Wednesday evening we brought together seven of the smartest brains in strategy and planning for our 16th London Firestarters event and we asked them to answer one simple question: What is the most useful thing that you have learned to date in your career? Each of our speakers was given only ten minutes but the result was some wonderfully thought-provoking, insightful, inspiring, and heartfelt talks.
First up was Richard Huntington, Group Chief Strategy Officer, Saatchi & Saatchi, who gave a brilliantly entertaining talk about the difference between being right and being interesting. His starting point was that we need to remember that no-one actually needs planning, and some of the most memorable campaigns in ad history have been created without the benefit of input from the discipline. But having no entitlement to exist is a good thing, since it means planners always need to remember the need to prove value. And there are two main ways in which planners can bring value:-
- Constant optimisation: focusing on the little things that make the big differences. To optimise approaches or work to maximise performance or effectiveness. The daily work of creative development, building communications strategies, evaluating and understanding performance, improving, monitoring, briefing. The analogy here was a sheepdog herding a flock of sheep, where the course of the brand has been set and the planners job is to keep it on course. This, said Richard, is when we need to be right.
- Periodic disruption: where planners are genuinely charting a new future for a brand, a future that changes a direction, creates new value. This is all about imagination and audacity, and the analogy is Thomas Heatherwick's Olympic cauldron. You don't iterate to get there - this is a creative, intellectually or inspirationally-driven leap. But this is where planners need far more to be interesting than right.
The great skill, said Richard, is in navigating between these two extremes and in being able to change gear and change mode at will. Planners should never restrict themselves to just one of these ways of delivering value.
Amelia Torode, Chief Strategy Officer, TBWA London, began with something that legendary planner Jon Steele had once said to her:
Jon's point was that in pitches, and when selling in the work planners need to 'read the jury', and bring them with them. As Jon also said, it's not about being right, it's not about being the best, it's about winning. Building on this, Amelia went on to give some great thoughts, peppered with lovely insights from within and outside of the industry, around always remembering that it's about the people. From Jeremy Bullmore's respect for any audience that he spoke to, to Antony Burrell, Sheryl Sandberg, and Oliver Burkeman - all inspiring ways of thinking about career, planning, and life.
Phil Adams, Planning Director, Blonde Digital adeptly decried how unstrategic the planning profession can sometimes be, and championed knowing the difference between good strategy and bad strategy, not confusing strategy, tactics and objectives, and realising that strategy is about making choices. Good planning, said Phil, is purposeful and precise, prosaic and profound. He railed against the poor practice that strategies focused on 'engagement' can lead to (he's banned the word in his team) and possibly had the best slide of the night:
Leo Rayman, Chief Strategy Officer, Grey London had a powerful take on how, inspite of the profession existing in an increasingly left-brain, data-driven world, listening to your gut instinct is so important. Business is a visceral thing. We easily over-emphasise the rational. Yet intuitively, gut instinct can be a powerful direction setter. Planners are not mekons - all head and no gut. The two things are directly connected (via the Vagus nerve) which means that gut instinct can literally be communicated directly to the brain, so we should accept being lost sometimes but believe in our gut. There was an excellent thought about pitches as well (one of my personal favourites) about how you should always close from the gut (about why you really want that business) as it is always more meaningful, powerful and emotional.
Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer, MediaCom did a captivating, erudite talk about the power of karma in life and career (something I also believe in). Sue had some charming, funny and insightful examples of how karma has come into key points in her career, what really motivates people, and how sometimes you just have to draw the line. I loved this: the only person that determines whether you have a bad day at work is you. It's difficult to do justice here to Sue's talk, but it was wonderfully disarming and wise.
Key points in your career was a theme that Candace Kuss, Director of Social at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, also spoke about - describing the reality of overlapping life and work and why that's not necessarily a bad thing, and about the moments of real choice that we all have in our careers and how important they can be. Candace has changed direction several times in her career, and spoke compellingly about these choices and what we should think about when we face these forks. Life is all about choices.
Last up was Andy Nairn, Founding Partner, Lucky Generals, who did a witty, entertaining ten minutes on a piece of advice he first heard from Richard Branson: 'Screw it, let's do it'. When the profession can sometimes get a bit over-ponderous, chin-stroking and inwardly facing, it's good to let go, and bring the fun back in. He railed against how the mantra of 'fail fast' is just not true in most organisations, how data is not a substitute for intuitive decision-making, but instead implored us all to learn from doing, and just start. And there were some lovely examples of bringing this to life through the way in which they've worked with their client Paddy Power.
When I reflected on the event the following day, I was thinking that it could possibly have been our best ever Firestarters. Such was the quality of talks - in turns funny, brilliant, insightful, witty, charming. So my thanks to our excellent speakers, to Google for hosting, and to the many people that came. It was brilliant.
You can view a Storify of the event, and see the Scriberia visualisation in all its glory here. The next Google Firestarters will be in September so if you'd like to ensure you get notified of when registration opens you can sign up for my newsletter for news of that.
Thanks to Jay Kandola for images