Intro: Welcome to Planner Parley, a show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency planning. It’s season three of Planner Parley, and you know what that means, StratFest! Our team was there in full force to look at strategy from every angle, be it our humanity, our plurality, or our place in moving society forward. Join Steve Kozel, VP and director of strategy at OBP, Stephanie Zawack, senior strategic planner at Marcus Thomas LLC, and John Roberts, chief strategy officer at Truth Collective, as they recap with this year’s festival, brought, taught and challenged and what it means for small agencies. Pull up a chair and listen in.
John Roberts: Okay, everyone. Welcome to the small agency Planner Parley Podcast, where we focus on the lives in times of StratFest in smaller agencies. And as I always think of small in maybe size, but definitely not in stature and mind. And today, third time in a row, we will be reviewing StratFest. What just happened? Those of you who are fresh listening in, StratFest ended just a couple of days ago, uh, the 4A’s annual conference by strategists for strategists. So I wanted to, uh, unpack what happened, what we thought about it, how we’re gonna apply it in your life. And I’m welcome to really, uh, invite today back an old veteran, Steve Kozel, back for his third review of StratFest. Steve, say hello and, uh, introduce yourself.
Steve Kozel: Hey, John. I’m, Steve Kozel. Happy to be back for a third year running. Um, it was great to attend StratFest again this year, second virtual year. Um, excited to talk about it. I’m VP of strategy at Osborn Barr Paramore. Uh, I’m based in St. Louis. Um, but we are a fully distributed agency of about 150 folks. Uh, we tend to do most of our work in the verticals of agriculture and tourism, but you know, when it comes to strategy, my focus is everything from research, to effectiveness and really everything in between.
John Roberts: Awesome. And, uh, we had had a partner in crime for a couple of years, our friend, Sara, who sadly cannot join us because she is Covidian. But it does give us the opportunity for a proud welcome to Stephanie Zawack. Please, thrilled to have you here. Introduce yourself.
Stephanie Zawack: Thank you, John. Uh, I am so happy to be here with the, uh, the two veterans from StratFest. Uh, this was my first year attending StratFest, um, after being in the industry for a little over a decade. So I don’t know how I waited that long, but, uh, definitely glad I got the chance this year. And really, I mean, uh, a decade in the industry, I work for Marcus Thomas, uh, which is a small to midsize, uh, integrated marketing agency, uh, in Cleveland, Ohio. Uh, we do have a couple of, um, satellite offices as well within Buenos Aires and a few others.
Stephanie Zawack: But, um, we do a lot- a wide range of work, um, including the home and gardening space, healthcare, gaming, and a wide range beyond that. I have focused my efforts most recently on a healthcare brand and a gaming brand. So kind of two ends of the gambit.
John Roberts: High levels of risk in both, I’m pretty sure.
Stephanie Zawack: Absolutely. (laughs).
John Roberts: And seriously, really good to have you in. Uh, it’s actually gonna be really interesting, the conversation, talking to the vets. That means the old people, I think, but also, uh, being a newbie to StratFest just to get your perspective on it. So thank you.
Stephanie Zawack: Sure, good.
John Roberts: So, well, let’s dig in. This year’s StratFest, Steve, we’ve already mentioned was the second year of being virtual. Why don’t we talk a little bit about, um, how we thought about StratFest overall. For the listeners in the, the theme as there’s always a loose theme was, why the old ways will win in new normal. And the intention to StratFest this year was to really start to focus on two things. One, of course, we all know then how the pandemic has changed our worlds, both in terms of working practice and the real world that our consumers and we live in. So they wanted to share a little bit more discussion around that. How does that change, or how did it not change human behaviors?
John Roberts: And the second area of the intention of StratFest was to really start to dig in a little bit more about, uh, a common feeling amo- amongst planners of a shift from the last 12 to 18 months where we’ve all been doubled down on ne- near term, the short-term, the immediate, and actually start to lift our heads up and start to think a little bit more about longer term. How can StratFest support brands and their consumers in the longer term? So, Steve, let’s start with you. Give us a couple of thoughts of your overall impressions of, uh, the day itself.
Steve Kozel: Um, you know, I thought, I, I, I offer a lot of grace to the 4A’s for, for last year’s event. You know, obviously transitioning virtually. Every organization in Nevada out there had a lot of growing pains in that process. You know, a- and I think it was a good event last year. I thought this year was even better. I- it just seems, um, a little more polished. Uh, I thought the interface was, you know, one of the better ones in terms of a virtual event. And, um, yeah, all in all, I felt like the, the content of programming was good, the little interstitials that they had with, um, strategists coming on and kind of mentioning the magic moments.
Steve Kozel: Yeah, I thought, i- it made for a, a really seamless experience, at least from my perspective. Um, I happened to clear off most of my days, so I didn’t have much conflicts and I could kind of stay up-to-date with the, the live programming, but also jump in to the on-demand sessions as I had availability. And, um, you know, there was even activity in the chat. So it worked out pretty well.
John Roberts: Stephanie, as the first time at StratFest, what was your overall impression? Did it live up to your expectations and how?
Stephanie Zawack: Great question. Uh, so I had really gotten a lot of positive feedback from colleagues that had a- attended in years past. So I went into this with a lot of excitement and really just eagerness to, to hear what people had to say. And, um, you know, those that shared a lot of our challenges and, you know, a lot of our curiosities. So I think the day itself, it, it ends up being, as with any conference, it ends up being a long day. And I think the 4A’s did a wonderful job of really coordinating all the different speakers and having those moments that kind of broke it up as Steve mentioned. Um, so I, I think some of that was, um, really well-executed and coordinated.
Stephanie Zawack: I loved, uh, a number of the, the sessions themselves. And my- some of my favorites were kind of split out throughout the day. Uh, so that was kind of nice to have some, you know, peaks and valleys throughout the day. Uh, so all in all, I’ll be honest, as newbie, I was expecting a little bit more interaction, uh, just from commentary from years past, but given, you know, the theme of the day, you know, old ways and the new world, uh, I understand, you know, with this, you know, all virtual setting, they really did the best with what they can do. So, um, I think that was well-orchestrated and I look forward to more interactions in future.
John Roberts: Great perspectives guys. And at least from my point, I, I agree with both. It was really interesting, Steve, that how, um, there was a much, uh, smoother transition through the day, than, than in the first time virtual last year that worked well. And Stephanie, I agree with you in terms of, there’s some good, good peaks, not too many troughs. And I’ll be honest, I always find at events or conferences, there’s a trough somewhere as a couple of things that, uh… But I thought the, the general level of content discussion was really, uh, vibrant all the way through. And yeah, I’d love to see more engagement, ways to do that. Hence the reason, uh, why we have Parley, which I’ll talk about a bit at the end. Steve.
Steve Kozel: Did- John, I don’t remember. Did they do, uh, Q&As at the end of every session last year?
John Roberts: No, I think what they did, Steve, was we actually had, um, some more, um, pre-formatted presentations. And I think there were two or three-
Steve Kozel: Right.
John Roberts: … Q&As, which are things like the round tables that were more live.
Steve Kozel: Yeah, the panels. So I would say, this year, I really appreciated them having those live Q&As at the end of a lot of the sessions. Uh, and it did seem like there was a decent amount of audience interaction in terms of not only offering up questions for the presenters, but also being able to upvote popular questions, um, for the moderators to, to ask. So it seemed like that was a great conduit for people to, to be able to engage in a way that maybe last year they hadn’t been able to
John Roberts: Yeah, good point.
Stephanie Zawack: Yeah. And I’ll second that Steve. Um, that was something that was… You know, in the absence of more workshops, that was a great way to be able to interject and ask questions and really interact with some of the, the speakers. I also thought the platform itself made it really easy for us to interact and kind of navigate throughout the day. So kudos on, on that end as well.
John Roberts: Well, listen, why don’t we dig into, just following that thread through, on the, the couple of the peaks or the places where we felt the most interaction. We’re not gonna review every single topic and the whole day and the format, I still would chat about the things that moved us and, um, what we want to do about it. Uh, for the listeners in on the pod, I’m sure we’re gonna post the links back to the 4A’s site where there’ll be some of the content from the day itself. But, uh, let’s just start with that. And Stephanie, let’s start with you. What was the most motivating subject or topic for you during the course of the day? Let’s talk about that a little.
Stephanie Zawack: Ooh, tha- that’s a good one. Uh, there was a wide range, and so there were a number of different sessions I liked for different reasons. The one that really kind of piqued my interest for maybe some unusual reasons was the data and creativity session. You know, that strategy behind finding a winning e- equation. It really teased out the Go Back to Africa campaign and how they went about that, which is not the first time I’ve seen that campaign, I’ll be honest. Um, you know, a number of different conferences have highlighted that as an excellent, excellent example. So if you haven’t seen it or heard of it, definitely seek that one out.
Stephanie Zawack: Uh, but I thought this one gave a little bit of an interesting perspective in how they used data to inform that and not just how they use data, but really pulling in the perspective of how that integrates along a person’s journey and how they interact with the brand at multiple stages. So I liked the… I- it all kind of hinged on this idea that oftentimes as marketers, we like to pinpoint one pivotal insight, right? As opposed to, in this case what they did was they found four or five different insights that had an element of experience throughout that person’s journey. And each one kind of locked in and tied to another, and that made it feel a lot more cohesive. And I thought that was a brilliant way to bring data to life.
John Roberts: Great perspective. And that was, uh, Andrea Cook from performance art who was talking about that. And again, I’m sure we’re gonna find links and put them in the, uh, the transcripts from this part. Steve.
Steve Kozel: One of the things that Andrea mentioned when she was talking through not just the Go Back to Africa campaign, but in general, their approach of performance art. She mentioned, you know, that working in journey, as she put it, is, is not necessarily a new or novel thing. Um, but that, for them, it’s not just a communications planning exercise. Um, and she didn’t say this, but the way that I interpreted it was, thinking less about, um, a customer journey or an audience journey and more about a data journey, in the sense that whether we’re talking inputs or, or some sort of activation element, you might think about the nature of the data that’s being exchanged with any audience throughout a sequence of events or an experience or, you know just their daily lives, what you can learn in real time and how you can turn that around in terms of a creative activation.
Steve Kozel: And I think that’s really what she was getting at, is the ability to have adaptable approaches to communication based on real-time input that you’re getting from an audience, but also finding ways to activate against data as it’s intersecting their lives. Um, i- it feels like comms planning, you know, i- it seems like we’re splitting hairs, but I understand what she’s getting at. And I appreciated the, the sentiment.
John Roberts: As- you know, Steve, as you were just catting about that, I was thinking about, it does feel like comms planning, the principle-
Steve Kozel: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Roberts: But the reality of much comms planning today becomes like a framework that we set in and, and let it play out. Right? And that, that was the notion of both of you are talking about, about this, uh, this, the living aspect of using data.
Steve Kozel: My interpretation of that in practice is really a very close partnership between media, um, strategy, creative and, you know, whatever, you know, digital or data discipline is in there. In being able to do this stuff at scale, you need teams that are really well-integrated, uh, and, and resource-rich. Um, I, I think it’s, it’s a luxury that a lot of us aren’t afforded, um, but it’s certainly something that we could probably all make an intentional move towards just thinking about things in that way and working across disciplines to make it happen.
John Roberts: Yeah. And Stephanie I see you nodding.
Stephanie Zawack: Yeah. I mean, y- you’re speaking to the choir, right? Uh, so it kind of raises the question to me and Steve, if you, if you have, uh, recommendations or- on your tips and tricks that you’ve used, how do you encourage that type of integration and collaboration for, you know, the journey development and bringing this, you know, into more living, breathing-type of journey, as opposed to as, like you said, John, set it and forget it type of thing.
Steve Kozel: Well, I would say you need to bring your technological expertise in earlier. Um, you need folks that have an aptitude for data aggregation and activation to be engaged in the creative process. And you need creatives that are willing to embrace complexity or some kind of automated execution of an idea. Um, that’s asking a lot for some of those disciplines, because I think traditionally, that’s not how a lot of creatives think about how their work fits into the world and it’s not necessarily how a lot of, you know, developers or programmers or analysts think about being engaged. And so it does kind of take a paradigm shift of what crea- creative collaboration looks like and how to make use of the technology that’s out there.
Steve Kozel: I know, I know a lot of creatives are like, “If you talk to me about creative automation, I’m running away.” And I think that any technology can be used in a less effective way. But I do think that that example in particular, Go Back to Africa campaign made beautiful use of tools that we didn’t have five or 10 years ago.
John Roberts: Yeah. I think Steve, just picking up on what you were saying, um, there’s, yeah some of that is the, the human aspect, honestly. We, so we will, um… We’re not perfect, but we will work really hard on the creative brief development discussion. We’ll include all our partners. The brief itself, the creative internal reviews, and we try and match up our CDs to have discussions without the team necessarily being together, direct link to chat with, for example, media folks with the social team. A lot of that is the, the human intention of actually just all of us starting to learn to be less fascist about the roles that we play or less, um, less enclosed.
John Roberts: And some of that’s driven by clients. You know, historically, clients had teams and the, the set and forget that you’re talking about Stephanie is we still have, you know, I think in the world’s day with clients where the expectation of scope is based on, uh, a volume of output rather than a value of what you’re doing.
Stephanie Zawack: Absolutely. Uh, and it’s pervasive in terms of marketing, right? That, that kind of makes its way through. But as we’re in this midst of complete change, right? Everything about our worlds are in upheaval in some way. Why not marketing as well?
Steve Kozel: I do think that there is some element of it where we’ve gotten really good at expecting every discipline to bring their work to other respective disciplines, having figured everything out. Right? So even in strategy, um, and I think we’ve talked about this before, John, this, this perception that like we as strategists have to figure it out before we hand it over to anybody else. And then creative has to figure it out the idea and hand it over to somebody in a technology role that then has to figure out how to make it happen. But I think when you see work like this, it’s really probably my guess, ’cause I don’t know, I’m speculating.
Steve Kozel: The product of asking what if in a room that’s multidisciplinary, you know, cou- is this possible? You know, whoever- wherever the idea comes from, it’s a bunch of people from a lot of different backgrounds and disciplines weighing in to say, “Yeah, we could probably figure out a way to do that.” And it lets technical people be creative and creative people think technically, and you know, if you’re working in some sort of waterfall or cascade environment, it’s just, that’s never gonna happen.
Stephanie Zawack: Yeah. And I love that idea of, um, kind of cross-skill expectations. So, you know, everybody can be a little bit strategic, everybody can be a little bit creative, everybody experiences technology, right? So it doesn’t matter where that source comes from, it’s a matter of, how do we become problem-solvers together in that moment?
John Roberts: So just picking up on that, Stephanie, does that come back to, you were talking earlier about the five insights or, you know, about scribbling my notes, about multi-dimensional insights, um, which is interesting, right? Because again, coming back to what we’re just talking about now, the traditionally, the planner, strategist owned the insights and everything’s anchored around the insight. And I felt that Andrea’s daunt to think about, “Okay, being a little less precious around that, still okay, but finding different roles.” How did you take that?
Stephanie Zawack: Absolutely. Um, I think part of what I took out of that is that, you know, to your word, multi-dimensional and insight doesn’t have to pack every little nugget into this one little phrase, right? I’ve always viewed an insight as something that you thought you should have known before, but didn’t. And so that can be earth-shattering, that can be technical, that can be a lot of different things, but it’s not just simply an observation, it’s an observation turned into something else. Right?
Stephanie Zawack: And so I think when we start to examine how we look at an insight that identifies itself as, um, important in having a role in different areas of a marketing plan, right, from the client’s perspective. But in turn, if we take a look at it through the consumer’s perspective or the customer’s perspective, what are they experiencing and how do we carve out some insights or a progression of insights across their path?
Steve Kozel: So I will posit something controversial and link this to another, w- well, the opening presentation, uh, for StratFest, because this is a conversation that my team has been having. Um, and you know, we don’t have an answer, it’s just kind of an open debate, but do we really even need insight in the work that we do? Um, I think, and, I, I would be the first to say, many times I have said, understanding our audiences will make us better and more effective communicators when reaching them and, you know, influencing them in some way. And I think that there is some, uh, some amount of truth to that. But when you look at Paul Feldwick basically saying the job of innov- advertising, the job of advertising is to entertain, first and foremost and not sell.
Steve Kozel: Do- how much do we really need to know about somebody to entertain them? And especially when you’re thinking about the, the social context that is, um, a brand and knowing that you aren’t the only person who saw an ad or you’re not the only person who has bought a brand, like maybe it’s just about understanding what makes people entertained and, and ideating off of that. I mean, I, I know the value of an insight can be to spark ideation, but, um, I don’t know, it’s just kind of a counterpoint to say, how much insight do we really know- need to have to entertain people?
John Roberts: No, he loves to, and he felt doing it. But it’s a really good point because for, for the list is the, the first topic you were saying, that the opening, uh, gambit, Paul Fair works with why, um, why does the peddler sing? The role of creativity, was actually kind of like one of my key, my key thoughts, as much as I enjoyed all the day. And Stephanie, you were just talking through now with the data and creativity. You know what was interesting is, with Paul talking about the role of advertising, brand communication, to entertain and the search for fame. And he defined fame, which I think is a really important point about mental availability for their masses.
John Roberts: Okay. Is a way to think about it, not the jaundiced view of an award, a gong, a, a, a walk up on stage as fame. What’s interesting to me is he definitely doubled down on that and the notion about being, you know, frivolous with being serious. Okay. How do you use fr- frivolity, if, that’s the right word, to do some serious selling? Um, on another podcast I was listening today, a very fine podcast and walk. He actually got into a conversation with the Snicker CMO and they were talking about that point state. I believe you can get absolutely great, creative entertainment without necessarily an insight, but it helps the potential to get there. Does that make sense? Because you can also have really great strong insight, but just laying creative execution to it.
Steve Kozel: Well, look at standup comics. I think the best standup comics work off of a basic understanding of the human experience, but I don’t know that that comes from a bunch of market research. Um-
John Roberts: True.
Steve Kozel: I don’t know that that comes from a bunch of data mining. I think it probably just comes from paying attention in life. Um, even that Snickers campaign that we all know, and that often gets trotted out as being an example of what insight can do. Um, I, I think that didn’t even come from strategy or a p- a planner, I think that might’ve been something that just came from freedom. Right? But it’s- it has nothing to do with, you know, uh, market research on candy bar consumers. Right?
John Roberts: That’s right.
Steve Kozel: It’s just people.
John Roberts: Yep.
Steve Kozel: And what happens when we don’t eat? You know what I mean? So again, like devil’s advocate here, but I, I do think, sometimes we just beat ourselves up over, you know, whether our insight is really an insight and do we need to have one or what is the insight? I, I do think that they can add value in that they can give us a new way to think about something. They can reframe a problem, they can give creative some spark to start thinking about opportunity. But, you know, as a critical ingredient in what we do, um, sometimes I think maybe we overvalue it.
Stephanie Zawack: Well, and that’s just it, right? It’s one of those, um, tricks that we lean on to hopefully “shortcut” the process. Um, (laughs), and I say that with air quotes, right? “Shortcut”. Because it takes us quite a bit of time sometimes to come to what we call an insight or what our audiences expect to see as an insight. Right? And sometimes, all that’s necessary as a conversation, you know, or, you know, observation of how people work. Uh, but we’ve come to this kind of procedural approach to how we do our jobs. Right? We kind of go through certain stages or steps.
Stephanie Zawack: And I think that’s part of the expectations that have either been set for us or set by ourselves of like, we need this like key to unlocking the problem here. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, or, you know, maybe there isn’t just one to be had. And so I, I like your proposal of let’s re-look at things and do we need one in every scenario? If so, why? You know, a lot of that is built under the question of asking why. Why is this the case? Why is this happening? Why do we want this? Et cetera. So I think, uh, you know, going back to your point in terms of the, why does the peddler sing, uh, session and really talking about entertainment and seeking fame in this alternative context, right?
Stephanie Zawack: Why is that peddler entertaining? What does it do for him? Right. And I thought that was really interesting when he unraveled some of that why behind the scene, right? It’s because it opens people up to what you have to say. They start to like you, they, you know, become a little bit more reciprocative. Reciprocative? Rec-
John Roberts: It’s… We’re planners, we can make up words, just keep going. It’s great. (laughs).
Steve Kozel: (laughs).
Stephanie Zawack: (laughs). Right? More participatory. Man, I’m just knocking them all out. So, you know, like there’s a, a give and take to that. And I think there’s an opening, you know, kind of crossing sessions there. There are a lot of conversations around how as a society and as marketers we need to not only be more open ourselves, but also create more openness among our audiences and with our work. So I thought that was kind of interesting. And, um, you know, maybe I bridged four different topics there, but, (laughs).
John Roberts: That’s fine.
Stephanie Zawack: Uh, kind of a nice intersection.
John Roberts: Just staying on it for a little bit longer. I think, Steve, for me, what I took away from, from the Paul Fairbrook part wa- was- was this, this really critical role about creativity, right? It’s a common theme that we’ve been talking about, and is definitely, you know, dear- near and dear to my heart as a planner, about how do we ble- how do we blend the role of emotion to motivate people to do things with a creativity of how we’ve done that story live. I took from that maybe self-fulfilling beliefs as well. I took from Paul. A lot of that was about the role of creativity and entertainment will actually be more motivating and actually drive back that mental availability, that fame he talked about. Okay?
John Roberts: People don’t remember, or in campaigns, people don’t remember functionally-driven campaigns unless they’re really, really distinctive. And so the, the notion about finding his team and for me, Sneakers is a perfect example because the insight’s in the, in the tagline, it didn’t come from a planner and yet over 12 or 14 years, whatever it is, we’ve seen so many brilliant, different ways to execute it, the same idea driven by the same insight, but in really novel ways that people just really aren’t finance-tailored. So that was a great kickoff for me.
Steve Kozel: I agree. And the thing that was a really compelling thought that came out of it, um, and I’ve, I’ve heard this mentioned somewhere else and it may have been Paul Feldwick just in a different conversation or interview and i- it may have been somebody else. I wish I could cite the source. But thinking about every ad unit, there’s a stage.
John Roberts: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Steve Kozel: Is a really powerful way to think about the work that we do. Um, and it also then leads into a, a conversation about, should we have a million tiny little stages that we’re desperately tr- trying to put a show on from? Um, or should we gravitate towards larger stages? And when we’re on those stages, are we deserving of people’s attention?
John Roberts: Yeah.
Steve Kozel: Are we entertaining them?
John Roberts: Yeah.
Steve Kozel: You know? Um, when he talks about mental availability and obviously he’s borrowing from Byron Sharp there and it’s, it’s about being noticeable, being memorable and being recognizable. Um, and so creatively, there’s a lot of ways to achieve that. Um, but yeah, the, the more you can grow a brand’s fame, getting back to the metaphor of a peddler singing, the more you ingratiate yourself to an audience, but the more you establish yourself as the, the person that everyone is paying attention to. Do you know what I mean?
John Roberts: Yeah, for sure.
Steve Kozel: Like, everyone else is looking at the, the person on stage, so I probably should choose. Clearly they are important enough and have something to say, right?
John Roberts: Yep.
Steve Kozel: So that I think is part of the power of building fame. It’s why he went until the conversation around celebrity and how celebrities are so successful at selling their own stuff, because they already have that kind of visibility and, and prominence and culture. Brands can do the same thing.
Stephanie Zawack: And there’s something interesting that like there’s an ephemeral nature to that, right? So entertainment is great because XYZ, right? You don’t always have to have, you know, a scientific reason, a rationale, a, you know, literature response to why that is, and nor, you know, the opposite way. You know, if we’re trying to develop that, is there always a formula for building that type of entertainment? Sometimes no. And I, I think that’s the, the beauty of tapping into people’s emotions and motivations. Is there’s at some point a m- a magical switch that happens, right? There’s a flip that you just can’t necessarily describe in beyond kind of a, a human epiphany of sorts.
John Roberts: So pick up on this conversation, think about, what I love about StratFest is the, the inspiration enthusiasms of the day. And then we talked about in pilot at the end of the day, about… So, so how do we, how do we carry this on? What happens in real life when we come back to our literal figurative desk and carry it through? How can we take this, this discussion now and build this out through our company, through our agency, as well as through our clients? Any thoughts, Stephanie?
Stephanie Zawack: Yeah. So a couple of thoughts there. I think one of them is to start to talk about insights in a slightly different way, right? Use different vernacular, use different scenarios and tap into all of our interactions as ways to introduce some really unique ideas through a person’s journey. Um, so that’s, that’s just one way. I think another way is, you know, talking about how we, we go about entertainment. There’s this idea that all of what we have to say in advertising needs to be built on positive and motivational, uh, mechanisms. Right? And I think when we focus on only saying the best of what the product is or what the brand is, and you know, the best motivations that are out there, we’re only using half of our toolbox.
Stephanie Zawack: How do some of those balancing emotions, motivations, play into the work that we do in trying to resolve some of those or create and amplify, some of those? Or, you know, what is the balance at play when we look at human experience and how can we tap into those in un- new and unique ways?
Steve Kozel: A recurring theme for me throughout the day as I was looking at all of the Jay Chiat Award winners, um, listening to the talks and, you know, having kind of unique takeaways from, from each piece, I found myself coming back to this refrain of like, “Man, you really need good clients. (laughs). You need good clients to put a lot of these things in practice.” Um, and you know, knowing that for Planner Parley like a lot of us are, are in smaller agencies. Um, it is not always true that smaller agencies have, you know, clients that are thinking about things, you know, in a less sophisticated way. I’m certainly not implying that.
Steve Kozel: But I do think that we tend to bear the burden of bringing our clients along with our thinking more often than, than potentially, um, you know, our counterparts at larger agencies where they’re working with clients that have potentially come up through larger agencies and you know, have been on the bigger brands for a long time. So that, that I think is the challenge that I walked away from, is- walked away from StratFest this year with, is how do I start to influence the way that my clients think about the work that we do that would open them up to the possibilities of, of introducing some of these concepts and application?
Steve Kozel: Um, and it’s tricky, it’s tough because, you know, our clients are more focused on, you know, what their organization is doing in their industry and they’re not necessarily out there taking in content like we are, it’s StratFest. So finding a way to package it up and put it in front of them and get them thinking about it when they already have a million things going on is really tricky. Uh, but I do think it’s critical. And I do think that’s a team sport on the agency side as well. It can’t just be on strategists. That we can’t be the only ones that are trying to introduce new ways of thinking about the work to our clients.
Steve Kozel: We need help from the account side, we need help from the creative side, we need to be in locked arms and say, “Hey, the way we’re thinking about this now is X, Y, and Z. And when we’re pitching this new idea, we’re framing that up in a new way of thinking about the work.
John Roberts: It’s funny because we were having a conversation around our, our table during StratFest about that. And, and it’s a topic that we’d recently started discussing based on, uh, a less than successful creative presentation, initial present- gre- great presentation, where it, it just struck me. I’m, I’m a slow learner, but it struck me that when you spend two weeks or more, okay, getting into the brief, figuring out the category, ca- category, what’s going on in culture today? Looking at creative review, spending time agonizing over typography as well as the idea itself.
John Roberts: And then you expect the clients to be there within 60 minutes? That’s a tall order for any kind, right? Pat- particularly, Steve, I think you’re right. In terms of the ty- typically the kind of clients we will work with. So we started with, we took away from StratFest and again, no answer, but one of the things we’re gonna start thinking about is, “Okay, what happens between the briefing and the brief with the client? What are we sharing? What are we doing? What happens between the brief and the creative presentation as well? So we’re not reliant on all of the magic in our heart coming in our one hour to review the brief together or the one hour of the first creative presentation.
Stephanie Zawack: I was just gonna add to that. You know, I think a lot of times we set ourselves up for this idea that we’re gonna have an hour of presentation to deliver this really awesome idea in its final state and the client’s going to say, “Yep, that’s awesome idea, great thinking, let’s do it.” Right? Without pulling them along our process. So we’ve been in the thick of it, but they had their part of that experience, right? So I think part of that is a, a hesitation to have conversations and fully admit this isn’t fully-baked thinking yet.
Stephanie Zawack: I just wanted to bounce this off of you. What do you think of this? And potentially have that drive us in a different direction. You know, we have this comfort zone of a linear path and we’ve got this idea and we don’t wanna deviate from that. But some of our best work comes from those deviations, so why not bring the client in on that and give them the opportunity to guide it as well?
John Roberts: And, and I’d learn about Stephanie’s saying, all of this work comes from deviation, right? Not one of us sit here going, “You know what, let’s, let’s get the client exactly the same as he had last year or she- or exactly the same as everybody else in market’s doing.” So we’re expecting the client to make that leap with us, knowing that just what you were saying, there’s a comfort in, in the familiar for us all.
Steve Kozel: I, I do think client onboarding has a part to play in this too. Um-
John Roberts: Tell me more.
Steve Kozel: Well, there’s no better time to kind of recalibrate the dynamic that you have with a client than when you first start with that. Right? Um, and I think we overlook often a- as agents, we, we go straight into like, “This is- these are our capabilities and these are our service offerings. And this is, again….” We don’t take a minute to say, “And this is how we think communications works, and this is why we think marketing is effective.” Right? And so we act so surprised when we get to a conversation about what we’re actually proposing we do and they’re sitting there going, like, “I don’t know. I don’t see all of our selling points in this.” Or, um, “How’s this helping the sales team and the f….”
Steve Kozel: You know, like, and it, it becomes really apparent that we’re not even on the same page as to the work that we’re doing and how, how it’s actually gonna be effective. So I think having those conversations is really critical to say right upfront. I mean, Paul Feldwick talked about like this salesmanship model and there’s still a lot of clients out there that operate within that. So even to get over that hump and have them think about, you know, entertainment as being a priority is, is a huge challenge. But if you don’t talk about it, it’s not gonna magically happen and you don’t wanna wait until you present a creative to have that conversation.
Stephanie Zawack: For sure. And I think going back to your, your commentary about exposing them to these types of ideas early and often, you know, the same goes for different solutions, right? So if we’re expecting them to come along the ride with us for some of these more co- progressive types of approaches, you know, really digging into the human journey and looking at different aspects beyond- above and beyond communication, right? Uh, they need to see some of that work. They need to see an example and kind of be brought along the way. I thought one of the great examples of that was really when, um… You know, there was an example of how, uh, communication was used for, I believe it was called, H is for handholding.
Stephanie Zawack: And I forget which… I, I apologize. I forget which agency did it. Um, but it was the healthcare Jay Chiat Award winner. And I thought it really tapped into some of those systemic solutions, um, as a part of the creative solution in this, in this scenario, but it was- it went beyond communications. Uh, and so a little bit of background on that i- for those listening, the ages for hand-washing campaign really tapped into some of our most deeply-rooted habits and kind of rituals, right? So they really looked at how do you- if we are struggling to create these new habits in this pandemic age, how do you create a habit? And that really roots in our most formative years.
Stephanie Zawack: And so what did they do? They went back to redefine how we educate ourselves as tiny children. And, uh, they replaced H in the alphabet, you know, went through and reprinted all the little alphabet scorecards that you see in a classroom, you know, all those different teaching mechanisms that we’re so used to seeing one way, why can’t it be changed? Why can’t we use that to our advantage? And so I think that type of exposure to an example like that is, step one, along the way of exposure to our internal, uh, teammates, colleagues, as well as our clients.
John Roberts: Yeah. Great example. And a massive scale as well, you derived from listenings that… really inspiring a- award winner. But, bu- but thanks of course for saying that. You’ve absolutely- point’s absolutely valid where it’s broader than purely a communication, a, a message that we think we control, but actually really digging deep in terms of an idea that can change behaviors by changing behavior.
Stephanie Zawack: Right. It’s so simple.
Steve Kozel: I’m curious if either of you had a chance to watch the on-demand session about the strategy career path?
Stephanie Zawack: Not quite yet, it’s on my list for sure. Uh, but I really enjoyed the great resignation, which was the last session, um, as kind of a prelude to that. Um, I really have some curiosity. So what do you have to share on that?
Steve Kozel: It was interesting because they, um, they talked a lot about the agency experience and contrast to being, you know, in strategy on the brand side. Um, there was discussion about, you know, do you need agency experience, um, to come up in a career, in strategy? Um, is it important? Uh, you know, one of the things that I found myself thinking about is, being a strategist and an agency and, and learning along- on the job, learning along the way, I feel like half of the learning is about working in an agency, (laughs), the other half is doing strategy. Um, and you know, half of it is the craft and half of it is the career.
Steve Kozel: Um, and I even thought about it in the context of like, you know, I’ve never been a lawyer or worked in a law firm, but you know, they’re in-house legal teams and I, and I wonder, you know, if… how many parallels there are if like coming up in a law firm is probably as much about making your way up in a career, in a law firm as it is actually doing law or understanding the law. So, um, it was just an interesting conversation and they got into a lot of discussion around being leaders in strategy and agencies. And there, there being that tipping point, you know, this is very real for me, is somebody who heads a strategy department. But reaching that moment in your career where you start having to worry more about billable time and FTE allocation and less about the work that you’re doing, um, which I do think is, it’s a frustrating thing.
Steve Kozel: It’s not unique to the strategy discipline. I know folks in creative, um, get to that same point too where they feel like they can’t even focus on the quality of the work, because they’re worried about the profitability of their team, you know? Um, so it was just an interesting, I, I think really revealing conversation that certainly spoke to a lot of things that I know I experience every day.
John Roberts: That’s a great summary, Steve. I haven’t had the chance to dig in yet the on-demand one, but let’s come back and talk, Stephanie, you were just talking about the great resignation, that was the, the closing round table. It felt like an odd place to put at the end of, at the end of StratFest, an inspirational conference for strategy, then talk about the great resignation.
Stephanie Zawack: (laughs).
John Roberts: And like, it was a really good talk, a really good discussion. What were your key takeaways for that?
Stephanie Zawack: You know, I thought it was interesting just in terms of some of the consistencies, especially in terms of, you know, if you followed the Q&A on that one, there were so many people really emphasizing this. Um, one of the themes was that people are really looking for work that fulfills them, right? So work that’s purpose-driven and a lot of the, um, I guess, lacking there within a client set or, you know, um, a client list that any, any agency has, can definitely be a reason for some of these really talented people to move on and find something that’s a better fit. Uh, so that was just one of many different themes.
Stephanie Zawack: I think another one was super interesting in that, uh, there was a little bit of an undercurrent, uh, dissatisfaction if I will, um, about this idea that, you know, if people are leaving, um, you know, do you feel like the term the great resignation is being used really as kind of a cop-out, right, to really look internally and kind of get to the real, real for once. And I, I think there was a lot of agreement around that, that yes, absolutely, there are, um, and kind of reckoning to take a deep look at ourselves, revive what made us special in the first place. What got us into this in the first place? And really, you know, much the same as we do for our clients, keep our eye on the prize and like, “What’s our objective here? We gotta do that for ourselves as well.”
Steve Kozel: I had a question in the Q&A, um, that at one point had the most upvo- votes and it got skipped over. Um, I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but I was basically asking, if this is really, uh, reckoning with the agency business model. Um, and if there’s actually a bigger issue about what the lived experience of agency employees is like and has been exacerbated, you know, by the pandemic, maybe to a certain extent to where you just have a lot of individuals saying, like, “The thing that I like doing in this job is being increasingly constrained by the nature of the organization and how it makes money to where I feel like I can actually do the thing I like in a different organization that makes money in a different way. So why wouldn’t I just do that?”
Steve Kozel: Um, and you know, it’s, i- it’s a topic that I’m super passionate about. It’s a topic that I, um… The only thing I will say about it that I still don’t understand is, if you have all of these folks going client side from agencies, why hasn’t it changed? You would think it would’ve changed by now because you would have a bunch of people saying like, “I know how this impacts my agencies-
John Roberts: (laughs).
Stephanie Zawack: (laughs).
Steve Kozel: … and yet I’m still having them pay me in the same way.”
John Roberts: So let me ask you, as you guys both work for, I would consider, large or small agencies, right? Multiple, you have group offices in-
Steve Kozel: Sure.
John Roberts: … 30 decent sizes and t- and teams as well. The round table was predominantly, if not all, very big companies.
Steve Kozel: Yep.
John Roberts: Havas, McCann and so on. Super great, super smart-
Steve Kozel: PBH.
John Roberts: … heads of strategy and so on. Okay?
Steve Kozel: Yep. Do you… When you were listening into the discussion, could you correlate that to your own lives of what goes on in smaller agencies?
Stephanie Zawack: It’s an interesting question. Uh, our agency has gone through quite a bit of growth since I joined, about 10 years ago, but more, more recently as well. And through that growth, there are certainly different struggles that you’re faced with. Right- right?
John Roberts: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Stephanie Zawack: And so I think what’s interesting about your question is really hearing that fact of- that came from all these large agencies. It brings to mind the idea of kind of a social paradigm of how an agency works. Right? The more you bring together-
John Roberts: It- it’s just what you two were talking about earlier.
Stephanie Zawack: Yes.
John Roberts: Right.
Stephanie Zawack: So the more people you bring together, the more structure you need and the more it becomes kind of this hierarchical process-driven type of mechanism, you know, working like a machine here. And I think when things naturally go down that path, you lose the necessity of having to be resourceful, scrappy, you know, find new ways of doing things. And that is one of the beauties of being in an agency. (laughs). Is that ability to think new, think beyond what exists and recreate.
John Roberts: I hear you. So it- it’s, it’s funny ’cause it has been an occurring thing, I think, for the last few years of the giant agencies talking about how they act small. Okay. That’s a little bit of all the more organized chaos, that creativity that they envisage goes on in, in, in the small environments. That Stephanie point’s really, really true. Steve, how about you?
Steve Kozel: Well, I was recalling, I- I’m pretty sure it was Lindsay Slavey from Sunday dinner, um, put, and it, it might have been in a larger deck. I’ll have to dig it up and maybe we can share a link. Um, but she kind of broke out, um, size of agency and like likely pros and cons from a client perspective. So basically it was, for clients to understand working with smaller versus larger agencies, what are the things that you will gain from the benefit perspective and what are some of the challenges you might encounter just based on what that agency is going through?
Steve Kozel: Um, and i- it’s a really interesting kind of, uh, breakdown of, as an agency grows, what systemic issues it will start to encounter and how it can start to kind of preoccupy itself with those issues rather than the work that it’s doing for its clients. So, um, I do think that there’s a tipping point and a lot of times, it is in that like small to mid-size agency where you start to get big and enough that you need some sort of like layer of, of management. Um, and I would say that, 150 employees, we’re just before that, like we’re not quite there. So, you know, I’m kind of a player-coach in the sense that I still work on the work as much as I am, you know, working to support my team and working in a leadership context within the agency.
Steve Kozel: But it’s- it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come without its fair share of bureaucracy. And I could only imagine that the larger organization gets the more of the- that there is. Um, so when I hear folks talk, um, about that experience at a really large shopper, as part of a large holding company, I can relate in some ways, but there’s just some things that are- I, I would imagine are completely different about how, how we work. Um, and that’s, i- it gets back to my note about the clients. We’re also working with completely different clients in a lot of cases. So just translating some of the, the takeaways, in some cases it’s really easy.
Steve Kozel: I f- I feel seen, I feel heard, I’m like, “Man, I, I totally, um, get what you’re saying. I know there’s things, it’s like, I don’t… Like when, when folks at, at anomaly talk about being able to take something from end-to-end and essentially launch a whole new product line, I don’t know what that’s like, you know?
Stephanie Zawack: Yeah. That’s a unique one for sure. Uh, I think it’s interesting now that you mentioned, you know, all- if all these people are leaving for the client side, why is it that they’re not, you know, representing us more?
John Roberts: (laughs).
Stephanie Zawack: Right?
John Roberts: That’s right.
Stephanie Zawack: (laughs). And-
John Roberts: What just happened? Yes.
Stephanie Zawack: Yeah. Like, what has happened? And there have been a few instances where, you know, I have intersected, you know, previous agency folks on the client side. Right? And I guess what I, what I would observe from my experience with that is that they tend to bring with them kind of the, the tell, tell principles, if you will. The insights we were talking about earlier, the labels, the, um, initial thinking, but, uh, the longer they’re in that societal norm that they’re currently in, the more that thinking bridges to acclimate to the client thinking, if that makes sense.
Steve Kozel: A hundred, a hundred percent agreed. That squares with my experience entirely. That they get- their whole philosophy gets subsumed by the culture of the organization that they join.
Stephanie Zawack: Yep. One thing to note though, you know, there is this, um, big resignation, kind of transfer to the client side, but the other thing they talked about was this anomaly of those leaving basically to create freelance positions for themselves, you know, explore entrepreneurialism, switching to other industries to find, you know, a bigger purpose for themselves. Like, “What fits me now?” Uh, I thought that was really fascinating, just in terms of, all right, what is this reckoning that we need to kinda have an introspection on ourselves or an intervention if you will, as marketers or as advertisers and why is this no longer the place to be?
John Roberts: Yeah.
Steve Kozel: Yeah.
John Roberts: Yeah.
Steve Kozel: I, I was also kind of interested and I have been interested in seeing, um, how successful freelance strategists have, have started to become, um, ’cause I, I think our discipline is one that has traditionally been especially hard to manage in a freelance capacity. Um, but it seems to be more prevalent recently and, and maybe that’s also leading to some- some of it for strategists in particular is, seeing their counterparts leave and make it on their own and kind of being encouraged about that opportunity themselves.
Stephanie Zawack: For sure.
John Roberts: That’s a funny one, Steve, ’cause I certainly… We found, you know, collective sending our name from the principal right from when we began, is we managed to be big, we just wanna keep working and trying to be really good and building the right culture as well. And I’ve always found that we’ve used quite a lot of strategic, collective, so freelance or you… team support, whatever that would be. The more you can involve them as if they worked full-time, the more rewarding it is for everybody. Okay. You get the sense of, you know, from the outside, it can be quite lonely being a, a freelancer and being, you know, a company of one and finding the next project and so on.
John Roberts: But there’s also the flip side to it. Is, this great resignation, okay? That we- we’re just talking about now means that the talent pool is getting much rich, as now a case of us to find it of, you know, who wants success that could support us and help us when we need? Um, and Stephanie, I should… Y- your point was really interesting, what you were chatting earlier about the, the mechanistic 20th, 19th century organization that ad agencies have built on, industrial conveyor belt of ideas, right? All- we all agree, it doesn’t work anymore. And so there’s a- there’s an organized chaos, hopefully a, a positive, organized chaos that exists more for creativity. The conversations I took were a lot more around building the culture to encourage people to stay.
John Roberts: ‘Cause I’ll be honest, you know, that we, we talked about early, these were the, the round table. The, the participants were awesome, awesome planners and brilliant companies that do amazing work. So I look at it in terms of their output, but it was interesting for me that the discussions were around, you know, how do we keep people incentivized from a, not just from a monetary perspective, but keep them to stay. Um, and I took away from my notes, it was- there was a, a closing point about the four points of, of guidance from the, I think they have this, head of a- uh, head of HR, also close with like creating a joyful environment.
John Roberts: I can’t imagine anyone wanting to create a company that is not a joyful environment. In fact, it- it’s is our business model, we share with our team for this year’s. We can manage the money, we can set goals, but that’s not really what our business plan should be about. Is we have a fundamental goal for our teams, is let’s do more joyful work in 21, 20- 2020 start. Okay. So let’s just actually find joy in our work, no matter what that would be. And that would really, you know, form as a motivator for us. So now I’ve got on my list, Steve, ’cause you, you shamed Stephanie ’cause we hadn’t watched the on-demand already. Like yeah, I love it when you do your homework. I think I’ll ask one question. We got into a awesome riff all the way through, which has been great. So what would you say was, um, the biggest surprise for you from StratFest, Stephanie?
Stephanie Zawack: Uh, it really was the epidemiology of ideas. Really, I loved the, um, the parallel that they made to our lives right now in terms of ideas being like viruses. And I thought it was well done in the sense of, you know, you can take that down. Uh, how do we make an idea viral? But it really wasn’t about that. It was a really around the science of, how do we design something that is worth experiencing and how does that relate to the work that we do? So I took away a lot of interesting nuggets from that and, um, it was a nice to- nice surprise to see all the interest in some of the, the background psy- psychology behind it. (laughs).
John Roberts: Steve. That’s great. Steve, how about you? What’s your biggest surprise?
Steve Kozel: I mean, I, I, I alluded to this already, but um, I didn’t expect to come away from it thinking as much about my clients as, as I did. Um, and again, that was because you just go down the list, um, thinking about, you know, clients that have more of a salesmanship model philosophy about the work we do and not as much about an entertainment model or looking at Chris Kanye’s talk about plurality and thinking about like how many of the clients we work with are truly embracing plurality or willing to, or see the value in that. Um, the talk about strategy in the area of- era of earthquakes, talking about DoorDash and their responsiveness in the pandemic. And like that takes a certain intention from a client to be able to embrace that type of work. Um, and then getting into-
Stephanie Zawack: That was a good conversation.
Steve Kozel: Yeah, it was such a good conversation. But the client was involved in the conversation. You could see their passion and their trust in, um, their agency and just the close partnership that it takes to be able to pull something like that off, um, which is, is really, um, enviable honestly. Um, but it’s something that we should aspire to and get our clients to aspire to with us. Right? And then a lot of the product stuff, right? So anomaly and, uh, me- mela- skincare brand for melanin-rich consumers where, they… A- and Unilever partnered in making a new line of products because they knew that that was a need that consumers had.
Steve Kozel: Um, and then th- Crayola making an entire box of crayons that are about a diversity of skin color. So, you know, it just had me walking away thinking like, “How do we carve time out in our work with our clients to think about bigger possibilities for what our work could be together?” And I think it’s true, especially when you look at people who move brand side and move client side, they get caught up in whatever their new organization is really focused on. I think we as agencies and maybe even particular, we as strategists can be the ones to say, “Hey, can we take a break from you thinking about all of the emails you’re behind on and all the meetings you’re late to?”
Steve Kozel: And, and reframe what we could actually be doing together, like help them dream bigger and help them think about new ways that the work can work. It’s not as easy as it sounds. And it’s just what I’m gonna be thinking about going forward.
John Roberts: So StratFest worked. It was set up to be a, a day of inspiration. And look, I, I mean, I love the day. It was vibrant as we talked about. Some really, really good speakers and discussions. And um, this hour has flown past ’cause it’s maybe even more vibrant to me. We started an hour ago with data and creativity from Stephanie and then rolled into Paul Feldwick, the, uh, the Kickoff Show, talking about the power of creativity in fame. And somehow that led us back to, Steve, what you were just talking about, some of those are, are, um… And Stephanie brought up this notion about ideas beyond communications and insights, and the multiple insights, discussion, Stephanie, from the data and creativity point, thread through that.
John Roberts: It’s really interesting how we’ve gravitated to this closing point of the great resignation from a planning and, uh, the culture that work, that can support plans today, melded into the culture with client, the culture and the organization with client, right? About all of us recognizing that we need to do more with our clients. And I think strategy really does have a key role in that, of how, how do we help set the expectations and help inform the clients of some of the discussions we aren’t having before we get in the room, before that moment, that really critical, yes, no, moment. So I’ve taken away lots today. Uh, I loved it. Stephanie, thank you for joining us. Steve, awesome as ever.
Stephanie Zawack: Thank you for having me.
Steve Kozel: It’s been a pleasure guys.
Outro: This has been a Truth Collective production.