Strategy from the Client Side

Planner Parley

Truth Collective Truth CollectiveSeason 2Episode 4Nov 2, 2020

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Introduction: Welcome to Planner Parley a show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency planning. This week we’re seeing if the grass is greener for strategists that have gone client side. Carrie Riby, director of marketing at Black Button Distilling and Inga Grote-Ebbs brand director at FIFCO USA, join John Roberts CSO at Truth Collective all from Rochester, New York, to share what the view was like from the other side of the relationship. With one in four strategists considering a career move toward the client side, we’re learning what it’s all about, and what it means for small agencies, pull up a chair and listen in.

John Roberts: So welcome, everyone to another episode of Planner Parley. I’m thrilled today with our topic being about thinking about the notion of strategy from a client’s perspective, or as I’ve termed this, if that grass is really greener on the side of strategy on the client, if so, what are they putting on it? We know and I’ll talk about this a little later on that we’ve seen that there’s a dramatic shift in agency role, planners starting to think about moving client side.

John Roberts: So for today, I’ve invited a couple of guests who will have that perspective that we can learn from. I’m joined by an old friend, Carrie Riby, who has gone from agency side to client side, and I’ll let Carrie introduce herself in a moment. And also Inga Grote-Ebbs, who got a long history of client marketing positions, both in giant companies and now it’s like smaller ones, perhaps. But he’s got a really interesting perspective about what it takes to be a strategist client side. So welcome, Inga. Welcome, Carrie.

Carrie Riby: Thank you, John.

John Roberts: So why don’t we start with Carrie, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your journey, because you’re on here today, apart from I always love chatting with you. But also, you’ve made the journey that we’re seeing more from the agency side of an agency strategist that has gone client side. So talk a little bit about where you’ve gone to, and what made you change sides?

Carrie Riby: It’s a really good question, because I don’t think I was looking to change sides but I haven’t regretted changing sides, if that makes any sense. So John, we started in this business as babies, and I’m not even going to put a date on it but most of my career has been in media. I think I jumped from McDonald’s to media after college, that was the kind of leap and, and I’ve been in the media world ever since. What attracted me to media, which made me go into strategy was that you had to do a lot of research and insight into audience behavior, to understand how to provide a really good plan for your clients, and I was naturally drawn to that side of the business.

Carrie Riby: I really thought that I would be buried in my agency shoes because I love agency work so much. But I think the client calling came, I don’t want to say accidentally, but there was always an interest, is the grass greener? When this opportunity came up with Black Button, I kind of went into it a little trepidatiously if you want to call it that, because what I loved about agency work was that you had so many different clients and so many different products that every day was different, and every marketing plan was different and that variety is what I enjoy. But I found it a new kind of joy in that same thing, just in a different way on the client side.

John Roberts: We’re going to come back to talk about that butterfly and focus in a moment. But how about you Inga? Your story.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: My story, yes. So I started out after college, working in demand planning, the job is really around working with multiple sides of the business and figuring out how much in the end we should produce as a company. So I worked heavily with marketing and that’s when I realized, I don’t want my job, I want their job because they worked with consumers or patients or customers and really tried to understand their needs and their challenges and figuring out a way to fill those challenges and then solve for them.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: So I went back to business school and I was like dead set on brand management and nobody could deter me from it. I started I think one of the first days of business school was the day Lehman Brothers went down, so-

John Roberts: Perfect timing.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: It was perfect timing, it was great job market, at least that was not in finance. But yeah, I really work towards this. I want to work in consumer packaged goods. I want to know the product. I want to be able to touch it and experience it. So it was always this curiosity of, there’s just like problems and challenges that these consumers have, and how can I help them solve it? But also, at the same time how can I build this emotional tie with my brand? Because I worked on French’s mustard I worked on vitamins, I worked on allergy medication. So some of this isn’t necessarily the most kind of emotional category, but how do you really have consumers choose your brands? That’s, I think, what I was always really, really interested in.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: So yeah, so I worked my way through really, really big companies, and then worked in New Jersey for about six years, and then for family reasons made it back to Rochester and continued, I think, the marketing path that I had chosen, and it’s always been on the client side. I’ve immensely enjoyed working with agencies, and what they could bring because their perspective has been so different in a good way not butting heads. But the experience of the folks at agencies is different to Carrie’s point, they’re serving multiple clients and multiple industries so they have a lot more diverse kind of perspective than I maybe had, especially early on in my career. So it was really helpful to pick their brains a little bit.

John Roberts: So just building on that in your experience Inga, how do we get the the ideal balance of that, the butterfly effect of an agency with working on multiple clients with different experiences? Then how I see it from the outside in the focus that a brand director like yourself can apply within your category within your company. How does that work best?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: A lot of communication, right? I mean, I think it’s so cliché and yet it is so true. Because it’s really about, I need to understand my agency partners and where they’re coming from, and have to be open to their ideas, and at the same time my agency partners have to understand very intimately, and very granularly, my business and my business challenges. That can only happen when there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of listening and I think a lot of just like empathy and openness to understanding each other.

John Roberts: Can I just pick it up on that? I realized that in the intro, I think I started this, the [inaudible 00:07:49] and the age old metaphor about changing sides. I wonder if that’s a fundamental issue in the agency-client relationship, if we think about it as sides. Because sides by definition combativeness, or competitive and of course, when you’re saying Inga it’s much more about that relationship, working with people to identify what each does well. Does that make sense?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah, I think we’re not on different sides, to your point that’s competitive. But I think the different perspectives is where kind of the sweet spot lies. So we can’t come from the same perspective, because I think then you lose a margin.

John Roberts: Yeah, yeah. So Carrie, as someone that is learning, picking up on what Inga was saying, a different perspective from within the client side, how’s it been for you?

Carrie Riby: It’s been a breath of fresh air and not to say that I didn’t enjoy my agency side. But it’s allowed me to get a deeper, perform a deeper relationship with a product and with a product need, that sometimes you don’t have the opportunity with an agency because you are forced to be you’re jumping into many different categories and products and things along those lines. It gives me the opportunity to look at things in a more focused fashion that I’ve not really had the opportunity before.

John Roberts: What if you changed Carrie, from being an agency strategist with a lot of time spent in media and communications planning? What’s changed in you do you think having gone client side now?

Carrie Riby: I would like to say nothing’s changed, because I think what I’ve been able to do is bring some of that agency side into a client arena, and help change how the client side thinks about what they need to do. So we’re in a company that is growing up very quickly. It’s a company that started in 2012 and their idea of a brand eight years ago was a logo. So coming into it now, obviously they’ve come a long way from that but they’re thirsty for some of the structure that agencies put into place for creating brand guidelines and for looking at marketing strategies and looking at ways to target audiences in unique ways. So it’s been enjoyable to go from this, a very structured environment of an agency to a somewhat non-structured part of a client, but bring some of that structure here to help shape it and evolve it in a more professional way.

John Roberts: I wonder about the role of strategy and how we define it. So I think about strategy as an informed opinion on how to win. From an agency perspective, a lot of what we do in reality is finding ways to connect that consumer need or customer needs you talk about Inga. I believe that from a client perspective, that’s quite a narrow definition of strategy, and you have broader applications and strategy across the more we do. Is that fair Inga? What are the things you do under the development strategy?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah, I think across all of the positions I’ve ever had, it is broader. Because when we’re thinking of our work with agencies, right, that becomes the communication part, we have defined kind of what the problem is, and what we need to do and we have the lines that organization around that. When I think of my job in brand management, it’s owning the business of the brand. So there from a strategic perspective, is a whole lot more that we then distill into a brief that becomes the insight statement, that then becomes kind of what we work with, with the agency that is financial in nature that has inputs from the sales team, but also the supply side of kind of maybe what can be made and how much of it can be made and when it can be made.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: So by the time I think we’re ready to work with an agency, and I think that goes to your question about maybe it comes later, but where were some of the disconnects can happen. We as a brand team, or as an organization have had so many conversations of what’s possible and what is the issues, and we’ve collected so many inputs that if you just then start talking to your agency partner about the communication part of things, the agency parts don’t have all of that background and that contacts, why we ended up there, why we maybe can’t go next and have to go right. So it creates this very, I think, too narrow focus almost for the agency, because the context is missing of kind of the path that we took to get there. So in the perfect relationship, that would be understood in a way. Which is really, really difficult because you would have to have conversations that are completely outside of kind of the focus of the relationship.

John Roberts: Yeah, that’s right and it’s one of the challenges I know that we all face today, the relationship you’re describing, Inga takes time. The amount of time that you need to spend with the agency you need to spend together to really understand that broader context. It’s a challenge for us all, right? No one’s sitting here saying, “I have plenty of time on my hands I don’t know what to do.” Carrie, when you listen to this, it’s interesting, again, entirely coincidental, but Inga’s in a significant alcoholic beverage company with a great deal of structure, and you’ve obviously had that structure over time Inga in some of your backstory. Carrie, you’ve gone into a small but very fast growing craft distillery that’s only been around for eight to 10 years, eight years I think. How does it have that change for you, Carrie?

Carrie Riby: I think what’s very interesting I went from a world of you would do the deep dive with the client, you would provide some insight and direction and you would take it through all these layers and processes to get something to create a final outcome of some sort of marketing direction or media direction or whatever that might be. Because we’re in sort of a leaner, meaner culture. What I’m finding in many cases is that we respond more on an intuitive level, which I find highly energizing, because nobody has the time for a PowerPoint.

Carrie Riby: That doesn’t mean we don’t have processes, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t doing our homework and digging deep into audiences, but there is you really depend upon the team more to get the thinking going and doing it in real time as opposed to, “Okay, we’ve got to brief it’s due in a week and then we’ve got to do this next week.” It goes a lot faster because we don’t have the time, particularly during COVID, we did not have the time to go through some of those layers that I think sort of was comfortable in before going into the client world.

John Roberts: Got it. So Carrie, when you think about transition from going working for an agency to going focused on a brand within a client. Looking back now with 2020 hindsight, what is it that you wish you knew about the client work before you got back?

Carrie Riby: I think what’s the most enlightening is, I think when you’re in the agency world, you think that your clients think that their whole day is centered around the work that they’re doing for them. Right?

John Roberts: We’re so vain and shallow.

Carrie Riby: I know.

John Roberts: But yes, yes.

Carrie Riby: You sit there and you think, “Oh my gosh, why are they not responding to my emails, I did this amazing piece of work for them?” You think they don’t love you, and it just hurts, and you know they love you but then you get into this client side, and you realize all the other things that are required in the day, and what a small fraction of the agency work is important to them and it’s important, but in a very different sort of light. That’s been a huge eye opener for me and I’ve always heard people say this, I’ve heard it 1000 times. But when you’re finally in that shoe of a client I really do appreciate that now.

John Roberts: Yeah, it’s funny, Carrie and I actually grew up working together a long time back, and I still remember one of the things that we used to discuss which I hold to my team today, which is, when the agency meets the client, make that the best hour in the client’s day. Whatever it’s going to be, whatever that day is just to make a try and make it best. Inga, does that mean true for you?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: I am nodding, you can’t see me but I’m nodding because it was early on in my career, but it was the treat to be part of agency presentations. It was a treat to be invited onto a shoot or to be part of executing on this mysterious creative that people a little bit. I have been with the organization a little bit longer liquid, concocted up with the agency. So yes, I think I get really energized by these interactions with agency partner is, and it is often the highlight of the day, because to Carrie’s point, you review a P&L, and then you have to look at data, a lot of spreadsheets, and you have to fill out PowerPoints. You create PowerPoints, and you have a lot of good conversations within the organization. But I think agency context is just, it’s special and it’s so different. But it is kind of the cherry on top, a lot of times.

John Roberts: It’s funny being that cherry, you sometimes, it carries you so bad you forget about the broader perspective, why this work really should matter for that moment. But also in terms of appreciating like you were saying, Carrie, there are 1001 things that clients need to do and just immediately respond to that email that was sent a minute ago. So the three of us we’re chatting about this notion, because it’s been a common theme, I want to say probably the last three to four years of any strategy, study or agency study, you can see of more and more strategists, or planners for an agency world are looking to go client side.

John Roberts: In fact, the most recent one I saw in work is something like 23%. That’s one in four. One in four agency strategists are thinking about the next role could be client side. Why is that do you think? Carrie, from your experience, why would you think that one in four planners are thinking about jumping into the client role?

Carrie Riby: This may not sound politically correct so excuse me, but-

John Roberts: Good. This sounds exciting, it better be good.

Carrie Riby: I’ve been in a lot of agencies so this is not pinpointed to any specific agency. But I really feel with my fellow strategists feel that sometimes agencies don’t really know how to utilize us to the best of our abilities, and it gets frustrating because we know we could be doing so much more but we work with teams that don’t necessarily have the time to dig into some of the things that we are revealing about client.

Carrie Riby: On the client side, at least this client, my one only client side experience, there is such an appreciation for what we are able to pull out about the audiences about the marketplace about the white space. That detail is taken and embraced and appreciated in ways that I did not feel in my former lives.

John Roberts: Got it. Let me ask, do you also think there’s that element of naivety in this? The boundless enthusiasm, all strategists have to be enthusiastic I think and optimistic by nature. Because when we’re trying to find an informed opinion about how to improve, how to look for better. But do you think there’s a naivety to when agency strategist is thinking about going client side?

Carrie Riby: I don’t think so at all. I think a year ago, I probably would have said yes but now that I’m in this position I’m very fulfilled from a strategy perspective because I feel I have the freedom to really take the client in unique places that might have been a little uncomfortable for an agency, or an agency might have thought that we were wasting manpower time or things along that line. So I am given the freedom to really explore areas that have given me the ability to dig deep into our brand.

John Roberts: Got it. Inga, when you think about your wealth of experience in brand director, you talked earlier about wanting to get excited about connecting with people and building that emotional connection. What style of strategist from an agency do you feel could make the best leap? When you think about your better understanding about what that whole really entails client side. Is there a particular type of person or skill set?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah. As you were talking, or Carrie, as you were responding my thought was also that marketing is so different. I bet your job and mine, even though we have the same job description may entail something different and my job was very different with my previous employer than it is now. So I think it’s also making sure that when you make the transition that the job that you’re going into on the client side, is the one that you thought it would be, not all marketing is marketing, just like not all agency work is agency work.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: So I think, to come back to your question around, who can succeed on the client side, I think it’s being really curious in the interview of what the job entails. Are you somebody that also enjoys getting their hands dirty with some of the other work? Like really digging into the numbers and pulling performance data apart and seeing if there’s something there, or are you the person that is a bit more qualitative and really wants to kind of look at what other companies are doing, what your company has done, and how consumers react to that. I think you have to figure out what suits you before you make the jump and to make sure that it matches what your expectations are.

John Roberts: Inga, that’s interesting because it’s making me think now about fundamentally what you’re saying is not that different to a strategist looking for another agency role. Because you need to ensure that the style of [inaudible 00:23:55] you are and what you do so well as an individual fits, not just the specific needs, but also the culture of the company.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yes, how they look at marketing and what role marketing plays within the organization? Yeah, I think that’s really important.

John Roberts: When you think about, we’ve all talked about and Inga you touched on this earlier in terms of the ideal relationship. What makes a great client agency relationship for you Inga? Then Carrie, your double questions, it’s not just what makes that relationship but also has that changed from your expectation? So Inga, let’s start with you. What would you describe that ideal client agency relationship?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah, I go back to communication. Curiosity, mutual understanding of where we’re coming from especially when you’re working with larger clients or within big organizations. There’s so many layers that sometimes really muddle the water when it comes to the objective because you’ve been through so many iterations of it. So really asking a lot of questions so that the agency is clear on what the client actually wants because sometimes the client isn’t really that sure, or it’s gotten so muddled. So I think it goes back to trust, respect, and a lot of talking and a lot of listening to each other.

John Roberts: Very good. So Carrie, tell me what you think makes the ideal client-agency relationship? Has it changed now you’re the client, not the agency?

Carrie Riby: Yes, and no. I think what’s really important, and this really goes back to what I was saying but in the agency world, we always want to be that partner with the client, right? Some clients treat you like a vendor, and some clients treat you like a partner. The best work comes when there’s a partnership, and I’ve taken that insight on the client side and when we worked with vendors, I’ve looked at them, you are a partner. I tell them, “You’re a partner, and I’m going to give you more information than you’re probably get from a client because I know I’m going to get better work from you if I do that.” Having that insight, having been on the agency side, knowing where good work comes from, I think, has given me an advantage being a client and working with partners. I say other vendors, but really with other partners and helping us build out our brand.

John Roberts: So let’s flip that then. What frustrates you most with agencies? Knowing that that’s the idea that we want to have for both you, Inga and Carrie, the idea. What gets you most frustrated about agencies generally? Carrie, stay with you and then we come back to Inga.

Carrie Riby: All right. I haven’t been on the client side for very long. But I can tell you how the management here feels with our company, and their feeling is that if they blink, they’re going to get charged. If they move sideways, they’re going to get charged, if they change their mind, they’re going to get charged. So there’s this feeling of everything that they do with an outside partner is going to be expensive. So there is a deep desire here to want to bring it in house because they feel that people will be more committed to them from that perspective.

John Roberts: Got it. Carrie, that in-house is any agency support, so they execute, obviously, the strategy with your lead would also be execution as well, from what you’ve said.

Carrie Riby: Yeah. We certainly work with outside partners, but just not in a full service agency perspective.

John Roberts: I’m going to come back to that in a minute. But Inga, how would you approach that? What would be, from your experience the biggest frustration with agencies?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: I think every time, anytime you put creative above anything else, strategy objective, but also just pragmatism and practicality. I want the creative to inspire but in the end we all work for businesses and so we need to assemble product, make our customer, our consumer aware of the product and if the creative just seems so far out there, and we as a client have to rein it in so much to even make it work, and then experiencing an unwillingness and I’m going into the worst case scenario, and then there’s an unwillingness to make changes because that would then change the idea, I think it’s the toughest for me. When it no longer becomes about the brand but it becomes about the creative.

John Roberts: Yeah, just adding to see if this follows you’re threading, I’m hearing a lot. When I think about what you’re saying earlier about the joy you get about wanting to build that emotional connection is still for a purpose, okay? We’re still in, I had an old creative that used needs to talk about we’re still in a commercial art, okay? It is an art for art’s sake, it has to have a fundamental business purpose at some level. Not certainly everything is about direct response and could change in a sale, but it still has to have a stronger business purpose. Does that [inaudible 00:29:38]?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: That is exactly it. Yes.

John Roberts: It’s interesting, Carrie isn’t it? Because I think the tension I experience from an agency perspective is actually it’s a combination to me of what both of you guys are saying which is, Inga, that point about if agencies don’t ask or don’t get involved enough in the discussion, okay, or building out the conversation, the communication you were saying earlier, then it’s very easy for an agency to not truly understand what business problem we’re trying to solve, and therefore there always be a gap. Is that fair?

Carrie Riby: John, to kind of put that a little bit into perspective and what I’m observing here is that I talked about that fear of how they’re going to be charged if they make the wrong decision or they do something. I think the fear really came from they didn’t know how to work with an agency to get the best work out of an agency and I think that’s really where the fear was coming from. I don’t think agencies understand that fear, and I think it goes back to Inga’s point about communications, I don’t think they knew how to communicate, or what to communicate in order to get the best work out of a company. So that’s that I feel is a significant conundrum, with not wanting to get close to agencies because they didn’t feel they knew how to manage them properly, or partner with them properly an in the proper context.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Just to follow up on what Carrie says, I think there is a ton of truth there because when you think about most agencies don’t work with these really, really big process oriented, kind of they have their marketing process down, companies, but there’s tons of smaller companies that don’t have that great of a process maybe for marketing, but they need an agency. So how they work with an agency is sometimes really painful because neither of them knows how to navigate each other.

John Roberts: Yes. Got it.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: A lot of times that’s when you get, the objective is to do a million things, and then instead of the agency saying, “You know what? We can do a million things.” They try and it’s not good for the client, and it’s not good for the agency and you can’t put the blame on either side. It’s just kind of, neither knew better, neither knew better.

John Roberts: I’m getting this weird flashback to teenage disco is where you get a dance partner, but not quite sure what to do.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yes.

John Roberts: So at some stage, let’s do it now. We need to talk about the role of the brief, because there’s this constant discussion in agency world about the role of brief. It’s funny because whilst you talk about two briefs, the client brief, and the agency’s creative brief. There’s a study not long back that I thought just sum this up really, really well, where, when asked whether the client brief was very clear and gave the agency everything they needed to know. Don’t quote me on the numbers, but something like 70% of clients said, “Yes, our briefs are like that.” But 30% of agency said, that’s what their client briefs are like. Conversely, for me, coming back to what you’re saying earlier, Inga asking about whether the agency truly understood the client business, the numbers were reversed. 70% of agency said, “Yes, we understand our clients business.” It was probably like 30% of clients said, no only about 30% believe the agency understand.

John Roberts: So can we spend a few minutes digging into the role of the two briefs and. Inga, can I start with you? When you think about the role of the client brief for agency, what are the key elements in that, that you feel all client should be delivering and how would you want an agency to respond to it?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah. So for me, just how the brief starts out kind of with a background in the explanation of the challenge the brief is trying to solve is always a little bit difficult because they’re really, really short briefs, there’s a really, really long briefs. I know it’s really, really difficult to get that part right because it also depends on, is this an agency you work with really closely if they fully understand your business? They were actually involved in uncovering the insights, so they kind of already know and this is just a recap, or have they not been involved and then you want to give them more? But you can just make it kind of a dump of all the things that you know about yourself either.

John Roberts: Yep.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: So that is the first part that I think is really challenging to get right and depends on a lot of factors. Obviously getting, because it then leads into like, did I get the problem I’m trying to solve right? Did I get the insight right? Because that’s a manifestation of what you’re trying to solve for. Do I even know who my target audience is and can I explain that to an agency? Not just in a way that they understand but also that we could potentially reach them. So targets that you can describe really well but then in the real world you could not reach is also very difficult to cater for. Should I go on?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: But I think at every stage is a brief, right? There can be many pitfalls and there’s no right or wrong way it depends on so many factors. But I think for me, it’s getting the background right, that leads into the problem, being able to really define the problem and who this is a problem for is probably, if we can get that right we may be already in a pretty good space.

John Roberts: Yeah. Awesome. Then just adding on that, what about for you, when you begin this process about the role of measurement? How will we know we’re successful? Do you tend to find that, that could be going clear from the client side about what we need to achieve? Obviously, the broader challenge but the specifics of results.

Carrie Riby: Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s not easy to come up. I think a lot of times we like to put that on the agency to come up with a measurement plan.

John Roberts: Yep.

Carrie Riby: Then we’re like, “Well, where are the KPIs?” Then the agency comes back and says, “Well, what are your KPIs?” We’re back at the stage of maybe neither the client or the agency is perfect at understanding each other and what limitations in capabilities are. But yeah, I think not putting out there a problem that can be solved but not measured, you’re right albeit at the end, it doesn’t help anyone.

John Roberts: Yeah, and it’s tricky because most agencies are not very good at measurement. Sweeping statement, but I found it just to be true from the multiple conversations we’ve had over time because the focus tends to be on the enthusiasm of how do we believe we can solve the problem through communication? And the, how do we know if we’ve achieved solving our problem or measuring how we’re doing is an afterthought? Carrie, you may disagree with that come in with an enormous media background. But tell me what you think about it from the measurement part, but also in terms of what you’re finding for the client brief.

Carrie Riby: It’s funny I don’t disagree with you at all coming from a media background, because I think media tends to focus on click through rates and conversion rates and it’s a very quantitative process. We know in strategy that there’s a lot of qualitative factors that go into success. I think qualitative is very hard to measure, we all know that being in this business and it is that big black hole sometimes. But I think if people look at both the quantitative and the qualitative side of things and set expectation levels for that, then the measurement is going to have a bigger impact and how you evolve your campaign over time.

Carrie Riby: In terms of client brief, I came to a place that didn’t even know what a brief was, and that’s been one of my charges is to put briefing into the system and we’re already seeing big changes in our output and in our partnerships that we are building out into the marketplace. But I laughed, because when I was in the agency side, I asked a bunch of account team folks how long it took them to write a brief. They all said, “Oh, about an hour.” You laugh to yourself, because people have different expectations on what a brief does, and some people see it as a list of instructions to get people moving forward, and other people see it as the ability to Inga’s point of truly understanding the problem at heart and what needs to be done. I feel it brief should never be written by one person. It should have multiple people brought in based on expertise levels, and that should be on the client side and the agency side.

Carrie Riby: So if I’m trying to figure out where we’re trying to take the creative, then I want to take the creative people and get them in there and say, “What are you seeing and what do you like and what motivates you?” I want to bring the sales people in on it to say, “What’s the problem in your marketplace and what are your biggest barriers?” Because that’s the information that’s going to make a brief rich with the information that’s going to solve the problem.

John Roberts: Carrie, I think there’s a great shift in this, what you’re saying now from traditional agencies that we all grew up in the world of, there is almost effectively a handoff or handover, Inga from the client brief is effectively the notification to agency to work, and then the creative brief is the notification for the creative teams within the agency to get to work. That collaboration, Carrie, that you’re talking about, we believe makes such a difference in the creation of both of those briefs to the point where we would love to spend time working with clients on making sure the client brief isn’t baked, before the agency gets there, so we can actually have that discussion.

John Roberts: But, Inga as client, would that work? Because I certainly want client input into my creative brief from the agency. But do you think the agency can participate in the creation of the client brief? Does that work as a process or mindset view?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah, I’ve actually experienced that in my career where we had not just a joint writing process, but also a joined approval process, where the agency actually helped us get approval from a forum within the organization of the brief. Which makes it so much easier because that is the point where you actually know that the agency understands the brief, right? Because they were involved in writing it. I don’t actually think that clients writing briefs and just handing them over to the agency, I mean, it can work, especially if it’s kind of a smaller project. But you really want to do something meaty and something changing.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Let’s say you want to reposition a product, or you’re launching a new product, if you don’t bring in the agency early on, you just have to kind of backtrack because the agency has every right to question your brief and like, “Why is it there?” they’re wise. Then you kind of have to rethink. Is that really true what I put in this brief? Do I really want them to do that?

John Roberts: Good perspective. So when we think about our crazy world of 2020. How’s that changed for you client side? When, again, thinking about this discussion on the role of strategy. What’s changed so much for you from a strategic perspective in the last eight months. Carrie.

Carrie Riby: Our little background is we literally turned a spirit company into a hand sanitizer company in 48 hours. So, we’ve actually been having some interesting conversations this week, because our company forever changed by that. Not that we are continuing to make hand sanitizer, we’re not, we’re going back into the alcohol business. But that shift in such a short amount of time did a couple things for us. The first thing that it did was it turned our culture on its backside. We went from being this complacent craft distillery to, oh my gosh we could be out of business to, oh my gosh we’re saving jobs, we’re saving the community to, oh my gosh we’re going back into spirits again.

Carrie Riby: It’s given us a certain amount of competence that says, we can do this. Market conditions are changing, market conditions will always change. We’re not always going to have a pandemic, but we’re always going to have a situation where technology or human behavior is going to change. Do we just keep doing what we always do? Or do we modify what we need to do to keep up with that? I think this whole pandemic has sort of taught us that we can, this is possible and by the way, we should continue to do this, we should not go back to our comfortable ways. I think that an amazing lesson, that I think all companies should really take from what we’ve just been through.

John Roberts: Good learning. How about for you, Inga?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: I think for me it’s a lot about empathy, empathy for employees, empathy for your consumers, empathy for your community. Because I think Carrie’s example is wonderful and I’ve seen it with my previous employer, as the pandemic started, he pivoted so quickly to, yeah, we’re a business and we have to sell a product but right now we have to help. We have to help our customers, we have to help our employees figure out how to navigate working from home with kids. Yes, we’ll have dogs and kids on Zoom calls and that’s perfectly normal and okay. So I think if we can in the future, continue you to think about maybe what the other side looks like and how the other side feels, I think that would be really wonderful for me if we can carry that forward.

John Roberts: It’s great perspective, because it really does as Carries you were saying and Inga, it’s change. How do we use this change for good to change us and improve us all for the better? What about, we’ve seen a lot of work both with our clients but also in the multiple studies that we’re all looking at about what’s going on where. A lot of client side work either got stopped, which is fair enough, but also, in terms of uncertainties, fair enough, but also became very near term focused. Have you seen in both of your experiences that the balance of the strategic work you’re doing and direction, has that shifted more to the near term or you’re now starting to think longer term as well? Carrie.

Carrie Riby: Good question. Strategy isn’t everything we do, we don’t think of it that way but we do. I think the one thing that we’ve had to do is, and one of my goals with this company is to look at things more in a longer term fashion, but putting in stock gaps, knowing that this whole board game that we’re in could flip upside down any minute. It’s hard to predict where that future is going to go but you have to be prepared for it. So it’s sort of having that long term vision, but also knowing when to pivot, based on what’s happening.

John Roberts: Got it. Inga, what about for you?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Yeah, I’m with Carrie on this one I think. Immediately COVID hitting I think everything became really short term because there was just no way to plan I think. We’re coming out of that or have come out of that and now it’s really about contingency planning of like, this is what we want this to look and here are the different crossroads that we could take should it get worse, should it get better, should something else happen?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: I think you scenario plan better because we now have a slightly better understanding of what could happen, and also what could work to mitigate. We’re not 100% there but we’ve now done six months of looking at things that could take place of maybe in person meetings or events and you can contingency plan a little bit better.

John Roberts: From both of you I’m hearing from a client side perspective, a lot more of the agility of understanding in terms of, Carrie, you talked about functional pivot, from alcohol to hand sanitizers and now back. The scenario planning, Inga you’re referring to is fascinating to me because how much more scenario planning both of you are doing today than you would have been doing 12 months ago, when this thing called COVID and pandemics didn’t exist? Are you doing similar amount Inga, or are you just more agile and appreciative that you need to have more scenario plans than 12 months ago, when everyone thought the world was moving along at a certain pace?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: I think it’s very different and that might be because a pandemic wasn’t on anybody’s scenario plan. Or even something like a pandemic. I think you can plan for, you can plan for hurricane season, you can plan for maybe even an earthquake, but this one it wasn’t my list and I think it wasn’t, barely anybody’s like, “Let’s plan a marketing plan based on maybe we’re getting a pandemic.” Now we added it to the list, now it’s very real. We know how it impacts our consumers, our customers.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Carrie and I both work in alcohol. So like that is that epic job of bringing people together socially. So yeah, it kind of blew up the playbook and now we’re putting the playbook back together because we have just a slightly better idea of what we could be in for again should this not work out.

John Roberts: Carries, does that sound similar to you?

Carrie Riby: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I mean, we didn’t do scenario planning before. Just because it was a predictable business and people are predictable when it comes to alcohol to some degree. It’s all based around holidays, back to Inga’s point about people coming together and it’s a social function and we don’t even know what the holidays are going to be like in the next few months, are people coming together are they just going to drink by themselves alone in a room. There’s no research out there that’s going to tell you how people are going to behave and something that’s never happened before. So you’re forced into the scenario planning just because you don’t know.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Even if COVID would go away tomorrow, I think what we need to recognize is there’s a huge psychological impact aside from the economic impact, that fundamentally will change the way that people kind of come out of this isolation. Some people will be really, really happy to be with other people, they can’t wait to go to a football game or concert, and there will be people just like, it’s just too much. I can maybe deal with 10 people, and so that goes back to everybody will come out of this a little bit differently, and economically impacted. So we now kind of the segmentation looks a lot different of the consumer groups than it would have done before COVID.

John Roberts: It’s gonna make it so hard for you guys to have, how many scenarios do you want to plan for? Can plan for, and accept the fact that everyone’s going to have to pivot?

Carrie Riby: I think to that point, John, there’s also a certain amount of you just got to keep going and moving forward. You have to keep doing what you’re doing with the hope that it goes in the direction, that you’re hoping even though you’ve got the scenarios. This is not the time to be shy with your marketing, this is not the time to hold back and wait because you’ll be left in the dust in many respects, everything’s moving too quickly.

John Roberts: That’s music to my ears Carrie. But also, it’s based on, we’ve spent time with brands looking at, history will tell you time and time again that in any significant economic tilt, brands that invest in both obviously, recognize what they need to do near term but invest in the longer term, are exponentially more successful on the other side of whatever this tilt is, however we define that tilt. The tricky part for us, I think Inga you said it so well, and I think it’s absolutely true for both of you in terms of the category you’re in is, things might change within a week, within two weeks, the behaviors and the functional event, Inga as you were talking about can all change. So have you thought about 2021? Inga.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Cautiously optimistic, and with a healthy dose of realism. When you look at kind of where scientific community sees and the pharmaceutical companies see, a vaccine come in, how long it will take to get everybody vaccinated, that masks will say around. But who cares, but we have to move forward. We are the brands also that should inspire, reassure, maybe motivate consumers. So we can’t get dragged too far down. So I would say cautiously optimistic.

John Roberts: Excellent. And Carrie.

Carrie Riby: I’m maybe a little above cautiously but optimistic absolutely. I’m just an optimist by nature and my feeling is, we’ll figure it out. We’re just going to figure it out, you have to figure it out. Nothing’s ever easy in life and this is one of them and you can’t dwell on it, and you need to embrace the change that is happening. So perfect example is people weren’t buying online their alcohol products, and now there’s a huge comfort zone with that.

Carrie Riby: Now you got to look at, well, our business now has an e-commerce site, we didn’t have that seven months ago. So, these are things that are like opening up new doors that we probably didn’t have before and that’s okay and we need to embrace it.

John Roberts: I love the optimism, cautious or otherwise, okay? Because nothing’s going to change without a belief that we can find something better, the optimism. So, closing thoughts this I’ve loved having this hour together, I’ve loved having this hour together, I always learn something new which is fantastic. If you can leave one thought, bear in mind that this is a podcast for ostensibly for small agency strategists. So people who really want to understand about how can we improve the work that we do with our clients to provide greater success? What would be your one closing thought, recommendation to the agency strategist listening in that they need to think about for working better with their clients? Carrie, let’s stay with you.

Carrie Riby: I’m going to bring it back to the partnership side of things. I think when a client feels you have some skin in the game, and that you’re really there for the right reasons, and that you are willing to do the pivots that we are having to do right now in the marketplace to get us to a better place, then you’re going to be able to think better and create better and provide better opportunities for a client and then clients will embrace that.

John Roberts: Good context. Thank you. What about you, Inga?

Inga Grote-Ebbs: I was going to go down the same road as Carrie, as I was going to say, be really, really curious about your client. Ask a lot of clarifying questions, don’t be afraid to push back if something isn’t clear, because it may not be clear to your client either and some really, really good discussions can come out of that. Not being clear, and hopefully some really, really great work.

John Roberts: Thank you. Great tips guys. I think our time is up. I’ve loved the time we spent and as it’s a Friday afternoon when we’re recording this and you’re in the beverage industry, I’m absolutely sure we can also have virtual cheers to each other and hopefully get together for a drink very soon. Inga, thank you. Carrie, thank you.

Inga Grote-Ebbs: Cheers, John and thank you.

Speaker 1: Planner Parley, a Truth Collective Production.