons drinking GinTonic for research purposes. Apparently we needed to better understand and distinguish flavours. I didn’t complain.
I've toured a shampoo lab in Ohio where they test products on real humans with dandruff. We put shampoo samples under microscopes to better understand how the various formulas work. At the end of the day, I got to meet NFL Hall of Famer and brand spokesperson Troy Polamalu.
I had awkward chats with mums about a thing they were passing on to their daughter which was called “the system” and was a wild combo between a pad and cotton.
I interviewed old Brits about their body pains, which turned out to be quite fun.
I spent half an hour trying to open a jar of pickles using boxing gloves, to understand the struggle of living with arthritis.
I had a brand immersion day driving all different types of a brands cars out in the middle of Oxfordshire. There was a corporate events bloke there to facilitate and he was going out on some of the drives with team members. He seemed very boring so I tried to avoid him on most of the drives. I ended up with him on the last drive of the day in one of their performance cars and it turned out he was completely insane petrol head. He made me hit 100mph down a country road and I almost soiled the fine leather upholstery whilst he was shouting at me about horsepower and torque.
I worked on a petrol brand where we spent a 10 hour day driving around different petrol stations in the Leatherhead area. Specifically, they were concerned about their hot food offerings. This meant we had to try the hot counter petrol station food at almost every stop. It pretty much turned me vegan.
I worked on a delivery client who had bizarre asks including flying on the jump seat of a delivery plane to Leipzig and back in the span of a night to better understand the journey of a parcel. It worked in that I pretty much felt like a parcel.
I ran qual interviews with American boat owners to find out more about their use of fish finders.
I pretended to be a uni student to get BMW, Merc and Audi dealers & drivers to bitch about competitor brands on camera for a piece of pitch theatre.
In my first year in London, for a social media campaign, I had to go to surf festival and camp with a client and the brand's social media influencers.
When I did the planning bootcamp in Germany, I had to pretend I was a "lost" Italian customer and ask strangers in the tomato soup aisle for suggestions on "the closest thing to the original". At several different supermarkets.
As part of a global Instagram project, we were flown from all over the world to San Francisco. The golden moment - having a whiskey with legendary Martin Weigel.
I worked on a sports brand and as part of "ethnographic research" I saw MANY random strangers work out and play their sport - which also included them opening up their closets to show their fave brands. I will never forget some of the things I saw in those teen boys' collections.