Last week I travelled to Australia for our first ever Google Firestarters events in Melbourne and Sydney. We'd taken 'Adapting Strategy for an Adaptive World' as our theme for both sessions - a topic that was sufficiently narrow to hang together well but also broad enough to allow for different perspectives on what the concept of 'adaptive strategy' really means. And we had some excellent provocation from some great speakers who spoke to the current and future state of planning:
Dave King, Director of Strategy, The Royals
Our first Melbourne speaker was Dave King, whose agency The Royals has been responsible for some truly fun and innovative work. Dave began by asking a simple question: how up for change are we? We need, said Dave, to constantly question whether we (who act as change agents on behalf of our clients) are actually interested in getting better at the way we work. The traditional strategy/creative process can lead to silo-ed discovery of insights and ideas. At The Royals they have implemented a new process designed to ensure that their is no disconnect at all between strategy and creative. Based on the Google Ventures Design Sprint, the new creative sprint is a framework that is designed to be agile in the creation of ideas and to get the most out of people. A 5 day process that substitutes the traditional functional hand-off between planning and creative for a method that puts all the key people (including the client) in the same room from the very beginning, and then involves them at key stages throughout.
Dave shared what they had learned from working in this way. It hadn't always been easy to work in suhc a new way, but there had been some great successes and a number of key upsides. It is, for example, a structure that is 'applied around people's experience and instinct and intuition' so it is critical to get the right people in the room. Since it is a process essentially appropriated from a product or design context, it naturally puts 'need' at the centre of every challenge, but does so in a way that leads to fertile discussions. It places a good bit of focus on user journeys that traverse different places and so doesn't discriminate between offline/online, or traditional, creative, digital, social ideas. The volume of ideas that are originated quickly at the start of the process informs strategy, and gives them 'a bunch of little souvenirs from our trip to add to our bottom draw'.
As an approach to adaptive strategy, the creative sprint felt like a compellingly new and different take, and it was really refreshing to hear from an agency who are genuinely working in a different way. It is a process, said Dave, that 'doesn't feel like writing a brief - it's more like decoding an opportunity'.
Eaon Pritchard, Strategy Consultant
In a pleasing echo to Paul Feldwick's recent Firestarters talk, Eaon used the context of where we've come from as an industry, and in particular Stanley Pollitt's planning philosophy which focused on getting the work right at all costs, effective advertising over maximising billing or keeping the clients happy, account planners having freedom to work with the data they see fit, and consumer response being the most important element in making final advertising judgements rather than prejudice or over-attachment to an idea. How much of this, asked Eaon, really happens in agencies today? Eaon used some great cultural metaphors to illustrate the point that one of the things we've got wrong is thinking that advertising effectiveness is about messaging, when actually it's about display and signalling - speaking to the fundamentals of human behaviour that we know from social and evolutionary psychology. He referenced some of the external cultural factors relevant to strategy, and the relationship between culture, counter-culture and sub-culture that he eloquently explains in more detail here. Ultimately, a consideration of 'adaptive strategy' is about referencing what we know about human nature, but also admitting what we don't know.
Roger Box, Director of Digital, Clemenger BBDO
This focus on understanding human complexities was echoed in Roger's talk. People often do counter-intuitive things, and the only way to understand how technologies impact behaviours is to observe and participate ourselves ('too many people and organisations are still playing in the paddling pool of the digital world'). We use jargon and acronyms to over-complicate what are basic behaviours, and yet it is often the simple strategies that really work. Human needs are consistent, but it is how we fulfil those needs changes. Strategies are carbon-based, ideas are silicon-based.
Abigail Posner, Head of Strategic Planning, Google
Abigail did a great job of providing the 'glue' between the Melbourne and Sydney sessions, speaking at both events about how what a humanistic view of solving problems really means, and how important it is not only to impact culture, but also have an action orientation to strategy: 'In our planning department' she said, 'we force ourselves to come up with things, we turn everything into a thing. Words are cheap, you have to codify it, have a name for it, turn it into something real, something tangible'. She described this as an engineering approach to strategy, and illustrated it with a short but compelling video compilation of some key engineers at Google talking about how they approach solving the big problems. And interestingly (and like Dave had) she mentioned how they often worked on challenges together concurrently as a multi-disciplinary team from the beginning.
Simon Small, Executive Strategy Director, Isobar
At the Sydney Firestarters, Simon provided a fascinating and different perspective on how, at Isobar, strategy has evolved to encompass many different facets, from helping clients establish a digital development roadmap, customer experience strategy, innovation, more traditional comms strategy, or platform strategy (CRM, Mobile, e-commerce etc) to product and services strategy. The interesting thing about this breadth of strategic involvement/output is that it has meant that the footprint within clients has expanded beyond marketing, and there is a new competitive context. He gave some examples of very different kinds of work, fulfilling very different kinds of client objectives, but making the point nicely that adaptive strategy is perhaps about the ability to deliver business benefit in many different contexts. Strategy, says Simon, needs to answer a new set of questions, from helping to define client objectives, to filling in gaps in knowledge, to direction setting and validation, to reporting and optimisation (there was an interesting point he made during the Q & A afterwards about how significant client value doesn't only come from big ideas but from the often under-rated impact that can come from smart but simple optimisation techniques). Entrenched mindsets, processes and balances of power within agencies can all act as barriers to change.
Sudeep Gohil, CEO, Droga 5
'The future is the past we have forgotten'. Digital, said Sudeep, is very good at continuously throwing up the ‘next big thing’ but as much as things change, they also 'devolve back into the old ways that we used to do things'. A really simple human insight often sits at the heart of the ideas we'd all wished we came up with, yet planners need to not think only in terms of advertising-shaped solutions. There is a temptation for agencies to rush toward the first good idea, but taking time to unpack client problems ultimately leads to better, and more rounded solutions. Agencies are in danger of losing ground to the big management consultancies if they don't solve the big brand problems. And we need to originate ideas that become part of culture itself:
“Being part of culture is more important than any strategy you can come up with because no one turns around and says I love that strategy or I love that ad, instead they talk about things they love which is generally not the stuff we create.”
Ultimately digital is just another part of popular culture.
Jason Lonsdale, Executive Planning Director, Saatchi & Saatchi
Our final speaker in Sydney, Jason Lonsdale, also touched on the theme of agencies broadening out from advertising-based solutions, but more in the context of 'making acts not ads', and briefs that start with 'do something' rather than 'say something'. Templated strategy, said Jason, can inhibit thinking, and great planners have more in common with hackers than programmers. Planners need to be 'obsessed with the truth':
“I would argue the truth is our client, the truth is our responsibility at an agency. Creatives are obsessed with awards and doing cool stuff, suits are obsessed with keeping the clients happy, we should be obsessed with the truth.”
We cannot interrupt what people are interested in, said Jason, we have to be what people are interested in. The concept of media-neutrality is something that good planners get anyway, because of their understanding of context. So rather than being media-neutral, it's about being people positive:
Overall, we had two fascinating sessions with no shortage of good debate afterwards, and it was a brilliant way to launch Firestarters into Australia. We had some great write ups from industry journals mUmbrella, AdNews, and BandT, and there is a Storify of the two events which are all worth taking a look at. We will be doing more events later this year (watch this space for more on that) but in the meantime my thanks to Google Australia for hosting, and to our brilliant speakers.