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The Wonderful World Of Strategy From the Effervescent Mind Of Faris Yakob
When I first moved to Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising London in the early 1990s, I had the pleasure of entering the golden age of account planning. Even New York agencies hadn’t truly grasped the benefits of account planners vs. America’s traditional researchers. One of the definitions of account planning is that it brings the consumer mindset into the process of developing advertising. Here are two more definitions that directly relate to most client pitches.
“The account planner is that member of the agency’s team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used – not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client’s advertising problems.”
– Stanley Pollitt, founder Boase Massimi Pollitt and wrote the book, Pollitt On Planning.
“Planners are involved and integrated in the creation of marketing strategy and ads. Their responsibility is to bring the consumer to the forefront of the process and to inspire the team to work with the consumer in mind. The planner has a point of view about the consumer and is not shy about expressing it.”
– Lisa Fortini-Campbell, Kellogg School of Management
Earlier in the book, I discussed that the Internet and a wide array of easy to use strategic tools have helped us all become more adept at research and being able to deliver many of the benefits of account planning. That said, being an expert in strategic planning and innovation is a full-time job. Here is one of the worlds most famous full-time experts.
A Strategic Expert Talks
Faris Yakob, Founder and Principle, Genius|Steals and… his book “Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising For A Digital World”
Faris Yakob is the Founder and Principle of Genius|Steals a global planning, idea and innovation consultancy that works on new product concepts, new communication ideas, workshops, inspiration, strategy, content creation, and new ways of thinking. Genius|Steals’ clients include: Fast Company, Grey Advertising, Marriott, Microsoft, Ogilvy (NY), and P&G.
Prior to founding Genius|Steals, he was Chief Innovation Officer MDC Partners/KBS+ and EVP Chief Technology Strategist at McCann Erickson. To top it off, among other kudos, Faris was Chairman of Integrated Jury and Content&Contact Jury at the 2011 Clio Awards.
PL: Do you call yourself an account planner?
Faris: That’s a good question. I have been an account planner, a media planner, a digital strategist, a communications strategist, and I’ve been a management consultant. So I guess, loosely in the area of strategy, I’d say yes.
PL: Going with that, what would you say is the role of an account planner or strategist in the process of developing a new client pitch and presentation?
Faris: I make a distinction between a strategist and an account planner as being in different stages in the process. The way I usually encapsulate it is that a strategy informs the need for advertising, whereas an account planner will inform the advertising.
They’re slightly different parts of the process. The account planner assumes we’re going do ads, and the strategist looks for the right solution to a problem, which may involve advertising in its traditional sense. The strategist directs the solution to a problem in the most effective way.
An account planner’s historical role has been to be the voice of the consumer inside the advertising agency and to be responsible for the efficacy of work. The planner makes sure the work works – to give a fundamentally subjective creative product the best possible chance of a commercial success.
PL: How does that work in a pitch environment where a presentation’s being developed in a very short period of time?
Faris: It’s the same as any kind of creative pitching process in my opinion, which is initially, the gathering and distillation of the largest, most relevant set of sources that might impact the solution. Sources include context, movements in culture, historical efficacy of past work, and all brands in the set. It’s the distillation and chemical interpretation of lots and lots of data observation into the most useful, salient, densely generative aspects of that data.
There’s a tendency typical of big advertising agencies to use research as validation as well in that process. They use very rapid turnaround quantitative and qualitative research to support the validation of ideas (i.e. the drunk who uses a lamppost for support).
I’m less enamored, let’s say, with use of this type of research, because I fundamentally don’t think that showing somebody a comp and saying “Would you buy more toilet paper if I showed you this cartoon of a bear?” is very useful accept as theatrical validation, but that’s not the point I guess. Or is the point, I guess.
PL: You are well schooled in digital strategy. Are there digital tools, in the best case off the shelf tools, that help you unearth insights?
Faris: A hundred percent. The first place I would start usually is Google. And I don’t mean that in the tritest sense. One of the things I’ve been baffled by when consulting with a wealth of agencies (until quite recently), is the lack of using Google search terms as the starting point of market analysis of changing trends.
One of the first things I do to understand the marketplace, for example, is to use Google Trends to understand market share. How does the market operate? What are the smallest delineations of that market? What do we consider the successful set, and how do the players in that set operate? So search traffic and volume tends to mirror market share almost exactly in every case that I’ve seen. That’s one of the first things you have to look at.
Google gives you lots of interesting information immediately: what the market’s like in terms of the brands operating within it, what their relative positions are, and how they’re moving. That’s rather important.
A corollary of that tool is that Google gives you recommendations of words that are search allies: words that strongly correlate in search queries with those terms. So just looking at that you begin to see what words are most associated via search with a brand, or the topic, et cetera. And it also shows you words that are declining in relevance and those gaining in relevance at the time. You can see trends in that category, trends in that marketplace, as things become more or less salient based entirely on search volume. So that’s one thing.
I also use online qualitatively as well. I look at social platforms and find real people saying real things about a topic. I get a selection of opinions that is somewhat representative.
PL: In this case you are going online, into the world of social media, and you are listening to what consumers are saying and discussing in the marketplace?
Faris: Absolutely. One of the great things about social media is that people talk about everything: the corpus of data is now very large. You can, with some basic search tools and platforms, find interesting nuggets of actual speech. I find this valuable because historically the only way we could access actual speech was to put people in a focus group room and show them materials and then ask questions. That framework is incredibly fraught with methodical bias. Focus groups or interviews have to be very carefully undertaken by very skilled people, in my opinion, to not let the methods of research completely dictate the answers. How you ask the questions dictates the answers in many cases.
PL: You are now able to get a more authentic answer or insight? Is that one way to put it?
Faris: Yes. You get a more real piece of speech than you would in the context of a direct interrogation about a brand or category.
PL: Thinking of a pitch situation itself, is there a best time to do a reveal of a big idea? Is the reveal better in the front, the middle, or the back? When is the “ah-ha” moment?
Faris: There are a number of different approaches to this, and I have to say it’s variable. It depends entirely on, hopefully, how you understand the client and their need for working together. There is a school of thought which says bringing the client in early and pre-selling them on half the idea is a good practice. Sometimes I have to fight for that early meeting, although I also think that on some occasions chemistry meetings can be artificial and weirdly awkward.
I think it’s about building a journey or a way of building a scaffold. So when the idea appears, it seems both obvious and necessary, rather than “ta-da!”
When does it come? Again, that’s interesting too. It depends on how you articulate what the idea is and the difference between the idea and executions of the idea. I remember when I worked briefly with Alex Bogusky, and he told the tale of the Burger King pitch. He said they didn’t present the first television script until over two and a half hours in because they wanted to demonstrate they weren’t just a TV agency – that they were thinking strategically about the product and the problem and so forth. There should be a strategy to address the cadence of a pitch, and it depends on what you’re trying to impress somebody with. I think the idea of the big idea is challenging now because there’s a lot of components that we’re looking at. It’s not just a thought or a line necessarily: it’s something that informs a creative tonality in the solution’s architecture.
PL: Clients are immersed in their brand, their consumers, and their markets. Is there any way to know in advance that your idea, your big idea, your insight, the wonderful thing that you’ve uncovered, is something that hasn’t been previously uncovered?
Faris: I think yes and no. The first thing obviously is for you to distill all the client’s documents and read between the lines of the briefing documents, because they tend to, strictly working with large clients, just give you reams and reams of deckage. And so lots of information will be in there that looks like the beginnings of insight.
The thing is with both insight and ideas, the first set of things you think about any problem are always going be the most obvious. That’s how brains work. The most obvious set of combinations, which is what ideas tend to be, swim around the problems. As soon as you say “burgers”, your brain has a number of associations that it begins to bring up really rapidly. The challenge then is to get beyond those to the least obvious insight, the least obvious idea. In some sense it’s the most creative and therefore the least likely to be seen before. I guess it’s impossible to know with an experienced client that they haven’t seen the insight before. But, hopefully you append your idea with something very recent that exists in the world that’s relevant, to get to something modern rather than obvious.
PL: Interesting, so even if the idea pre-exists, there might be a different way to express it and use it based on recency.
Faris: Yes, exactly.
I think one of the biggest questions in marketing today is what should we do with an idea in an infinite possible array of channels and executions? What’s the right thing to do? What’s strategically most likely to achieve the success that you’re looking for is part of the challenge.
I also think, to your previous question, there’s a certain a way of discussing an idea that just involves bravery on the part of the agency.
In Jon Steel’s book, Truth, Lies, and Advertising, he talks about the only insight they took into a Porsche pitch. Research showed that for many people when they are sitting in a car next to a Porsche, they are looking at the driver and thinking “what an asshole”. And that was Porsche’s big problem – Porsche drivers were considered to be assholes. Porsche had to do a lot of work to adjust that perception. So I guess that kind of bravery also tends to be less common or obvious when presenting to clients.
PL: What would you consider your best moment in a pitch? Have there have been some wonderful, exciting, “this is it”, “this is how life should be” moments?
Faris: Yes, I’ve had a couple of really pleasant ones. Early on, I was working at Naked in Sydney, and the office was only nine people at the time. We were invited to pitch Telstra, which is the biggest company in Australia. It’s a telecoms monopoly in the manner of AT&T before the breakup. It owns the Internet service provider, the telecom company, and the biggest mobile network. It’s a huge company that has perception issues, as monopolies often do, because it doesn’t necessarily invest in innovation. We were a very small company, yet Telstra invited us to pitch against large incumbent agencies. We found ourselves in our little office with this massive row of clients crammed in sort of a boardroom. Winning seemed incredibly unlikely, but we found out the next day that we had won a piece of the business. It had just seemed incredibly unlikely.
That was the moment when I realized that the cool thing about our industry is that sometimes, if you go in and tell a better story and come up with a better solution, you can win.
PL: Was that a function of personal chemistry and ideas? Or, just the ideas?
Faris: I think it’s a combination of the two and that Naked had a different approach than traditional agencies, and… we were charming.
I think that one of the big problems agencies have is differentiation. Many agencies refuse to make choices. Steve Henry, one of the founders of HHCL in London, wrote an article a couple years ago about the lack of values agencies now have. He used an expression from Groucho Marx: “These are my beliefs. If you don’t like them, I have others.”, which is what he said was so wrong about agencies.
PL: I have one more question. What do you see as the biggest mistake that agencies make when pitching?
Faris: One I’ve seen repeatedly in working on massive RFP pitches with big ad agencies is the agency’s complete ability to ignore the RFP’s requirements entirely. It’s happened repeatedly in ad agencies in America and elsewhere. The mistake is selling what you sell rather than providing a solution that the client asks for.
PL: It is always amazing to hear that some agencies don’t listen or follow directions. Not the best way to approach closing the deal when clients are looking for agencies that actually listen.
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