Welcome to Planner Parley, the show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency strategy. On today’s show, our guests are hot off the heels of StratFest 2019, an event hosted by the 4A’s in New York City. Listen in as Steve Kozel, Group Strategy Director at OBP in St. Louis, Sara Macfarlane, Director of Strategy from R&R Partners in Las Vegas, and of course, John Roberts, Chief of Strategy from Truth Collective in Rochester, New York recap the event, their key learnings, and what it all means for small agency planners. Pull up a chair and listen in.
Josh Coon: So, Steve and Sara, John, thank you so much for joining us for this conversation.
John Roberts: Thank you.
Sara Macfarlane: Hey, thanks for having us.
Josh Coon: So, John, I’m going to start with you. Could you describe StratFest for those who haven’t been there? Give us the rundown of the event, what is it for, how does it work, what’s it like?
John Roberts: So, it’s interesting. StratFest is the annual conference, you said, the 4As put on. And for me what’s really interesting is, it’s less about the conference more about… It’s a little bit of a melting pot. You have 300 planners, strategists, people involved in our industry that are fundamentally all there to try and learn from each other, inspire each other, and we all get a little jealous as well.
Josh Coon: Steve, what makes this event unique compared to other events you’ve attended, other marketing conferences, strategy events?
Steve Kozel: Maybe one thing is that it’s really organized around a discipline rather than a theme, topic in industry. And what that means for attendees is you really you feel like you are amongst brethren and people who really understand the things that you’re going through on a day-to-day basis in your role. So, there’s lot to relate to and a lot to agree on and a lot of shared paying points which can really build camaraderie.
Josh Coon: Sara, what makes this event unique for?
Sara Macfarlane: I love that you called it the, “Under the flag of truth,” because I feel like this event is really unique in that… In my day-to-day life I may never encounter another strategist, right? There’s not that many of us within an agency and then when we do meet each other it’s usually in competitive environment. So being able to come together and just share… I think people come in such a beautiful spirit, they’re very open. We talk as if we’re all on the same side, which is wonderful and just really grow the discipline as a total.
Josh Coon: That’s really interesting Sara. And I remember we were actually having a beer at the time, but talking about-
Sara Macfarlane: Maybe several.
Josh Coon: Yes, this might have been two or three, yeah. But we all know that planners are innately curious. What’s really interesting is the flip side to that is the curiosity never seems to be held in, never seems to be constraining. So, what that actually means is that we’re curious, but we’re also really generous in sharing and asking. So, yeah, it’s really powerful for me, the point Steve was making, about what’s great about the coming together, we’re all cut from the similar cloth, and certainly in the same field.
Sara Macfarlane: Yeah, I love that. We’re kind of nerds and artists, we’re not, I think as a whole, innately competitive. We have to be that way, that’s one of the hats we have to wear but I think we’re a little bit nerdier than we are the competitive nature.
Josh Coon: Speaking my language. So what were three takeaways from it, I’m going to ask each one of you this question, like your top insights that you took away from StratFest that you want to share with our audience? I will start with John.
John Roberts: What’s seems good for me was it was less a specific topic, more, I think, a growing attitude that I saw last year and was blown away again this year. I’d love to see what Steven and Sara’s opinion was on this. But the big are trying to get small nuts. So, what the giant communication agencies, networks and the great and the goods that they’re sharing, they are also really, really keen to push hard on how they need to be smaller, meaning scrappy, inventive, relentless, more involved, all the flip side to small agency in terms of the benefits for small agency, which we’re also going to talk more about. So I thought that was a really good, powerful thing for me, was just an attitude that came across.
Josh Coon: Sara, how about you?
Sara Macfarlane: One of the biggest takeaways for me was that we’re not alone in a lot of the challenges that we’re facing, whether it’s keeping up with some radically changing times, or how to approach purpose-driven work from a real authentic place, I think we are all facing those big challenges together and being able to navigate together and really being able to share some of our strategies against that.
Josh Coon: Steve, how about you?
Steve Kozel: One that kept requiring for me… It sounds obvious. Obviously as strategists we’re always trying to be attuned to culture or subcultures, but the extent to which culture really drives everything seemed really apparent, that manifested itself in conversation around employee engagement and the leadership forum on Wednesday where we were talking about how you can make sure that members of your team feel engaged and the opportunities to ask questions that can help them develop solutions. And then culture in that context is really critical, whether that’s within the agency, client side, all those dimensions of it. But then there’s a lot around representation of cultures and subcultures in the advertising work that we do. A lot of the program content was around product diversity and depictions of women, minorities in advertising and then cultural disruptions, be it through direct consumer brands or generational disruptions in terms of what younger audiences are doing to insert control or unseat incumbent influencers.
Steve Kozel: So, all of those things seem to keep coming back to this notion that, as much as culture is almost a cliché obsession of ours, it really is a point of origination for all change. And the more we can understand what’s happening before it really impacts our clients businesses and the brands, the more we can help… Future-proof seems like a cliché way to say it, but identify opportunities for we really feel negative impacts because we haven’t anticipated them appropriately. And maybe on our best days shapes some of the culture as well.
Josh Coon: Yeah, good pickup Steve. It was funny, it reminded me that… Rishad Tobaccowala who kicked off who says, “Amazing, engaging, eloquent perspective on the future for us all.” From Publicis Groupe. But I think it’s true to any strategist or planner. He talked about change sucks and irrelevance is worse. But we are already curious, inquisitive and we know that irrelevance sucks. So, there was really good context for that.
Sara Macfarlane: As strategists, we’re not really allowed to get to a point where we’re shaking our fists and saying, “Get off my lawn.” We can’t resist change. Our mandate is really to stay ahead of it and to guide our brands and our companies through whatever that means and really make the best calls for them before change happens to them.
Josh Coon: In terms of external and internal culture and some of the challenges that you all have already mentioned about how, in general, you’re in a competitive state, you can’t come together. The competition happens between agencies and things. Does it perhaps hinder you guys from being able to develop internal culture, share what’s working from one agency to the next and those kinds of things?
Steve Kozel: When you look at the strategy discipline, or the planning discipline as a practice within the industry, I’m of the mind that the rising tide lifts all boats, the better we can help each other succeed in our individual roles within our agencies for our respective clients, the more the discipline continues to be seen as a valuable one that clients are asking for, they’re willing to pay for, that they’re making a point to engage upstream at a higher level within their business. To me I think that that’s the goal, right, is that we’re working towards a greater good for everyone. At our worst we get defensive and cagey about what we’re doing that’s working for us. I just don’t see that that will benefit all of us collectively. The vibe I picked up on at StratFest is that everybody sees it the same way, right? That we’re all trying to help each other improve our internal processes, improve our resources to actually develop strategies and bring value to client brands, and that we want strategy to show up strong in the context of agency work. We want to be seen at the same level as creative in media, be respected and be valued in that context.
Josh Coon: Steve that’s a really good point. And it made me think a little bit because we’re in the environment, at StratFest, where the band of brothers and sisters and all together is true. How is that back in agency life?
Steve Kozel: So, for me… My team, we’ve got a handful of folks within the agency that have come together just in the past year. Our department is relatively new within the agency and so with that has come all of the growing pains of installing the discipline in the practice, that’s been a real bonding experience for those of us within the team, many of which have come over from other departments. And so to that extent, we’re all fighting for ourselves within the agency to get a seat at the table, to get plugged in the process and the right point, to get face time with clients. All the things that I think really were voiced and echoed in conversation with other strategist there, especially ones that are relatively new to strategy or planning or bringing the discipline to an agency for the first time.
Steve Kozel: But when I meet other strategy folks in, for instance, the St. Louis market or the Nashville market, those mid markets, oftentimes we’re fighting for the same clients in our backyards and it is tempting to be a little bit cagey like I said, and “No, hey listen, it’s going to be in the time around where we’re RFP’d for the same piece of work and do I really want to exchange all my trade secrets when I could be getting somebody a leg up on our business.” But I just don’t know that we benefit from that thinking, to be honest. Now, the agency leadership would probably beg to differ but I really do think that as a discipline we benefit from cooperation and not competition. Or if it is competition, it’s friendly.
Sara Macfarlane: Yes, Steve, I would really… I felt that I think. I leave the competitive urge to the biz dev folks, right. Even though most of the folks at StratFest were names that I’d seen in competitive pitches over the past year or two, I think that when we do come together as the discipline, sharing is more useful. I think that’s the utility that’s a little bit more interesting in that arena. And we also, I think, here at R&R have a really strong continual growth mindset, so we’re actually more rewarded for having that continual growth and things like StratFest, sharing and bringing back what we found in sharing it internally in the agency is something that is really rewarded here.
Steve Kozel: I do believe there’s a common bond too amongst strategists but amongst agencies as a whole that we face threats in industry. There’s a lot of other entities that are coming in and taking work that would have traditionally been ours in a variety of different contexts and different types of engagements. But especially for strategists, we’re losing seats at tables that we used to potentially have one to consultancies, content publishers that are offering some of those services themselves, in-housing. So, I think that one of the things that it’s important to keep in mind, and I think we do subconsciously to a certain extent is, how can we all help each other to retain the value that agencies bring to clients and maintain the competitive advantage that we have as an industry against all of those other entities that would tell our clients that they don’t need us or they don’t need us for the same things.
Steve Kozel: I keep coming back to the same thing. I do think the more we can help each other build a value of our individual practice and discipline, as well as our collective industries value in the eyes of clients, I think it does away with this scarcity mindset. Ideally there’s more than enough work to go around because we’ve seen a rejuvenation in agency work as a whole.
Sara Macfarlane: Yes, Steve, I think you keep coming back to it because it’s so important.
Sara Macfarlane: I think good strategy really provides value for a good strategy, so all of us being able share that discipline, and really elevate that discipline, is going to be key moving forward.
Josh Coon: Those are fantastic insights. And one of the things… Networking is obviously a critical component of this and we do a lot of talks, like John’s going to do a talk show with students, I was at an event last week with students. So for young professionals, right, they’re coming to these events for the time. Networking can be really intimidating. What would be one tip each of you guys would have for a younger planner or strategist, who’s coming to these events for the first time, to make connections?
John Roberts: So, a couple of thoughts. Personally, I always think networking’s pretty hard no matter how old and grizzled I am. I found a couple of ways. One is actually… Particularly for things like StratFest, okay, where we have a really interesting agenda between talks, key topics, interviews and then workshops, would be, grab the person next to you and ask them what workshop they’re thinking of going to and why, rather than introducing yourself and this funny… We always have this smile which is similar in most conferences, you always look down at the name tag, and for small agencies, you’re looking down at small agencies and still not knowing exactly where you’re based and what you doing and so on, so that doesn’t matter.
John Roberts: So, a tip from me would be to ask the person next to you in a conference, if they’re going to a workshop, which one they’re going to and why, what is it that appeals to them. Just because it starts to break the ice.
Sara Macfarlane: Yeah, I think it’s so funny that we struggle with it because we literally ask questions for a living, right? I mean, we’re supposed to be in our practice out there talking to people all the time and then we get into these groups and we’re so intimidated by some of these very big prestigious names that we see on these badges, right? But I would also recognize that everyone is in the same boat, they don’t know everyone there either. People just inherently want people to talk to, so I just randomly approach strangers and struck up conversations.
Steve Kozel: I’d be the first to admit that networking is not my strength. I tend to be pretty introverted in environments like that. It’s tough for me to muster up the courage to just walk up to somebody, introduce myself. So, to John’s point, I think the more you can find those organic ways to make acquaintances and then have them be familiar faces as the event goes along, I think that can be really helpful. Especially in the context of the workshops, I think I mentioned I attended the Wednesday leadership forum in advance to the conference, and the nice thing about that is you immediately get immersed in the folks that are at the table with you and the topics of conversation and you start to get familiar with other people there. You get some sense of the type of agency that they’re at and there is a focus. And then when you bump into them throughout the event you can, to John’s point, hit them up with questions like, “Hey, where you coming from, where you’re headed to, what’d you like about it?” It just gives you some commonalities that you can touch on as you socialize throughout the event.
Steve Kozel: The other thing I would call out, and we’ve referred to it already, is the little jaunt that we took to Red Hook in Brooklyn led by Ed Cotton. That was one of those things where the invite went out and I frankly struggled to reply and say yes to, because those are things that I tend to not to want to jump into. And maybe this is just something that folks in our field struggle with in general is just… I think there’s probably a lot of us that are introverted by nature and we tend to be in our heads. And so the more you can push yourself to engage other people and put yourself out there… Everybody is thinking and feeling the same things and you just have to get over yourself and make some friends. So any excuse to do that, try to say yes to it even though it feels painful in the moment.
John Roberts: I’m going to stick those two points together because it’s really good points, Sara’s point and Steve. It’s actually a tip for me for the next time I’m going into anything like this. But for anyone attending I think it’s, “Don’t think. Be there as a planner, be there as a motivator, or an interviewer and then take that role on.” Because effectively then all you’re doing is you’re actually interviewing an audience to find out what matters and motivates them so you can find a way to connect with them.
Steve Kozel: Yeah, I think that’s a great point John. So much of our job is about learning and understanding, right? So there’s no reason that you can’t think of an event like that, if it’s not StratFest something similar, as a chance to learn and understand the people who do what you do. If you’re uncomfortable socializing, don’t think about it as socializing this about it as research.
Josh Coon: Fantastic. So, we’ve talked a little bit around the event in terms of moments that you’ve liked, workshops, but from each of you, starting with Steve, what was your favorite moment or presenter and what was the topic that you took away from it that you want to share with our audience?
Steve Kozel: Well, I mean I really do enjoy the Planner Parley. It’s my second year doing it. I think it is a really focused opportunity for strategists and planners to get in a room and share. In the moment you realize how needed that exercise really is. It ranges from practical application, people sharing tips and tricks, to what is essentially group therapy, right? I mean everybody just sharing the stuff they deal with in their day-to-day and a bunch of other people nodding and saying, “Yeah, we see you right there. We understand.”
Steve Kozel: So, I just think it’s a really rewarding window of time where you can feel very much a part of a community. For a lot of us I don’t think we get that a lot in our day-to-day work. So, maybe it’s an obvious one to go to but it really has been a highlight for me both years that I’ve been to StratFest.
Sara Macfarlane: Yeah, kind of along the group therapy lines, I think I had a similar experience the past couple of years in the leadership workshop. This year agency Agile was there. We talked a lot about bottom-up approach. But in addition to that we also, as a group, really share a lot of the challenges that we are facing and work through them in real time. I think it’s that workshopping together with some people who really deeply understand my challenges on a day-to-day basis, that’s been really valuable.
Josh Coon: All right, John. And you can’t pick Planet Parley.
John Roberts: I’m definitely not picking Planet Parley. What I actually loved, there was a workshop run by Karen Faith, Sub Rosa and it was interesting to me because… Of course, it was a packed house, 90 minutes, driven by her perspective on creating insight and empathy. So, of course, as planners, okay, we’re all paranoid about have we created enough empathy to really deliver the rich insight that’s going to drive a significant change to the role of strategy and the work that comes from it.
John Roberts: But I thought what’s really interesting for me was that she talked about something that’s dear to my heart, okay. Empathy is not about compassion, I share your feelings. Our role for empathy is about cognitive empathy, I understand your feelings. I took away from that… And her workshop was very much hands-on of, there are seven archetypes of empathy, that she took us all through as a team. Archetypes of empathy meaning there are different ways and styles to deliver that cognitive understanding. And it reminded me that as a planner, we need to have so many more tools in our toolbox, styles of planning, styles of empathy, that will give us a broader, richer way to ultimately get to the end result we’re all looking for which is, some genuine insight or professional perspective that changes how we’re going to do things and see things. So, yeah, I was all down for Karen Faith and Sub Rosa.
Steve Kozel: John, I’m glad I got to get that reach-out from you because that was the workshop I was trying to get into and it was full. It’s cool to hear what was discussed. I actually ended up in a really valuable workshop that at first I thought was going to be another direct consumer brand workshop, and it ended up being about how legacy brands and established brands can actually avoid disruption, or at least try to borrow from the methodology that direct consumer brands typically make use of in order to take advantage of opportunities themselves. Yusuf Chuku… and I had to give a shout-out to the ladies at Colle Mcvoy that led one, Katie Anderson and Casie Cook, that was really a fun one and we talked a lot about the death of Best Buy, so it was cool.
Josh Coon: All right, so we’ve talked a little bit about Planet Parley as a workshop and we’re on the podcast. But John, why don’t you tell the audience what you did at StratFest.
John Roberts: At Parley, we focus on what matters to small industry strategists. So, we’d a survey just before, and that helped inform the key things that people wanted to talk about and then we checked with everyone in the room. And really the common themes, everyone had their heads nodding, there were smiles, groans and so on, were around three careers, time and workload. Surprise, surprise, not enough time, too much workload and the impact that has… The stress just when we’re always trying to desire to do something distinctive, different and better. Two, how do we mentor ourselves, lot of people in the room are people like Steve and Sara and myself where we run teams, and we’re thinking about the role that stress actually plays across the agency as a whole. So, how do we actually get better at what we do? Which, of course, is the primary reason why we were at StratFest to begin with.
John Roberts: The third reason was around nurturing and finding talent. It’s an ongoing challenge for us all. I think it’s true across the industry, but particularly for small agencies, how do we find and bring in the right talent to help make our agency better and more distinctive? So those are the key themes.
John Roberts: Steve, what did you take away from it?
Steve Kozel: Well, when we started talking about all three of these themes as a group at our table, one of the things that, I think, became really evident immediately is how interwoven they are. How a lot of the things that come up around time are directly connected to your ability to utilize talent and disperse workload and deal with the inconsistent flow of work that comes to the strategy team throughout the course of the year. And then your ability to utilize talent and distribute workload has a direct impact on how much you can focus on mentoring yourself or, at least, seeking out mentorship, growing yourself. So it was really hard to peel these things apart because they do affect each… I think they’re one dimension of the same problem I guess.
Steve Kozel: I was a little surprised that billable time didn’t come up in conversation, where just the billable hours as revenue model, in some cases, even measurement of performance against the strategy discipline. But timeframes are a real challenge and it seemed like everybody was on the same page with it, it seems timeframes just keep getting shorter and shorter within which we’re meant to deliver strategy work. It is tough because you can be making a case for more hours within scope but then the timelines you’re actually given, you can’t even use all the hours you’ve actually been provided in the scope because you have to deliver even faster than that, or whatever the case may be.
Steve Kozel: One of the things I brought up was how able are you to really mentor yourself? Is that actually something that is possible to do? I asked the room, “Do you all feel like you have mentors within your agencies that can give you guidance and help you grow and help you understand how to manage teams and all of these things?” It was surprising to me how many people said, “No. No, I don’t have that role within my agency.” I think for me personally, I’ve made use of a lot of the virtual mentorship that is available online with really prominent voices within the industry that have been very generous in their willingness to make resource available, make content available. You can learn a lot remotely from those folks. That has really helped me a lot in terms of being able to continue to hone my craft and get better at the work that I do.
Steve Kozel: The last thing that really came up in conversation at the table, and I had to take a hard look at myself on this, when we talked about talent and trying to balance out workloads among a team, making sure that I’m getting the younger team members… And it’s not necessarily an age thing, it may be more an experience thing, but trying to get them opportunity while also protecting them a little bit from the work that nobody wants to do, the grunt work, the messy stuff, the BS. I think somebody at the table called me out and said, “You might be part of the problem, you’re saying all these things are connected and if you’re not giving your team members a chance to tackle some of these messy bits themselves, you’re not giving them growth opportunity and you’re also short-changing your own availability to grow yourself.”
Steve Kozel: So it gave me a lot to think about. These things aren’t easy solves and there was a lot of conversations around that, how do you overcome that challenge? There’s a lot of good sharing about ways that people… A lot of conversations about meeting and how to be more efficient in meetings. I mean, I don’t know, that’s the gold stuff, that’s the best part of the StratFest when you get a bunch of people commiserating on these challenges and paying points.
Josh Coon: Sara, how about you? What insights do you have in those three topics?
Sara Macfarlane: I mean, these are some pretty core topics and you’re right, they’re absolutely related. I think it’s really interesting that the billable hours conversations didn’t come up because, no, there aren’t enough hours in the day. One of our biggest challenges is having to… Because we are working on so many clients and so many projects within each of those clients at a time, is switching brand space very rapidly. We’re supposed to, as planners and strategists, have a very deep understanding and very deep concentration when it comes to understanding the consumer, understanding the business problem, how to creatively tie all of those pieces together. And when you’re rapidly switching from one to the another, it can feel a little like your brain is glitching, honestly, when you have to get through that much work.
Sara Macfarlane: Around the nurturing and talent piece, this development is actually one of my favorite parts of the job. I love my job, in general, but I love being able to spend a lot of time with that young talent. No, maybe not young, maybe inexperienced, but giving them that balance of opportunity and protection. To some extent the protection on our side isn’t as much about tasks or things like that, but it’s more about pushing them out as quickly as they want to grow without leaving them out on the ledge. So just making sure that they’re prepared before they take the leap because they’re really impatient to have that growth path forward, which is beautiful. They’re very hungry and they’re very eager to learn, but at the same time they have no fear, sometimes you need to know what to be afraid of. So that’s really fun.
Sara Macfarlane: And then around the self-training, I think we never had more resources at our disposal but we’ve also never had so little time to dedicate to mentoring ourselves and being able to pay attention to our own growth and our own development. They are all interrelated, but a really critical challenges facing this industry.
John Roberts: Let’s take a minute and just step into that… You mentioned resources and, Steve you mentioned it also in terms of, there’s a lot out there. You’ve been able to find some really great communities you can take part in. Share a couple of recommendations with our audience, if you can’t go to an event like StratFest, where can you go to find a virtual community and really take part and learn from?
Steve Kozel: Yeah, so there’s a few that have been really instrumental. As I mentioned, our team is new within our agency and so in that we’ve been doing a lot of collective learning together, making sure that we all have some shared foundation from which we’re operating and doing our strategic work across clients and accounts.
Steve Kozel: One of the first things that I looked into was the WARC, W-A-R-C, their strategy toolkit curriculum that’s available through their platform. It’s just a nice collection of content and material that is broken out by topic. It’s really foundational for what would be traditionally considered the account planning function, the planning function. We’ve been going through that as a department and one of the best parts about it is the course curriculum is intentionally conflicting at time. They intentionally package up contradictory points of view around certain topics and so that has really made for really healthy discussion and debate within my team. We meet once a week, we review the meetings. It’s been a really nice cadence of learning and growth and discussion and, honestly, team bonding for us throughout the year.
Steve Kozel: Beyond that, some voices in industry that I think have been really influential, informative for us. I can’t remember if we already referenced it here, but I know it got brought up in the Planner Parley, Mike Pollard’s Sweathead community on Facebook and Sweathead podcast, honestly, have been really helpful in, not even just myself being able to see that resource and get opinion and ask questions of fellow strategists, but just watching how popular that community has become for folks to raise their hand and say, “Hey, I’m struggling with this. Do you guys have any resources? Can you help me out? Can you give something?” I joked at one point, there are so many posts there, “I’m looking for an example of…” It’s really one of those popular posts within that community, but it’s obviously been great.
Steve Kozel: Julian Cole is another voice that has been really informative in the way that we’ve approached comms planning within the agency. And the fact that he and Mark have teamed up to be doing these strategy supersize or mega classes that they’ve been doing throughout the country and throughout the world, I think. I don’t know, it seems like a bit of a revival of cool grassroots reclamation of the strategy practice in a way that’s very democratized. I find that stuff really encouraging. On the other side of it, folks like Mike Ritson. I think he has a refreshingly candid point of view on what makes for good marketing and marketing strategy. I’m a big fan of his. The recaps that he’s done for the Effie Awards for the 50th anniversary where really beautifully distilled points of view on why marketing works well when it’s done well. And then Les Binet, Peter Field, Ivan Sharpe, when we think about what makes for effective work, those are voices that I don’t think can be ignored, and you can take a lot from the material that they’ve put out there in terms of research facts, approaches to effective marketing.
John Roberts: Sara, how about you? Where do you go?
Sara Macfarlane: Yeah, I think it’s really important that you’ve mentioned podcasts, right? Those, I think, have been a savior in trying to keep up with a lot of the reading and self education that a lot of us just don’t have time to do as much of. Some of the same things Steve mentioned have definitely been resources… I also during the StratFest was comparing notes with other planners and strategists on their hacks and tips for trying to keep up with some of that reading, things like some those Blinkist-type products that are CliffNotes for business strategy reading and self education, things like HBR. HBR actually has a really good Instagram following which is pretty random. But, again, a lot of podcasts. We actually, internally here, formed a group that is combined of the creative folks and the client partnership people in our strategy and insights teams, that has a weekly podcast group that we bring different sources. So, it very across the board in terms of what we may be listening to and discussing that day but it keeps us all on the same page in thinking and collaborating together across discipline, so that’s has really been a really rich resource for us.
Steve Kozel: One more thing I would add… Sara brought up podcasts and there’s certainly a lot out there that can be really instructive and informative. And even I’m also a fan of Blinkist, I think it’s great when you start trying to get through all of the strategy books that are out there. They are not all on there but a lot of them are and it’s a really great way to get a preview and then determine like, “Hey, I definitely need to make a point to read that whole thing.”
Steve Kozel: One thing that I’ve done that’s been really helpful, I know people have mixed opinions on LinkedIn. But what I do is anytime I hear a podcast guest, anytime I read something that’s really impactful, I’ll get on LinkedIn and I’ll look up whoever that person is and I’ll follow them. I won’t try to connect to them, I’ll just click the follow button. And what it’s given me is a LinkedIn feed that’s just full of strategy and marketing focused on leadership. I don’t know, it’s been a goldmine to just get a non-stop feed of what people are talking about, great case studies that are being celebrated, controversial topics that are being argued. So I really encourage people to… Anything you come across somebody who’s got a really interesting opinion, who knows what they’re talking anybody, think about getting on LinkedIn and following them and using that as a vehicle to get a lot of really smart voices in front of you on a day-to-day basis.
John Roberts: Great examples. In fact, I’m probably nodding as we go through all of Steve’s list and Sara’s list with the great and goods of where we can get inspired. Steve actually just showed me a long list, which we’ll be promoting back out eminently Steve because part of the thing I did at Parley was, I had about 40 people in the room giving me their secret weapon. And it comes back to exactly to what Sara and Steve were talking about earlier, everybody’s incredibly generous of, “Here’s a resource that I use.” I’m actually even conscious right now of compiling that list because there’s new things there some new things on there that I love the look of and I want to share that back out with everyone.
Josh Coon: And I’ve heard of this great new show called Planner Parley about small agency planning that I think fits on all of those lists. So, two more questions and then we’ll wrap it up. The Jay Chiat Awards are also done at StratFest. They’re awards given for exemplary planning, planning that has made a difference in taking a creative in a direction that it wouldn’t have gone to on its own. A lot of people don’t that that’s happening there at the same time so we wanted to call those out. I want to ask each one of you, what were the themes that you saw from the awards this year? What really stood out to you as a rising trend or theme or piece of work that you just loved? John, go ahead.
John Roberts: Let me connect that with the last piece as well, which is actually the 4As host all of the Jay Chiat award entries, the winning entries, the stories about how StratFest made a difference. For me that’s always a really great source of information that I can go and look at, and hopefully not steal, but definitely get inspired by what great strategy is all about, which is finding a point of difference. That for me is really interesting when I think about the themes for this year.
John Roberts: The work that really stood out for me was the work that wasn’t just about the really simple story, well-told, engaging and connecting the thread between the challenge and result, but there is that moment… There’s the moment in the case studies when you go, “I feel jealous. I wish I had thought that. I wish I had said that, expressed that.” So, great work actually from across the world. One of my favorites was probably Mother.
John Roberts: Mother one on connection strategy for the New York Public Library. Basically they flipped the problem on its head. Gen C doesn’t got to the library because they’re on their phones. So what you do is you take the library to them. And created the very first ever instant novel as a way to connect. I just loved the audacity, the simplicity of the drive to flip the challenge around completely to lead to better result. That definitely made me jealous.
Josh Coon: Steve, how about you?
Steve Kozel: John, it’s interesting you bring that one up because I found myself really enamored with the execution as it was being presented. The cynic in me was like, “Did they get more people to go to the library? I’m not sure.” I left that one feeling a little bit unresolved. But I thought the work was as outstanding, and to your point, definitely jealousy-inducing. I think for me what was really obvious… I would say the same thing about last year’s winners. It’s really refreshing to see a lot of non-advertising solutions to client problems. I think that it’s evidenced that folks in our discipline are increasingly adaptive, being able to utilize all the tools at their disposal, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come in a form of ad unit.
Steve Kozel: The flip side of that then is being aware of what might start to become a propensity to try to find the really unexpected, non-obvious thing to make, where we actually undermine the power the advertising in marketing generally can actually have. So, I always measure those award winners out and think, “This is cool. This was a really unique and interesting way to approach this problem.” But I try to also be mindful of not falling in love with making things and remembering we’re still in the business that when done well, can work really hard from a pure advertising and marketing perspective. Maybe that’s just the old school in me, but I always try to keep that in mind.
Sara Macfarlane: You can be old school Steve I think that’s… There’s absolutely a place for just approaching the problem that you’re given and solving it in a really amazing way, whether it’s more straightforward like a lot of these awards winners. I think that was one the biggest themes was most of these folks that were nominated and eventually won were talking about reframing the problem from the original approach that they were given. I think one of the most things… I just like that idea of reframing the problem because we do get a lot of clients coming to us with, “I need an ad campaign. I don’t know what I’m trying to achieve but I need an ad campaign.”
Sara Macfarlane: So really think through what are we ultimately trying to impact and then doing that however we think will be most effective. I think it’s totally fair to be questioning… The library was amazing, that campaign was beautiful but did it drive more library visits? I don’t know. It got more people reading, that makes me happy. I thought too, VMlY&R’s example of a SipSsafe, was an interesting way of reframing that problem. They were given an assignment to create a brochure but then they reframed it, find this problem and raise awareness around people getting their drinks contaminated. And so they created this wrist band that you can test your drink on which was probably not super effective in keeping people from drugging drinks but it at least raised awareness of the problem, which I thought was really interesting.
Sara Macfarlane: It’s really great to see all of these examples of really great thinking and how it translates into the work. I think just for the value of the inspiration and discussing how they got to that place has been really valuable.
Steve Kozel: It occurs to me that I didn’t actually share my favorite so I should probably do that. So I really like FP7, the candy bars case study on introducing the new Arabic word for Parenthood that actually represented mothers and not just fathers. Those are the cool aspirational types of work that I think we all would love to do, where we’re actually having cultural impacts as well as accomplishing the tasks that our client put in front of us. To me it reminded me of last year’s winner, McCann India did, where they essentially made having a toilet in a home a status symbol and in doing so made life safer for women in India. I think that stuff is really cool. This is the same guy who just said, “Let’s not forget about doing traditional advertising and marketing.” But I do think that there are really interesting ways of solving a problem that can fundamentally contribute to the greater good for humanity, which… Why not, when you can, do that always.
Josh Coon: Final question for everybody. You go to these events, you get very inspired, you get very excited. You’re ready to rip into work when you get back to the office but then you get back to the office. How do you maintain momentum and inspiration and keep that spirit alive once you’re back to the grind? John?
John Roberts: It’s a reality, right, that we all come back in, and I’m sure Sara and Steven are the same. Well, back into the office after the best part of the week away, and it’s crazy world. What I try and do is I think about what are small things I can put into practice now and what are bigger things that I actually set time in my calendar to start talking about with other people in the agency. It doesn’t come instantly within me. Sure, we can all do a lunch and learn on what we heard but that’s very different to actually what you’re saying about how do we maintain the momentum and implement it.
John Roberts: I like thinking about very, very small touches that I can start adding to the work I’m doing, the conversations I’m having but also set time in the calendar to really spend at least an hour thinking about, “Okay, so this inspired me at StratFest, how can do we start to apply this in what we do at Truth Connective?”
John Roberts: How about you Sara?
Sara Macfarlane: Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing that’s been the most effective for me is coming back and immediately pulling my teams in and saying, “Okay, let’s try this, right? I learned this thing. I thought it was really cool, let’s try it on the next project.” And really looking for those next opportunities to test it out on any of the things that we’ve learned or thought about, or really bringing it back to the team and just saying, “Let’s try it.” Immediately implementing before a lot of it falls away and the glow of the beautiful experience fades from our memory until next year.
Steve Kozel: I think for me there’s always a lot of food for thought, and it takes me a little bit to digest that and turn it into application for the work we’re doing. And I think to your point, it’s easy to walk right back into the tidal wave of work and completely lose the value. One of the things that… I think it came up in the Planner Parley, maybe in conversation at our table, but just talking about what being a strategist or planner within a small agency looks like and maybe some of the differentiators between the way we work and ways we engage, or even where our backgrounds started and types of trainings we’ve had. I started thinking about this difference between being a purebred planner and a mutt, having this muttishness. I don’t know if that’s necessarily correlated with the size of an agency. But as I was thinking about that I read an article on WARC that was… David Todman wrote about a topic Ben Novick from Google had that was differentiating between proper planners and close planning planners. Where he was calling out proper planners as being the traditionally-schooled and classically-trained. He compared them to a beautiful sharp machete. And then he talked about close planning planners being more like a Swiss army knife.
Steve Kozel: And I bring that up, both of those threads, to say that as I continue to think about where strategy goes within our agency and how I continue to grow and involve our team… There’s moments where I start to have doubts around the way that I’ve structured it and the way we’ve focused ourselves from a function perspective, how we assign work, how we approach work. I think it just really encouraged me that I’m headed in the right direction, that there’s nothing wrong with having a pack of strategy mutts that are all utility-focused Swiss army knife types because to be honest, I do think, and this is the point the article makes, that’s the way that things are moving. And the more we can be generalists… Maybe with some areas of specialty, but being able to flex and flow with the types of work that clients bring us, to be able to plug into the day-to-day and add value as well zoom out at a high altitude and have that master plan. I think we’ve got to be able to handle both.
Steve Kozel: And so I just find myself looking forward as we near the end of the year and start thinking where things start going next year, really leaning into and embracing that idea of being a strategy mutt. And 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 hip dysplasias and things like that. So 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.
Sara Macfarlane: Steve, I love that. I’m a proud mutt myself. I think that it’s really been a valuable tool for us in the past couple of years, especially as the industry and agencies in general have shifted direction and gone to… We’re always focused on what is it the CMO and the CEO need from us now. I think as that shifts maybe more into… We’re getting requests that are a lot more like strategic planning than traditional planning. And as they’re looking to consultancies to solve some of those problems, we’ve needed to shift that direction too and get a lot stronger in certain areas than others, maybe the pendulum will swing back. But mutt status really does give you the flexibility to bring what the client needs at the time.
Steve Kozel: Yeah, we’re scrappy.
Sara Macfarlane: Yeah, right?
Josh Coon: I think #muttstatus is the hashtag for this episode.
Steve Kozel: The kind of planning you don’t want to run into an alley, right?
Sara Macfarlane: #muttlife.
Josh Coon: Well, thank you both so much for joining us on the episode. We really appreciate all your insight on StratFest, all of these that you’ve shared with us. For our listeners out there, John mentioned we’re compiling some of this stuff into some sharable form where you’ll be able to find some of these resources. We can also put some of the key resources and events in our show notes. So, Steve, Sara, John, thank you so much for joining us.
John Roberts: Thank you guys.
Sara Macfarlane: Thanks guys.
John Roberts: Great. Great to catch up with you guys. See ya.
Speaker 1: Planner Parley, a Truth Collective production.