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Hot Takes and Great Debates on StratFest ‘22

Loren Marowski Loren MarowskiSeason 4Episode 1Sep 20, 2022

Hot Takes and Great Debates on StratFest ‘22

Intro: Welcome to Planner Parley, a show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency planning. We’re back with season four of Planner Parley and we are kicking it off, as always, with StratFest. This year, purposeful work took center stage. So did the debate over how strategists can help shepherd brands and clients to making a difference and whether or not they should. Join Steve Kozel, Senior Vice President, Strategy, Media and Marketing Technology at OBP, Sarah Macfarlane, Principal at Sarah Macfarlane Consulting, and, of course, John Roberts, Chief Strategy Officer at Truth Collective, as they unpack two days of strat-mazing material and break down what it means for small agencies. Pull up a chair and listen in.

John Roberts: Welcome to Planner Parley. This is the episode where the planners get together and we review the most recent 4A StratFest, the strategy conference that this year, was held in New York City, and it was held in New York City. Hybrid event. And I’m thrilled to bring the band back together again from the last few reviews we’ve done. So, welcome, Steve Kozel, who’s Senior VP of Strategy at OBP, a great medium sized agency. 120-odd people, three offices, and joined StratFest virtually. And, with us, is our old friend Sarah Macfarlane, who, having gone from the large agency world, medium agency world, is now a consultant and was there, in real life, with me. So we’re gonna talk about StratFest, the, uh, the hybrid experience, and, most importantly, carry on the theme of StratFest this year: hot takes and great debates. We’re gonna be sharing what are our hot takes about the hot takes. So, Steve, Sarah, welcome. Steve, we’re gonna start with you. Give us your 30 second overview as a virtual StratFest attendee this year and then tell us about one hot take you want us to talk about in a moment, after Sarah’s
Introduced herself.

Steve Kozel: Um, yeah, so, I feel like it came through really clearly, uh, this year, that strategists wanna do meaningful work. Um, seemed to be a, a through line. Um, you know, I think we saw some great examples of some work that was really impactful, um, for, for society, for culture at large and I think that puts us in a, in kind of a tension-filled position, uh, where, (laughs) where we’re in this, this, uh, in between of really wanting to do work that has impact on the world and, you know, whatever our day to day client realities are, um, you know, what are they actually trying to accomplish? Um, how much of their work do they really wanna see change the world? Um, so yeah, that was kind of one of the things that I walked away thinking about.

John Roberts: Awesome. And how was the virtual experience for you?

Steve Kozel: Well, in h- it’s a virtual experience, so never as good as the real thing.

John Roberts: (laughs)

Steve Kozel: Um, you know, weaving in and out of existing meetings and, um, I, you know, I work from home so all of the distractions that can come with that. Um, but yeah, I know, it’s, it’s, it’s great to have that option. In previous years we didn’t. You could either go or, or you couldn’t. You missed out. So, n- not as good as the real thing but I was glad I could at least tune in.

John Roberts: Excellent. Sarah, in real life, how was it for you?

Sarah Macfarlane: Yeah, I mean, not to rub it in, Steve, but it was pretty great (laughing) to be back in person again. Um, and I, and I think you hit it on the head. It’s like being free from those distractions where, at home, you know, it’s too easy to just, um, you know, have to run and do something very quickly and come back or be distracted by, you know, uh, as a parent or as a, you know, y- a dog parent even, right? There are things going on around you that you can’t really, um, control whereas in person, it was, it was nice to be able to just focus on, and be present, um, in the moment. So, that was really nice for me. Um, and I think, you know, I, I don’t have like a hot take on it, necessarily, but I think it was really obvious, the context that we all came together in, right, where we’ve all been in this very high pressure, um, right, very, uh, difficult situation for the last couple of years and, you know, we have the, the Great Recession or whatever you call it. And now we’re in quiet quitting and, um, you know, people are talking about purpose and post-purpose and, you know, you could just really, it was really palpable that we’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years. And, and we’re looking to kind of make more meaning out of that experience.

John Roberts: Several things we’ll unpack then over the 40 minutes or so. Um, how about we start with… Steve, I’m gonna come back to you were talking about the, the, the meaningful work of c- the current theme for your hot take on, on the overall perspective of StratFest. And you talk about tension of in real life for clients. Talk about that a little bit more, about, explaining about what you thought some of the real issues could be. And, Sarah, I’d love your perspective, especially in terms of your transition now in terms from being within an agency to now being outside an agency.

Steve Kozel: Well, you know, the first thing that struck me, um, you know, just how the day started off with Alain Sylvain talking about, you know, uh, I mean, really, like having principles, more or less, um, in the work that we do. Um, talking about the difference between being, (laughing) I mean, he, uh, he talked about it as bystanders, accomplices, and stewards, right? Um, and I think, at some point, somebody restated as like the potential to be complicit, uh, in a negative way, um, which I don’t know that we always really consider, um, in the work we do. If, if we’re complicit in some sort of negative impact, um, I’m sure it’s probably more relevant for some folks than others, depending on the types of clients that you work on.
But, uh, the thing I found myself wondering is, you know, how many agencies out there have the luxury of principles? I mean, it really is something that not all of us are, um, are able to impose in our client relationships. Um, and so, I, I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how if you are somebody who’s in a position to say, “Man, I would love to, you know, t- tell, tell the c- the client that, um, w- we should be stewarding, um, society through, through our work.” Um, but I don’t, I, I don’t know that they’re really ready for that. You know, how do you get them ready? How do you pave the way? Um, that’s a tough question. Um, so I think that in the interim, it’s just good to champion the folks that are able to do that and to elevate them as examples of client relationships… I mean, ’cause he even called out some of the, the clients they have. Are, are, these aren’t little non-profits, right? I mean-

John Roberts: Yeah.

Steve Kozel: He’s talking about very large organizations, uh, and they’re still managing to, to stick with their principles and make it very clear that when you work with us, like we’ve got a certain criterion by which we, we evaluate opportunities and the kind of ethics that we bring to our work and the, the change we want to see made. If you want to work with us, we’re gonna assume that you’re on the same page and you want those same things. Um, so I think it’s a great, it’s a great ideal to aspire for, I guess is what I was saying. I, I just, I understand that the reality of the situation is a lot of folks, pragmatically speaking, aren’t, aren’t in that position.

John Roberts: And just, just endorsing it, it’s funny ’cause I was looking at my notes from the Alain Sylvain presentation, and that notion for me about what I took away from his perspective was that you have ask yourself, okay, are you there to create dramatic societal change? Is it holistic, okay, is it, is it all in or all out? Or, actually, can you actually make a small change to actually help move the brand forward and make a difference? Um, Sarah, do you have the luxury of principles, for you?

Sarah Macfarlane: You know, ironically, I do now. But, um, I do remember, as he was speaking, um, and he called this out as well, not all of us have our name on the outside of the building, right? And not all of us get to make the choice of whether or not we, um, when confronted with that conflict with a client, uh, where, you know, we don’t believe it’s in line with our values, we can just say, “Well, that’s great but this isn’t a perfect relationship for us and we’re gonna say, ‘No, thank you.'” Um, most, I think, planners and strategists that were probably listening might have felt that frustration, right? Like, well, what can I do? Um, I don’t get to make those decisions. Um, and maybe that’s why we kind of separate ourselves from that, like I’m not an accomplice, that’s what they’re doing, that’s not what I’m doing, right? Like I didn’t, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.
Um, but, um, as, now, in my new role, since I am kind of on my own, um, he did inspire me to look into becoming a B Corp which, um, may or may not come to pass. I think I might employees for that so who knows if that’s even an option, right, in my position? Um, but I do now get to choose, right, um, clients that make me feel better, um, about what I’m doing. And, and it is more fulfilling and maybe that does speak to, um, you know, some of that quiet quitting type mentality. I think, um, we’ve seen it in a few really incredible examples of, you know, the, um, founder of Patagonia, right, giving away, literally, the company in the interest of purpose. Um, you know, Ed, Ed Cotton was just, uh, I think it was today on LinkedIn, talking about, you know, the lack of humanity and, and motivating, uh, employees to find that purpose, right? And, and making money for shareholders just isn’t going to cut it anymore. So, I, I think there is something latitude, I think there could have been a little bit more speaking to what we can do internally un- until we’re in a position of power to be able to choose clients and choose causes. Um, but, all in all, it was really inspirational for me.

Steve Kozel: One thing he said, that I thought was really interesting, um, so he talked a little bit about how he considers ad agencies to be in the advising business. So he was kind of talking from the perspective of, uh, consultancy but saying, “Hey, you know, we’re still accountable to giving advice… Well, hopefully (laughs) we’re still a- accountable to giving advice to our clients.” And so, in those instances where we have the opportunity to give them a perspective and guide them, you know, I think he used words like influence and sway them to understand what they should be doing, a better way, right? Um, but then he went on to say, “Younger generations are wanting to work for companies that represent their identities.” And whether or not that’s a catchall stat, you know, wh- who knows how true that is, right? If we want to assume that it is, I thought it was a really interesting thing to consider for agencies.

Sarah Macfarlane: Mm-hmm.

Steve Kozel: I mean, when you look at the agency landscape, how many of them are organizations that have an identity that younger folks feel is aligned with their principles? With the things that they want to be a part of, um, bringing forward in the world? And I don’t know how many agencies have really spent time considering how their organizational identity transmits, or maybe draws from, their employees. Um, you know, we can work for purpose-driven organizations, but how many agencies themselves would fall under that category?

Sarah Macfarlane: That’s a really good point. Yeah.

John Roberts: It’s funny ’cause it made me, made me wanna come back to, t- and you start to loop back in terms of the notion of luxury of principles, I believe, is both true today and also complete antithesis to success for tomorrow. So, when you think about following through, what you were saying, Steve, about the, the, the talent that we’re all seeking and the kind of place we wanna be to thrive, I believe that, actually, principles are more of a mandatory than agencies realize. Okay, your principles are what you stand for, okay, and, and those are driven by the values of what you want to bring alive in your culture and the work that you do. Um, do you believe that they are a luxury today? I’m picking on you ’cause you used the phrase but I think it’s a really great-

Steve Kozel: Yeah, yeah.

John Roberts: Context for the way Alain was thinking about it.

Steve Kozel: Well, I, I think there’s, there’s an implication when you say, um, principles. Uh, that there is a line that you’re drawing that you won’t cross. Um, you would assume if something is a principle, it is foundational and something involves commitment, right? Um, I don’t know how many agencies are in a position to decline work based on those things. I do think it’s a sliding scale. So, for instance, um, I think there are agencies out there that will say, um, “We won’t work with a firearms manufacturer or a tobacco client.”

John Roberts: Sure.

Steve Kozel: Um, but I think there are a lot of things that you could call into question that they would work on, right? Um, so there might be some very black and white c- issues that make it very easy for them to say, “You know, this is, this, for us, is a no brainer and we don’t think we’re gonna get any questions or raised eyebrows about it.” But then there’s some other ones where it’s like, well, there’s a lot of gray here, and that’s a pretty big budget, (laughs) you know, it’s a pretty large scope of work. It’s a lot harder, um, and so that’s where I think the, the challenge is. Um, how much does the organizational identity and point of view match the individual employee perspective? And if you get those things well out of line, you can wind up with a situation, to your point, where you’ve got, you know, a lot of employees that are saying, “I don’t know why we’re working on this business. There’s elements of this that I don’t love,” right?
That being said, you know, there are agencies that will… Revenue’s revenue. And there are, to be fair, employees that, a paycheck’s a paycheck, right? So we shouldn’t pretend that we exist in this world where everybody is bringing these, you know, overbearing ethics to the work that they do. There are still a lot of people in this field that say, “If you want help selling something, I’m, I’m your person. It doesn’t really matter what it is.” So-

John Roberts: Yeah.

Steve Kozel: You know, I don’t want to over blow this to be, you know, something that’s, um, universally true ’cause it’s not. But I do think it is… We wouldn’t be talking about it if it wasn’t, uh, an increasing trend in, in the forefront of, I think, a lot of people’s minds.

John Roberts: Yeah. Half true. Sarah?

Sarah Macfarlane: Yeah, I think, um, I think to some extent, it is a privilege. And I, and I don’t know that that’s right or wrong. It just is what it is, right? Like some agencies, um, may not have the luxury of, of just chasing those like massive accounts that they can then, you know, kind of have a little bit more influence in. I think that was one of the themes, though, that we kept sharing throughout the conference in a lot of different ways, was this, you know, the luxury of purpose, the luxury of creativity over testing, the luxury of… And, you know, I’m able to talk about that in a little bit later but, um, you know, I think there, I think there is a certain amount of privilege and we just need to make that part of our consideration, right? Like we need to understand we may not have full reign here to make that call but maybe that’s where that incremental change can happen. Maybe we can make, just do a little bit better, right? Maybe we can move the needle just a little bit rather than hands down saying, “I’m not gonna do this.”

Steve Kozel: I do think that the obsession with purpose in recent years has been a byproduct of this phenomenon. I mean, I, it’s easy to think about it the other way but what I mean is, there’s been so much conversation about marketers trying to infuse purpose into their communications because there is an appetite to feel like the work we do is meaningful and impactful. The problem is, and, I think, what a lot of people lament, when purpose gets grafted on, right?

Sarah Macfarlane: Mm-hmm.

Steve Kozel: When it’s, when it’s still lipstick on the pig, there’s no genuine change in action or behavior for the organization. And so, to bring it back to the question you asked, John, we can’t all work with clients for whom the founding principle of the organization, the, you know, the, the lifeblood and heartwood of the brand, is one that is somehow benevolent and virtuous, right? There are still a lot of organizations out there that mostly exist to generate revenue, right? Uh, re- return to shareholders, whatever the case may be, um, and there’s still a lot of folks out there that are, you know, just trying to make a living. So it, I think the, the trend towards purpose-washing has a lot to do with a lot of people who genuinely want to feel that fulfillment trying to shoehorn it in where it wasn’t in the first place. Um, and I think maybe we, we’re at a point now where we can say, “Some of these organizations, it’s just inherent in who they are.” Patagonia, great example, right? And some of them, it isn’t. So maybe that’s a circumstance where we don’t force it, right? We just let it be what it is. It’s a product or a service and our job is to market it.

John Roberts: So I’m gonna pick up from there and thread into some of the other discussions at StratFest then. There was the, um, the panel about do we need to rethink strategy in a post-purpose world? And, checking my notes, I asked a question, “Do we actually believe we’re in a post-purpose world?” ‘Cause I believe, Steve, just picking up on what you were saying, that we’ve had the last few years where we’ve said, “Oh, brands have to have a purpose. We have to have a purpose.” And that’s translated into a lot of lofty claims with inauthentic ability to actually deliver and that claim is being in a communication of some kind, some public declaration, but not actually followed through. I felt as though, and see if this works, Steve, with, follow through with your, your, your train of thought. My takeaway from the, the StratFest was, actually, partly my implicit bias as some of the discussions we have with clients which is, um, “Let’s have a refrain conversation about being more purposeful.” Be very clear about what it is that you both stand for and that you can deliver in a broader context of society over and above revenue. But, also, let’s be really honest about that. And purposeful, for me, turns itself, also, into this notion of, of action. It’s not a case of just saying, “We stand for this.” You have to actually deliver on it.
So, does that track with what you were just saying, Steve, in terms of your, when you think about the role of purpose in the discussions we’ve had?

Steve Kozel: Yeah, I mean, I think it has a lot to do with, um, the dynamic between a brand and its customer base and what the expectations there are. I think people have a lot more, um, invested interest in what an auto manufacturer is doing when it pertains to like environmental factors-

John Roberts: Sure.

Steve Kozel: Than, you know, a, a snack brand. Just because those are completely different products, completely different customer experiences, completely different, um, you know, relationships, right? Um, and so, I, I think if we’re in a post-purpose era, season, whatever you want to call it, it’s probably just we’re over trying to make every brand have a purpose and we’re, now, resigning ourselves to the fact that sometimes the purpose for a snack brand is just to like cure your hanger, right? Or, sometimes the purpose for a toilet paper brand is just to like do what toilet paper does well, right?

John Roberts: Yeah.

Steve Kozel: Um, and that some brands have, inherent in them, a reason for being. But like I was actually just having this conversation, um, the other day about, uh, brand positioning and when clients, (laughing) when clients make their, hey we just really need some brand positioning. It’s like, do you? You know, um, if, if you’re having to ask your agency why you exist as a brand, you’ve probably got some work to do on your own, um, before you even think about like a campaign. Um, and I think that’s where we just have to be okay. And I, I’ve heard folks about like there’s no shame in selling, right? There’s, there’s no shame in advertising being a way to make people aware of and prefer products and services. That can be a completely respectable way to earn a living, right? But, if you have an organization that exists to make the world a better place and they can explicitly say that and it flows through everything that they do? Then, yeah, congratulations, like everybody should know about it. And if that’s something that means something to you, then you should be thrilled to work on that brand.

Sarah Macfarlane: I feel like that almost takes us one level higher, right? Like where you’re talking about a campaign is one thing, um, although it, it cracked me up that you were using toilet paper and snack foods as a, just given that a- agriculture is like 10 or 11 percent of the total input to carbon, but, but yes, uh, right? We do think about it in sometimes and sometimes we don’t. Um, but I think if you’re, if you’re thinking about brand promise and brand purpose, right, that’s taking it up like one higher level bey- above the campaign, back to what’s your brand strategy overall? What’s your true character? Are you, you know, um, tying back to your brand values which, I’m just putting in a shameless plug here for values-based branding, right, ’cause it’s one of my core (laughing) practices, but that should be doing the work of aligning those values, right, with the operation elements, with the delivery on that promise. Um, so it shouldn’t just be lipstick on the pig, you should actually be doing the work to operationalize all of that brand work that you, um, that you invested in at the high, at the top level. Then, when you get to a campaign, it should be consistent with your values. It should be consistent, right? And you shouldn’t be just, again, putting that lipstick on the pig.

John Roberts: So we spent half our pod talking about the first discussion at StratFest.

Sarah Macfarlane: Right?

John Roberts: It’s good, right? It’s good because we all took different things away from it. But also, joking apart, there were threads through the course of the rest of the day. I think, when I think about the words that, you know, Alain Sylvain was a great way to kick off StratFest, for me, in terms of it started these discussions. But then it’s enabled us to continue them through. What was another? Sarah, what was another hot take for you on StratFest? From your notes, when did you scribble furiously during the course of the day?

Sarah Macfarlane: Um, you know, the connected brand house. I don’t know, um, I, I actually was a little confused, frankly, um, in the moment, about what, uh, what we were even talking about. Like why are these brand houses disconnected? So I went to back to Jason’s paper, right, to, uh, just reread and wanted to make sure that I really understood, um, this disconnect and, and then, he was, he was, did i- in the paper, point out kind of the difference between maybe brand houses and the size, right? So maybe at larger agencies, these are very siloed, um, functions. But, at smaller agencies, um, CX and brand work, or campaign work, specifically, um, as we got into it, might ultimately dis- disconnected because they’re separate scopes. It might even be at separate agencies, right? So you may not have that continuum of the brand promise which should come from your higher level branding and be communicated through a campaign, but then delivered on through that CX work or the design experience.
Um, I do remember thinking that, to some extent, and this is maybe a theme throughout the entire, um, StratFest that kept popping up for me as well, this idea of our rigidity or inflexibility in thinking is causing all our own problems, right? Like we keep debating some of these things over and over, as Elizabeth pointed out, for decades sometimes, right? Creativity versus measurement, like all, all of these things. Um, but I feel like, at some point, we are keeping them alive in our debates, in our own discussions and, and maybe, um, you know, as Sean Choi pointed out, in the cultural, um, component, the younger ones, the young kids, they’ve got it figured out, right? And it’s us who are confused. It’s us who are continuing to perpetuate these false dichotomies.

John Roberts: I think it’s a really great point to, Sarah, then when you threaded that through because what I took away from Sean Choi was this startling reminder, okay, ’cause I, I know it’s true, it wasn’t news to me, but a lot of us grew up in an age where the linearity of the advertising agency world has actually carried through to the role of strategists where we can very definitive about our, our swim lanes, about what kind of strategy we do. And Sean’s point about the metaverse, I think, connects back to what you were saying earlier about Jason, about this, it’s not about brand or customer experience, okay? It’s about the melding together of the both together and, I feel, that the senior strategist sometimes may struggle with that the most because it’s just not in our habit. Our habit is to compartmentalize, systemize, rather than just deal with them all together.

Sarah Macfarlane: Yeah, absolutely. And maybe that comes back to the luxury or privilege of being able to split those functions out as well, right? I think, um, for business owners, for companies, it’s, it’s not split, it’s not separate.

John Roberts: It’s actually kind of the, the metaverse of planning, in my mind, right? What, what Jason, what you’ve identified is, the, the distinction between brand or customer experience. Jason’s point of view is it’s actually a melding together of built in around perceptions and he presented a model, which I loved the intention, the model seemed to tease it further apart, in my mind. But the intention, and his smartness, is absolutely true. So then led us into this discussion, for me, about is the future of strategy more of a metaverse of strategy? Are we gonna be melding together? Should we be thinking about how we meld together all these different experiences or all the different roles in strategy? Steve, what’s your take on that?

Steve Kozel: Um, I guess, if you want a hot take here, um, I can give you one.

John Roberts: That’s what we’re here for.

Steve Kozel: I think we, as an industry, are really good at overcomplicating and overengineering pretty much everything. Um, and, cynically, that probably has a lot to do with the fact that we need to create work for us to do to maintain our perception of value. Um, I think that there’s this notion that, you know, with the advent of a discipline like CX design, we are somehow better at, um, delivering good customer experiences than we’ve even been, right? Presumably. Sinking this much money into it, lord knows, customer experiences must just be so much better than they’ve ever been. But like if you’re old (laughs) you remember a day when like y- customer service was like something that companies prided themselves in. And they didn’t have a CX department, right? Um, there, there’s a lot to be said for the pure and simple way that advertising used to work on a mass scale that we’ve lost in our, you know, um, fetishization of hypertargeting and personalization and implementation of a variety of different technologies. Like, I think things could be way simpler than we want them to be but we don’t really want ’em to be because if they’re simple then maybe the clients would understand it and feel like they could do it themselves. So, I, I don’t know. That’s a h- certainly a hot take. But just like the bifurcation of a discipline that, I think, a lot of clients had a hard time understanding in the first place, doesn’t serve us. Um, and if you’ve got experts in certain subcategories of experience design that are like trying to make sure that the car door on f- model, some Ford model, like releases in the way that gives the most pleasure to a car owner like… I, I don’t know. This is, it’s well outside my field but I just, I just wonder if, if, intuitively, we know what this stuff is supposed to look like and we just do so much spinning ours- I wonder this about trends too. Like how much of the constant churn of like client briefs and like, y- like it’s just us all constantly telling each other how everything’s changing and everything’s chaos and things, and then you’ve got every brand out there like trying to stay ahead of the competition when, in fact, like it’s just us constantly delivering too much information at ourselves and pretending that we’re smarter than we need to be. I don’t know.

John Roberts: So-

Steve Kozel: (laughing) Maybe it’s just me. (laughs)

John Roberts: A cynic might say the trends industry is an amazing, self-perpetuating business model of-

Steve Kozel: Yeah. Yeah.

John Roberts: My business is telling me that’s everything’s changing so pay me some more money and I’ll tell you ever- everything’s changing from what I just told you.

Steve Kozel: Yeah.

John Roberts: But we love it and we need it. Sarah, give us a hot take on this.

Sarah Macfarlane: Well, actually, I think that I would offer a great debate on that ’cause I don’t know that I agree.

Steve Kozel: Ooh.

Sarah Macfarlane: I think, uh, from m- my perspective, and as I, you know, was listening through some of those things, I kind of came away with this sense that if, if you’re really doing your job as a strategist or a planner, you should be thinking about the holistic experience. And there’s no, no planner or strategist today, in their right mind, believes that j- this campaign lives on its own and people aren’t gonna experience the brand in 5000 other ways, um, that then needs to be reinforced, right, um, or reinforces itself in the best cases.
Um, so I d- I think it would be nice to go back to the good old days where you could just do a campaign and just be done with it, um, and not have to think about the 7000 platforms it’s gonna live on and the, um, you know, how many different formats and how many different algorithms are gonna pick it up and dissect it and, and ruin it and put it in places you never expected and… You know, I mean, there’s just so much more. Um, I don’t know that that’s always gonna be a planner’s job. But it is, I think, at least to think about it and to talk to the teams about it, um, right? And to make way for that to be an improved experience at whatever touchpoint, whatever journey, uh, point you’re on, even down to product design that, although that’s almost entirely out of our hands, usually.

Steve Kozel: Totally hear you and, um, obviously, when we talk about like the diversification of media, there’s gonna be some need for specialization there just because th- it’s, it’s more technical than it’s ever been, right? Um, but that being said, like I, I, on some level, I think all of this is driven by the fact that our industry has lost faith in the belief that our work actually works. And so now we all have this obsession with constantly proving it to one another. Like we’re, we’re, um, challenging ourselves in ways that I don’t think we ever did. Um, mostly because clients are challenging us and I don’t know where along the way clients decided that there was a good chance their like marcomms weren’t working. (laughs) Like I don’t know. But, apparently, that happened, right? Um, and it, and I, I agree that like you’ve got a million platforms and a million formats and a million different iterations of the same creative that have be accounted for but like sometimes I just ask myself, “W- why are we, why are we everywhere?” Like do we need to be everywhere?

Sarah Macfarlane: Hmm.

Steve Kozel: Or, or like i- th- a- is there something to be said for saying, “Where should this great idea live? And if we feel like there’s other channels that we just have to be present, like how are we present there? Let’s figure that out.” I, this is such a bad example that I almost hate bringing it up ’cause it’s so unfair, but like I have so much envy for Maximum Effort in the simplicity that they approach everything that they do but it’s, that’s completely like a- i- it, it, it has so much to do with Ryan Reynolds’ celebrity that it’s kinda unfair-

Sarah Macfarlane: Yes.

Steve Kozel: To put it up as an example, but just the simplicity of their approach is so admirable. Um, there’s a purity there that I feel like we’ve, we’ve all lost and, um, it takes a lot of courage to take something to client and say, “Actually, all the, the noise that you’re used to hearing from an agency, we’re, we’re not gonna do all that. We’re gonna do something really simple and straight forward.” Um, and, and you have to kinda believe that it’s gonna work. Like we can show you some evidence but like we should start from a place of like advertising works, question mark? (laughs) And not advertising doesn’t work and I’m not gonna believe it until you prove it to me.

Sarah Macfarlane: Yeah.

Steve Kozel: I don’t know.

Sarah Macfarlane: Which kind of walks us right into that like, uh, you know, is, is our obsession with data killing creativity? Right?

Steve Kozel: Yeah.

Sarah Macfarlane: Uh, ’cause not everybody does have the, again, privilege or luxury of being Ryan Reynolds and being able to say, “Here, you take whate- uh, brilliance I will serve up to you and be grateful.” (laughs) I wish! That would be delightful. And, also, if you’re hiring, Ryan, give me a call.

Steve Kozel: (laughing) Yeah.

Sarah Macfarlane: Um, but, um, you know, I thought that was a really interesting debate too, though. The, um, you know, we have, as an industry, again, been debating and angst-ing and crying over measurement versus creativity when I also feel like maybe we’re creating a little bit of a false dichotomy there. Are you… Yeah there’s more and more ways to measure, um, but businesses haven’t really changed what they’re measuring. It’s all gonna go down to sales. And, you know, all of the most incredible creativity in the world, our 1984s, our lemons, our, all of the things we study, right, um, would not be known if they didn’t result in sales and business success, right? So, um, if we’re going to talk about testing the creative in terms of like focus groups and emotional response versus rational response, I think that’s a whole nother debate but, um, you know, I don’t think that we could have really smart creativity if we didn’t have data. So, again, kind of a false dichotomy there.

Steve Kozel: I, I agree. I- i- data, if nothing else, the information we have available to us should inspire great ideas, right? Um, I do think that we tend to think, first and foremost, about data in the context of, um, targeting from a media standpoint-

Sarah Macfarlane: Mm.

Steve Kozel: And measuring, right? And that’s all built on this pretense that like we can’t, we like, we can’t just talk to everybody, we have to be really efficient and only talk to the people that are most relevant and, you know, ironically like they hire CPMs to do it, right? But then, on the other side, you’ve got, you know, this obsession with like having to quantify the return on literally every single thing that a brand does, um, and, I, I just, I don- I don’t, like the scale of investment that goes into that could actually go into (laughing) broader reach for your campaigns. Maybe if you weren’t so obsessed with measuring everything you wouldn’t have to, you know, be so efficient with your media targeting. I, I don’t know. Like I’m being kind of glib. But, you, you get my point. I just-

Sarah Macfarlane: No.

Steve Kozel: I, I agree there… To, to me, the data that goes into a great idea shouldn’t be that dissimilar to the work that was done 30, 40 years ago in terms of the research that would go into inspiring great creative. Um, I think source is obviously different, can be, right? We’ve talked, I think, in, in previous years about the, the lack of actual, you know, in field research and interviews and actually talking to consumers. Um, I still that’s true. Um, I think, just to call back to the, the presentation on cultural strategy and the implications of a diversifying population and polyculture, there are real conversations to be had there when you’re thinking about information that helps you understand an audience. What audience? What information? Totally valid. Um, but, at the same time, like, uh, that’s kind of a slippery slope because now we get into this situation where, um, should we be thinking about a single audience at all and, and how, how do we, how do we think about a unique audience when we know everybody is, everybody’s unique, right? Um, so it’s hard, it, it’s, I constantly waffle back and forth between this notion of our job really being to understand an audience and figure out the best way to, to communicate with them and resonate with them, and our job really being to understand the value of our client’s offering and put it out there for anybody who could possibly need it, right?

Sarah Macfarlane: Hmm.

Steve Kozel: And maybe it’s not mutually exclusive but I think there’s different kinds of information that are gonna help navigate both of those. Um, but yeah, I, I don’t, personally, I don’t see… The whole data and creativity debate is kind of a f- f- a false dichotomy for me. Yeah, to echo your point.

John Roberts: So we’re approaching our time up and I, I think I asked one question. Best of all, from contribution from me. I love the fact that we had StratFest which was hot takes and great debates, and we’ve turned, in terms of some of those fantastic, really juicy topics, either new, okay, or they’re recurring, that we talked about earlier. But what I took away from this is that just having the debate, and now we’re continuing the debate, makes us better. What we took, I took away two things, both in StratFest, and, honest to God, I love listening and could talk to you all day long about this because I c- take away our role is really to think about how do we keep things as simple as we can? And then the second thing for me would be, this was a theme that came through in terms of people were using the similar language all the way through and it’s near and dear to my heart of Truth, okay, as an honestly creative company, people were talking about we just need to have honest conversations. And I feel like simplicity and the honest conversation, we kind of lost sight of both of those along the way, of having to get caught up in the client’s world or the challenges or the complexity that sometimes we, we make worse, Steve, as you were saying earlier.
What was your closing thought about StratFest? Sarah? And then Steve. What was your closing thought and then how will you apply StratFest to your future?

Sarah Macfarlane: Yeah, I think the thing that just keeps like, it’s, it’s like the mind worm for me right now, is this idea of the multiplicity of identities that we all hold simultaneously. And I think that’s something that, as I go forward in my planning, right, that’s really gonna impact my work, um, to really consciously and purposefully, right, um, continue to think about that and, and that, you know, even a single person, whether we’re targeting them, messaging them, right, uh, designing our experiences around them, is only that person within that context and, and doesn’t even necessarily see themselves, right, as that same person all the time. So, um, that’s something I really wanna keep with me. Just kinda tuck it here in my heart and, um, try and take that with me into work.

John Roberts: That’s great. Really good. Steve?

Steve Kozel: So, I found myself thinking that I don’t know how much we can talk about strategy anymore because it is so diverse. You’ve got B to B and you’ve got B to C and you’ve got, um, highly considered purchases, products versus services, um, spontaneous buys… Like everybody’s in such different circumstances and different contexts and it gets so hard to talk about this stuff because what, (laughs) what’s relevant in, or, for one situation doesn’t translate to another. Um, and so it, th- that was one of the things that I came away with is as much as it is great to get this discipline together, and, obviously, I wasn’t there, I was there in spirit, um, and discuss our craft, like the application of our craft is so unique and so diversified that it gets hard to think about how do I take this thing that John was talking about or that Sarah was talking about and apply it to my day to day work because our clients are different and circumstances are different?
And so I guess my big takeaway there, beyond just lamenting the inability to really talk about (laughing) our work, um, is that we should be probably be having these conversations with our clients. Like we should probably be talking about this stuff with them. And I don’t know about you guys but that is a struggle for me. Um, to actually have the time to talk through these kinds of things, these issues with the people who pay us to think about these issues. It’s tough. Um, and I wish that it was a more common occurrence. I wish that strategists had open lines of communication and time to discuss these things because I th- I think the work would be better. I think our industry would be bet- better.

John Roberts: Picking up on that, honest conversations but with different people. Not just with ourselves but with our clients. Love it.
Sarah, Steve, it’s always a pleasure to be together. Making a plan. Next year, we’ll be in person. We’ll do another beer talk.

Steve Kozel: I’ll put it on the calendar.

Sarah Macfarlane: It’s happening.

John Roberts: Excellent. Thanks very much.

Outro: Planner Parley, a Truth Collective production.