Agency Culture—Where Strategy Can Actually Flourish

Planner Parley

Truth Collective Truth CollectiveEpisode 8Jan 7, 2020

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Introduction:The 4A’s is dedicated to supporting agencies and creative companies through leadership and community for our industry. We’re passionate supporters of the work small agencies do across America, and the role of the Small Agency Planner Parley in helping strategists get fueled on creativity, commerce, and culture, all moving strategy and the industry forward.

For more information on the many benefits of being a 4A’s member, try AAAA.org to find out how our industry authority can be there for you. And now, the Planner Parley.

Welcome to Planner Parley, a show where we come together under a flag of truce to talk about small agency planning. In this week’s episode, our panel shares, and shares about sharing, as they led us behind the scenes of agency leadership and creating culture.

They define the strategy wallow pit, provide tips on how to stay out of it, and instead teach us ways to shoot from the heart, be playful, and dare to be mischievous. Join our guests, Mark Pollard, Strategy CEO at Mighty Jungle in New York City, Julian Cole, strategy consultant joining from Melbourne, Australia, and of course John Roberts, CSO of Truth Collective in Rochester, New York, as they reveal new ways of looking at the things you look all the time, and what it means for small agencies. Pull up a chair and listen in.

John Roberts: Here we are today, another episode of Planner Parley on the podcast. And I’m thrilled to be able to gather today both Mark Pollard and Julian Cole to help share with us. And learning some thoughts about a topic that’s come up time and time again in our parleys, of understanding the value of strategy within an agency, and what kind of culture and leadership in the agency helps nurture that.

John Roberts: We’ll start there and see where we go. Why don’t we start with you guys? Why don’t you give us a one-minute overview of your role, as wild and diverse as it is, and also what you love doing and why? Let’s start with you, Mark.

Mark Pollard: Well, I guess I’m understanding this stuff a little bit differently the more I do it, and I see the connections back to my days as a child, and as a teenager, and as somebody who used to make a rap magazine.

Mark Pollard: The way I talk to myself about what I do is trying to help people who think for a living live. And that operates deeper and in a darker way than just doing strategy or even just training strategy. But essentially, I exist in this dark, overthinking world, and I try to not just get stuck there but to do useful things with it. It happens to be through the world of strategy right now.

John Roberts: Awesome. How about you, Julian?

Julian Cole: I would say I’m a strategy consultant, helping brands and also running workshops with Mark in how to do strategy. I came up through communications planning, within agencies in Australia, and then moved to New York and headed up the communications planning department at both BBH and BBDO. And then, in the last year I’ve gone out consulting by myself. Just finished my first year there helping brands like Facebook, Uber, Disney. And then, also a number of agencies work out how to create great integrated marketing campaigns.

John Roberts: Fantastic. Guys, when I think about both of your long and varied experiences, both within agency, large, small, and working directly with clients, and actually helping coach and learn with other agencies.

John Roberts: I want to talk about that topic that I mentioned at the beginning. This notion around understanding a validation of the value of strategy within agencies. It’s been a recurring theme in the surveys and discussions I’ve led within parleys over the last couple of years of agency strategists, particularly small agency strategists, which is where kind of my heartland is, not feeling as though strategy or their work is valued within an organization.

John Roberts: Will love and cherish, and there’s a flip side, positive aspect. But I want to talk a little bit more and dig in that. What’s your perspective on that? Is that something that you’ve seen in your experiences?

Julian Cole: For me, definitely. I think that every day, you have to prove yourself as a strategist and the reason you’re at the table. And I think it’s on us to really work out how to build that case and make the story.

Julian Cole: I came to BBDO and had to really prove communications planning, because it was a new discipline within the planning department. And I think the way that I went about that was really, I tried to start small and get some wins on the board, and then build momentum from there.

Julian Cole: And I think that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to look at what have we done in the last 12 months, where we can point and say, “Our fingerprints are on that campaign, and if we want this for the rest of the agency, then we need strategy as central to it.” And I think sometimes we forget that. We get caught up in the day to day, and we don’t build that case for ourselves in the discipline.

John Roberts: That’s a really great way of thinking about it, Julian. Sorry, Mark. How about your perspective?

Mark Pollard: Yeah. It’s a very abstract thing, because it’s thinking, and the thinking needs to lead to action. But because it’s also thinking that needs to affect a department, if you’re in a more traditional agency setup where there’s a creative department, your thinking has got to get through so many people to even get out into public.

Mark Pollard: And so many things can happen with that thinking that, in a sense, rightly so, people should judge what kind of value you bring to the table. I get people’s entire life cycle of wanting to become a strategist, getting a first junior strategy job as the only strategist in a small agency somewhere in the US.

Mark Pollard: Then they might get a strategy director role. I know someone who’s just recently got a job as the first head of strategy in an agency on an island just off the US. It’s the first time they’ve ever had a strategy department.

Mark Pollard: And at the same time, I get the messages where someone just lost a job, literally today, because an agency put them in, thought they wanted strategy, didn’t know what to do with it, and now they’ve decided to sell stuff that’s easy to sell.

Mark Pollard: I do think there’s a huge amount of pressure on people. It’s a very abstract art. I call it an art, but it’s an amazing career. And I just think it needs a few more people around it who don’t just cherry pick it for its eccentricities. But business leaders who really want it to work and who advocate for it top down, and don’t just pit it against other strategists and other agencies they’re competing with or pit it against their own departments. I see a lot of that behavior too, which is not healthy.

John Roberts: There’s this conundrum for me, when we think about this discussion about the value of strategy. There’s the abstract market, as you well pointed out, and Julian, talking about proving yourself every day in the work that we do.

John Roberts: There’s also the concrete of the leadership, however we want to define it within an agency, has made a commercial decision to hire and bring in people. Usually quite valuable people, and yet they don’t seem to understand or have heard about how to create a culture, and also how to value the output. Two slightly different things. Are you seeing the same thing, and why do you think that happens?

Mark Pollard: It depends who’s hiring. If you get someone who’s running an agency who comes from a creative background, a strategist or a group of strategists will threaten them. Because not only are they the boss of the company, they’re the boss of the ideas, and they can really struggle to give up grounds to allow other people to come in to basically think, because that’s what they think they are.

Mark Pollard: Then they can go through this cycle of “Well, I’m the creative, and I’m the strategist. Why did I hire strategy people? I don’t know what to do.” In the meantime, the strategists are like, “No one appreciates us. No one supports us,” so there’s that.

Mark Pollard: Then you get more of that business mind that’s concrete, action-oriented, wants to execute, wants to build a big business. They’ve been able to build a big business, as far as a small business goes, without a strategist.

Mark Pollard: A strategist comes in. A strategist asks questions. They can slow things down. Sometimes they do say the wrong thing, and they need to say the wrong thing. That can get in the way of this execution and profit rush, as well. There are different dynamics around it.

Mark Pollard: I think the only way through is, if you’re going to bring in strategists, it has to be a default discipline. It needs advocacy at the top. It needs to be default in the systems. People need to be thinking, let’s call it 10%.

Mark Pollard: Every project that comes in, and you can have a triage system so that not all projects need strategy, but if they do, at least 10% of the money and time should go to strategy activities, whether or not a strategist is on them. And operations people can help all that stuff happen. Without those three or four things there, a strategist will just flail by themselves. It’s a difficult conundrum to throw somebody into.

John Roberts: Yeah. I think there’s some really good points there that I’ve learnt personally, in terms of building strategy practice within agencies, as well as being one. And I want to come back to a couple of those points you were saying. But Julian, how was your thought in that?

Julian Cole: Yeah. I guess my point is that I think definitely different people are bringing it in. But I think there becomes a grace period where you need that person to be an advocate for you for the first 90 days.

Julian Cole: And I think generally they are, because they have advocated that we need this for the rest of the senior leadership. But then it really falls on the strategist to prove their worth and work out how that actually exists.

Julian Cole: There’s two things I think you need to do there. The first is you need to create artifacts that they will see come up time and time again. For me at BBDO, I can only speak to my own experience, but I know this is different in all different places.

Julian Cole: We created two documents that would always turn up in every client presentation, which was a comm framework and a blueprint, which was a communication architecture. And creating that consistent language, people understood what they were getting. What output they were getting, and that’s the important thing.

Julian Cole: You need to make sure strategy has clear outputs. Even though a lot of the job is done in the inputs and it’s done behind the scenes, you need some of those key outputs that they can sell through to their client to show, “Hey, this is the value they’re making.”

Julian Cole: The second area is you need to understand how to make the senior leadership be able to work on your side, and how they can help advocate. An example I’ll give you is we had a project at BBDO, which was called Project Thumb Breaker.

Julian Cole: Every time I bring a technology example, they always age really badly. But this was around the time that Facebook was doing a big push into video. And a lot of advertisers were just taking their TV commercial and putting it on Facebook.

Julian Cole: We were saying, “Actually, you need to thumb break the content. You need to stop people’s thumbs in the feed, and the way you do that is you need to cut and edit a clip in a different way.”

Julian Cole: I talked to senior leadership and said, “Hey, the data says this. This how we need to change the way we create our advertising, and this is how we need to edit. We need to make sure every client’s doing this.”

Julian Cole: Now, to the CEO, I said, and the CTO, I was like, “I need your support here to make this happen. And what I want you to do is I want you to be [inaudible 00:11:22] in six months, to check that all the brands are doing this. And if they’re not, then the creative director and the account lead need to speak to you about why they didn’t do that.”

Julian Cole: That gave them a really clear understanding of something that they could do to help strategy. And in this case, comms planning gets into the organization. And I think making those pieces where they’re invested and they’ve got a role in helping you succeed, is key to me.

Julian Cole: Because they don’t know how to do this, and it’s really on you to work out what are those key pieces that they can help advocate for you, beyond the three months where they’re just [inaudible 00:12:00] you and setting you up as best as possible.

Mark Pollard: What I love about the way that Julian approaches this, I think he also mentioned an idea that was about making comms planning default, and then managing by exception. I fully support that.

Mark Pollard: But I think comms planning is a potential gateway to strategy, broadly speaking. I think one of the problems that’s going on right now is everybody thinks they’re a strategist. Whereas, with comms planning, you can immediately talk to many stokeholds about what they really, really care about, which is money and performance.

Mark Pollard: To a creative team, comms planning can help them make work that makes more sense in the right kinds of channels. Hopefully, they get a better opportunity to get work into their portfolio, and potentially earn more money because of more effective work.

Mark Pollard: A client, who’s not going to want to spend money in the right way, and not just bang all this money into an efficiency play, where comms planning could help their ideas turn up in the world in a more effective, more resonant way. And then, as far as leaders who might see themselves as a strategist or creative, it’s going to grow their business.

Mark Pollard: I think, as much as I’ve spent a little bit of time around comms planning, but more around user experience, and then brand strategy and creative [inaudible 00:13:15]. I think comms planning for this era is definitely a very useful gateway to get into a broader strategic remit.

John Roberts: Mark, if you were to make brand strategy more commercial tomorrow, what would you do?

Mark Pollard: In America, I think what’s interesting is that because brands existential work, that the bigger budgets … Because part of what your question there is how do you make money, where is the money? My hunch is that in the US, it’s trying to work out how to help people who are at the sea level work out why they personally exist, and how their companies can exist in a way that’s close to that.

Mark Pollard: Now, that is a segment of people. But when you’re working with that executive level, the budgets are very different to somebody who’s just got to make five videos this year, or this quarter. I think that’s one way to make it more commercial. I think the recent-

John Roberts: The budgets are different. Sorry for jumping in. Just adding to that, Mark. I think, yes, we found the budgets are different. The perspective’s different, as well. There’s a gap to overcome, but I help them understand the role of a brand to significantly be a distinctive business driver. And the five-video portfolio marketing manager is the role of a brand from a sense of identity, in some way.

Mark Pollard: Yeah, and able to say hopefully yes to all the other decisions that need to happen, rather than trying to write a creative brief that sits against a marketing brief, against a media agency’s brief. A lot of people I work with are banging out so many briefs in a year, it’s hard. It’s just chipping away on this mine, and I think there are other mines to get into.

John Roberts: That’s another thread. But break your train of thought, you were talking about the role of brand at the C-suite level.

Julian Cole: I was going to say, do you know what’s really interesting? Because now this year consulting, I’ve gotten way more into brand strategy than in previous years, where I was really concentrating on comms planning.

Julian Cole: And the one thing that I think is really clear, is insights. And the difference, when you can start explaining insights to people, and showing the difference between a good insight and one that really makes people feel seen. I think that is something where people can see the tangible benefit to that.

Julian Cole: And I think that’s, I’m really interested in focusing on that, at the moment. Because I think it’s really exciting, too. An insight being a new … I think Mark, this is your definition of it, too. A new way of looking at the same problem.

Julian Cole: Something you look at all the time, and then getting your whole cohort to see it a completely new way that changes their opinion of the brand and the problem that they’re dealing with. When you can show CEOs and the business, who are the leadership, that, and make them feel something, I think that’s so powerful. And I really think that there’s some value in that.

Julian Cole: At the moment, what I’m trying to build is that great case to put towards senior leadership that anyone can take and say, “Hey, this is what the job of the brand strategist is. We’re not just writing briefs, but we’re giving you a new point of view on the consumer that will shake them to their core.” I think there’s something in there, too.

Mark Pollard: Yeah, I agree. I agree. The other way I’d answer your question … Because you’re doing it in a particular format. People don’t want to be excluded. They’re huge teams, decisions seem to be taking longer than ever, according to research I’ve read.

Mark Pollard: And people are nervous that they’re not going to be seen to be doing the work. Doing brand strategy in groups I think is obviously a business model many people are attracted to. I have mixed feelings about it. I like doing it, but also sometimes I find myself way more effective by doing a ton of interviews, sitting down and writing. And then, working out how to do the workshopping.

Mark Pollard: Other people are like, “You know what? We’re just going to charge X thousands of dollars to do the workshopping. And that’s just how it’s going to be, and sometimes it’s going to be good and sometimes it isn’t. But that’s going to be the business model.”

Mark Pollard: I think the executive budget … And I don’t think about these things cynically, because I usually revisit what do I want to do in life. How do I feel like I can actually contribute something meaningful? The executive budgets and how they can understand brands, and then doing strategy together, I think are two things for agencies to explore. If they can get above and beyond the idea of just giving away their thinking for free.

John Roberts: Yeah, and here’s the thing. That giving away your thinking for free, it actually comes down to … We talked a lot about the abstract role of integrating strategy. There’s a concrete role of charging for it, which really helps focus the mind, particularly when they’re a small agency.

John Roberts: There seems to be a thread in great perspectives from both of you, across the board. But the thread for me seems to be, coming back to I think where you started this, Julian, which is being … Fundamentally, it can be really simple, of where’s the value you can add fast, to demonstrate the role of strategy?

John Roberts: I’ve found in the past, for example, a creative champion is the value you can deliver is how can you help expand their potential for great work? The account lead is, how can you actually introduce new revenue opportunities or new client opportunities?

John Roberts: “Hey, there’s more that we could do than just purely answer the brief. There’s more than what we could do about purely execute to a client demand. Is that what you’ve seen, as well?

Julian Cole: Yeah. I guess I’ve built comms planning off the key thing of selling more innovative work. That’s all comms planning is doing; it’s helping to sell more innovative work, upping the quality of the work that gets out.

Julian Cole: And I think, as you said, you tell that story in different ways to different groups. Creatives, the important thing, their livelihood is on winning creative awards. If you don’t win a creative award for two years, your career is a bust. If you can understand that motivation and really help them win creative awards, that’s going to be massive for them.

Julian Cole: For account people, they need to get, they need to have a satisfied client, and also get the work through on budget. Any ways you can also help in timings and reduce the amount of creative churn, they’re going to love, as well.

Julian Cole: And then, clients want results and then also want great work that they’re proud of. You’ve got to work out how you tell that story to the different parties, and that’s what I’m really interested in, too.

John Roberts: Cool. We’ve talked, and there’s 1,000 … I’m scribbling furiously as we go, as a summary of [inaudible 00:19:52] tips and thoughts about how fundamentally any or all of these can be applied by any strategist. But particularly thinking about within small agency, how they can prove their value to actually then be appreciated for what they can bring. What can planners or strategists stop doing, in your experience?

Julian Cole: For me, it’s consumer journeys. I think consumer journeys are a waste of time. They are a bit of strategy wank, really. They never actually touch the work, and they’re the easiest thing. Because a strategist feels like they need to be seen having their output, and they’re sometimes worried that they’re not going to feel like they’re having a role.

Julian Cole: And I think that’s what we lean on. And a lot of the times, the first thing we do is do a consumer journey. And it takes so much time, and you might do it as a workshop with clients, and they might love it. But then, when it gets to the actual work, it actually doesn’t change the work, and it doesn’t make a big impact.

Julian Cole: Eight times out of 10, I think when you’re thinking a consumer journey, you can probably skip straight to a communications framework, which is what are the different messages we need to say? What are the barriers we’re solving?

Julian Cole: I do think there are times, saying that, there are some small amount of times where you should do a consumer journey. But we should not, that shouldn’t be the default on any creative brief.

John Roberts: Okay. I’m going to start turning all mine up, and go back into your skill share program again. But tell me more about that, the journeys. I’m assuming you’re referring to both the functional mapping that we’ve all done, as well as the attitudinal mapping.

Julian Cole: Yeah. Both of them. When have you seen them actually show up and change the work in a significant way? Out of hundreds of times, they never actually impact anything. The other thing we do is we make way too much work in creative development. And we seem to make the same three things every time.

Julian Cole: I think the thing is, it’s really working out early on in the process what is the actual work that we need to make for this campaign? And what’s the one or two things we’re striving, or 10% that we’re trying to change with this campaign? And where does that exist? Because there’s just so much creative wastage and creative churn that demotivates a team.

John Roberts: Yeah, that’s funny, Julian. As you’re saying this, I’m going back through my whole list of mistakes I’ve made, where the journey felt like a great idea. But actually, when you look back, it [inaudible 00:22:20] it didn’t simplify.

John Roberts: And you get to the point where you look at an execution, go, “Well, wait. Is this media or channel supposed to be doing step A or step B? Because they both feel really similar. They felt great when we were in workshop, but now we’re looking at reality.” Does that make sense?

Julian Cole: Yeah, totally.

John Roberts: Awesome. Great start. Mark, sorry we went off on a left foot. What do you think strategists and planners should stop doing, in order to be able to demonstrate their value?

Mark Pollard: I think they should stop using expensive words. But I have a second one, because I think it’s connected. I think it’s, you’ve got to take what you do seriously, but you don’t have to take yourself so seriously all the time.

Mark Pollard: Sometimes I do events and I’m like, “Why is everybody so scared of each other, that they’re just frozen? Why is everyone taking this so seriously? Why are the decks that I’m looking at full of these big, long words that you would never use outside of the deck, let alone outside of the room, or the office or the building?”

Mark Pollard: What is that? Why is this okay? It’s not okay. And the thing is, if you can move through those two thoughts … I’m cheating the question here. But if you can move through those two thoughts, if you can love short, sharp words. If you can take yourself seriously enough to really embrace the playfulness, the mischievous spirit that is what we do.

Mark Pollard: We’re basically coming up with different ways to exist in the world, for brands, for companies, for people. It’s quite rebellious, cheeky, mischievous work. If you can embrace that energy and have people hire you for that energy, I think it’s just better for you.

John Roberts: Great perspective. To be honest, I’ve said for many a year, I’m a chief strategy officer and I get confused by strategy. Because it feels like a big wallow pit, where anything that anyone’s uncertain about, or volume of opinion, they can throw it all in and we call in strategy.

John Roberts: And I’m constantly trying to figure out what’s the simplest way to get to … Stealing a Mark Pollard-ism, an informed opinion on how to win. And no matter how we frame it, but that balance between informed. It’s based on some real depth, and rigor and passion for doing it right and better. But at the same time, it’s still an opinion. How about arguing back with your own words, Mark?

Mark Pollard: No, I want you to talk more about wallow pit. What’s that metaphor? I love that. Good. Keep going. Expand on that please, John.

John Roberts: When we think about the world that we live in, and you guys know from the work you do directly with client, and workshops and the discussions. And Mark, you kicked off on this riff, which is that we use too many words and too long ways around, trying to get to the root of what it’s really about.

John Roberts: The simpler we can make things, the better. The simpler, the clearer we can get to it. And my wallow pit, which I’ve just completely made up on the spur of this podcast, this is just discussion would be. It can be really comfortable for planners and for clients to wallow. But it doesn’t ultimately lead to better work.

Julian Cole: I totally agree. The other one I was thinking about was everyone throwing their two cents in the wallow pit. With the account people, when they’ve got something that’s not, they don’t see in the client brief or they don’t see in the creative work.

Julian Cole: They’ll often throw it in the strategist wallow pit, of just being like, “Don’t you think the client would want to see how to make their cocktails using our recipe? I don’t think that’s coming through in the work. What do you think?” “Throw it in.” “Do you think that should be in the brief?” “Throw it in. Throw it in.”

Julian Cole: And they’re just lumping you with all these messages and other things that they want to put in there. When I was visualizing my wallow pit, I was seeing other people just chucking their two cents and their worries in there, as well.

Mark Pollard: Well, I love that. And I love the idea of wallow pit, because it’s an idea that’s bringing things together that don’t usually belong together. And it’s a great problem to solve. If strategy is being used as a wallow pit inside your agency, how do you solve that?

Mark Pollard: I love that. If you present using slides, the first slide could say the wallow pit, and that’s all. And they’re all the words that you need on that slide, and then you would do some research. You would have some other short, sharp words and work out how to solve it. I love that as an example of what to do, versus what not to do.

John Roberts: Yeah, it’s funny. You’ve just actually put into a presentation, a workshop device, which I’m sure you guys do. Particularly when we think, and Julian was talking about being more involved in brand strategy, where the cluster wall.

John Roberts: Everyone walks in with key words that we all have the quality list. The authentic misnomer. And one of the things I always want to do is use the cluster wall to get them out early, so everyone’s had their say. Everyone said quality, “Our brand stands for quality.” Okay, great. Post-it note it, put it on the cluster wall. And the wallow pit is the equivalent of that wall.

Mark Pollard: I would refuse to put those words up on the wall. But I identify with the need to get people flowing maybe stream of consciousness. Because I’ve found we bring things to workshops like that, we might feel very forced. And we bring this robotic language or these ideas, and we just hold onto them.

Mark Pollard: And until we’re addressed, until we get them out, we hold onto them. We won’t let go and we won’t indulge with any other kind of ideas or conversations, so you’ve got to get them out. Me, I don’t put that stuff up on a wall anymore. I did when I was younger.

Julian Cole: But I reckon you have to put it up, because they have to feel heard. Maybe you put it on the back wall, and then you’re not facing towards those words. But if you don’t put that up, I feel like that’s a massive misstep, because they will feel like those words aren’t heard. And they’ll keep trying to squeeze them in other ways. I feel like, I don’t know, I’d put them up.

Mark Pollard: No. I think to me, it’s highly coachable. And it’s not like you walk into a room and go, “Hey, give me your words, I’ll put them up.” You set the tone, you have a bit of banter. Obviously, my accent, my sarcasm and my monotone are part of my shtick, so I set the scene. And as soon as people give me the word …

Mark Pollard: Or I might say, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to ask you a question, you’re going to give me one or five words, like authenticity, quality, convenience, dependence.” I don’t know. Whatever it is.

Mark Pollard: “And then, I’m going to ask you some questions, and as you answer the questions, I’m going to put those words up on the wall.” And they’re really exciting words, so it’s not just this me coming in and going, “Nah, not going to do it.” It’s fun.

Julian Cole: But I reckon that might make people feel conscious, to be honest. I think if you said, “We can’t say these words,” then people will be double guessing themselves.

John Roberts: It’s a challenge, because I think what we don’t want to do is … We’ve gone off on this great tangent, but I’m loving it. The how do we ensure that a workshop is used in this notion of the wallow pit or the brand strategy words, are what people can contribute, but don’t think they’re done?

John Roberts: Either route can work. Personally, what I tend to do is I tend to say, “I want to get them out there, and then we’ll, not immediately, but we’ll come back to them.” They’re on a side wall. Julian, you talked about that.

John Roberts: But I want the people to come back and then start saying, “Okay, who doesn’t want to be? Name one brand that doesn’t want to stand for quality in some aspect?” And that allowed people to deselect what they’ve put up, to move them forward.

Julian Cole: Did you see the bland manifesto?

John Roberts: Yeah.

Julian Cole: The bland brand guidelines? That was amazing. It’s all the words that you don’t want. And that’s amazing. Great thing. It’s what you were saying already, Mark, with, “Hey, you’re going to say these five words.” But it’s like, “Oh, my God. Yes. They are the words that everyone uses.”

John Roberts: Here’s the thing. When I flip this around to the reason honestly I started Parley was because, as a strategist that’s grown up primarily in small agencies. And when I’ve been to StratFest for years, and years and years, and working with the 4A’s, there was a sense of, “Who do I turn to? How can I share? How can I learn?”

John Roberts: What’s interesting for me is this flip, even this riff is a flip for any strategist in a small agency listening today. That comes back to what you were saying earlier at the beginning, Julian, about proving your value.

John Roberts: Don’t use those words. Have your own banned list of words that you will never use in any brand strategy or brief. Because then, you’re starting provide a point of distinction. Guys, let me ask-

Mark Pollard: I was going ask you. Could I ask-

John Roberts: Yeah, go on, Mark.

Mark Pollard: Okay. Let’s reverse the wallow pit. What’s the opposite of the wallow pit? If strategy is currently the wallow pit, what’s the opposite? I was getting trampoline, happy trampoline. Let’s flip it.

Julian Cole: Rainbow pot.

Mark Pollard: Oh, I like that. Rainbow trampoline?

Julian Cole: Yeah. What’s at the end of a rainbow? [crosstalk 00:30:58].

John Roberts: Yeah, I don’t want to be that pot of gold guy.

Julian Cole: Pot of gold, yeah.

John Roberts: That’s way too big a bar for me. The flip side is it’s got to be something for me. The opposite of wallow would be some point of clarity and distinction. Some vision, focus.

Julian Cole: Okay. This is another [inaudible 00:31:17] that I do. There’s a difference between visual words and verbal words. Verbal words are things that you can’t picture in your head, whereas visual words are things that you can visualize at the same time. And we should always be reaching for visual words over verbal.

Julian Cole: The thing with the wallow pit that’s so good, is that you can imagine a pit. What you’ve got to think, it’s what’s the word that’s the opposite. Trampoline was good. I think rainbow pot was good, because you can visualize a rainbow. I’m looking at … What were the words you said there?

John Roberts: Go on there, Mark.

Mark Pollard: I got one. I don’t usually swear, John, but I’m thinking it’s fuck yeah cannon. If strategy is a wallow pit and you just dump your grievances and all your concerns, isn’t it much better if it’s this cannon on a top of a hill. And it’s just booming out fuck yeahs, like rainbow fuck yeahs. It’s a rainbow fuck yeah cannon, there you go.

John Roberts: Perfect.

Mark Pollard: [inaudible 00:32:13].

John Roberts: And here’s the thing. What you’ve done, you’ve immediately gone from this … Julian, where you’re talking about this soft wallow as a word. I’m not a linguist, but even just saying it, I start to roll my tongue and sit back. Whereas in a fuck yeah cannon, I’m all ramped up and hopefully not too angry, but ready to go. It’s cool.

Mark Pollard: We’ve got those consonants in.

John Roberts: Listen, I’m going to try and sway this back into the loose theory of this pod today. But this is all helpful. Why do you guys share so much?

Julian Cole: For me, it makes me a better strategist. I think there’s a theory in surgery when they’re teaching surgeons, and it’s called SODOTO. I’m not even going to say it. It’s see it, do it, teach it. And that’s how they learn, and that’s how they get better.

Julian Cole: For me, I definitely have seen that. I think that the more I share, the sharper my strategy gets, and me at my own craft. I think that’s one of the number one reasons I share, and I think that it also helps me. It helps with my career, and helping me get out there and helping with this consulting, at least, by having my name out there.

John Roberts: Cool. Mark?

Mark Pollard: Yeah. An evolutionary psychologist might say that we do these things for mating opportunities, resources and to assert ourselves in hierarchy. Sharing triggers a whole bunch of dopamine in the brain.

Mark Pollard: For me, I’d say going back to when I was very, very young, I’ve been publishing stuff on the internet since, I don’t know, 1996 or so, I would say. It’s probably a way for an introvert to try to find love. I know that that’s a big part of why I write.

Mark Pollard: And I’m mature enough to realize that in myself right now. It’s how I deal with the world. I love words, I love playing with them, I love putting them out into the public world. And I appreciate it when people read them. It’s awesome. It excites me.

Mark Pollard: And then, at the same time, to Julian’s point, I think writing, teaching and talking about what you do, they help you do it better. Meta cognition. Let alone the communities coming up through the underground rap world.

Mark Pollard: I met a lot of people through the internet, and then when the social media scene kicked off over 10 years ago, there was a great scene in Sydney. And we would get together. We were like minded and we couldn’t have found each other without the internet.

Mark Pollard: And we just always, we just shared. It’s what you did as a way to communicate with each other. You’re communicating through ideas. Sometimes it’s personal, usually it’s probably not. It’s all the reasons.

Julian Cole: Mark and John, what would make you stop sharing?

John Roberts: I haven’t found it yet, and the reason why is because I think … I’m just thinking about what you guys were saying about why do we share. I’m a one-third owner of an agency, where one of our values when we started this agency, was we believe …

John Roberts: One of our values is generosity, because we believed two things. One is, it’s just the way that people should work. And the second thing is, we’ve experienced more, and more and more. And you guys have just touched upon it, about it’s a very anti-agency culture, historically, to be generous.

John Roberts: I will come back to your question, Julian. In order for me to stop, I don’t know if I can, because I’ve never yet been in an experience where over the long term, being generous has not benefited me, made me better, or my agency or my team’s work. How about you, Mark?

Mark Pollard: I don’t want to wish this upon myself. To me, it would be like repeated violence. But even then, I would find a way to share. It’s how I’m wired. It’s deep time spent in introspection and introversion, trying to write it down. And then, I have to put it somewhere.

Mark Pollard: I can’t keep it in. If I keep it in, and I had a few years in the US when I first moved here, where I really turned myself off. And it’s really not good for my mental health. I would keep doing it, but it would be repeated violence that might get me to slow it down for a bit. But the thing is, now I feel like I’ve got a pretty good gain around the world, so I feel relatively robust with that anyway.

Julian Cole: Can I ask a second question? How do you get more people to share? Because right now, I’d say there’s 5% of people are sharing. How do you get more people to share?

John Roberts: I think it’s connected to what you guys have been doing. And you guys know this, but honestly, it’s really easy for me to say. I’ve never yet been in a parley when we’ve talked about learning, and how we can all learn, without your two names coming up.

John Roberts: Kudos to you guys, because it isn’t just about the work and the point of view you have. It’s about how you facilitate why I’m trying to do parley. What I think more and more planners and strategists want to do, is just how do we share and learn from each other?

John Roberts: I think it’s from behavior, modeling behavior. You guys are doing it now, and if you think not three short blinks ago, not many people were sharing and giving away for free comms frameworks, templates, proof, testament to, tips on how to be better at what you do. I feel as though what people lack, if anything now that may help, will be how do I contribute more. Does that make sense?

Mark Pollard: Yeah.

John Roberts: How can I participate in sharing?

Mark Pollard: Yeah, and I think part of that’s a maturity thing, where you hit a point in your career and you’re like, “Oh, you know what? I don’t know how many years I’ve got left in this, and maybe that doesn’t even matter. But I want to give something back, I want to contribute.”

Mark Pollard: I think that’s important. The second is, the US and our industry especially does attract a lot of individualists. And individualists are always trying to work out how to get ahead. And when I talk to students, it’s the portfolio, it’s the CV. Everyone’s fighting for that internship, so there’s a lot of competition and a lot of pressure to be an important individual.

Mark Pollard: And I think until we get a culture that is like, “Yeah, okay. You can find that infinite nuance in yourself, about how you’re unique and incredible. But what have you done for the world lately? What have you contributed?”

Mark Pollard: And as soon as more of those conversations happen, I think more people will share. But I also don’t think it’s an innate trait that humanity has. I think we share enough to survive and to get ahead.

Julian Cole: At the root of it, I know that it’s an individualist thing, as well. There is benefit for my career by sharing more. And it’s helped me as a consultant, so at the end of the day, I think it does … And through all my jobs, it’s definitely helped me get a job.

Julian Cole: It almost does have a very strong individualist … I don’t know if that’s the right way to use that word, motivation. There is that underlying, “If you do this, this will help you in your career, serve your career.” At all levels, at all levels.

Julian Cole: My biggest barrier I think it is, and this is what I think but I don’t know. And you guys speak to it a lot more, you speak to a lot of planners, too. But to me, it’s a fear, and this is what I get, as well. A fear of being wrong.

Julian Cole: Since we’re doing this abstract job where we don’t know what we’re actually doing, people have feared that other people, smarter people, are going to call them out. And call bullshit, and that’s not right. And that’s the problem that we really have to solve against. I think it’s like, “I’m going to be called out for this.”

Mark Pollard: Yeah, people don’t want to get judged, and they don’t want to lose opportunities because they put themselves out there. I think what’s shifted in the past couple of years is not just the number of ways that people can share, but the industry is under pressure.

Mark Pollard: And I feel there are enough people who’ve been around for a while now, where they’re like, “You know what? It’s not just us under pressure, it’s all of us right now, so we can try to make all boats rise where possible.”

Mark Pollard: And I think that’s been the shift. 10 years ago, it was probably more plentiful. 20 years ago, way more plentiful, and people would be like, “Ah, screw that. I’m not sharing my toys.”

John Roberts: Let me ask, because you’ve been working with so many different people over the last few years. Both of you. I have found the best sharers in my experience have been either the incredibly senior, very big agency leaders, or small agency planners or strategists. Have you seen something different? Who shares best?

Julian Cole: I actually don’t see it as a level thing. I see it as maybe a confidence thing. People have grown up confident. Because to me, I don’t see that many leaders sharing. You don’t really hear the voices of the heads of many agencies.

Julian Cole: I know a lot of heads of agencies and I don’t see them sharing. I think the people I see sharing are, I don’t know, the people who I see on Twitter. And there’s a lot of young people who are sharing, like Mary [inaudible 00:41:10] and Marco on Twitter, who did 30 insights for 30 day. And he’s sharing like that.

Julian Cole: And then there’s Son of a Pitch, which is two young junior strategists, Max and Vince in Australia. And they’re not senior level, and they’re not at small agencies. It’s just these people who I think have got the confidence of, a little are willing to jump over that barrier, that invisible barrier of fear of being judged.

Julian Cole: And then, once they do it, I think then you just roll and you’re like, “Oh, my god, yes. This is great. Let’s keep going.” But I don’t know, because Mark, there’s plenty of people who share in [inaudible 00:41:47], who then don’t share in other places, who I’m like, “Oh, my God. You’ve got an amazing voice. I’d love to see more from you.”

Mark Pollard: Yeah. Also, it depends on how we’re judging the word share, and does it have to big, spectacular and public. Because a lot of the leaders who do share, they have PR teams around them shaping what they share. And that’s why the stuff doesn’t get shared that much.

Mark Pollard: No offense, PR people, but it doesn’t usually come from a raw place. I think once you cross that threshold … I have a need to express. I have a deep need to express, and if I’m waiting for one of my kids at ballet or soccer, and I’m like, “God, I just had an idea. I’ve got to put it somewhere.”

Mark Pollard: Now, maybe if I was smarter, I wouldn’t put it out on the internet immediately. Maybe I would save it for … Maybe I’d have written 50 books by now, or a movie or something. But I need to get it out, and I think that I hear that in people who are attracted to art, and to self expression. Public self expression.

Mark Pollard: And that isn’t everybody. A lot of people have their needs met, or they’re playing a different game. I don’t know. We encourage it, because we love it and it’s changed our lives. And we’re aware that there’s bias when you talk about how you’ve done okay, because of the way you’ve behaved.

Mark Pollard: But then, when we see people coming up embracing it, as well, it’s really, it’s amazing. And there’s an electricity in people who try to share from a raw, hungry, desperate place. And I don’t know. I’m very attracted to it, and I always try to encourage people to do it, because you learn about who you are and what you can contribute to your career, and to the rest of the world.

John Roberts: Well, the past 45 minutes have been tons of sharing, guys, and I’ve loved it. And of course, attached to all these links are going to be where to find and share more. Because I really do appreciate the work you guys do, and the volume, and the value and the quality, in terms of the sharing you do. I’ve seen it so often.

John Roberts: Parting thoughts. We’ve gone through, I know there are 1,000 and one tips. When we think about the beginning of the story of this discussion around, how can we help small agency strategists overcome this need to validate what they do.

John Roberts: We heard a lot from, going straight from the very beginning, about finding ways to prove your value. Or finding, thinking about your champion and what’s the benefit to them, be that a creative person or account person.

John Roberts: I really enjoyed the wallow in the wallow pit. But the flip side to that I think was really interesting to me, which is there’s just this ongoing everyday role of a strategist of, “Prove your value by don’t fall in the wallow pit. Don’t allow people in the wallow pit, by thinking about clarity.” That choice of words you talked about, Mark.

John Roberts: Any other closing thoughts? Julian, closing thoughts for agencies, particularly small agency strategists, on proving their value and demonstrating their value?

Julian Cole: Yeah. I think that strategists can fall into the wallow pit too easily themselves, and be like, “Woe is me,” and, “Ah, my agency doesn’t respect strategists, and this is bullshit. Blah, blah, blah.”

Julian Cole: I think we need to jump out of the wallow pit into the fuck yeah cannon. And the way you do that, in my honest opinion, and one thing you should do is start building that case study. That one presentation that shows the power of strategy, and you can bring examples from external.

Julian Cole: You can show, “Hey, here’s when strategy worked for other agencies.” Get old strategy case studies that [inaudible 00:45:16] have got a paper on it with the 10 best cases studies. And show how strategy made that work better. Try to find them in your category.

Julian Cole: And then, the third one is try to find it working within the agency. Whether you’ve been in the job for three months, or 12 months or five years, build that case study until you’ve got that. And then, start to shop that around.

Julian Cole: I think the job of head of strategists in a small agency, it’s as much about the politics game. 50% your craft, the other 50% is diplomacy skills. Get out there with that deck, get coalitions, get people behind, have the backroom conversations to really start getting a lot of momentum. Get out of that wallow pit and start being diplomatic, and working your agency and working the angles.

John Roberts: Great tip. Mark?

Mark Pollard: Well, I’d say that if you’re going to stand behind your fuck yeah rainbow cannon, don’t just shoot creative briefs and comms plans, and all these smart strategy things. Shoot from the heart. Create things. Put them out into the world, because you need to, because you want to. Because that’s how you start to explore and understand yourself.

Mark Pollard: At some point, you’re not going to have a strategy career. Who are you going to be then? And if you don’t shoot other interesting, weird, wacky projects from that fuck yeah rainbow cannon along the way, you might end your strategy career without even knowing it just ended. And you’ll be like, “Oh, God. Who am I again?”

John Roberts: Yep, great closer. Julian, thank you for making the time from Melbourne. Mark, absolute joy. Thank you very much, guys.

Julian Cole: Thank you for having us.

Mark Pollard: Thanks, John. Take care.