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Managing Marketing: Deconstructing Strategy In A Time Of Crisis

Olly_Taylor

Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Olly Taylor is the Chief Strategy Officer at Host Havas Australia. He shares his experience and thoughts on the role of strategy and the importance of having a strategic framework at a time of crisis. He talks about the need for simplicity in the face of complexity and the difference between strategy and planning as two parts of the same discipline.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.

Today I’m sitting down with Olly Taylor, chief strategy officer at Host/Havas Australia. Welcome, Olly.

Olly:

Thank you very much. Thank you for having me, I’m looking forward to it.

Darren:

I’m looking forward to this conversation because you are one of the pure strategists in advertising from my perspective. Do you want to know why?

Olly:

I’d love to know why.

Darren:

In your career you’ve had the training from some of the best strategic agencies like D&B&B in London and Fallon and you’ve always been in that strategic role unlike other people who have come into the industry from creative or account management and moved into strategy. What brought you into this role? Was it accident or deliberate choice?

Olly:

It was partly accident but I realised when I got in that it was the job I’d always wanted. I’d always been fascinated by consumer behaviour. We didn’t call it consumer behaviour at university—it was just how people act. I remember hearing a fact which I thought was fascinating that the lowest socioeconomic group in the U.K would spend more money on toilet paper than anyone else. I couldn’t understand why.

I then realised that consumer behaviour is fascinating. I found I got more interested by insights, what the consumer problem was and then how you go about defining what the solution is as much as I got excited about the creative idea that came out of it.

Darren:

Let me clarify that. You’re not saying that lower socioeconomic groups are scrunchers and therefore consume more toilet paper but that they’d actually be willing to pay a premium for things like toilet paper?

Olly:

Exactly that because there’s a human need to want to have the best where you can and in certain instances people make decisions about where they can spend more. On the surface that’s really weird but when you look into it it’s classic human behaviour whether you’re buying a Bentley because you’ve got inexhaustible amounts of money or you’re buying premium loo roll.

Darren:

That’s really touched me. My mother came from very humble beginnings and we always grew up with Cussons Imperial Leather shampoo because she said, ‘this was my way of treating myself’. And all the advertising spoke to it; this family going off in a jet for their holidays while they’re sitting in a bath. This was the ultimate indulgence in luxury.

Olly:

Yeah, I think there was a famous campaign in the UK—Blue Velvet Hyacinth Bouquet -was entirely about premium loo roll. I still find the psychology behind it fascinating. When I first started strategic planning it was what’s the insight in the brief for a 30-second TV ad? And I still found that fascinating. And the problem shouldn’t dictate what the solution was which led me to Fallon, which was more like advertising but with a very high quality of creative output. And planning was extremely well respected there because they could see it would help get a better creative output.

That led to Host—a call out of the blue from Anthony. The model of Host was what’s the problem therefore what’s the strategy? And if you have a series of creative partners that all have a different skill set you can adequately choose the best solution as opposed to saying the solution is advertising now let’s work out how best we use it.

That put the planner in quite a privileged position and at the centre of it. And whilst I’ve been in Australia for 17 years, professionally I’ve always been extremely happy in that role. The industry moves on every few years and the application of strategy and making complex stuff simple—all the things that good planners do is universal. I still find it fascinating.

Darren:

Human beings are fascinating purely by our nature. Those behaviour economics studies, Dan Ariely—we’re predictably irrational—and the fact that human beings often act in quite irrational ways but it becomes quite predictable when you study that behaviour.

Olly:

Even when you read books like Sapiens, we’re seeing that a lot of these behaviours are hardwired. Some of the irrationality of it is that you’ve got behaviours that are hardwired from an evolutionary perspective over thousands of years and then the world’s changing decade by decade.

I wonder whether understandably some of our behaviour hasn’t caught up with the rapidly changing environment. Humans are always a huge source of interest.

Darren:

The UK is seen as the source of modern planning in many ways for advertising and marketing because especially in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s it became the place to learn the trade. What, for you, were the lessons you carried with you when you came to Australia 17 years ago.

Olly:

The first one was being comfortable with numbers. A lot of planning is a guided opinion and you need to have done your homework in order to have that opinion otherwise you don’t have any credibility. At its best planning is very robust, that doesn’t necessarily tell you how it got to where it is, and at its not so good it can be quite opinionated.

Everyone’s opinion is valued but I was always taught make sure you know what you’re talking about because if you don’t you might be like a firework—you might be good at the beginning but you’ve got to sustain it.

Darren:

One of my favourite quotes is ‘opinions are like arseholes; everyone has one’. If everyone has an opinion and you said quite charitably that everyone’s opinion is valued but in a world where everyone has an opinion and is able to shout it from the rooftops, the ones that really stand out are the ones that are supported with either data, facts, or incontrovertible observations that people take as a fundamental truth.

Olly:

The other big one was that you have to be interested in creativity. If you’re interested in strategy just for strategy’s sake there are other places where you can apply that. To be fluent in creative ideas is the required output and I liked that. You’re using strategy to get to better ideas rather than the strategy for strategy’s sake.

These things are quite well known but you can get lost in strategy for the sake of it. That’s the problem with many strategies and to a degree the industry around strategy; it gets in its own way sometimes. It overcomplicates it.

The idea of strategy is where are you and why are you there and simply where do you want to go to? But I think what people often miss is that should be 10% of the process. The 90% should be how are you going to get there and how are you making decisions that will allow you to get there?

Quite often people go we’ve got it; the brand vision is X. And in my mind that’s the beginning.

Darren:

It sounds like the J Walter Thompson planning cycle; where are we now, why are we there, where do we want to be, how do we get there? And the one I always liked was how will we know when we get there? What will fundamentally be changed and measurable to tell us we’ve actually arrived?

Olly:

People have different names and processes; that is still at the heart of any strategy. The last 3 to 6 months we’ve faced a whole change in context and whether people know it or not they’re going through that process about where are we, what’s changed, where might we want to be.

But interestingly they’re doing it much more intuitively and much quicker. I think people might come out of these times with a renewed understanding of the benefit of having a strategy. You’ve either been forced to have one, you’ve realised the one you have got isn’t working so you’ve got to change quickly. It also allows you to go I never really liked that strategy, let’s have a new one.

Darren:

I think it’s called pivoting. Isn’t it the word de jour; let’s pivot, which means completely change direction.

Olly:

And we can put more things on the bonfire at times like this. A strategy is incremental, what did we do last year and are we going to do a little bit more of it or less of it? Call it pivoting or disruption, a radical change in the context allows you to change and I think people get energised by that.

It works, not just for your leadership team but everybody in your company and people want to move quickly. It allows you to get to what you think is the intuitive right answer rather than having to spend months dressing it up.

Darren:

It’s an interesting observation that as an industry we’re obsessed with strategy. I say that because there are so many of them within the same organisation. We often deal with people that have a marketing strategy, a comms strategy, a media strategy, a social media strategy, an experiential strategy and when you look at these strategies they seem to be totally disconnected. What’s the obsession with strategy and how many would you recommend having?

Olly:

People feel more comfortable talking about strategy than about creative ideas, which by their nature are sometimes harder to analyse whether it’s right or wrong. Some people are naturally more comfortable in that grey. A strategy gives everybody a safer framework to discuss stuff. And what was the 2nd part of that question?

Darren:

How many should you have? I’ve seen organisations where you could pull out as many strategy documents as they have specialist agencies.

Olly:

I agree.

Darren:

And all of them are going in slightly different directions. My fundamental problem is that a lot of them feel like sales documents. I have yet to meet a social media strategist who was not recommending social media.

Olly:

Yes, I do agree with you. I’m not sure that people are doing it deliberately.

Darren:

Accidentally?

Olly:

Social media is a really important growing task. If you’re in a modern PR agency you’ve got to understand it. And to understand the strategy you have to hire someone who by nature is interested and dedicated to that field. Then you get into that field and you can’t necessarily get out of it or talk about something else because the conversation you’re having is about social media.

I totally agree with you. In our department, we end up having one way of teaching planning. Everyone I hire comes with specialist skills. So we’ve got people coming from media communications agencies, people from PR agencies, people with a research background and then they can understand and learn from each other.

The idea is to find a media-neutral solution to the problem, which most people would agree is the right thing to do. It’s hard to do unless you have a general broad approach to it. I think there is more similarity to strategy than specialisation. I think there is sometimes a degree of trying to elevate one channel over the other and it depends on how you look at it which one is more important.

I agree there can be an over specialisation. It’s helpful when you have a universal view of what strategy is and branding. At Havas, we think about meaningful brands. It comes with the observation that people don’t care about brands as much as we do. It gives you a start point of really does the consumer care about this?

I don’t know that it matters whether you’re in social or in radio; it shouldn’t make as much difference.

Darren:

A long time ago when I got into advertising they said to me people talk about strategy and planning but the two are actually quite different. For them strategy was there’s either a problem or opportunity and it is the way I’m going to take the resources at hand to best achieve the objective. Planning is actually putting together the plan of how I’m implementing the strategy.

They differentiated between planning and strategy whereas a lot of people see them as synonyms don’t they?

Olly:

In my career, I’ve never heard it described like that. I will be taking that because I think it’s a really good description. They’re interchangeable. I’ve always thought of strategy as the big order and planning as more applied to creative planning. The strategy could be a business strategy.

Darren:

They were saying that any sort of strategy has a planning component. You’ve answered the questions in the planning cycle, where are we, why are we there, where do we want to be and how do we get there? That’s one thing for either the product service or brand or the business.

Then there are multiple channels between where do we want to be and how do we get there and that’s where you can have multiple plans as long as each of those plans is moving the overall strategy forward.

Scientists are always looking for the great unifying theory of everything. It suddenly became that strategy was the unifying plan or strategic approach to solving a problem or creating a change. And the plans were the individual way of doing it so then you could have a social media plan, paid media plan, events plan, a PR plan and an overall communications plan.

But they weren’t separate strategies because there was only one strategy with one objective.

Olly:

I agree with you. Too much time is spent putting more effort into the strategy. Actually, the strategy should be quite simple and putting more effort into more planning i.e. having more steps. How many decisions have you made today that help you move on your strategy?

And if you aren’t making any then it’s either the wrong strategy or you’re focusing on the wrong part of it. I think too often strategies sit on shelves—we want to be X as a brand and less about here are the 15 things we’ve done today in order to move us on. When you’re in a leadership position you’re planning and strategising for your own business as much as you are for clients.

I often think communication agencies are less strategic on their own businesses than they are on others.

Darren:

I’d absolutely agree having worked in them and now with them. You mentioned the covid pandemic and disruption that’s caused. And during this time you, Olly Taylor and Havas have been really active in producing weekly updates and insights. What was the motivation because they’ve been incredibly insightful?

Olly:

We’ve got a simple strategy for our own business and one of those bits is being indispensable to clients. The other one is to win new business and the third, not surprisingly, is to create a culture where people can do their best ever work. I’m not uncomfortable sharing that because it’s fairly basic. Our business is hard but it’s not complicated and nor should it be.

Darren:

No rocket science here.

Olly:

Being indispensable to clients, how can we update them every Friday, giving examples of what other brands are doing but do it in a Friday afternoon kind of way; bite-size and make people feel that there is some kind of opportunity as opposed to being doom and gloom.

It grew from there and because we did it only for our clients we got emails saying thank you, I really enjoyed reading that, it was the nicest thing I’ve read this week. And like a dopamine rush, we ended up doing more and more of it. And we then added our own content about what makes a brand meaningful in this time and then there started to be a bit more of a consensus and most opinion pieces at that point started converging.

In any cycle of crisis, there’s an initial bit of what on earth is going on and then as it settled a bit our updates became more about helping our clients make specific strategies for themselves. But at the time it was a way of helping our clients. Just keeping abreast of it and not being too overwhelmed by it, but there are other people doing stuff.

Some are massive and some are smaller but there is an opportunity. The whole COVID thing gives people a chance to pivot and you need to know what other people are doing so you’ve got some information on what to do yourself.

Darren:

So are you part of the group that says it’s all changed, it’s Armageddon and there’s going to be a whole new normal that everyone’s going to have to get used to or are you the group that says all that’s happened is that this has accelerated changes we’ve seen through necessity and it’s really going to be follow that direction?

Olly:

I’m in the latter predominantly; I probably was in the former in the first couple of weeks. I think there is a 3rd thing emerging where people will evaluate their general strategies and work out whether they’ve got a good one or not. Things like the airline business, they’re not going to be the same and they can’t continue to be the same.

Other businesses are almost unchanged. Who has changed and who hasn’t? Look at Nike. What I admire about them is the same idea of 25 years but the way they didn’t change it but just applied it in a new way. Playing for the world inside felt like an anthemic piece of Nike work but utterly connected to what’s going on right now.

I think most things will stay the same but there will be a discrepancy between brands that feel like they know where they’re going and there will be a bucket of brands that will be quite unsettled by the change in context but it’s sort of the luck of the draw.

Darren:

Yes, it’s like we’re heading this way as they point in 360 directions.

Olly:

It’s the luck of the draw what category you’re in.

Darren:

Perhaps but you’d have to say there’s underlying importance for having a strategy. This was a conversation that was happening 2 or 3 years before the pandemic—this short term versus medium-term versus long term. Should we be putting in a strategy for the long term but then how does that adapt to short-term tactical requirements?

Perhaps a lot of people got so caught up in just responding to what was happening that they actually forgot that they had a long term strategy. What’s your belief around the periods of time that you should be planning out?

Olly:

A strategy, for me, should last 3 to 5 years. Annually is far too short because if you’re in a big company you just can’t get people onboard. And also you’ve got nothing to show for it and your strategy becomes a theoretical thing.

I’d go long term simple strategies and a much higher frequency of what are we going to do on that strategy and be prepared that if your plan doesn’t work it doesn’t mean your strategy is wrong. I think there is too much energy put into complicated strategies whereas where we are, where we should be, quite simple.

Are 2 supermarkets ever going to be radically different? One might be better than the other but they’re not going to be about completely different things. I feel you should be aiming for a 5-year one and trying to do stuff quickly along the way.

Darren:

Certainly from a business perspective, they will have a 5 to 10-year plan so marketing should be aligned to those same objectives, shouldn’t they?

Olly:

Yeah. We get bored with marketing and creative ideas way before the public does. They don’t really mind. The majority of what we do we think about far more than they do. You’ve got to say something 10 times before 60% of the people hear it twice. By moving around too often your voice is diminished.

And with tenures of people, maybe people move strategy because they want to impact. I take my hat off to brands like Nike, IKEA that continue to know what they are doing.

Darren:

But also the UK was brilliant at that. Carlsberg, Hamlet Cigars—all of these classics that had campaigns that just went on and on for years and years and years. We’re still sitting here recounting advertising that was charming, left an indelible impression, was memorable and created brand equity that 30 or 40 years later we still own.

Olly:

I don’t understand why we moved away from it. All the evidence, the IPA work will tell you that long term is better. Of course you need to have tactical stuff around it. For the life of me, I don’t understand why it’s not done more.

Darren:

I would argue it’s because people have collapsed strategy and execution into being the same thing. They’re changing execution. Let’s take Hamlet. That was a campaign with about 20 different ads all on the same strategy but all brilliantly executed in different perspectives over time.

You mentioned Nike and IKEA, they’re constantly true to their strategy but the execution is always refreshed or different.

Olly:

I do think the world is more complicated though. Hamlet had an advertising/ TV strategy whereas Nike has got a consistent understanding of its brand more than its communication whether that’s sponsorship or its stance in political matters.

The world is more complex and brands might have to do many different things that they find it harder to be consistent but I’m not sure that I would let brands off the hook like that. I think you can have consistency.

Darren:

I think the complexity now is just the number of palettes that you can execute across. Hamlet was TV. Nike is the same strategy across everything from sponsorship to advertising, product development, and store design. It’s just more about planning than it is about strategy. It’s more about applying the strategy to each of those and every day there are new ways.

We’ve got TikTok now and it’s not about having a strategy for TikTok; it’s about taking the strategy and making that work in TikTok and if it doesn’t work in TikTok then maybe it’s not the right environment. This is the other thing that annoys me about strategy and another old piece of wisdom I was given; the most important thing about strategy is not telling you what to do but what not to do.

And I just feel that too many brands are trying to do everything when they don’t have the resources to do everything.

Olly:

I agree with you. When you talk about the heyday in the UK and I can talk about the UK because it’s close to home but brand owners and agencies were much more aligned with what good looked like at that point. But now there are different points of view. There is an obsession with the new that has happened since the internet.

What’s the cool channel I should be in rather than is it the right one for me to be in or how do I show up in that? People are blinded by choice.

Darren:

And because of those increased number of palettes, marketers are now sitting there with increased numbers of suppliers or agencies all saying choose me, give me more of your money. It has put a greater responsibility on marketers to actually make those calls. Nike has an agency, Wieden Kennedy, but the marketers are also making those decisions.

They’re taking the responsibility. They don’t abdicate to the agency; they don’t give that responsibility away. The agency’s not going oh you should sponsor this event or this player. That’s made by the business as a marketing decision.

Olly:

I wonder whether it’s not necessarily how good your strategy is but how good your decision making is that determines successful execution of said strategy.

Darren:

But doesn’t the strategy become the framework for those decisions? It’s either on strategy or it’s not.

Olly:

I totally agree but the successful building of a framework is one of the best things a strategy can do. You see frameworks written down that look like electrical circuit boards.

Darren:

Like decision trees; yes, no.

Olly:

I watched the Wardroom about Clinton’s election versus Bush in ’92. All the decision making that was going on in the campaign room hour by hour and the changing environment and they had 3 things written up; the economy’s stupid, more change rather than less of it, and don’t forget the healthcare.

You don’t need a degree to understand that framework. And you can apply it as you see fit when a decision comes across your table. For me strategy becomes colloquial. KFC had a pride in the fried and that shows a really good understanding of we know what we are and this is what we do.

We’re not going to go down the quinoa route we’re going to be proud about what we do.

Darren:

You mentioned this earlier that great strategy is about taking the complex and reducing it to the simple. So if you could reduce all of the complexity of all of the things you must consider down to pride in the fried or three talking points or whatever then you’d have to say that’s the ultimate in good strategy.

Olly:

Fallon taught me that. Planning can often make it more complex than it need be. You asked me at the beginning what I’d learned; it’s that you can be confident in saying less and going the strategy is this. What you can say in 2 charts is as useful as what you can say in 30.

Darren:

Isn’t it funny because everyone says management consultants will present no fewer than 6 but you try getting out of an agency presentation without 60 charts?

Olly:

I agree.

Darren:

And a lot of those are actually planning, its implementation. The strategy could be done in 2 or 3 charts.

Olly:

A strategy is a framework for agencies and marketers getting better marketing and creative work. It shouldn’t dominate. It should make you feel safe, feel inspired, and help you make decisions quickly. That’s why, in a crisis, your strategy is always going to be boiled down to the major parts of it whether you like it or not because some bits will help you and some won’t. The crisis is a stress test for strategy.

Darren:

We saw in Feb/ March, people saying oh hell, what’s happened here, which is natural. We were all caught off guard. But if you had a strong long-term strategy then you’d be sitting there with everything coming across your desk going, does it work, doesn’t it work. ‘I have to cut my budget by 30%. Right, now I’m going to put a matrix in place that everything that isn’t important is not going to get done.’

These are very simple decision-making exercises but they require you not to have spent the past 12 months or 2 years just reacting to everything. Because if you’re in a mentality of reacting, when that hit your reaction will be to bury yourself in a cave for the next 12 months and hope it goes away.

Olly:

And you haven’t got 12 months. We always say don’t waste a crisis. Everyone’s focused on a crisis and you can make decisions and a higher volume of them and some wrong ones in an environment that doesn’t come around often.

Darren:

I love the optimism of advertising. The people who are already calling it post-COVID should be looking at the numbers globally because I don’t think it’s post anything. We’re right in the middle of this storm, maybe we’re in the eye of the hurricane and it’s going to get bad again.

Olly:

Who knows and anxiety is caused by not being able to control stuff. We’ve got to be more comfortable living in the grey, which is why having simple strategies where you can have different planning for different courses of action is more helpful than this is how you solve COVID because that’s not realistic.

Darren:

Yeah.

Olly:

The industry is optimistic because we’re always getting punched down and you’ve got no choice but to get back up again so the people who are left in it are by nature optimistic.

Darren:

As long as you’re not reducing to one of those punching bags with the sand in the bottom and every time you get punched you go down and come back up with a big smile painted on your face. If anything I get accused of being Chicken Little going ‘oh the sky’s falling in’.

I imagine the last 3 or 4 months have been quite challenging because you’re working with clients that are in this state of what’s going to happen? And they need some sort of guidance or certainty around what’s going to happen at a time when there is less certainty than ever.

Olly:

It has been challenging. Over time people have realised that no matter how clever you are you can’t necessarily plan your way out of it. Different things have come to the fore like the importance of communication, transparency, being more comfortable in grey. I think one of the big things to have come out of this is how brands as businesses treat their staff. It is becoming much more of a consumer issue.

We’re having conversations with our clients that are sometimes as internal as they are external. If a category has had to lay off lots of people is it the right thing to then go and put up a large campaign? I’m not sure I’ve had those conversations before. What was an internal decision and nothing to do with the marketing is intertwining.

Darren:

Olly Taylor, we’ve run out of time. It’s been terrific, thanks for making time and coming and having a chat on Managing Marketing.

Olly:

I’ve loved it. Thank you very much for having me.

Darren:

One last question. Of all the brands you’ve worked on which one are you most proud of?

Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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