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Strategies for Strategy - Insights from Those Who Know

Truth Collective Truth CollectiveSeason 1Episode 1Oct 16, 2019

Episode 1: Strategies for Strategy - Insights from Those Who Know4A's

Introduction: Welcome to Planner Parlay, the show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency strategy. On today’s show, we will be talking with Shannon Pfeffer, the director of strategy out of Los Angeles, California, Scott McCloud, director of planning at the VIA Agency in Portland, Maine, and of course John Roberts, chief strategy officer at Truth Collective in Rochester, New York. We explore what small agency planners or strategists can do to punch above their weight, the joys and challenges of being in a small agency, and other tips and tricks from our guests. Pull up a chair and listen in.

Josh: Thank you so much for joining us.

Josh: So the first question really is for you John. Wh- What is a Planner Parlay? Where did this name come from? You hear the word parlay, you immediately think of eye patches and cutlasses and pirate ships. Um, how did this idea come about and, and where did it all start?

John Roberts: You might think of pirates, Josh.

Josh: I do. [crosstalk 00:00:55].

John Roberts: I naturally think of planners. Seriously, about four years ago, I realized here in Western New York, I wanted to find out more about the planning scene in my town. And one of the ways of doing that, quite frankly, was to hold what I coined as a parlay. I invited anyone who wears strategy as a fundamental role that they play within an agency, because of course we’ll carry many different titles. But together, we’ve grown to learn and to share from each other, and it’s growing from there.

Josh: When was the first parlay?

John Roberts: So, the first parlay was, I think it was around 2016. I invited, and it turned out to be about seven or eight strategists from across Rochester. All came together, and we started talking about things that mattered to us, and realized there’s a lot of common ground both in terms of some of the issues, but also frankly the opportunities and the love that we have of being strategists in, in small agencies.

Josh: And now, starting with Scott, when did you first become involved in the parlay? And tell us a bit about, you know, why, why it’s something that’s been valuable for you.

Scott McCloud: So, I started joining the parlay probably about a year ago, and it’s been really, really interesting. I mean, parlay to me it’s all about kind of openness and vulnerability, like, you know, you’re kind of in a world where a lot of times things are proprietary and you’re trying to, you know, as a planner, keep your secret sauce to yourself. I mean, it’s really interesting to be able to talk about topics that are kind of on your mind with people that are thinking about the same kinds of things. So it’s been, it’s been super productive, and I think a really interesting forum to improve upon kind of what we do as strategists, but also just to hear about the trials and tribulations and, and failures and successes of, you know, everybody that’s trying to do the magical thing that we all do.

Josh: Shannon, how about you?

Shannon Pfeffer: I actually found out about the parlay at last year’s 4A’s StratFest because I tried to get in and it was at max capacity, and I begged, and begged, and begged to be a part of it. And then I reached out to, uh, the heads of 4A’s of, “How do I get involved? How do I represent my small agency and connect with others?” Because John started something magical for our practice. And I’ve been a part of it now for about a year, and it’s been lovely because we are all connecting virtually via video chat, and we’re representative of pretty much all across the US. And everyone is struggling with the same things or wanting to know the same things. And there’s a common ground and commonality that’s been absolutely wonderful, and I feel like we’re unifying planners first at the small agency level, but as a practice level being part of this group.

Josh: That’s great. Thank you both so much. So we’re taking the idea of parlay to the airwaves as it were with podcasting, which is gonna be a kind of an exciting evolution for the whole concept. But John, when we talked about the show, and as you developed the parlay out through StratFest and these other activations, you’ve always been focused on small agency planners. Why small agency planners?

John Roberts: The small agency focus of parlay is really interesting to me because I think there’s a misnomer that small agencies are small-minded. They deal with small work, small projects, and without a great deal of strategic thinking. Frankly, that’s not what drives me, I know certainly not what motivates people like Scott and Shannon. And as we found out at StratFest last year, many other planners.

Josh: Excellent. So, and Scott, Shannon, what’s your experience been like as small agency planners, and how do you think in terms of focusing the show and the conversations on small agencies, what’s the need that’s being filled there?

Scott McCloud: Well, I think it’s an interesting need because as small agency planners, I- I love the notion John talked about in a- about not being small minded. In some ways, strategy plays a bigger, kind of outsize role at- at- at agencies that have fewer people partially because we’re not locked into any one philosophy or black box or way of thinking, in a lot of ways small agency planners have to be really resourceful. I know we- we always talk about the idea that, you know, the difficult will be done tomorrow, and the impossible will be done on Thursday. And to be able to like pull that off, you kind of need a really diverse set of tools. You need partners and approaches that, you know, kind of fit the job at hand. And so, and so, you know, as a small agency, how do you learn about those if you don’t have a big holding company to draw from?

Scott McCloud: Well, you know, you get to a group like parlay, and you’re able to talk things through and, and meet new partners and, and make the kinds of connections that help us all do our work better. Because I think there’s nothing small about what small agencies are doing, but it takes the kind of, you know, sharing that I think parlay allows for us to kind of all do what we try to do.

Shannon Pfeffer: To touch on to then the misconception both Scott and John mentioned, I think that a lot of times people think strategists at small agencies, that’s all they can do. Tha- that’s all they know, and they chose not to go to the big leagues, and that’s completely untrue. I personally needed a break from the global agencies, and the holding company model. I needed to step back. And I wanted to get scrappy, and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to dive in, in a very different way. So I think that as small agency planners, we wear a lot of hats and we’re so willing to dive in and jump in and do so much more.

John Roberts: Shannon, great answer. And actually it seems to- for me, there’s- there’s a commonality between, Scott, what you were saying as well, that strategy is fundamentally a creative process. It has to be, because it has to be a nonlinear process of inventions, trying to create new, better pathways to success. And so I love what Scott and Shannon are both touching upon, which is for that to be true, we always stress you have to be constantly thinking about new ways to find new answers. That’s scrappiness.

Josh: Alright guys. So next question. You’ve already talked about it a little bit, but the biggest- what are the biggest challenges facing strategists in small agencies today? What are you running up against every day that is something that is, is maybe unique to your circumstance or it could be a universal experience that we need to kind of come together to kind of help provide information to overcome? And, uh, I’m gonna start this one with Scott.

Scott McCloud: So, this is probably something that a lot of agencies are running into because, I mean, back to the notion of small agency, I- I feel like a lot of times, really big ideas come out of small agencies. And- and I think the challenge with that in some ways, is you’re finding the energy required to get those big ideas sold through in the- in the- in the biggest way possible. I know- I work at an agency called VIA, and we have some pretty large clients (laughing) on the roster and to, to be able to take an idea that maybe starts in the marketing group and be able to steer it through the technology group or the new product group, and, and get it through all the layers and levels needed to bring it to life in the way that we all kind of imagined it.

Scott McCloud: You know, sometimes it takes a lot of conversations, a lot of manpower, and a lot of kind of political jousting that, you know, back to Shannon’s point about, we all wear a lot of hats. You know, sometimes you just don’t always have as much energy and manpower to be able to get ideas through as- as fast as you want to. So, you know, for us that’s- It’s, it’s an interesting problem to have, because I- I don’t think agencies are short on creativity. I think, i- in a lot of ways it’s trying to get companies to buy into that creativity, and the, the bigger the thinking sometimes the, the longer the conversation.

Josh: Shannon, how about you?

Shannon Pfeffer: Yeah, I, uh, I totally agree, and I think that our biggest challenge comes in a couple of really simple ways, one being subscriptions. We’re not at the level of- we don’t have the budgets to have every single, from MRI, to Mintel, to 4A’s factory. Isn’t that basically- You can’t have everything, you have to pick and choose for the year. And it’s kind of a forward looking process of, “Where do we think we’re going to evolve to this year? Where will our client wins be? Where will our potentials be? And what are the tools to support that?” And that’s tricky, because oftentimes in the beginning of the year you set off with one vision and one goal, and six months in, it totally changes, and all your subscriptions are kind of null and void. That has always been something that we had to really get scrappy with and, and figure out how not to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on subscriptions that we kind of use, and really figure out the must use tools.

Shannon Pfeffer: I think another key factor that we face is staff, especially young staff up and coming, because they often times see the big names glitzing in the lights in the awards seasons, and want to go there to learn and, and spread their wings. So it’s really hard to manage or to bring on board junior staff who wants to grow with a smaller agency. They need to see what their output is gonna be and sort of their growth plan. And, you know, I think as agency models are changing and client work is not necessarily AOR and it’s a case by case project by project basis, you know, keeping the work interesting and to not falling into being too niche of a company where you only work on one vertical and you’re only known for one vertical cause you’re small and you do that one great thing, but really having that ability to pivot and, and to do more and keep the team engaged and staying on board for the long term.

Josh: John?

John Roberts: So, it was instinct first when you think about the challenges that we all face. In fact, Shannon talked about last year’s StratFest, 2018. It was the first time we ran a parley on a national level. For that workshop, I actually ran a survey and ask planners, small agency planners across the states, what were the biggest challenges they faced. And fundamentally, it boiled down to three things. Talent, as the guys have touched upon. How do I find talent? Growth. How do I become a better planner? And the third one was about value. How do I demonstrate the value of strategy or of planning within an agency?

John Roberts: I think all of those are true. But I think Scott s- hit on something really interesting when I think about the role of strategy in, in a small agency that was a real driver. A challenge, but also quite frankly the motivation, which is how do we get the right balance between intention and action? Stress doesn’t always have plenty of intention, but I think what’s really interesting for me is actually turning that into reality, into action. That’s a- both a challenge for small agency strategists, but also, it’s the kind of thing that gets really exciting because you can make it happen. You’re much, much closer to the reality of action and making it happen if you choose it.

Josh: So, one. This quite next question I think kind of follows up a little bit on some of the things that we were just talking about, but that’s- it’s how do you punch above your weight, right? As a small agency planner, and as a small agency of people up against big projects, big budgets, big cities. How do you kind of lift the whole agency up and hit a little bit harder than maybe people would expect you could? John?

John Roberts: It’s interesting. I think that there’s a natural inclination of small agencies that have strategists or planners. There’s a fire within them. I think that everybody wants to punch above our weight. And as Scott said, you know, VIA it’s just like Truth Collective. We work on national brands, not just on small clients, small agencies, and necessarily small project or small client.

John Roberts: I think one of the really interesting things that we’ve learned with the size that we are in the size of working with the clients, the magnitude that some of them are, don’t over strategize. I think, honestly, my benchmark is always we need just enough strategy not to get in the way. That ties back to what I was saying earlier about the difference between intention and action. We’ve all made more decks and Venn diagrams than we think genuinely useful, and it’s a constant that reminds me for- to truly punch above our weight. Let’s not over-strategize. Let’s have just enough to get to action. How do you feel about that, Scott?

Scott McCloud: I completely agree with that. And, and the idea of moving to action is, I think, something that small agency planners can uniquely bring to the table. A lot of times we find ourselves in conversations with, you know, bigger media agencies or digital partners or other resources that clients will have. And, and there’s a lot of intention (laughing) out there, there are a lot of 60-page decks gathering dust on, on desks. An- and for us, you know, punching above our weight is, is about, um, connecting and collaborating. So connecting those disparate pieces together into, you know, something useful. You know, using frameworks that everybody can buy into to build consensus over like how we’re gonna take the stuff that we’ve all thought about and actually go out and make something.

Scott McCloud: So, you know, a lot of times that, you know, that could be a brand positioning, that could be a comms framework, but just finding something to, to, to kind of bring these pieces together into something we can all start working from. And then collaborating, cause there’s a lot of discussion that needs to happen in order for that to occur, right? So it’s, it’s, it’s doing the (laughing) legwork to try and get, you know, our media partner talking with our social partner or the internal kind of data manager to talk with the programmatic person over the, uh, the media company. You know, how do we make those connections happen so that then when we’re creating, you know, our creative work, it’s built on a really, really solid foundation?

Scott McCloud: So, so the idea of like connecting and collaborating are two things that I think are super important for small agencies, and just back to that notion of action, it doesn’t matter unless it’s helping us make different decisions and actually make things that are gonna grow our client’s business.

Josh: Shannon, what do you think?

Shannon Pfeffer: I love the idea of taking action, and it’s something that I encourage my team to do, and it’s something that I really try hard to do myself. And I think something that I have forgotten about but recently remembered is learning and investing in yourself because if you stay curious and you stay hungry and you figure out ways to learn and do things and be really open to what comes, it only benefits the entire agency and the creative process as well. The last spring, I took design thinking course at Stanford’s D school. And it was part of a, a longer leadership intensive through the business school, and it was a fantastic experience because it really took our creative briefing process, flipped it on its head, and kind of invigorated some teams I tested it out on. And I think always showing value and showing new ways of thinking, and helping to create always helps with teams taking action and Scott, to your point as well, fostering that connection. Whether it is with clients or within the agency teams, it’s so, so increasingly important to build that trust and continue that relationship.

John Roberts: Shannon, I think that learning aspect you were talking about is, is really important and something that quite frankly we all push to one side if we’re not care from the day to day. Because we always need to think about how do we refresh ourselves? I talked earlier about this, the survey I ran across all planners, and those are the common things.

John Roberts: And that’s interesting to me because, you know, if you look at a recent studies book I’ve just bought when I was on the futures strategy, and one of key things, the questions that strategists worldwide have is, “How do I grow? How do I learn?” And that’s true irrespective of the size of agency.

Shannon Pfeffer: So, so John and Shannon, you’ve both just mentioned a little bit of a kind of a rapid fire answer, but what’s a, what’s one resource or kind of one secret weapon you would recommend people to, to help punch above their weight? John?

John Roberts: I love Walk For The Ability in a really simple portal for me to be able to tap into so much content of what other brands, other great thinkers of the strategies have done.

Josh: Shannon, how about you?

Shannon Pfeffer: So, I think talking to people and not being afraid to do it. If you see somebody w- who’ve done really cool work or working on an amazing brand, reach out. People are really generous with their time, and people love to talk about themselves. So if you want to have a 30 minute conversation with someone to figure out how they did that or where did that idea come from, you’d be really surprised how open people are to doing that.

Scott McCloud: I think that’s a hundred percent true. I’d echo what Shannon said. I mean, the, the power of five or six conversations or even one or two is, is, is massive in terms of just really getting to the heart of kind of what people think or what motivates them. I think the other thing, and, and it kind of builds on that is IDO’s design kit is a fantastic resource for figuring out to- how to have those conversations, how to collect those insights, and how to make sense of them. I think for our team it’s, it’s been a really useful set of tools that just gets us thinking in different ways about problems.

John Roberts: Great answers, guys. And- and in fact, Josh, it’s, it’s funny that’s what struck me when I think about what, what parlay is becoming. Is- it isn’t just a forum for us to be able to talk and share, but actually there’s genuine enthusiasm in helping other people learn, get tips, probe, and as ne- as Shannon was saying, to actually network, to actually talk to people who have created great work, figured out similar problems, and figure out what to do with them.

Josh: All right, next question. Shannon, you first. Generalist or specialist, which are you?

Shannon Pfeffer: Oh, I am a generalist through and through. I actually started my career in PR where I worked on a million clients at once, and it just became sort of happenstance with whatever client I got put on or assigned to in the agency role, I became that expert in that subject, and to me that has been a very thrilling ride. And also really fun on a trivia night, because I know a lot of random information about a lot of categories.

Josh: Scott?

Scott McCloud: I’m in the generalist camp as well. Dave Epstein was an author. He wrote a book called Range, and he talks about the difference between kind and wicked environments. Kind environments are places where, you know, you get perfect information, you work individually, you get instant feedback. Think Tiger Woods playing golf. You know, you can drill all 10000 shots, learn about each one of them, and get really, really good.

Scott McCloud: And then on the other hand, you have wicked environments. You have environments where you get really bad feedback, you have to work with others, the rules are ambiguous, and you can’t necessarily rely on repetition and specialization to, to get you where you want to go.

Scott McCloud: And I think, you know, the world that our clients live in is a wicked world. And so, you know, generalists carry those tools around to help figure out the rules, figure out, you know, how to crack a problem and, and really understand it, and you know, bring the right approaches and data and conversations together to solve it. So for me, I’m a reformed banker, I used to be in finance, trained in economics, got into analytics, and then from there kind of broadened into planning. And-and it’s been a really, really rewarding and just crazy place to be because you’re trying to help clients make sense of just a crazy wicked world. So generalist for sure.

John Roberts: So, I’m definitely in the generalist camp. And it struck me as I was just thinking to- listening to, to Shannon and Scott that, there’s something that’s absolutely true about small agency strategists with that, when also we’re not constrained by all- the only resources we have in the shop. So there’s a generalism. I think there’s, there’s a skill set in generalism where you recognize that you are a driving force behind what we need to do, but also you have to be open to bringing in more specialists. That could be a person, it could be an external resource, it could be an external company, quite frankly, and some of the things we do. Both in terms of recognition of the skillset of specialists, but also an openness in terms of wanting to bring in others and wanting to be open to, to build that team as Scott was talking about earlier.

Scott McCloud: I think that’s a hundred percent right. And, you know, back to one of the bigger challenges, you know, when we talk about our value as planners, I think there’s, there are a lot of clients out there that, that value specialization. And a lot of, you know, you think about this, this kind of wicked world we’re in, you’ve got a lot of emerging technologies and capabilities that are influencing the decisions marketers make. So as a generalist, it’s hard sometimes to have the credibility to play in those emerging areas. You don’t have like innovation specialists on your business card or AI specialists. So in order to get into those conversations, you know, you have to have the right partners. And you have to have an openness to finding them and working with them. And so back to you know, generalist or specialist, I want to be a generalist but know when, you know, specialists make sense because it helps us solve the kinds of problems that our clients face.

Josh: So next question is, uh, and I’m gonna start off actually with John, is that what’s your, what’s your style as a strategist, and which one- and, and we- as we talked about style strategy, is there one that feels better or is it better fit for a small agency or is it really down to the person? So kind of two questions at once.

John Roberts: So the question of style or strategies is interesting to me because it’s less about the skill sets and experience, and more about how you approach planning. Um, I was listening to another podcast the other day, and I thought it was a really great question that popped up there. And the answer was one of around, um, hand-grenades, or people with rigor. Hand grenades, I get the metaphor cause it’s this explosive content that comes in and shakes things up. This was fairly destructive. Uh, so I like to think more about the adage of hunters, farmers.

John Roberts: So they were planners, and I think I’m one, which is more of the hunter. The really excitement in terms of finding and unearthing and changing an action, and then the planners with enormous rigor and depth of the farming. The continuity, the nurturing, and the growth over time. Both matter. Both are really, really important. I find, in my experience in small agencies, a lot of the work that we do is about the hunter to activate, to get to action, and what we’re finding more and more is there’s a growing need for more of the farming. Building that continuity was absolutely, as I mentioned earlier, someone is attached with the client, so the, the experiences that we’re building.

Josh: Shannon, how about you?

Shannon Pfeffer: A couple of years ago, I worked on my all time Fiverr client, and it was a wine client. And we were doing some brand positioning work. And in the middle of presenting, their headline maker stood up and she said, “You’ve got it. This is it.” And it was all about the magic of wine, because you never know what you’re gonna get. You turn that wine, you keep it chilled or keep it in a cellar, and you hope for the best. Even this expert wine maker had no idea how some of her bottles were going to turn out. And after 15 years in the business, that’s still how I feel about the creative process. It’s magic, and I love watching it.

Shannon Pfeffer: And as a strategist, I never want to interfere or disrupt. I want to be the best partner possible, and in my way that’s standing back a little bit more than maybe other strategists do, and let the creatives kind of work their magic. But that has also been successful because through time, it builds that trusted partnership of like, “I’m not the one saying you gotta stick to the brief. This is so wrong. This is so wrong.” It’s, “You show me. You show me how this works, and show me your- your magical thinking, and I’ll buy in, and we’re partners on this journey.”

Josh: Scott?

Scott McCloud: Yeah. I th- I think that’s spot on. And I love the way, uh, we’ve kind of described kind of our relationships with the creative process. I take- I’ll take this in a different direction, which is, you know, as a strategist you’re also teaching other strategists, and you’re helping the agency understand what strategy is all about and how it’s shifting and changing. So for me, you know, part of being a strategist is being a coach, and, and trying to, you know, help team members, and in our case it’s a lot of team members on the planning team that haven’t been in planning before. So giving them, not necessarily a process, but a set of tools that they can use to go find the magic that I think Shannon was talking about.

Scott McCloud: I think it’s additionally trying to coach creatives and client strategists and producers around kind of wh- what it is that we do and, and inviting them into the process so that, you know, it’s not just a big reveal at the end when we, you know, pop out a brief or a comms framework. It’s something that they’ve been immersed in, they understand, they’ve had their thumbprints on it, they’ve helped write the playbook, and I think, you know, we don’t have, you know, lots and lots and lots of strategists kind of waiting in the wings. You kind of have to work with the team that you have, and we’re lucky, you know, here to have a fantastic team and, uh, you know, having that coaches mindset, I think, has helped us all kind of share the same kind of approach to, to creative work.

Josh: Scott, really good metaphor. Here is the question I’ve- I’ve got for you, in your experience. How do you balance the coaching role and the active player role?

Scott McCloud: That’s a really, really interesting question, because I think we have a fairly flat organizational structure here, so you know, like most small agencies, we don’t have a lot of hierarchy and reviews. So it really depends. I think we try to play that coaching role early on, either on, you know, in the onboarding process when we bring a new planner on, really make sure that they get exposure, not just to the account that they’re gonna be on, but to other accounts where you can have a more active role in coaching them on something that you’re already working on.

Scott McCloud: I think we also try to really adopt that coaching mentality whenever there’s a new type of project that comes up. Because, you know, Shannon said we wear lots of different hats on any given day. So, you know, when we get together as planners, you know, we have a kind of a weekly meetup, we try to raise our hands and say, you know, “Are we facing anything new?” You know, this week that we want to phone a friend on or, or have somebody else pitch in on.

Scott McCloud: And by doing that, we, we can help coach, you know, somebody that might be new to a, a certain type of project, be it like a brand positioning or, or piece of research and, and we can not only learn from what we’ve done in the past that’s worked, but also kind of learn together with kind of fresh eyes, uh, you know, potentially a new way of approaching it.

Scott McCloud: So, I think those are the two spots where we try to adopt more of a coaching mentality. And then we, we all have to be active players. So, you know, as you know, head of a department, I’m still on accounts, still rolling my sleeves up just like all the other planners, uh, on the team, and we’re all just getting dirty.

John Roberts: It’s so true. It is certainly true here as well. And I think, you know what’s really interesting for me, I think is this, this balancing role, it’s- it’s chief strategist office of coach and active player is it actually benefits the, the, the rest of the team in two ways in my mind. One is, I found certainly when we’ve been recruiting and bringing in planners from, you know, out- out of town, other agencies, there’s a new freedom, which you- can be pretty scary sometimes, but there’s a freedom of, there’s an expectation in a small agency for the planner that you will be working on multiple clients at multiple times and different projects.

John Roberts: And I don’t mean that from a sheer workload. I think it’s really refreshingly interesting, because there’s different aspects of different planning, uh, stages with different brands that you’re working on at any one time. Keeps that freshness and that curiosity and the invention, the bubbling that planners, I think, thrive in.

John Roberts: The second part for that would be we naturally encourage a more- a flatter organization like you were talking about Scott, which is where I want my planning team to help make my work better. There’s no top down hierarchy, which I know is a constraint in some agencies still today of I’m fully expecting and the role strategy is to help everybody grow.

Josh: Shannon, do you have anything you wanna add?

Shannon Pfeffer: Yeah, I do. Um, have you guys read the book Principles?

John Roberts: Not yet, but it’s now on my reading list.

Shannon Pfeffer: Oh, so i- it’s Ray Dalio, and it’s his approach to management. It’s not for everyone, um, but at Bridgewater it’s this concept of radical candor. And everyone is expected to tell you if they don’t like something. If your presentation didn’t go over well, they will write Ray an email himself, and, you know, it could be someone very junior and say, “You know what? This didn’t- This memo, I didn’t like how you use the sentence, you could improve here. And it’s an- actually an interesting concept.

Shannon Pfeffer: I don’t think personally I could work in a space like, like, uh, Bridgewater, but I like the concept of being free to express if something is not working or sharing openly with your team of, “I need help, and I need, I need this from you. I need more of this from you,” or even having that frank conversation with someone junior or senior to you and really setting at those expectations so that the whole team feels like they can ask questions or they can push for more cause I think that just makes the team so much more closer and together, which is so important as a planning department in a small agency.

Scott McCloud: I think that’s 100% true. And back to why small agency planners, I- I think part of our advantage is our sense of ownership. You know, there’s a sense of ownership, uh, in the role that we play with clients, because they’re generally, you know, we have smaller teams. But also just an ownership in the way that strategy and planning operate within the agency. What’s our philosophy? What’s our approach? What are our tools? Uh, I think creating an open conversation around that has been healthy. It just has to happen. That’s the only way that we’re all gonna move as fast as we need to and learn as much as we need to, to succeed in today’s world.

Scott McCloud: I mean, we try to really recruit planners that are outside of planning and can bring a, a different perspective to the job, whether that’s a media analyst or somebody f- from Google that started their ad technology, or somebody from the client side. You know, everybody kind of brings their own perspective. And so, listening to those perspectives, using those perspectives to help shape what we do and make it better, it’s just, it’s just awesome. And I feel like, personally, I learn so much every day from my team in kind of the way that they’re solving problems, the questions they ask, and I think as a group we’ve just helped, um, you know, grow the agency in a really positive way.

Josh: Excellent. Next question. Do you have a methodology? Something that’s unique to you that you apply to solving problems, sorting out information, all of the really important work that goes into that first brief. How do you approach it? What’s your methodology? John?

John Roberts: So it’s an interesting question about methodologies cause I think what tends to happen is, all agencies, and I know this is certainly true in small agencies, will always have in some kind of like crates meeting. We have a really important bespoke methodology. Everyone is the same. They’re all effectively the very similar principles about what do we need to learn, how do we learn and distill? How do we then convert that into the power of creative and how do we measure and optimize as we go?

John Roberts: So I like to think about methodology more in terms of spirit. I mentioned earlier, okay? And, and I think this is true of- of planning generally. There’s a v- vibrant chaos to planning of so many different sources of information, so many things to distill, how does it fit within the process of an agency, the reality that everyone has an opinion on strategy, and that the strategy’s job is to winnow out what really matters, to come up with a better solution on how to win.

John Roberts: And to do that, I think it comes down to three things. The role of the planner to provide clarity. Clarity first about what it is that we’re genuinely here to achieve. What is the real goal that we’re here to meet? Second thing, confidence. Swim in that coast, thrive in it, enjoy it, and actually know that actually one of the roles of the planner is help the whole team get through that and come out the other side with a third part. I call- I talk about concentration. And it’s not about the power of actually focusing on my forward [brout 00:32:49], but it’s actually the concentrate. Distill out the only things that really matter. Distilled down to the brevity of the great brief. Okay. It’s brief. It’s called that for a reason. Because it has all of the power, and only what really matters to drive the work forward. That’s how I think about it. How about you Scott?

Scott McCloud: I share a lot of love for the spirit of the process. I think that’s dead on, and I, an- and you’re right, you know. Anytime you get into a pitch, you know, everybody’s got their, you know, four Chevron slide showing their approach and their proprietary, this or that. You know, in truth, I love this, and let’s steal this from a agency called Art and Letters, the idea that we don’t know what- where- where we’re going, but we’ve gone there a thousand times. I feel like, you know, a plannings job is to take the business problem, and to find a way to solve it. That goes into kind of uncharted territory. You know? I think we really focus on being curious in the process, figuring it out, and not assuming that we have, you know- we can rely on ways that we’ve solved things in the past. I think we try to use the tools that we have to really understand what the problem is all about and to find new ways to crack it.

Scott McCloud: You know, the other thing about our methodology is, is that I think we’re really immersive. It’s not a methodology that planning, quote unquote owns. I think it’s one that’s shared by everybody that’s kind of a part of the, the journey. So we have at our agency something we call the pod system. You know, creative project management, client strategy, and planning our work together, have shared ownership of the account, and a client can call us at any time.

Scott McCloud: The pod really immerses itself in the problem right from the very beginning, all the way through to research, through the briefing process and beyond. And- and I think that immersion makes it so that, you know, you get new ideas about how to solve the problem that may not co- come from planning, and, you know, the brief back to that document becomes just the receipt for the conversation that you have along the way. So that, that immersion piece is, is super, super important and something that probably everybody does, but we put, you know, a pretty big focus on it here.

John Roberts: Yeah, great. Great- great point, Scott.

John Roberts: And Shannon, let me ask. When you think about Josh’s question on methodology, and I know the work you’ve been doing recently of teaching and learning yourself about the role of data, for example, you and I were talking about that earlier. Has that changed your approach?

Shannon Pfeffer: My additional explorations of data has influenced my approach for sure. My methodology really is about the people, and maybe it’s because I’ve done years and years of moderating and qual, but I think it’s so important whether it’s a client or a colleague, to listen generously. Because what they really want or maybe where an issue lies, is never the first thing they’re gonna tell you. You’re gonna pick it up through layers of the conversation. And as you go deeper, you know. And it’s not always asking the probing questions, it’s just letting the other person or the other client speak. And I think that’s really where I came into learning data, because I started to listen to those around me and I started to listen more to client requests, and I picked up so many patterns of- as planners, you know, we’re asked and pushed to do things beyond our comfort zone, and for me that, that is definitely the data side.

Shannon Pfeffer: So I went hog-wild and looked into classes, and where can I learn? And where can I really figure this out? And I found another really great class from Stanford taught by a former creative director at Ogilvy who went into the data and analytics world, and it was a fascinating journey into, let me dive in and understand these theories. And, you know, I think that I wouldn’t have gotten there if I didn’t listen, and I truly didn’t have my ears open to those around me at my agency and outside of it.

Josh: Excellent. So, kind of our closing question, what’s the quickest way to demonstrate the value of planning in a small agency? John, you ready?

John Roberts: So, the quickest way to demonstrate the value of planning, find an ally. Those allies can either be, as Scott was talking earlier, their account directly is responsible for growing and, and, and leading the client’s business, or it could be a creative director. One that understands that the clarity and the enthusiasm and the inspiration you bring in a brief allows them to do even better work.

Scott McCloud: I love that. And for me, the easiest way for a planner to, to create value is to go out and just find new insight. Sometimes it’s just, just takes a little hustle to get beyond something that a client may have shared with us from a research report, or something that I feel like a lot of times we describe the audience and everything we know about them. And, you know, really try to go out and find that sharp insight that’s gonna inspire a creative team.

Scott McCloud: Whether that’s, you know, back to Shannon’s point, a conversation with, with a friend, whether that’s an observation on the street or at the s- at the supermarket, whether it’s, you know, coming through Reddit and hustling through some quotes and trying to understand really what’s in the mind of the people we’re trying to talk to. Getting new insight i-, you know, it’s grist for the mill, right? It’s, it’s what creatives want and oftentimes if, if you can find those gems, those are things that crack open an idea and get creatives especially coming back and just calling your number again, and asking again. And I think that’s a- just a really easy way for planning to, to add value.

Shannon Pfeffer: And John and Scott, I totally agree with both of your answers, and my answer is a little bit of a combination of your both, because I think it is about being a trusted partner. We’re not the show ponies in the room who’s gonna unveil something and it’d be mind blowing. We’re there for the long haul. If there’s a late night, where was this data point? Can you send it to me? Or, you know, being there to listen throughout the, their creative process where someone’s stuck and help them get unstuck. You know, I think being that competent, dependable, trusted partner is absolutely crucial.

Josh: So, last question. The 4A’s has been a big part of Planner Parlay. Last year, you did your first national one at StratFest, John, they’re a supporter of the podcast that we’re currently talking on, and you’re doing another at StartFest. Essentially, the day you first hear this show, John will be at StratFest with Shannon and Scott doing another parlay with a huge group of people. So, how important is the 4A’s, and what does the 4A’s offer for small agencies and small agency planners?

John Roberts: It’s been [inaudible 00:39:44] may the past year when I’ve been working with the 4A’s that we’ve uncovered something that is true. I mean, look, what Scott and Shannon has been saying is true nationally. This isn’t just a, a smaller agency parlay for need for virtue to New York. It’s true across the States. And I think- that’s what I know. That’s one of the reason why the 4A’s are so keen to help promote activities such as this. It’s because they care. The 4A’s is an agency accelerator, and a lot of the work they do, I think there’s a misunderstanding that it seems to be skewed towards the giant agencies, the enormous mono- monoliths. And actually, the reality is that, you know, 600 and something agencies are members of the 4A’s, many of them are small agencies. So this is an opportunity in a, in a very focused manner on how can we think about growing, accelerating the power of small agencies, and I know I’m slightly biased, but I think that’s because we’re proving out the value of strategy to help agencies grow and be better at what they do.

Josh: Perfect. That wraps our show for today.

Shannon Pfeffer: Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you guys so much for setting this up.

Scott McCloud: Yeah, this has been fantastic. Really great questions, and it’s been a lot of fun. So, John and crew, thank you so much.

Speaker 6: I’ll owe you both at least one beer.

John Roberts: Thank you.

Speaker 1: Planner Parlay, a Truth Collective production.

John Roberts: Myself, my wife, and my dog, don’t listen to a word I say.