Introduction: The 4A’s is dedicated to supporting agencies and creative companies through leadership and community for our industry. We’re passionate supporters of the work small agencies do across America and the role of the Small Agency Planner Parley in helping strategists get fueled on creativity, commerce, and culture, all moving strategy and the industry forward.
For more information on the many benefits of being a 4A’s member, try aaaa.org to find out how our industry authority can be there for you. Now, the Planner Parley.
Welcome to Planner Parley, a show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency planning. It’s been quite a season. From hacks to wallow pits to looking into the future, we’ve covered a lot of ground and uncovered loads of tips and tricks for agency planners and strategists.
In this week’s episode, join Truth Collective’s director of experience, Josh Coon, and of course CSO John Roberts, as they reflect on season one of the Planner Parley Podcast and remind us all what strategic planning means for small agencies. Pull up a chair and listen in.
Josh Coon: John, welcome back to Planner Parley. This has been an exciting road for you.
John Roberts: What a season.
Josh Coon: What a season indeed, and all of this podcasting magic. This is your first time really digging into this as a medium. Give our audience some thoughts. What’d you think of becoming a podcaster?
John Roberts: It was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Fundamentally, still, always going to be flawed by … No one likes hearing the sound of their own voice. However, what I loved about podcasting was it gave me a fantastic opportunity to just chat and hang out and learn from some really smart people from across all of our business. Without doing the podcast, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. That was great.
Josh Coon: There were several themes that were discussed throughout the course of the show, but one of the biggest themes, one of the reasons why you wanted to do this, is the whole idea of Parley. Tell our audience a little bit about where Parley came from.
John Roberts: Sure, Josh. It’s funny, looking back. Parley began probably about six years ago, just, honestly, on a really local level, when I started understanding as a strategist that I spent most of my time in a relatively small agencies in not major metros. It’s really hard connecting with other strategists. Literally there may not be many if any within the shop, within your own company, or within the town.
John Roberts: I started Parley as a way to find out who was around. How do people think? What do they think? How can we share? How can we fundamentally grow and learn from each other? Was ticking along great, and then the 4A’s started getting more and more involved. We founded StratFest, which is a fantastic annual event.
John Roberts: But, at the same time, it was a common recurring thing that I was meeting many small agency planners like I, where we felt as though we wanted also to have our own forum. There’s a reality of when you work in a small agency that, sure, we don’t want to be constrained by size in terms of the power and the strength of the work that we can do, but there are some physical, and financial, and geographic limitations. Parley was a way of actually amplifying that, and helping all of us, all of our strategists across the States, get together, learn, and share. That was the intention of Parley.
John Roberts: When we started the podcast it was a way of another forum to try and get other great planners to learn and to share with each other. It’s interesting for me. Scott MacLeod from VIA, who was actually one of our very first guests, him and Shannon, talking about the notion of Parley and what matters to us as planners, and, why share? I loved the way that he brought alive his perspective of what Parley meant to him and how it helped him and the work that he did.
Josh Coon: Let’s give that a listen.
Scott MacLeod: Parley, to me, it’s all about openness and vulnerability. You’re in a world where a lot of times things are proprietary, and you’re trying to, as a planner, keep your secret sauce to yourself. It’s really interesting to be able to talk about topics that are on your mind with people that are thinking about the same kinds of things. It’s been super productive, and I think a really interesting forum to improve upon what we do as strategists, but also just to hear about the trials and tribulations, and failures and successes of everybody that’s trying to do the magical thing that we all do.
Josh Coon: You had so many great guests on the show throughout the course of season one, and there were so many tips and tricks that were shared. We can’t possibly name them all. What were a few that really jump out in your memory?
John Roberts: Yeah, great. There were so many. We actually ran … One of the podcasts we had was actually around strategy hacks. Ed Cotton and CJ Gaffney from here in town were talking about strategy hacks that worked for them. There were a couple of things that I thought were really powerful, but also, frankly, really, really simple.
John Roberts: Ed talked about how one of the aspects we should really think hard about and push hard as strategists to get better at what we do is use our team. Use the team to actually help inform the work that you do. Here’s actually how he said it.
Ed Cotton: Use your team. I think it’s obvious for people in small agencies sometimes that you have a team around you, but are you all so involved in your own worlds that you don’t get together? I think there’s the initial getting into the hack. You want to get four or five people that you’re working with into a room, and you just want to beat the idea around a bit and see what might be an interesting way of going.
CJ Gaffney: I think a lot of great hacks are just that. They’re the initial match that lights the spark or the starter’s pistol to get things going. They’re usually not the end all be all in terms of how you arrive at a well-baked strategy or point of view, but I think it’s always a great starting point. I think that’s why it’s helpful to have a lot of different hacks in your bag of tricks.
John Roberts: We were just talking, Josh, about how tips and tricks were pervasive throughout. Another episode was actually around scrappy research. It was a fantastic conversation with Gunny Scarfo and Brent Snider when they were talking about the power of research, how we need to get smarter and more inventive in what we do. I took away some tips from that. I took away some thoughts about how do we actually use research. Gunny summed it up in such a powerful way, I wanted to share this clip.
Gunny Scarfo: The single most provocative thing in creative is feeling the uncensored human truth of people’s everyday lives. We insist on starting with a question, with a well worded question. We call it the “burning question”, which is something that the client admits that they don’t know, and, were they to know it, it would have a profound effect on their business.
Josh Coon: John, you’re a seasoned planning veteran. You’ve been at this a while.
John Roberts: Old, you mean.
Josh Coon: That’s not what I mean, but if you want to insert that in, it’s fine. You had the opportunity to talk with planners from all over the country. What about your perception of the role of the planner changed, or new insights came through in the process of the show?
John Roberts: It struck me, as we went through the season, actually, that time and time again I learned and got refreshed on the role of planners by so many different planners from literally all over the country. From Saint Louis, out in Vegas with Sara talking about things, and down in New York when we had the comms planning.
John Roberts: Here’s a couple of things I took away. The world of planning is changing, and of course we’re always investigating, exploring. What type of planner am I? What type of strategist? There’s a really important thing I think about what style of strategist are we that came through loud and clear. I also loved just picking up on that thread where Steve Kozel talked about thinking about planning in a very different manner. He thinks about being a planner as a mutt. I love that thought.
Steve Kozel: I just find myself looking forward as we near the end of the year, and start thinking about where things are going next year. Really leaning into and embracing that idea of being a strategy mutt.
Steve Kozel: Maybe to draw that metaphor out a little bit more, what are all the things that mutts don’t have to suffer from that purebreds do? Typically they’re hardier. They don’t suffer the same sort of hip dysplasias, and things like that. Maybe we’re a hardier breed in our muttishness, and I take some solace and comfort in that. It’s encouraging for me, going into the new year.
John Roberts: Do you know, we spent a whole podcast talking about the future of strategy with a chief editor from WARC, Adam Pierno, who was a strategist, now client side. We talked all about the future, but what really struck me from that, and all of the many roles of planners that we play, there’s a common theme that needs to come through. We need to be the champions of clarity. Adam expressed it in this way.
Adam Pierno: Lack of clarity, to me where it impacts strategists and planners, is really the poor defining of the problem itself. I have the sticky note that has been tacked to my wall for, I don’t know, maybe 10 years that says, “What is the real problem we’re trying to solve?”
John Roberts: We’ve talked about many flavors, many stars, many forms of planners. We spent a whole pod talking about comms planning. Communications planning is something that’s been around for an age, but very few people do it really, really well. I loved the way that Julian touched upon things. In fact, that’s been his bread and butter, and he’s brilliant at doing comms planning. He talked about some of the frustrations he had with communications planning, now. Actually, “death to the journey” was how he said it.
Julian Cole: I think consumer journey’s a waste of time. They are a bit of strategy wank, really. Eight times out of ten, I think when you’re thinking consumer journey, you can probably skip straight to a communications framework. Which is, what are the different messages we need to say? What are the barriers we’re solving?
Josh Coon: That’s really interesting about comms planning. What was it about the comms planning pod you did? Talk a little bit more about what you learned through that episode.
John Roberts: Yeah, sure. There are so many different ways and shapes and forms of thinking about comms plannings. You just heard from Julian some of his passion around it, about what not to do. I really loved the way that Melissa and then Eric actually picked up on a whole discussion around the role of comms planning. Eric expressed it in a really great manner, about how we can be better at what we do through communications planning. Listen to this.
Melissa Walker: I really look at it as one piece of the pie. We can hone in on that one piece. If you’re talking about paid advertising, but not necessarily, John, because I know that you and Truth do a lot of content pieces, you do a lot of social. Those are all different pieces of the pie. As a discipline of what Eric and I and people like us are trying to do, we’re trying to look at the pie as a whole and then hone in on individual pieces of that pie and really figure out how that specific piece is going to do its job best.
John Roberts: How about you, Eric?
Eric Pakurar: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I can’t beat that as a definition. Maybe a metaphor is one of a sports team. Have you ever seen a bunch of six year olds play soccer? Football for you, John. Soccer.
John Roberts: Thank you.
Eric Pakurar: Bunch of six year olds are out there. They’re on the field, the ball goes over into one corner, and every single kid on both sides of the ball just swarm after that ball. The ball goes over here, and all the kids, even the goalies, are out there trucking after the ball.
Eric Pakurar: If you don’t do the due diligence that Melissa’s talking about, if you don’t carve out the specific roles that each specific channel is meant to play that are separate and distinct from each other, then you end up playing soccer like a bunch of six year olds. If you play soccer like grown-ups, certain channels play offense, certain play defense. Certain of them aren’t applicable against this business problem today on this field. Others are just bit players, some are stars. That as a metaphor works well for me.
Josh Coon: Culture is a topic, agency culture, that has really come up a lot throughout the show because it’s such an important part of how creative people work, how planners work, how work is produced. John, tell us a little bit about culture and what you learned throughout the course of the episodes.
John Roberts: Yeah, that takes me back to the Julian Cole/Mark Pollard pod, which we’ve focused supposedly on culture. Actually we did spend quite a lot of time chatting about it and many other things, as you can imagine.
Josh Coon: Was one of them a wallow pit?
John Roberts: One of them was the wallow pit. We got into this riff when we were actually talking about culture and the role of a planner to create a culture, not just expect it to happen. That started me off on one of the problems I have with strategists and strategies. Too often it’s the #WallowPit.
John Roberts: It matters, because if we approach the culture of the ability to throw everything in, be negative, be evasive, be unclear, a wallow pit, then we’re not creating the culture and we’re not having an agency environment where the role of strategy reinforces the positive aspect of culture. Mark talked about it as the “fuck yeah rainbow cannon”. I’m not sure that can actually be trademarked, but I loved to think about it. Listen to this clip about the discussion we had. See what you think.
John Roberts: I’ve said for many a year, I’m a chief strategy officer and I get confused by strategy. It feels like a big wallow pit where anything that anyone’s uncertain about or volume of opinion, they can throw it all in and we call it strategy.
Mark Pollard: If strategy’s a wallow pit, and you’d just dump your grievances and all your concerns, isn’t it much better if it’s this cannon on the top of a hill, and it’s just booming out “fuck yeahs”, rainbow “fuck yeahs”? it’s a rainbow fuck yeah cannon. There you go.
Julian Cole: Yeah. I think that strategists can fall into the wallow pit so easily themselves, and they’re like, “Woe is me,” and, “My agency doesn’t respect strategists,” and, “This is bullshit.” Blah, blah, blah. I think we need to jump out of the wallow pit into the fuck yeah cannon.
Julian Cole: The way you do that, in my honest opinion, one thing you should do is start building that case study, that one presentation, that shows the power of strategy. You can bring examples from external. You can show, “Here’s when strategy worked for other agencies.”
John Roberts: One other thing about culture comes back to that positive aspect. I know it’s hard. Okay? I’ve been in many agencies where you need to actually create the planning environment, create the planning discipline, let alone the culture where it’s valued.
John Roberts: It struck me again through many of our conversations during the course of the season that the role of a planner is to be the optimist. The role of the plan is to create the potential for great work. That has to be on a positive, dynamic, upbeat expression. It can’t be just an attitude. Okay? It’s not all about being Pollyanna, and smiling, and giggling, and laughing all the time, but also think about, how do you create a culture by actually creating artifacts?
John Roberts: I loved how Julian used that as a way for him to build a really successful role for planning no matter which agency he was in by thinking about the artifacts. Think about what the outcome of planning is within your agency, and use that to reinforce the role within the agency. Here’s how he said it.
Julian Cole: The first is you need to create artifacts that they will see come up time and time again. For me at [BDA 00:16:05], I can only speak to my own experience, but I know this is different in all different places. We created two documents that would always turn up in every client presentation, which was a common framework and a blueprint, which was a communication architecture. Creating that consistent language, people understood what output they were getting. That’s the important thing.
Josh Coon: The flip of culture is talent. Because people are what make culture, the people are what are creating the work. We had some really good discussions throughout the season about talent. John, what really stood out for you in this topic? Throw in some thoughts. What were some of your favorites?
John Roberts: Yeah, cool. It takes me back to the … We had a pod with Yusuf Chuku and Beth Egan. Both of them were able to talk about the role and rise of talent and what to look for from a very nascent entry point level. Beth is a professor at Newhouse School, so for planners coming into the industry. Yusuf has been around. Has the best giggle ever, by the way.
John Roberts: Also, he was talking about the passion that needs to come through. At the heart of it, that was really important. I mean, really important. Planners will only be successful if they can demonstrate an absolute passion and commitment for the craft, for the work, for the business that we’re in, and with an ability to have an outcome. To actually be able to deliver something, as well, and take pride not just in what you’re delivering, but in the world that you live. Here’s how Yusuf talked about it, what he looks for in a planner.
Yusuf Chuku: One of the things I look for in a more senior talent is a love for the craft. You can tell, people, they’re just really into this, and care about it. It’s so important to develop that.
John Roberts: Actually, can we just expand on that? Because I think we’ve been talking a lot about finding and nurturing talent, and our bias of course is always towards the younger talent. Yusuf talked about fresh talent earlier. What more do you look for, Yusuf, when you think about fresh talent, which isn’t necessarily entry level or coming into the industry for the first couple of years in?
Yusuf Chuku: There’s a level of nerdiness that I like. I like it when people are into stuff. It helps if they’re into what we do, but also just being into stuff. You care enough or are passionate about something to want to get better at it.
Yusuf Chuku: There is another piece, actually, around craft, which is … I also look for people to know how to get better at stuff. As much as you can have a healthy disregard for how things have been done in the past, you, at the same time, need to understand that you can learn from how things have been done in the past and actually do it better rather than just dismiss it out of hand. People who are able to demonstrate that are in a good position to be hired.
Josh Coon: Diversity is also a topic that is just so important. It’s important to agencies everywhere, and everybody’s struggling to make sure that they’re doing the right things. Tell us a little bit about diversity, and how it came up, and some of the things that are out there to help.
John Roberts: We talked about it a little bit with Yusuf and Beth, but then we had a whole pod talking about it with Mollie Rosen and Alecia Page from the 4A’s. There is so much help the 4A’s can give all of us on fundamentally finding ways to overcome the challenges we all face with a very undiverse world that we live in.
John Roberts: What I really liked about it when Alecia came at it was the fact of, again, easily struck me of things that we’re doing here at Truth, but also, don’t think you have to be perfect, but start. Don’t think just because the fact you’ve started, you’re done.
Alecia Page: I would also say that the layers of diversity have become a lot more clear. Now I think about diversity less as a problem of just racial discrimination, but there are layers. This is an intersectional problem. Now whenever we think about diversity, we don’t just think about race. We think about sexual orientation, we think about faith, we think about gender, and other types of discrimination that people might experience whenever they’re entering into the workforce.
Alecia Page: Our diversity and inclusion strategies have had to get a little bit broader and a little bit deeper to ensure that every person has equitable access to opportunity whenever they’re seeking out diverse talent. Because we have contacts with universities across the United States, including over a hundred historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions, we’re already actively recruiting, screening, and interviewing candidates that are generally prepared to start working in an agency within six months of completing their fellowship.
Alecia Page: We’ve got the talent, and many of them are picking strategy as their first or second discipline. They are hungry for jobs. They are excited. They have a lot of great experience under their belt before they even arrive at the agency application stage. The real key is just making sure that, whenever their resume comes through, they’re seen, they’re taken seriously, and that there aren’t other factors that hold them back.
John Roberts: What are other mistakes you feel that you’ve experienced from agencies that we we need to not make, or need to get across? Overcome?
Mollie Rosen: I think one is what you stated, which is feeling like you have to have it perfect versus just feeling like you need to get started, and taking baby steps. I think one of the things I think, and it applies to probably everything that’s happening in our industry, is calibrate, calibrate, calibrate, iterate, iterate, iterate, and try it again.
Alecia Page: I would say what comes to mind for me is putting the onus on diverse candidates to be the diversity in the room, and to create the strategy and to fix the problems. I recognize that there are people in the advertising industry who didn’t necessarily major in diversity, or in inclusion, or in HR, but I think that we all have a responsibility to acknowledge the strain that it creates whenever you hire diverse talent without preparing the environment accordingly.
Josh Coon: You just did our first clip show, looking back at a whole season. You had so many great guests on, John.
John Roberts: I learned so much from all of them. You’ve been great. Quick, big shout out to Scott, Shannon, Steve, Sara, Adam, Cathy, Yusuf, Beth, Eric, Melissa, Ed, CJ, Gunny, Brent, Julian, Mark, Mollie, and of course Alecia.
Josh Coon: That is a whole bunch of people. If anybody’s coming in on this episode, if this is your first episode of Planner Parley, what are you doing? Download the rest of those episodes. Listen to all of those names and all of that knowledge you can be learning from. Get back at those past episodes. Of course, you’ll see in each one we couldn’t have done this without the 4A’s.
John Roberts: You’re so right Josh. Big shout out to the 4A’s. They’re here for all of us. I’ve learned that over the last couple of years, about what more they can do. I figure the best way to close out our season one was hear about how, Mollie Rosen of 4A’s, what’s her wish for 2020 on how they can help us strategists? Listen in.
Mollie Rosen: My wish for 2020 is that all members are so engaged with us that we are just overrun with member requests and need. Nothing would make us happier than to know that our members are utilizing us to the fullest to advance their businesses on behalf of their people and on behalf of their clients.
John Roberts: Excellent. This pod’s going to help start that flow.