Introduction: Welcome to Planner Parley, a show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency planning. In this week’s episode, we’re talking with Sean Pitts, Brand Strategist at Hanson Dodge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Josh Coon, Director of Experience at Truth Collective in Rochester, New York, about the marriage of content and strategy, and the ways that union is changing how brands reach and engage with consumers. Join them, and of course, John Roberts, CSO at Truth Collective, as we bridge the gaps between strategists and content creators and what it means for small agencies. Pull up a chair and listen in.
John Roberts: Welcome everyone to season two of the Planner Parley. I’d love to welcome Sean Pitts, Brand Strategist from Hanson Dodge in Milwaukee, who not only is the Brand Strategist there, but he’s also a photographer and a blogger. Welcome, Sean. Glad to get you on the show.
Sean Pitts: Thank you guys. Thank you guys for having me.
John Roberts: And Josh Coon, Experience Director here at Truth Collective, who has a point of view in terms of the role of strategy and content, of course in his day job, but in nights, weekends mornings, and anytime he can, he’s an artist and a professor of visual storytelling. Josh, looking forward to it.
Josh Coon: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
John Roberts: Guys, why don’t we just start with a little bit of your story. Both of you have strategic roles in small agencies that are pushing the boundaries in terms of creativity and content today. But why don’t we talk a little bit about what’s your backstory? How did you get started and what was it in your path that turned you into a strategist? Sean, let’s start with you.
Sean Pitts: Thanks, John. I think for me it was a little bit of an unorthodox path, and that’s typically what I’ve found in strategy is, you got different backgrounds. I started at a college working at DDB Chicago, on McDonald’s, and I was only accounting there, and after some time there, I left and went to Milwaukee, worked for Kohl’s for a short period of time, and then I was looking to get back into advertising. And I had interviewed for an Account Management position thinking that was the role that I wanted to do, and thinking that strategy was … I used to see nothing but senior level roles. I never knew that there was an opportunity for me to get into entry-level.
Sean Pitts: And then, when I interviewed at BBK, which was the agency previous to where I’m at now, they said that I’d be better suited for strategy. And so they hired me on for a Brand Strategist position there, I had the privilege-
John Roberts: Did they say that as a compliment? [crosstalk 00:02:42].
Sean Pitts: Yeah, they did. They said I was really good for Account Management, but they said that my skill set, the way I thought about things and brands, and the way I explained things, they said I would be a better strategist. They think that I would have an opportunity to grow there, and that was something that I didn’t know was an opportunity, but I took the role. I had the privilege to learn from two VP of Strategy there at the agency, and then since then I’ve moved over to Hanson Dodge where I learned from Mike Stefaniak, Chief of Strategy.
John Roberts: Fantastic. Josh, what’s your twisted path?
Josh Coon: I came from, I would say, another unorthodox twisting path, as you referred to it. I actually started out college. It’s all in fine art. And then in computer graphics design, and that led me into web design. I worked as a designer for many years and started building websites and different things like that. And then that naturally led into social media and into the idea of like, “Well, how are you going to bring people back to the site that you just build? What’s going to make them come back?”
Josh Coon: My journey into content marketing and content strategy was pretty organic. And then it went from one company to the next, where we created some live experiences where we were … It was a fire safe company, so we were burning safes live on the internet and putting prize money so people could see that the product actually performed, back before live streaming was an easy thing to do. And then on to Kodak, an analog film company, and really helping bring the analog renaissance back forward, with podcasts and magazines and all those things.
Josh Coon: But it all revolved around this idea of storytelling and, “How can you bring a brand to life in a way that’s going to make somebody want to engage with it on a daily basis? And if you spend all this time investing in a website or anything, how do you then make people come back and visit it over and over again?” And that’s through content. That naturally was an organic path for me.
Josh Coon: And then my time here at Truth, this is actually my first agency job since right out of college, which I will not say how many embarrassing years ago that was, but it was a while ago. This is actually, I guess, the other way where I’m now working on the agency side after being on the client side for the majority of my career. And part of it too is, at least in the companies I worked at, the strategy role wasn’t there, there wasn’t a job called a strategist. A lot of the marketers had to wear multiple hats, and I think that helped prepare me a little bit for this.
John Roberts: That’s great. Let’s talk about those multiple hats, probably in terms of the background you spoke about, Josh. But, just following that, wait for a minute, because both of you are content creators in your own light, it’s what you do. Sean, I know you were talking about some blocks you manage as well as your photographer. Josh, you’re an artist and a web designer. How do the two roles, strategy and content creator, how do you find them nurture each other, Josh?
Josh Coon: I think there’s probably a couple of things to this, like when you’re creating on your own for yourself, or you’re creating for … When I worked at some of the client side place is an example, or even here at Truth, working on our brand and our properties, there’s almost a compulsion to it to want to make and to want to create, and that drives you to be engaged with what’s going on, and whether it’s on social or through different communities. I feel like you’re just more involved in what’s happening, not to say other creative people aren’t, but it’s just part of what you’re doing.
Josh Coon: You’re creating and you want to get that stuff out to the world, so you’re constantly exploring ways to do that. And that stuff, to me, made a really nice relationship into the marketing and client work. It’s like, as you’re exploring for yourself you’re learning, and then you’re applying that immediately to what you’re doing for clients, for your own brand.
John Roberts: I got it. How about you, Sean?
Sean Pitts: I think, from my perspective, it’s understanding how the creative process works, helps as a strategist. Me being a photographer and just understanding where I can maybe get my inspiration from, or where I might get the purposes, the reason why I’m doing the project in the direction, and that whole creative process of where you’re going through ideation and finding those inspiration pieces, and creating the work and the process that is, the creative team goes through that on a repeated basis. Understanding where the strategy fits within that, how to direct that, how to support it in a way that’s not going to take anything away from that process, I think for me, that’s been that balance that’s helped me see both sides of the coin.
John Roberts: That’s great to have that perspective. Does it create a tension, Sean, at times?
Sean Pitts: I think it creates a tension within myself. It’s trying to find that balance because I [inaudible 00:07:41] creative, where I’m finding myself wanting to participating in all of these pieces on the creative side so much, that I got to continuously remember the strategist part of me too, and making sure that, that comes through and that the strategy is consistent. And I don’t get wrapped up in the creative process with the creatives. But trying to find that balance within those two things.
Sean Pitts: But I think once you figure out your access point or the point in which you can make the most influence with the creative team and on the creative process, I think at that point, you start to find less tension. You find that it starts to help the creative team out. It starts to help propel them to the great ideas, to the great thinking and those things like that.
John Roberts: It’s a great way thinking about that access point. What have you found, Josh?
Josh Coon: I would definitely agree with Sean, that it’s, and I think it’s something, honestly, I still struggle with sometimes, is where I stop and start in terms of the creative process. My nature is to want to be involved in helping the brainstorming and do those things, but also I know that, as Sean said, sometimes it’s by helping that creative team and propelling them forward and providing them with options that are going to inspire and get great ideas. And it’s a little mixed because then it’s also about, “How can we then take those ideas and share them with the world in innovative ways, on different channels, across lots of different types of content.”
Josh Coon: And so that’s where we come, I think at least for me, come back into the creative process, which is, how are we going to get this idea out in the world now? So there’s always, I think definitely, a little bit of tension back and forth and that desire to be involved in the creative process. And I think I’m honestly still learning that part of, “When do I stop and creative team starts?”
John Roberts: [inaudible 00:09:35] carry on from that, Josh, when I think about … Obviously I’ve got a lot of experience working with you, but Sean, from the conversations we’ve had, are we seeing a change in your mind about how agencies are working? That hand over, if you like, of traditional old school agency, linear format of strategy handing over to creative, feels as though, certainly from the perspectives you guys have both said, we’re seeing a lot more plan at the moment. Do you think agencies are changing that way?
Sean Pitts: Yeah, I think so. I think, as things start to adapt a little bit, a lot of agencies are starting to break down the silos of strategy and creative, you’re seeing a lot more positions popping up that are creative strategists, or content strategists, all of these different areas where it starts to bridge the gaps between these areas and less handoff. And I think that, to me, has started to open things up. You have so many other people in the room at all stages of the process, that are able to contribute to the entire campaign, and ensure that all of those pieces are staying consistent.
Sean Pitts: When you have a strategist that’s in the room and understands creative, when you’re presenting creative, when you’re doing the internal ideation sessions, when they’re doing brainstorming sessions, all of those different things, having a strategist in the room that understands the creative process helps make sure that the strategy is staying on point, but it also adds another viewpoint or perspective in the room that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Sean Pitts: And the same way goes for creative team being a part of strategy meetings. Those things are important to be able to have the switching of ideas, and being able to have everybody in the room at the same time, throughout the process and less of the handing off. I’m done with it and then they’ll, we’ll pass it over to this team, that starts to feel disjointed.
Sean Pitts: It’s worked in the past and it obviously still works for some things, but I think now it’s one of those things where you’re starting to see some really good captivating work. And when you see the teams behind it, it’s a meld of a lot of different perspectives and ideas. It’s not just one.
John Roberts: Create perspective. Josh, what’s your view?
Josh Coon: I think agencies are changing it and have to change because of the way content gets made, and the way that people consume it is so different and there’s so many new channels that are happening all the time, that I do feel like … It’s almost like we have to be more multifaceted as content creators and strategists or content creators and the creative team themselves. And I really liked what Sean talked about, where being a creative person, being an artist, a photographer, all of those things do really, really help both in the creative process with your creative team, but even when talking to clients and being able to really bring your ideas to life for them.
Josh Coon: But I the world we live in now and the way people consume content and their expectations of what that content is, is so different than it was even 10 years ago, five years ago, that I think agencies have to change in order to continue to grow and to continue to be relevant, and be able to keep up against everything from massive companies to single individuals who are out there right now. The spectrum of who we compete against is really, really broad.
Josh Coon: And then you bring all the companies that are in housing, and bringing teams inside. I think agencies just have to change the way we’re working in order to be able to continue to do the great things that I’ve done, the creative work and all those things.
John Roberts: It’s obvious the conversation that we’re having often. Aren’t we, Josh? Sitting side by side literally or metaphorically. Sean, are you seeing these changes happen from your agency experience as well?
Sean Pitts: Yeah, there’s, definitely. Like Josh said, you’re seeing consumers shift and change how they’re consuming content, how they’re viewing brands, how they perceive ads. And we’re seeing that help shape how agencies are run and even our own agency at HD. I’ve had the privilege to be able to be a part of a lot of the creative process at HD. The creative team feels that they can bring me in on a lot of different things. And part of it is they understand that I’m creative outside of work, and they understand that I have a certain eye for things and maybe a better understanding about certain processes.
Sean Pitts: But on top of that, they understand, as a whole, the agency understands the value of having somebody else that’s from another department in the room, and you’re starting to see where these meetings are being held, or we’re having an ideation session and we’re bringing in the account team. And traditionally that’s frowned upon. A lot of agencies will be afraid to do that. But I think it’s huge because, Hanson Dodge has been, especially now when we’re working remotely, and we’re trying to have these ideation sessions over Zoom.
Sean Pitts: But we have a couple of people from the account team, me as a Strategist and then a few of the creatives obviously, and all of us are in the room coming up with these ideas. And you’ll be surprised that the creative team comes up with these amazing ideas. I may come up with a few that are pretty good, and then you have the accounting that comes up with a handful that are good as well. All of these ideas help build the basis from where the creative team can start, and then sometimes these ideas make it into the final production. And so, all of a sudden, you start to realize the value of having all of these people and these perspectives in the room like that.
John Roberts: When we pick up on that notion about your collaboration experience across the agency, it’s obviously leading to more involvement from everyone. Is it breaking down the borders of the law of channels when we think of content, because there are so many more channels than ever before?
Sean Pitts: Yeah, I think that, that also has opened things up. Josh had said too, the way consumers consume things and what they’re looking for and the content that they pursue is different, and it’s constantly changing. And so, you break down the barriers within the agency, you’ve broken down all these other barriers with the work. We find ourselves in this position a lot, where you have these requirements as far as what the client wants and we’re going to produce a TV ad, and we’re going to produce a radio spot and all these kinds of things, the staples, the digital banners and all the other things that we typically have to produce.
Sean Pitts: But when you look at it from a framework where you don’t have those barriers, when you approach the problem or figure out what the creative purpose is without that boundary in place, you may find that there’s another creative outlet or another content strategy that might work better than trying to produce the typical TV ad, the radio spot and the digital banners. You might find that creating a podcast or a film, or some type of music playlist or whatever it might be, I’ve seen brands do all different types of things that shift the narrative, and inserts the brand in this piece of culture, you’ve got so many consumers that are pursuing podcasts.
Sean Pitts: And we had talked a while back about one of the brands that we worked on with Stanley PMI, which is the beverage containers. And we were talking about, “What if we could create content around that and the influencers that resonate with the brand?” And maybe what if we could do something that there’s a podcast? And consumers are consuming that content already. And that’s where culture is.
Sean Pitts: And so, if you are able to meet them right there, instead of trying to produce the traditional stuff that they see as advertising, but instead try to tell a story, you do a short film series on the Stanley bottles, that helps people contextualize what you’re trying to communicate to them. And it helps them connect with the story in an emotional level, and at that point, you’ve got them interested. Then later on down the funnel, down the line, you can start to communicate these benefits because they’re interested in finding those things out.
John Roberts: All music to Josh’s ears from the conversations [crosstalk 00:18:19] at the time.
Josh Coon: I might’ve been clapping. I might’ve [inaudible 00:18:25].
John Roberts: Sean was way more eloquent, Josh, than you’ve been.
Josh Coon: I know, he has.
John Roberts: And so, now is your chance to build on Sean. Because Josh, you’ve talked about this to me often, and I think it’s a really simple, but very smart perspective. If we begin with believing that the answer to the brief is an ad, we’ve created constraints ourselves, immediately. Talk more about that, Josh. Your perspective, but also, what can we do to avoid that error?
Josh Coon: Some of it goes back to what Sean said, that the world that our consumers live in, is so much bigger than the world that we sometimes live in as marketing people. We do think about the radio spots, the TV ads, the tactics that have created the industry, but our consumers live on Spotify, and YouTube, and TikTok, and Hulu, and Netflix. And a brand can occupy, I think, a much larger footprint, and do.
Josh Coon: And if you look at brands like bands, as an example, they have an actual film division where they’re making feature-length skate, snowboard, surf films, they’re doing documentaries. They have short films that are coming out on YouTube. They have a really strong social media program. They even have print zines and different things that come out. But that brand occupies a much larger footprint than it may have in the past. And all of those things are communicating with consumers, where they want to be communicated with, and in a way that’s useful and valuable.
Josh Coon: Being useful to people is, I think, the most important thing we can do as marketers. And being useful could be as simple as, “I’m going to make you laugh or smile when you need to.” Or, “I’m going to teach you something you didn’t know before.” But I think all brands are becoming media publishers, whether they want to or not.
John Roberts: You mentioned brands. Do you feel that brands get this, understand that point more than agencies?
Josh Coon: Yeah, I think that some brands, not all brands. But some brands are further ahead maybe than agencies are. And brands is one that I think has a pretty great program, Nike. They’ve got a really incredible social media program and they still create beautiful pieces of video and all those things, but they also have a really broad reach to the way they build out their content. But even as stuff like entertainment companies, I think are a little bit further ahead.
Josh Coon: They’re looking at the audience that they’re building as a really valuable resource, because as people want to be advertised to less, and the ways we advertise like digital targeting and things are going to change dramatically in the future, I think some of these companies are looking at the audience that they have and being like, “I don’t need to work as hard to reach a bunch of people that might not care. I want to build an audience of fans and dedicated people,” which is hard work and it’s playing a longer game, but in the end, it’s a really valuable asset that you’ve created.
John Roberts: Sean, does this connect back with what you were saying earlier about fundamentally content is helping brands integrate into culture, or you’re using culture to create content for brands? Does that connect for you?
Sean Pitts: Yeah, it does. I think especially now, and even to the point of some of the things Josh was saying. The difficulty right now is, you have some brands that have tapped into it already. And then you have some that are still struggling to figure out how they’re going to insert themselves into culture. You look at brands like Nike, they’re obviously really good at what they do, but they’ve also figured out ways to insert themselves into the conversations of culture.
Sean Pitts: You look back at the things that were happening around Black Lives Matter, and they’ve inserted themselves into that conversation by making statements, that feel authentic to the brand. They’re inserting themselves in moments of time. Even going back to Colin Kaepernick, and supporting what they feel is right, but at the same time, it’s all related to sports. And they’re now becoming part of culture. They’re now becoming part of the conversations that are happening within culture.
Sean Pitts: Apple does the same thing in an authentic way. Aside from all their creative stuff that they’re doing, and all of these different ads, and the ways you can use their products, you can even take something as simple as their pitch for privacy. And whether you agree with it or not, they’re one of the few brands in the tech space that can authentically stand on that. Because their products and their basis and what they’ve done prior to that has supported it.
Sean Pitts: And so, you’ve seen all of these different examples of these brands, stepping into pieces of concern, or thirst for that consumers have expressed their fears for their own privacy. Apple’s inserted themselves authentically into that conversation in culture, to make themselves relevant for the long term. And then, at that point now you don’t have to do as much work as opposed to these other brands, are constantly having to change their communication channels and messaging to make it seem it’s authentic, but it’s never truly that way. Same with Nike and inserting themselves into the sports and culture where it makes sense for the brand to be there.
Josh Coon: The way you’ve brought the Nike example to life is much, much better than what I just said. And it makes that … Because they can have that conversation because they’ve taken a stand in the past. And they know that, that’s what their audience wants them to do, and they’re willing to risk, potentially offending some consumers, because I think they understand that the audience that supports them is going to support that message.
Josh Coon: And I think that taking that stand, and that type of authentic communication, is something that more and more brands are trying to do. Even big entertainment companies like Disney have taken some pretty strong stands lately. It’s definitely something that you’re seeing happen and it makes the audience more loyal to them, their audience.
Sean Pitts: That’s another thing that I’ve noticed when you look at these other brands. Even outside of those two, consumers are starting to test brands a little bit. They’re trying to make sure that the story that … They’re purchasing the product, but what’s behind the story? What’s the brand really trying to communicate? Where are they trying to be? Does it feel authentic and can they prove it? And so, if the brand is able to do all those things, you start to see a little bit of a shift in loyalty from consumers where they really latch onto something like that.
Sean Pitts: They’re emotionally tied to it, they truly believe in it. It goes beyond just the brand, having a product that they want and helping them fulfill a certain lifestyle that they want, but now it’s going a step further and saying, “Okay, well, all these brands doing the things that they say they’re doing in an authentic way. And then are they participating in the conversations that we’re having as consumers? Do these brands … Can they relate to them in the same way that they relate to people, to their friends, to their family?”
Sean Pitts: People are starting to relate to brands in that same way. They’re starting to build connections and understand the personalities of those brands just throughout the communication and the content that they put out, all of those things, but that’s the thing that I think consumers are shifting to align on.
John Roberts: [inaudible 00:25:47] also sets a high bar, Sean, doesn’t it? When you think about all of these examples, you and Josh are talking through. This notion of authenticity, of genuine truth you also need to commit to it and stick with it. The Nike, Kaepernick, and now [inaudible 00:26:04], or Josh, what you were talking about earlier about being true to who you’re. Does that frighten clients, do you think, making that form of commitment?
Josh Coon: I’m going to say, it’s going to frighten some, but I think it’s going to frighten some of the clients that, as we were saying, some brands are further along in this journey than others, and I think the ones that are further along aren’t necessarily going to be frightened by it. But people who are still trying to figure out where they fit in the way that the world of communication has evolved, are going to be a little nervous about it.
Josh Coon: And part of our job is, I think, help them see the way forward, so that they can build the audience that they need, they can reach the consumers that they need to, and they can be comfortable taking that stand. Because on one hand, if you build the audience, you can take the stand and you’re less worried about offending everybody, because you have people who support you. You have fans, you have consumers built-in, that are going to support you. I don’t know if that makes sense.
John Roberts: Yeah. Sure, it does. And honestly, when I think about what I was just asking, how you’re explaining it, Josh, I also believe that brands need to be more purposeful. That doesn’t mean that we need to connect all brands with the most lofty higher purpose reasons of being [inaudible 00:27:24], but be true and honest about what the low the brand can play. Does that make sense?
Josh Coon: Yeah. And I think that Sean said it really, really well, where he was saying, part of the reason, like the Nike example, again, that they’re inserting their voice in places where it makes sense for them to insert their voice. They’re not having a dialogue in areas that they don’t belong in. It all ties back to sports. It ties back to things that are impacting sports.
John Roberts: Go ahead.
Josh Coon: I think that authenticity and realizing where you should talk, is just as important as realizing what you should say and being bold enough to have a position.
John Roberts: Josh, when you pick up in terms of brands, success depends on understanding, not just what they can say, but where to be relevant, to be genuinely authentic. Nike and sports, I’m using this as that platform, as an example. Is that a fundamental role for a content strategist?
Josh Coon: Yeah. I guess I see a content strategist role in a couple of different places. And some of it definitely ties into what you were just talking about John. But I think some of it is … A content strategist role is to take the communication strategy, and really figure out how to bring it to life in real time, across multiple touch points. And part of the reason that I always try to bring in real time to it, is because I think a content strategy may live longer than, say, a specific campaign or a specific tactic.
Josh Coon: It’s about where do you find the consumers that are going to be interested in this brand and how can you be useful to them, and give them content that’s going to really engage them and build them as an audience? It’s always building audiences for brand through storytelling, but that storytelling could happen as a podcast, it could happen as episodic video. It could start out as small as a blog, or some content on their website, and then grow into everything from podcasts to episodic content, to printed magazines, to who knows what.
Josh Coon: Could also be in real life experiences. But I think it’s about taking that communication strategy, and then spreading it out over different relevant storytelling avenues for consumers to really engage with that brand. But then also talking about authentically, how can they be useful? How can they be helpful? What can they do to enhance their consumer’s life?
John Roberts: How about you, Sean, how do you see the role of a content strategist?
Sean Pitts: Josh, to me, said it in a lot of ways that I would say. It’s all the different avenues that … How to reach the consumers and where, and authentically. That’s the core of what that their role is and the purpose behind it. And they’re going to step beyond to understand where the culture is, how the consumer is going to perceive it based on where culture is and the different ways that the messaging and communication can come across and what channels that would make sense based on the culture, based on that consumer and based on where the brand and, where they can authentically fit.
Sean Pitts: And then on top of that, you’re also looking at … Josh even said it too, the longevity of that. Conscience strategist, they’re working longterm. They’re looking to see how can that message last in a way it can obviously be tweaked and altered, based on where culture is and based on how consumers change. But the core of it is always still there. Whereas a campaign, typically those things it’s attacking one key insight or maybe it’s one specific purpose or one key benefit, and it works for limited time in most cases. The campaign will run for X amount of time, and that message is relevant until it’s not anymore, where the stuff that the content strategist is working on, that’s going to last beyond where the campaign is.
Sean Pitts: It’s going to take the campaign elements and figure out where it cannot authentically reach this guy and or girl in a way that really resonates with them, and emotionally connects with them in ways that maybe the campaign at a high level may not be.
John Roberts: I want to connect that back to something you were saying earlier, Sean, because I love that thread. Do you believe that content can change behavior more than advertising?
Sean Pitts: Yeah. I think it has the potential to, especially now, the way people are consuming content is different, and people’s behavior currently is in an uncertain state. People are reverting back maybe to old school values. Maybe they’re changing their behaviors to things that they’d never done before or things that they used to do in order to maintain. I think of brands … One of my favorite brands is Bevel. And so, Bevel is a men’s shaving line and they also have a few other products now on the market for body and hair and brands like that where they’ve started with a shave kit, the same brands like Dollar Shave Club, like Harry’s.
Sean Pitts: And you start to change someone’s behavior, because you’re not only offering this product, but where it makes sense, you’re offering the tips and the tricks to help them take care of themselves. You’re figuring out, what are the problems and pain points that that person is going through? What’s concerning them? And tapping into that and helping them through that process. And so, brands like that have shifted how people shave and how men view shaving as a process. People used to dread it, people used to have so many problems with it. Now it’s a shift to … It starts to be an escape. It starts to be this moment of self-care and reflection.
Sean Pitts: Same thing with brands like Away, and shifting how people travel in the importance of that. It’s not just a lifestyle brand that people like to see as an accessory, but they’ve also worked to change the different ways people travel. Brands like Airbnb and how people travel that way, and where they stay, and how they look at their vantage point within a city. You know what I mean? All of these different brands are doing these things.
Sean Pitts: They’re tapping into moments where the consumer is actually vulnerable, and either fixing a problem, or helping them overcome something, or maybe they’re tapping into something that’s culture related. And those things allow the brand to be authentically relevant. They solve a problem and they help bridge a gap, and build a connection between consumers and the brand itself in an authentic way.
John Roberts: That connection matters more and more today, [inaudible 00:34:28]. How do you feel about that, Josh? Do you feel that content can help consumers change behaviors more than advertising?
Josh Coon: I think so, because you’re reaching people where they live and they don’t feel like they’re being talked at, they’re being talked with. Their information is being shared with them. Some of the examples Sean gave, Airbnb part of what built that brand, part of it was the product innovation, but it was also content has been built in, right from the start to the way they talk to people, help provide travel tips. Made them feel comfortable in the new world that they were trying to create, where you might be staying in somebody’s house in the past, that might’ve felt really strange, but they helped provide content to make it feel better, and make it feel normal, and make it feel exciting.
Josh Coon: And I think that that ability took for a brand to relate to people and almost anticipate what somebody might be nervous about and then be able to help them feel better about it. It makes their product to use the saying that they crossed the chasm from early adopters to mass adoption, and really get people involved for their brand. And it goes back … I’ll use a Rochester example, but like Kodak, as much as they’ve fallen on hard times over the years, when George Eastman started that company, he spent as much money on education about what photography was, and how it worked, and gave away tons of camera and tons of film, because he wanted people to get hooked on it, and understand it, and not be afraid of it.
Josh Coon: Apple’s done that. A lot of brands produce content to bridge the gap, teach people, make them feel excited about what they have to offer. And it can definitely change behavior over time.
John Roberts: Guys, when you think about this thread we’ve been carrying through about the role of content today, and it’s role and relevancy. What are a couple of tips you both have for either the young strategists coming in, Sean as we talked about them earlier, with probably more natural understanding about the multiple platforms that everyone’s living in today, or their crusty old strategists like yours. Truly, it has been in the industry awhile. What it takes that we can both improve on, be it new coming in or old needing to change ways?
Sean Pitts: I think one of the things that comes to mind is going outside of the traditional formats. If you’re a seasoned strategists, or if you’re somebody who’s relatively new and trying to figure out the frameworks it’s easier to fall back on traditional frameworks that have worked in the past, traditional brief formats, whatever it might be, but maybe breaking the mold a little bit. Maybe changing how processes and letting culture, or an insight help inspire the thinking first, and then build things out from there versus trying to do the traditional way of research first, and data first, and then building it back into an inside out of that.
Sean Pitts: Maybe there’s an insight that’s in culture already. Maybe there’s something that’s happening around us already, that there’s something that you can tap into. And then from there you can grow the idea and the inspiration and the data from that. And there may lie a different way to approach the problem. I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind for me is shifting your vantage point and how you do things to open up the avenues for things that are in culture and happening around you.
Sean Pitts: And then I think the other thing is being well in tune with what’s happening in culture, but not just the stuff that’s within the culture that you’re influenced by, but the culture that everybody else is also influenced by. That means spending some time and understanding culture from other ethnicities, culture from other age groups, culture from other countries and regions, culture from other environments, whether that be city, or suburban, or whatever it might be. And then even by industry, there’s different cultures within music and art, and automotive, and all of these different things.
Sean Pitts: Understanding things outside of your realm, sometimes you’re able to notice a problem that maybe happened in another industry that could be relevant to the brand you’re working on, even if you’re not in that industry. Or maybe there’s another cultural happening that’s going on in a particular group that you can use as influence for a creative idea. There’s so many different ways to slice and dice that, I think. The broader your knowledge and your experience based on all these other areas of culture is more widespread. I think at that point, you’re able to bring a lot more things to the table.
John Roberts: The challenge you’re talking about now for me is actually the positive for a planner or strategists is kindling your curiosity to be more expansive and looking elsewhere. You said something … It’s past that, Sean. Let me just poke that a little bit, which is, you’re talking about the beef is the traditional agency brief vocal? Is the traditional agency brief an inhibitor to creating content-based platforms?
Sean Pitts: It depends. I feel like my own perspective with briefs and I’m still relatively early in my career. I haven’t seen a ton of different brief formats, but I know that each one that I’ve seen is different. Each place that I’ve been to is a different format in a different way of doing it. And I think it tends to lie within whatever that particular planner is comfortable with. But I think to me, where the opportunity lies is really realizing what is going to be truly beneficial to the creative team, realizing that maybe there’s a different way, a different format, or a different way to approach it that can help inspire the creative team differently.
Sean Pitts: If that means adjusting the format … I don’t think it’s broken. But I think there’s always some tweaking that can be done. It’s difficult to say that there’s this one brief format for this and it works. There’s multiple ways to go about a problem, but I think the thing that I tend to lean back on a little bit more is, how can we keep things simple? Stripping out all the different elements and areas, you can always have those pieces later. But from the beginning, what’s the core? What’s the main thing? What’s the single-minded idea? What’s the insight?
Sean Pitts: And having that, and just starting with that, there’s a lot of different ways and avenues that you can go. And from there, you’re not bound by the, the barriers of trying to prove reason to briefs, or being boxed into these requirements and mandatories of, “We need to create digital banner ads out of home and TV spots.” Removing all of those things, and just simply starting with the insight and the main idea, and running with that, and building from there. Maybe there’s there’s opportunity there.
Sean Pitts: And like I said, I’m still relatively new in my strategy career, but those are some of the things that I’ve picked up on over time as, “How can we bring things back to a simple state in a way that keeps everybody inspired, keeps everybody in the same direction without too many other distractions?”
John Roberts: And honestly, Sean, I think, someone who’s been around a little bit, then you nurse is a great thing in today’s age, as far as I’m concerned, because you’re automatically coming at it with a cleaner slate, a fresher perspective, a genuine curiosity of asking not just, “What can we learn, but also why did we do it that way? What about if we do it in a different way?” What about Josh? Some of the things we’ve talked about before as whether the brief is broken or whether we need to think about the outcome of the brief.
John Roberts: If all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If your creative resources are anchored in traditional advertising, then traditional advertising is likely to be the first solution. What would you recommend Josh for an agency that may have that challenge? How to get the creative, to think differently about the solution?
Josh Coon: This is something we’ve talked about a ton, and I think it’s still a work in progress. A lot of it ties back to what Sean said. I loved a lot of the things that he talked about just a moment ago with the audiences and the humility to really go and learn, and experience, and uncover what’s valuable to them. I think that’s really, really important. And then some of that I think is like, it goes back to the way to the beginning of the episode when we were talking about, if we start out and say, “We’re going to make …” If the client’s saying, “I want an ad,” they’re going to get an ad. But maybe we need to challenge ourselves to say, “What if it’s not an ad? What if it’s a podcast? What if it’s something else? What if the original idea isn’t going to live in the traditional form that we’ve come to be used to?”
Josh Coon: And then I think for me, one thing that’s really, really helpful is I try to take any idea or anything and spread it out over time. It’s like, “What’s it going to look like six months from now, but then also 12 months from now, or 24 months from now?” Because that changes the way you approach a creative problem. It’s easy to write the first dozen tweets. It’s hard to write the hundredth tweet. It’s like that kind of stuff I think really helps people frame their problem up differently.
John Roberts: Got it. That could be a way for agencies to encourage everyone. I’ll take Sean, your perspective earlier was around, in my mind, helping create a richer, more insightful brief that’s relevant for today. And Josh, your points too, about encouraging people to think about the work that comes out of a brief. Think about it in terms of more expansive over time, as well as actually in terms of other channels. Make sense?
Sean Pitts: Yeah.
Josh Coon: Yeah, sure.
John Roberts: Josh, I want to come back to something you were talking about way back when, because it does actually come back to me about the outcome of content. I think there’s a misunderstanding quite often, that content is on a digital platform. And neither of you believe that, I know that. Josh, as you were talking about analog earlier, I have a theory that we’re going to see a rise of analog, non-digital content because of the last six months, 12 months that people have been living in on terms of screen and digital devices. Do you share that view? And if so, where could it go?
Josh Coon: I feel like we’ve actually seen an analog renaissance over the last few years. Final records, analog film, real life experiences, things that were also saturated with digital, we’re on our phones all the time. And now to your point, John, I literally stare at my computer eight to 10 hours a day, and I think people are getting worn out from the digital, and they’re really looking for a real, tangible experience that they can just have a full sensory experience. It’s like, “I want to pick the record up, touch it, put it on the record player, hear the music. That’s a self-contained event. It ends, I’m going to switch to a different album that doesn’t just stream for eternity.”
Josh Coon: And not to say digital stuff isn’t great for using it, and it’s kept a lot of us working in a pandemic and that’s awesome, but I think people are going to look to say, “I would rather hold that in my hand and read it, than read another article on my phone.” Or, “I want to go here and have an experience and talk with other creatives and hear from them in person.”
John Roberts: And just adding to that, I know we’ve seen recent data that good old fashioned direct mail is actually a resurgence and has a stronger relevancy for the younger audience today than ever before. Sean, how do you feel about that? In terms of, are you seeing anything? Have you done anything in terms of thinking about analog content?
Sean Pitts: Yeah. It’s interesting. Definitely some of this stuff Josh said is completely true. I think even looking at his point about not wanting to read another article on your phone. People are going to be overwhelmed after a period of time of not being able to turn everything off. And you’re seeing in the starts of that with people that consumers that are going on trips to disconnect. You’re seeing a lot of people posting about their weekend hiking trip, or their weekend camping trip off the grid.
Sean Pitts: That’s huge right now. It’s a lot less people that are talking about going to these huge big cities, and doing a whole bunch of things, and staying plugged in. People are turning their phones off, people are trying to disconnect. People are picking up tangible books not just reading articles or doing audio books and things like that. They’re actually physically reading the copies. I was working on a small campaign with Morel paper on my content strategy work, photography.
Sean Pitts: And I was talking with the founder there, and he was saying that he was noticing a different shift, where people are so ingrained with typing and with doing all of the notes and staying clued in on their computers and their devices, that people are going to start to look for an escape. And that escape, Morel paper makes notepads among other things. And being able to go back and journal, and put pen to paper, and going back to that instead of trying to maintain the digital space journaling and finding that refuge of taking your place and your mind off of the digital. You’re starting to see a shift in that.
Sean Pitts: And I think that’s true. I think that’s definitely going to be happening over the next few months for sure, and even years. The digital isn’t going to go away, and it’s obviously going to get more innovative and sophisticated, but I also think that people are going to value, or they’re at least starting to value the more analog ways of doing things, or the traditional ways of doing things and tapping into that as their escape.
John Roberts: More music to Josh’s ears, because he’s a big fan of paper and the doodling. Right, Josh?
Josh Coon: Yeah. I loved the way you describe it as a refuge, because for a lot of people, myself included, I’ve probably got two sketchbooks in the room with me right now.
Sean Pitts: Same, yeah.
Josh Coon: It’s a way to unplug and disconnect even for just a couple of minutes and have it an experience that separates you from your devices. Lets you get your own head a little bit. And I think you’re totally right, that people are going to look for that more. I even saw a really interesting article just recently about newspapers, and that there’s been an uptick in subscriptions to old school analog papers. It’s not like you say going to go back to the way it was or get rid of digital, but maybe we’re starting to head into more of an end world, where both of these things can co-exist that one doesn’t have to die just because we have the other.
John Roberts: Which I think, just to add to that, Josh, what you and Sean were both talking about, which is finding not just an authentic purpose to the brand, but also a relevancy for this content. You talk about usefulness and as well as entertainment. Sean, you were doing the same thing, when you were talking about Bevel. It seems to be a critical role moving forward, and thinking about not just the role of the brand and channel when people are on, but when people want to be off as well. Does that make sense, Sean?
Sean Pitts: Yeah. I think if you’re truly going to be a brand that’s ingrained in somebody’s life and their lifestyle, you’re going to figure out a way to be relevant, both online and off. And some brands that’s a little bit easier than others just given their products and the offering that they have. Obviously it’s a little bit harder for brands that are solely digital, like Netflix and Hulu to do that. But there’s definitely ways and interesting ways that some of these brands are starting to figure out as to how can they stay connected to people offline or off their platform, and stay top of mind during that period of time?
John Roberts: That brings us to about our close, I think. I’ve had a fantastic hour listening to you guys and learning so much about perspectives, about the role of content strategy today, but also frankly [inaudible 00:51:50] about this was also bring that back into the real world that we live in, in small agencies, medium-sized agencies, but real agencies where we have some challenges ahead in terms of the economic environment, with all the plans need to play our clients, and our teams, and all of this helped me learn. Thank you.
Sean Pitts: Thank you guys. Thank you guys for having me on. This was extremely exciting, cool to be a part of. I really appreciate it.
Josh Coon: Thank you very much. It’s great. John and Sean, it was awesome to talk to you. I want to look up your photography and check it out.
Sean Pitts: Thank you. I appreciate it. It was nice to talk to you as well.
Speaker 1: Planner Parley, a Truth Collective production.