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Research Insights | Highlights from the 2013 4A’s Strategy Festival, “Strategy &” 


What makes a good planner? How can planners demonstrate their value? What are the challenges and frustrations in planning today? All these questions were answered at the 4A’s Strategy Festival, held in Nashville in October, along with the role played by data, relevant insights from the music industry, and a celebration of planning.

Thanks to Information Specialist Rebecca Samson, for providing this Research Insights encapsulating the major Festival themes.


“Music City” had a starring role at the 2013 Strategy Festival, October 28–29, in Nashville, TN. The music of Nashville-based artists (country and non-country) played throughout. The Jay Chiat awards reception was held at the Silver Dollar Saloon, a downtown hot spot featuring a hometown band. Attendees could be heard excitedly discussing where they had sampled local BBQ and the live music scene.  

Titled “Strategy &,”the Festival highlighted the future of strategy and its role in relation to research, creativity, data, innovation, business goals and content. A good mix of panels, presenters and case studies spoke to how planning fits in with, and is affected by, those other forces. A special one-on-one interview with music industry insider, Founder and CEO of Big Machine Records, Scott Borchetta, gave a fascinating look at the music label as content creator. His views on the music business perfectly complemented the conference’s Nashville setting, and were also extremely relevant to the audience of strategists, as they echoed many themes addressed by other speakers.

 Some ideas that continued to surface throughout the conference were:

  1. Challenges and frustrations
  2. Data and its role in strategy
  3. What makes a good planner
  4. Defining and showing value
  5. Celebration of planning and planners.

Challenges and Frustrations

A lot of talks began with describing the rapidly changing landscape, and the effect it has on the business and how planners have to adapt and respond. Here are some of the issues and opportunities that emerged:

  • Shrinking attention spans and engagement (Jonah Disend, Founder and CEO, Redscout)
  • Sometimes we can be too strategic and overthink things. This hurts creative work. (Michael Fanuele, Chief Strategic Officer, Fallon)
  • Simplicity has disappeared and in its place is chaos. We have shifted from beautiful, elegant solutions to a rapid cycle of testing and ongoing interpretation. (Laura McFarlane, VP Strategy/Global, Sapient Nitro)
  • Consumer expectations are constantly changing. We can no longer put them in neat segments, rather we need to put them in context. Their needs and behaviors change based on context. (Laura McFarlane)
  • The world of products and brands are changing from a world of things to a world of smart, connected, programmable things. Brands are no longer only defined by artifacts but by shared sets of behaviors and experiences. (Theo Forbath, Vice President, Innovation Strategy, Frog Design)
  • The market research toolkit has evolved, but the questions aren’t evolving. (Ann Green, Senior Partner Corporate Innovation and Solutions, Millward Brown)
  • Tools are far superior to what they had five years ago but clients are very conservative and afraid to change the research process. (Alex Hunt, EVP BrainJuicer, North America)
  • Research is being used as a go or no-go for ads. Clients need something to evaluate success, but research shouldn’t determine yes or no as far as advertising goes. (Jenna Lauer, Managing Partner, Hall & Partners.)
  • Most copy testing data is irrelevant now. It’s measuring the wrong thing. (Alex Hunt)
  • A lot of what planners do is lost in translation. Because planning is a constatantly evolving process, it’s hard to explain and define. (Jen Burkey, Sanders\Wingo)
  • Agencies have to compete against clients for business now. (Neil Slotterback, BSSP)
  • Planning was easier when we weren’t so multichannel; what worked before isn’t working now. The client you thought you knew seems confused. You are not in control. You are in the pivotal spot where you can end up being a hero or a goat. (Laurie Tucker, SVP, Corporate Marketing, Fedex)
  • We live in a world of instant gratification and instant criticism. (Laurie Tucker)

And although Scott Borchetta works in a different industry, he also faces some of the same challenges brought on by our changing world, e.g., the music industry is dealing with streaming services that legally give music away and will force a lot of smaller labels to go out of business. His label must find new ways to monetize, and new opportunities to make use of their assets.


Not surprisingly, the topic of data came up frequently, and it was interesting to see the different approaches and perspectives on data and its role in the business. Suzanne Powers, EVP Chief Strategy Officer, McCann Erickson, believes that the most powerful way of integrating strategy and analytics is by having data embedded in the strategy group. Laura McFarlane, VP Strategy/Global, Sapient Nitro, was also a strong proponent of putting data to use. The promise of big data is an important part of their job, since when they manipulate data, they can change behaviors to their advantage, deriving additional layers of meaning from the data and leveraging it to create experiences. Like Suzanne, Laura also thinks that to blend machine and human intelligence as Sapient does, data has to sit in the strategic planning group and show creatives the impact their work exerts on consumer behavior. Planners must be familiar and comfortable working with data to see in real time what patterns are emerging, how sales are impacted and what shifts. They design experiences that not only generate data but that continue to be improved by it.

Lung Huang, Vice President of Digital Advertising, Global Partnerships, dunnhumby, showed what smart use of data can do for a brand; dunnhumby combines digital media exposure data and shopper data for a new insight dataset. It has seen sales lifts for clients in the yogurt, toothpaste and soft drink categories when data is used to speak to the people who actually want to be spoken to. Context is kingthe right message has to be presented to the right people at the right time, and the key to this is data.

Taking a not-entirely negative, but less enthusiastic look at data was Jonah Disend, Founder and CEO, Redscout, who cautioned that you can follow data off a cliff if you’re not careful. He thinks it’s hard to pull an idea out of data and prefers to push out the idea first and then ask data people at the firms they partner with for confirmation.

Scott Borchetta had his own take on data. “Data is just history,” he said. It can help you make a song or record sound just like the last one but it won’t help in the moment of discovery. Great artists and writers tell you how to hear things in a brand new way.

What Makes Great Planners

Among the qualities mentioned about what makes a good planner, what is sought after when hiring a planner. Good planners:

  • Are egoless and selfless.
  • Are fine with being in the background.
  • Do whatever it takes to move things forward.
  • Do whatever they can to make themselves useful.
  • Must keep learning.
  • Understand that every client challenge is different.
  • Are entrepreneurial.
  • Are incredibly curious.
  • Are thinkers who can make and makers who can think.
  • Have another area of expertise besides planning to bring to the table, e.g., knowledge of other languages and cultures.
  • Understand that feeling uncomfortable is part of the job.
  • Have an inherent restlessness. They succeed by bringing optimism and energy to that restlessness.
  • Know that it’s a lot more important to be respected than to be liked. If the idea is good, they won’t be dismissed.
  • Have to be nimble in order to work well with different creatives. They understand that they have to change their approach depending on who they’re talking to and do whatever it takes to inspire the creative sitting across the table. The conversation changes with each one.
  • Are straight shooters, fearless and honest in giving clients the vision to how to move forward.
  • Should be optimistic people who can see the potential of what could be.
  • Can energize a group.


The Inspire! Series asked planners with less than five years’ experience to offer fresh perspectives on how to ensure the value of planning. One of the winners, Alex Brands  from Peter A. Mayer Advertising, Inc., captivated the audience with his take on value as a layered idea with three phases: perception-based value, utility-based value and the deepest level, which is rarity-based value. In addition, a thing’s value declines over time as it becomes more common or easy to replicate. For example, 3D printers are currently in the rarity stage of value; they are still very expensive because the emerging technology is hard to replicate, and they allow us to push into new areas that we never could before. Once the technology becomes more common, the value will shift into the utility category, where practical features will determine a purchase.

Value scenarios:

  1. When clients don’t want to pay for planning, it’s a perception issuethey don’t see the value unless it creates a tangible return.
  2. When creatives don’t value planning, it’s a utility issue: they don’t see the value unless you’re bringing them something they can’t do their job without and you can elevate the creative plane.
  3. When account people don’t see the value, it’s a rarity issue. They think they can do without planning, unless you demonstrate that its function can’t be replicated. A tangible return on investment + creative elevation + irreplaceability=DEPTH. Strategy that hits the rarity realm will create the most value.

When asked how she shows that planning is providing value, Suzanne Powers said that she thinks it’s dangerous to start “productizing” the process of planning and likens it to taking an engine out of a Porsche (i.e., it’s a bad idea to have to start explaining the separate value of planning within an agency). You need to be insightful, smart and earn the right to have the conversation with the client.

Jonah Disend agrees, saying that you can’t think you’re smart and then just wing it. If you have a meeting with a client where they don’t say “I never thought of that,” then it’s not successful.

Theo Forbath from Frog Design explained that his clients want to know what technology will change or drive value creation in their industry. Frog creates technologies that amplify existing products, sell a datastream and create new value in a new class of product that never could have existed before. He included examples of projects that accomplished each of these goals.

1.  Amplifying an existing product is the Huggies TweetPee, a diaper sensor with an accompanying iPhone app that sends parents a message when the diaper needs to be changed.

2.  Kilimo Salama, a micro-insurance agency in Kenya, provides crop insurance for small farmers in cases of drought or excess rain. Solar powered weather stations that measure drought and rain conditions determine how farmers are reimbursed for their losses. This is an example of selling a datastream that changes lives.

3.  SST ShotSpotter was the creation of a new class of product that uses audio acoustic rays to detect gunshots. The exact address of where the gunshot happened and the model of gun used are identified, assisting in solving crimes in a brand new way.

Offering the client-side view of value, Laurie Tucker said Fedex includes creating and sustaining value as part of their business strategy.

Celebration of Planning

Two Jay Chiat Award winners--Cole Haan and IBM--presented case studies that showed how strategy-derived insights directly led to campaign success. In addition to this celebration of strategy, the discipline also received some praise from those who work with planners: creatives and clients.

  • Jen Small, Director of Global Brand Development, McDonald’s, explained how strategists help clients take a step or 10 or 50 back away from the brand. Clients are so immersed in their brand all the time that they need this to give them the broader picture.
  • Strategy is creative’s closest ally at McCann, according to Leslie Simms, Executive Creative Director. Planners bring culture and vision to what they’re doing and have become the thought leaders for brands. Planners are her biggest partners at the agency and she always has them alongside her.
  • Fedex’s Laurie Tucker enthused that they LOVE their agency’s planner. They work with him to ensure that alignment is gained at the highest level. They attribute their best-ever awarded ad to the planner who lived and breathed what they did at Fedex. This planner doesn’t let them get off the hook without defining success. They end up with great campaigns because he makes them say, “if we are successful, XYZ happens.”

A Selection of Quotes from the Conference

  1. We get to make shit up and try to figure out how to solve things and that’s exciting. (Suzanne Powers)
  2. What unifies strategy and creative is making things that people want and invite into their lives.  (Jonny Bauer, Chief Strategy Officer, Droga 5)
  3. Good strategy has just the right amount of dots that leave it open for creative that’s totally unexpected. You don’t want too many or too few dots. (Leslie Simms)
  4. The finest strategists are fantastic at dropping f-bombs. (Jen Small)
  5. It’s big, so I’ve heard. (Suzanne Powers)
  6. Good planning is the ability to see something that no one else has seen and articulate it in a way that no one else has done. (Jonah Disend)
  7. No doesn’t mean no, it’s just a request for more information. (Suzanne Powers)
  8. Truth is not an insight, it’s a fact. (Leslie Simms)
  9. Strategies are organized by intelligence, experience and evolvability. (Laura McFarlane)
  10. 90% of the world’s data was created in the last 2 years. (Lung Huang)
  11. Magic happens when designers think like technologists and technologists think like strategists and strategists think like designers. (Theo Forbath)
  12. The brand that is most mismanaged is often the agency (Derek Robson, Managing Partner Goodby, Silverstein and Partners)
  13. We have 14 different flavors of strategy at our agency. (Laura McFarlane)
  14. Ideas are intended to be nurtured, fostered to grow. You can’t test at the idea stage or you run the risk of killing an idea with great potential. (Ann Green)
  15. You know you have succeeded when you’ve become an invaluable part of the client’s team and when creative accuses you of crossing over. (Laurie Tucker).

And our favorite? “Shut up and listen.” (Scott Borchetta).

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