Tag Archives: planning

A lovely trip to London: meeting with the APG and BIMA (and a call to arms for Scottish strategic people)

I wrote the start of this article thousands of feet circling high above Gatwick.

Gatwick is one of the worst airports. I don’t know what makes it worse than, say, Stansted, which seems to be universally loathed. I quite like Stansted because it’s small and feels regional and therefore quite friendly.

Anyway, this isn’t about airports. I was just dreading getting off the plane and doing the Gatwick palaver, which was a total palaver. And I was annoyed that I forgot my laptop charger and the emergency one I bought cost sixty quid and doesn’t even charge my laptop, it’s just a power lead that stops it from dying. What’s a blog for if you can’t put your gripes and grizzles into it?

Thanks for reading this far. I promise it gets better.

I’m now having a much nicer trip back, on a Virgin train. People keep bringing me food and coffee and I’ve got loads of work done. The wifi even mostly works. I like trains so much more than planes.

ANYWAY. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the first meeting of the judging panel of the BIMA awards which was great fun…

…But before that, I met up with Sarah Newman of the APG to talk about building a stronger network of strategic minds in Scotland.

For those of you who don’t know the APG, they are the industry body for planners and strategists in the UK.  Here’s what they say about themselves:

The APG is a not-for-profit organisation run for and by its members: primarily account planners in advertising agencies, but increasingly the wider community of communications strategists, including media planners, channel planners, digital planners and DM planners.

Their training is top notch (I should know, I’ve done a few of their courses) and they run fab events which are all up on YouTube if you want to check them out. Both training and events are held mainly in London and that was what I wanted to talk to Sarah about – could we try doing some events and/or training in Scotland?

The proposed events and training sessions would feature world class thinkers from all corners of the industry(ies) and bring people together – any person who does strategy and planning, from traditional agencies, design agencies, digital, and also from client-side.

From all over Scotland there are lots of people seeking out insight and applying them to make their communications stronger, their businesses more effective and it would be fab to do more to support each other and build a network that is both competitive and collaborative.

Events where we discuss things like, ‘what is an insight’? from different perspectives, we look at how insights are developed into ideas, how we know whether an idea is ‘good’ or not… And of course understand how to build strong brands that mean something in the complex world we now live in.

These events would be distinctive from other events in Scotland because their primary focus would be on strategy and would be aimed at people who have a say in their brand’s or their clients’ strategies in some way.

Just some initial thoughts, some of which might be wrong but I think the benefits of trying this could be as follows:

  • Creating a network of known ‘strategic minds’ – primarily for collaboration and support
  • Nurturing and growing strategic talent in Scotland
  • Building awareness of what strategy is and the value it adds
  • Enabling clients to understand whether their agencies are doing strategy right
  • Enabling agencies to find ways to improve their strategic offer

If you’re currently a member of the APG in Scotland you should have received an email from them asking your permission for me to email you – but if you’re not a member I’d still like to know if you would be interested in events/training that has a strategic focus. Let me know via the comments below, or via my Twitter or Linked In. You don’t need to be a planner or a strategist – I can see this appealing to designers, content managers, UX professionals, creatives, brand managers, insight peeps, analysts… So please get in touch if you would like to hear more as and when I get around to doing something.

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Can strategists learn from bad architecture?

A while ago, about five and a half years ago, I met this skateboarder who told me he was from Cardross, which is a village about forty minutes outside Glasgow, pretty much the last stop before the train terminates at Helensburgh.

I’d never heard of the place, and the first time we visited, we went to see his parents, but they weren’t in, so we went for a walk up a disused country road, which turned out to lead to the entrance of a twentieth century ruin, St Peter’s Seminary.

We had to fight our way through overgrown rhododendron bushes and trudge through some pretty heavy undergrowth, and then climb over some fences that said DANGER DANGER DANGER and then suddenly we were climbing into a crazy falling-down concrete brutalist building.

It was beautiful and awe-inspiring and kinda sad, and very intriguing and exciting.  I was very curious to look around.  There were lots of things to see, the skateboarder said.

We walked round into the main hall of the building where there had been an altar and you could see higher up there had been walkways where the trainee priests had had their rooms.  You could see where the grand staircase had been, now too dangerous to ascend.  We jumped over a gap where a wooden staircase had been and climbed to the second floor up concrete spiral steps and walked along where the balconies had been, peeking into burnt out graffiti-ed bedroom cells, some of which still had coat hooks and sinks in.

From there we climbed over into the lecture hall which was destroyed even more a short time after our visit which had once been supported by an impressive cantilever.  Some of the beautiful wooden beams still held and showed where the ceiling had long gone.

st peters seminary graffiti 2 st peters seminary graffiti

(Photos courtesy of Google Image search)

I was blown away by the place, and we visited it several times afterwards with friends, to take photos and look in wonder.  Each time we could go to fewer parts of the building because it was becoming more and more dangerous – and depressing.  It has been at the mercy of vandals, arsonists, nature, and the elements for over thirty years.

The skateboarder told me it had only been an operational seminary for about a decade, for most of the seventies, and he had  been there for mass when he was a little kid.  It had fallen into disuse as the Catholic Church realised that training priests in isolation was the wrong way to go, as they should learn in the communities they were going to serve.  After that it had had a brief stint as a drug rehab place but it wasn’t really suited to that purpose either, pretty much for the same reasons.

Anyway, this skateboarder turned out to be the guy I was going to stay with forever, so he’s still part of this story.  He works in architecture and we’ve been talking quite a bit about St Peters recently because it’s been getting a lot of press because the arts organisation NVA has worked to raise money to make it safe and turn it into a place a lot more more people than intrepid, brave (and stupid) abandoned building hunters would want to visit.

If you follow the chat about St Peter’s, there’s two main trains of thought.  One is that the place should be knocked down because it was a disaster, a folly, from the very beginning.  And they’re right – it was never really fit for purpose as the Catholic Church changed their training policy before the building was even finished.  The rest of this first group really don’t like concrete modernist buildings and want them all destroyed.  The second train of thought is that Gillespie Kidd and Coia‘s design was amazing and the naysayers are wrong and that the building must be saved and made into something that will be of use to people, even if that use is as of a site of historic interest that is safe to visit.

We were chatting about this today, and the skateboarder said that although the building was amazing, it was bad architecture because it wasn’t useful.  It can’t be defended as a success, it’s a folly, the result of architectural vanity.  The architects got it wrong (in conjunction with the client) by putting it miles away from anywhere, making it too beautiful to be comfortable – the trainees apparently didn’t like it all that much, and they had to sit around in the dark as the lighbulbs had to be specially ordered in from Denmark.  And so on.

I was thinking this was rather analagous to any kind of architecture – the planning phase of which is essentially strategy.  You need to challenge your client brief, identify what the best outcome for their investment is going to be, talk to stakeholders, target audiences and users and find out what they’re comfortable with, and think about the messages you want to convey with your design.  And you need to do all that properly and thoroughly before design even begins.

I think it’s daft that we have awards for design and awards for effectiveness in our industry – the design ones should be way more about effectiveness than they are and the effectiveness ones should celebrate the ones that were also fabulous experiences.  However, a good experience is likely to be more effective, so effectiveness awards have less to worry about in my opinion, and so should clients who choose agencies that go on about measurement and insight more than those who have stacks of design awards.

I know I go on about this a lot but William Morris’s thing about designs being ‘useful and beautiful’ is so true, and I find myself quoting him time and again.  (More about that quote here and here.)

Anyway, I do hope that NVA’s endeavours work out well, and they succeed in creating good architecture by making St Peter’s fit for a new purpose, one which delights and mystifies new visitors for generations to come.

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 5: assimilation

This is the 5th and probably final part of my series on craft skills of the digital strategist.  I say probably because I will no doubt think of some others which I might squeeze into an also-rans article at a later date.

Anyway, here it is.  And it’s a biggie.  And it’s perhaps the most under-rated skill of all.

5. Assimilation

When was the last time you ever heard of ‘assimilation’ as being a skill?  Well, someone once said to me that it was the most important thing a planner should be able to do.  At the time I said, ‘Oh yes, I can do that,’ and then I had to look it up in a dictionary.

Definition of assimilate in English:

VERB

Take in and understand fully (information or ideas): Marie tried to assimilate the week’s events

1.1 Absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culturepop trends are assimilated into the mainstream with alarming speed

(Of the body or any biological system) absorb and digest (food or nutrients):the sugars in the fruit are readily assimilated by the body

Regard as similar; liken:philosophers had assimilated thought to perception

3.1 Become similarthe Churches assimilated to a certain cultural norm

As I understand it, I think that for strategists, assimilation means a few things:

  1. Being able to use the available knowledge about a subject, decide what is relevant, and really understand it – and by being the expert on something make sure that everyone else on the team understands the important information too – e.g. the significant bits of the context, the direction, the vision, the challenges, and so on.  Get everyone on the same page, in a smart way.
  2. By being the expert as described above, to be able to truthfully and wholeheartedly put yourself in the shoes of the target audience, the client or even the brand.  Like method acting, it’s method planning.  Be your customer and ask, ‘why do I care about this?’  Be your brand and say, ‘Does this suit me?’
  3. Thirdly, assimilation is about making connections between all the bits of information, knowledge and insight – the more interesting connections you can make, the better chance you have of coming up with something that will be interesting to your creative teams, to your client, and most importantly, to your target audience.

This skill is not really something that can be taught.  It is something that comes with practice if you know what to practice, and it’s likely to be a thing some people have a head start on because that’s the way their imagination and understanding works.  It’s probably therefore the hardest skill for some strategists to learn, and for some strategists, it’s probably something they do without even knowing it is a skill.

I’d agree though, with the original point that person made to me quite a long time ago, that being good at assimilation is perhaps the most important thing that identifies a great strategist/planner.

Do let me know your thoughts on assimilation.  Do you think it’s a skill?

And please do also give me any feedback you have about the 5 skills I’ve talked about this week.  Can you think of any more?

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 3: wireframing and sitemapping

So yesterday I said I’d treat you by talking about how I do some things that designers do – but I do them badly.  Why would we do anything badly?  Well, read on if you’re interested.

3. Wireframing and sitemapping

Some digital agencies have UX and IA people who just do wireframing and sitemapping, and sometimes this is the job of the designers in an agency.  However, strategists should understand this stuff and be able to do it (even badly) in order to a) visually explain what they think should happen (since designers tend to be quite visual) and b) because it helps us to understand how designers think and c) therefore brief them better because we’re on the way to proving the theory is correct by beginning to put it into practice.example wireframe

If you understand how designers think, you can communicate with them better.  That means they get a better brief.  And you’re more likely to see a product you know will match your users’ (and the client’s) requirements.

At Equator, our strategy team uses Balsamiq Mockups for wireframes.

The thing is, you’re looking at the mockup on the right, and, you’re thinking, that’s crap, and you’d be right.

Wireframes aren’t meant to be nice.  They should look crap, and that’s kind of the point.

Then the client knows it’s just a sketch, which means you can discuss the principles of the user experience and the layout and the exciting ideas you have rather than whether the design fits the brand guidelines, and your designer can laugh at your incompetence and do a much better job than you ever could when it comes around to designing the thing.

We also use xmind in our team for sitemapping.  It is a most infuriating user experience.  If you know of a better sitemaps software that doesn’t cost too much, let me know.

Anyway, tomorrow, we’re going to talk about something completely different.  Presenting.  Presenting is a really important and surprisingly underrated skill.  It’s something that strategists are expected to be born able to do, and, since we’re largely introverts, who like thinking a lot and not talking to large groups of people, it’s not something that always comes that naturally to us.

 

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5 craft skills of the digital strategist part 1: Quantitative analysis

The role of the ‘digital strategist’ is a hard one to define, because it takes many forms, depending on type of agency, client, location, and a number of other variables I can’t think of right now.

Anyway, that’s already been written about quite a lot* and basically what being a digital strategist is, is what being any other kind of strategist should be, i.e. someone who understands their clients’ objectives and target audience needs and knows how to make the two meet somewhere usefully and beautifully in the middle…

I’m not talking about the kind of person you have to be, to be a digital strategist either.  That has also been done.

Instead, I decided to write about the types of skills that come in useful when you are being a strategist in this so-called digital age.  I came up with so much stuff and it ended up being so long, I’ve split it into 5 parts, which I’ll run all this week.  I’ve probably not nearly covered all the skills, there’s such a variety of people who are ‘strategists’, but these are the skills valued by the strategy team at Equator.

So here’s part 1, which is all about

1. Quantitative analysis

Back in the day, as a junior planner in an ad agency, I got all trained up in using TGI and running data to understand and segment my target audiences and look for interesting correlations and so on.  Do they still do this in creative agencies?  I know media agencies still do. (I’ve not done a TGI run for about 6 years since I gatecrashed Mediacom on behalf of a mutual client.)  I hope they do.  Hopefully the questions are keeping up with technology a bit faster than they used to.

No matter, the point is more that digging around in data is really important.  Not only do you find things that are interesting about the people you want to engage with, you also learn to ask lots of different questions in order to find the best route in to your strategy.  You also obviously have facts and not just hunches to inspire, or back up your strategies.

For digital agencies, there’s not that much point in signing up to TGI, but there’s plenty of other useful data sources out there.  The obvious ones are Google Analytics and Comscore, and then there’s nice bespoke ones agencies like People Pulse that MRY/Digitas LBi have (very jealous of that).  YouGov profiler is a nice free one if you’re just looking for a view on who your ‘average customer’ is.

I was once told in an appraisal, a long time ago, that my love for digging around in data was killing my creativity…  So a bit part of this skill is always staying on top of the detail and not getting too hung up on the numbers either.  Like I say, they can lead to the insight that leads to the route, but sometimes you’re better going into the data once you have a hunch and trying to prove that instead.

So there you are.

And hey, I haven’t mentioned ‘big data’ once.

Tomorrow,I’ll talk about qualitative analysis.  You know, focus groups and that kind of thing.

 

*The role of the digital strategist has been the subject of debate across a great many other blogs for quite some time now, and if you’re interested, here are some articles you could read:

Why the role of the digital strategist needs to evolve // Jinal Shah (Pretty comprehensive overview of the role, with very interesting comment discussion on the role too.)

The no-bullshit strategist // Matt Daniels (A thought provoking response to Shah’s analysis.)

Why the world doesn’t need another digital strategist // Mark Pollard (Pollard says, we actually do need digital strategists, just not the way you think we do.)

 

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What’s it like doing strategy in Glasgow?

I’ve been inspired to write about what it’s like to be a planner in Scotland by Northern Planner’s post about being a strategist in the North.  I was also asked to guest blog about it earlier in the year by Simon Hopkins and totally failed to do anything about it.

My excuse?  Well, I have been very busy lately, with work and parenting and house tidying and so on.  But something else was holding me back which I can only really say was a bit of a stubborn chip on my shoulder which I have recently shed and which means I am embracing being a Scottish strategist with gusto.  I might write about that in another post, it’s quite an epiphany.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Northern’s post because it was positive on the whole and I nodded my head vehemently at many of his points, e.g.

While there are less big TV campaigns, there are lots of really interesting, more integrated projects. You’ll need to be good at getting how channels fit together and creating strategic platforms for IDEAS, rather than advertising ideas.

This is totally true.  I moved up here and had to get good at ‘digital’ and then found that digital was actually everything except big TV campaigns, which I’m actually not that bothered about anymore.  Doing content, brand, and UX and comms strategy is very satisfying, particularly when you know it’s being rolled out nationally, internationally.  You also know that at least half of what you do is actually useful to people and you can measure the impact it has on your client’s business.  It means, as Northern says, you don’t think in silos and you get a chance to change how your clients do business and not just think about their communications.

You’ll have to prove yourself. More than someone about from around here. No one will take your word for it about anything. But good places will give the chance.

This is the truest thing. You do have to prove yourself.  I failed to prove the value of strategy at three Scottish agencies before I started work at Equator and by jove I have worked hard to prove it at Equator too.  Still am.  I’m in no danger of getting complacent or too big for my boots.

Northern mentions a ‘lack of sophistication’ which I feel is more a reluctance to intellectualise in the same way as the Oxbridge graduates I felt inferior to back in the Big Smoke, and both Scottish agency people and clients are reluctant to disappear up their own arses when it comes to talking about work – they just want to ‘get it done’ a lot of the time, and they want to know what they are paying for.  Which is fair enough.  I’m working towards a nice balance of thinking and talking more about the important stuff and then getting down to making nice work.

I am sure that in the 7 years I’ve been back up north people have thought I’m a terrible snob about what I do and I’m a right pain in the bum a lot of the time because I keep asking ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘Why would the target audience care about that?’ and ‘Can we just start using the language of brands for a change?’ but it’s more that I am trying to keep the principles of what I do secure and not waver from what I believe to be the right way to do things.  I’m driven to do things properly.  Because it’s fun and I think it leads to better work.

In 7 years I’ve barely worked with anyone who’s experienced life in a London advertising agency and this means that I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people without this frame of reference that ‘my way’ is the right way.  When what they’d been doing until I came along was working pretty well and all I did was annoy them and criticise them.

4 years ago a ‘good place’ did give me a chance and I’m still there, now with a 5-strong strategy team, which consists of people who weren’t planners when they joined but had the transferable skills to become planners.  In training them Equator now has a lovely diverse group of strategists who want to find out what the client’s objectives are before defining the solution, think deeply about user behaviour and collaborate with our designers, creatives and marketing specialists to develop joined-up routes to transforming our clients’ businesses.

I hope you can tell, I’m very proud of them.

One thing I don’t think I agree with Northern on is this:

What you need to prepared for, in general, in the creative side of things at least, is that you just won’t get the same kind of clients and do the same kind of work.

Now…  This is a really big misconception a lot of London types have.  It depends what agency you work at.  Work is what you make it and we beat big London agencies in pitches quite often, and a lot of our business is outside of Scotland.  Geography is a bit irrelevant.  There are some fantastic creative and strategic minds up here – the fact that we’re fewer in numbers could mean that we’re easier to find.  And we are all seasoned Easyjetters – we see our clients wherever they want to see us.

On the whole, being a strategist in Glasgow is great and I don’t think I’d want to work anywhere else now.  (Never say never obviously.)  Glasgow is known for its cool music and arts scene, it feels like things are happening here.  Being here means you have a 12 minute cycle to work, you can buy a nice flat or house near your friends and the centre of town, mountains and things are about an hour away, you get to work with nice people who want to make good, effective products and content real people want to engage with.

This year there’s been a feeling that it’s the best place to be – the summer was very exciting. And the winter ain’t that bad.  Just take vitamin D supplements and have a nice walk along the Clyde at lunchtime.

If you’re thinking of a move up north, we’d love to have you.  Look! A vacancy with your name on it.

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