LBB: What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?

Often, I think it’s just semantics and what a company chooses to use. I’ve never seen the title of ‘planner’ outside of traditional advertising and media agencies and the title of ‘strategists’ seems to have come into marcomms more recently as the discipline has broadened.

And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

I gravitate towards ‘strategist’ because I think of strategy as very focused on establishing the key problem and then providing clarity on what success looks like. As opposed to having a predetermined answer, channel or discipline in mind.

We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?

Having spent a few years at Channel 4 it will always have a very special place in my heart. So I watched with admiration when I saw the Superhumans campaign for the 2012 Paralympics. It was clearly creatively brilliant, but I think it was also strategically perfect. The idea of turning the portrayal of disability from pity, to admiration and empowerment, was superb.

When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?

Ultimately I think the inspiration for a particular brief is highly unlikely to come at the time you’re working on it. It will be something you saw, read, experienced some time before. That’s why it’s so important to be constantly interested in the world. When you start working on a brand, inevitably you will uncover insights and a new perspective on that brand, but the creative and strategic richness comes from cultural insight. The perfect cultural insight appearing at the time of the relevant brief is the sort of perfect serendipity that I’ve rarely experienced.

What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?

Digging beneath the client brief to uncover the real problem. I like to be like the child that constantly asks ‘Why?’, often to the annoyance of clients and colleagues. Only when I genuinely believe I understand what the true problem is can I start working on the strategy to solve it.

What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?

I wouldn’t say it’s anything as grand as a maxim, but the most important question for me is ‘Why should anyone care?’. Care about this product, care about this idea, care about what we want them to do. There’s a danger to think that ‘consumers’ are this mythical group waiting for our commercial messages. Clearly they aren’t. If we and our clients can get to the heart of why people should care then we have something genuinely powerful. If we can’t then Clients should save their money. Beyond that, our proprietary approach at The Park is centred around the idea of Brand Proof; we look for what it is that a brand needs to prove to unlock growth, and then help them do that in a creatively compelling way.

What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?

I like working with any creative that is good at creating brilliant ideas! Ultimately, the relationship works best when I can provide stimulus, thoughts, and provocative questions to spark ideas. My strengths lie in establishing a clear problem and a cultural context but in a logical way. Brilliant creatives are illogical, they see the world differently. Combining those two approaches can be really powerful. Beyond that, I think it’s seeing the relationship as a partnership.

There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round?

It helps being a co-founder of the business! But it’s still hard. I think the key is allowing enough time for genuine strategic development and being rigorous about creative reviews. Developing strategy on the back of a creative idea is not always a bad thing though. Sometimes a creative spark can present the problem in a different way and strategy can be used to test the hypothesis. I like that as it means the strategic/creative relationship is more fluid and less linear.

What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? And how has Covid changed the way you think about this?

Strategists by their nature are inquisitive people and this needs to be nurtured. Ensuring they have enough time to read, watch, listen, visit to keep their minds sharp and culturally connected is key. As I mentioned before, it’s not a case of receiving a brief and looking for inspiration, it’s about constantly filling a bank of interesting thoughts that you can dip into when needed.

In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?

I’m not sure it’s made any difference. Good strategists and planners have always been interested in effectiveness. Whether it’s awarded or not.

Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Planners and strategists are always frustrated, it’s part of the job! I think my main frustration is client briefs that are overly prescriptive and with short timelines. This means strategy gets squeezed out of the process. But that’s not solely the fault of clients. Agencies need to push back and also demonstrate the value of the discipline.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

Be genuinely interested in the world and the rest will fall into place.

Originally published on Little Black Book.