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Managing Marketing: The Relationship Between Strategy And Creativity

Russell_Smyth_Angela_Smith

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.

Angela Smith is the Chief Strategy Officer and Russell Smyth is the Creative Director at advertising agency Affinity. Here they discuss the way strategy and creative works hand in hand, often blurring the lines between the two to create powerful marketing programs for their clients at Affinity. They talk about the role of data, research, and technology in the strategic and creative process and the importance of trust between all parties to deliver exceptional outcomes.

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 facing marketing, media and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.

Today I’m sitting down and having a chat with chief strategy officer at Affinity, Angela Smith. Welcome, Angela.

Angela:

Thanks, Darren; nice to be here.

Darren:

Thank you for coming and also her in some ways creative partner, creative director at Affinity, Russell Smyth. Welcome, Russell.

Russell:

Thank you, Darren.

Darren:

It’s interesting having you both here because the idea of having strategy and creative working together hand in hand is always one that people like to think occurs. How well does this relationship work on a professional level?

Russell:

I don’t think it’s something that should ever be separated. The best creative directors or creatives are strategic and this delineation between the two of them is a little bit crazy.

Darren:

So, would you say that Angela has come up with some good ideas?

Russell:

Yes.

Darren:

But Angela, from the point of view of developing a great strategy it often lends itself to having an idea as you’re working on the strategy, doesn’t it?

Angela:

I think this idea that they’re 2 very different brains or processes is a funny one really because strategy is quite a creative process as well. You have to make lots of leaps of intuition based on information. Sometimes it’s just organising information. From experience the best briefs or strategic insights I’ve ever made have been working with a senior creative.

Russell:

It’s when you have those wow moments where you’re working on it together and one will say something that heads you off in a different direction as we’re still creating the strategy.

Darren:

But people are inclined to want to put the roles into boxes and yet it’s actually incredibly blurred. You must find, working with a creative person who is in tune with developing a strategy that almost feeds your creative.

Russell:

And you want the strategy to be creative; it’s not a dull thing on a piece of paper, it’s already heading you in a direction that hopefully you’ve come up with together.

Angela:

Perhaps as strategists we’re frustrated creatives anyway. It’s about having that joy of working together and also working with creatives that have the confidence and self-esteem to take your working, your promise or your line and actually find that it finds a place in creative. I think it’s important to have the trust.

Russell:

I’ve done that a few times over the years where at first you question the line but then realise the strategy line on the brief is actually the best line for this brand or product.

Darren:

There was a strategist who said, ‘in writing the brief they want to give the creatives an idea so the creatives can then make it greater’. I like the idea that the brief becomes not just a document of requirement but it actually becomes the start of the creative process with the challenge being, can you make it better?

Russell:

Yeah and that’s the thing. I don’t think it should be this is the final idea and it’s great to have an idea that you might veer off in a totally different direction. It helps explain the strategy as well if there’s a hint of a creative idea in there.

Darren:

Angela, you mentioned earlier that maybe strategists are frustrated creatives but there is quite a different role isn’t there? A strategist needs to be able to take research and market data and analyse that to get to the point of developing a strategy whereas creatively it was almost like an intuitive thing.

Angela:

It’s somewhat defined by our deliverables so the process can be quite similar. Like creatives, we start from a very broad base and go through a lot of thinking, ideas, hypotheses and then narrow it down to a point where we feel we can inspire these guys to make a big difference for the client’s business and brand.

But we are in a position of needing to convince the client that the direction we’re heading in is right and take them on the journey and that’s our deliverable. And our deliverable is also to give the creative team that information and inspiration to have an emotional resonance and outcome in their deliverable.

Darren:

But there’s more data now than ever before so does that mean the process is more about finding, filtering and distilling than ever before?

Angela:

Mmmm, I think some of the challenge is definitely seeing the wood for the trees but you can also harness data and create your own data to actually give yourself more certainty. It’s something we’ve been working on, believe at Affinity, that we will not test creative because by definition that brings the idea down to the average because the outliers will always die.

But you can use data to test a strategy or a positioning so we’ve been doing that quite effectively over the last 6 to 12 months. And being able to hand over that brief with the confidence rating that it’s actually going to deliver a measurable difference or nudge someone along the path. I love being able to do that for a creative.

Darren:

That must be refreshing from a creative point of view knowing that as the agency’s made a stand about testing creative with research.

Russell:

It’s crazy trying to test creative with research. We’ve seen it happen over the years; people will always try and have an opinion which will knock an edge of something, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of just observing it will affect it.

Darren:

You had to bring up the dead cat, didn’t you?

Russell:

Once a scientist always a scientist. People are a bit obsessed with this word data. Data had always been around. We’ve got reams of it now and we’ve got to decide which bits of it to use. It’s just a flash word for knowledge and we’ve got so much of it now. Gut-feel was never just based on our gut but on knowledge; what we see, what people do, what we know about something.

And the data now is just giving us more knowledge. We just need to be able to sift it properly and find the bits that matter.

Darren:

Do you think it actually gives you knowledge or that it’s the base material you need to extract knowledge from?

Russell:

The knowledge is in there; it’s hidden though and you’ve got to ask the right questions of that huge database. More and more you see clients with huge amounts of data and they don’t know what to do with it. There are things in there that are gold but until you ask it the right questions you don’t get that gold out.

Angela:

You still need that human ingenuity to spot that nugget. I don’t think the machines and the end is as nigh as some people decry because we are getting access to more and more data information. We’ve always had huge amounts of information; it’s how you use it.

Have you applied that information to the right question and the articulation of the right question is still the hardest part of strategy as far as that goes.

Darren:

Yeah and a lot of people talk about artificial intelligence and the really smart operators are seeing the application of AI as a way of being able to crunch huge amounts of data down to smaller observations or insights that then inform decision-making. There is still this role for the human component. To paraphrase water, water everywhere; data, data everywhere but no insight to make you think is what it’s about isn’t it?

It’s not just having huge amounts of data; it’s being able to find the human truth, insight or whatever you want to call it that becomes the basis of your strategy.

Angela:

100% because we’re still talking about real intelligence, not artificial intelligence. We’re in an age of quite sophisticated automation. We haven’t really got to emulating the warmth and humanness, of finding what’s really going to make someone feel, think or act differently.

The machines haven’t got there yet. As you say, we’ve got faster, bigger, smarter computers that can crunch all this information down.

Russell:

We need to add a little surprise in there. There’s AI that can write copy and that is a repetitive task sometimes if you’ve got a certain topic and you know the facts and a machine can put that together. But the ideas, the thing that our industry is great at will always need humans; that little different edge.

Darren:

From a creative point of view; you’re working with your strategist that’s taking huge amounts of information and distilling this down to insights. How much do you need exposure to the raw source or is it enough to just work from the insights?

Russell:

I think you can be part of that distillation. I don’t think it’s just a matter of them coming to you with the insights. Part of finding the insights is coming up together with what are we searching for in this data. Are we searching for what sort of people are we trying to talk to? What have the people done in the past?

All the things data can tell us that maybe were intuition before, now we can actually put a figure on it and say this proportion of people will do this or these people want this outcome. It’s about trying to find out how to distill that data.

Darren:

Martin Cass, when he was at MDC Media Partners (and MDC has got some terrific creative agencies) said the creatives were really interested in getting a reach but also data-supported understanding of the target audience—that the data allows you to get a vivid, intimate picture.

Russell:

What are the different groups of people doing?

Darren:

Rather than grocery buyers with children; it’s very hard to get an intimate feel for who that actually is.

Russell:

Yes, Natalie is 34 and has 2 children.

Angela:

But there is this fascinating thing we’ve come to learn over the last couple of years which is the difference between the data self and the aspirational self. This is why you hear people asking is there still a role for traditional research? Do we really need to go and talk to people and ask them what they’re thinking and feeling?

The answer is absolutely yes. That’s where Russell would be looking at the data and chatting with the data scientists and the CM guys but also coming along to a comm group or doing fieldwork because you need to understand the difference between those 2 people. We don’t really want to admit to our actual self that we slept in, didn’t do yoga this morning, ate breakfast getting into the car.

No, my aspirational self did 30 minutes of meditation.

Russell:

It allows us to see more accurately what people are doing not what they say they’re doing.

Angela:

And that’s really important.

Darren:

And that’s a terrific view on the role of qualitative research. Data will tell you things about what people do and when they do them, especially the online data. But it won’t tell you why or how they rationalise their behaviours to the way they see themselves. We’re talking the same thing but I think it’s the part that often gets overlooked especially when people are doing acquisition projects.

They’re looking at the data of behavior but all they’re doing is stimulation to get more of that positive behavior; acquiring customers but they never answer the question why. Certainly from a communications point of view going to the why is so important isn’t it?

Angela:

For a truly integrated creative and strategic approach it’s really great if you’ve got the opportunity to look at the what data and then the qualitative human why. Sometimes it’s the little bit in between, the gold nugget right in the middle. You can’t do one without the other. That’s really exciting for us.

Darren:

We often read, especially in the trade media, about creative saying that all this data and data-informed strategy is going to kill creativity.

Russell:

I think there are lots of examples where it’s actually given opportunities. The great thing it does is unlock new channels because it tells us the sort of places people are getting information, where and how to talk to them in those places as well.

Angela:

We were talking about an example in the automotive industry and it was a combination of looking at some big quant but also some behaviour in the CRM database and putting those 2 together and it gave us a brief that had such precision and certainty and it gave Russell and the team absolute confidence if they talked to a certain group of people about this particular topic.

Russell:

At this time in their journey; where they’re up to with their current car.

Angela:

It didn’t inhibit the creative process; it gave them a really tight place to work but they still get to work their magic around something compelling, emotional, and resonant.

Darren:

Angela, what is the danger and how do you overcome the possibility of finding something in the data that is great creatively but which doesn’t necessarily have the universal appeal or behaviour. We‘ve also see where someone’s seen a particular insight in the data and then it’s great creatively but largely falls flat with the mass audience.

Angela:

I think that comes back to what are you trying to achieve? If our job is to get a particular brand out there and launch it or have people feel differently about it then gong very niche or micro isn’t going to meet that particular need; so it really comes back to what are you trying to achieve.

What’s my measurement framework here? So that particular example: getting people in to test drive cars. On the opposite end of that is just smashing the base and saying to everyone in that particular environment that’s not the right thing to do. Yes, there’s always going to be data-driven insight that might have a broader mass appeal.

Russell:

And there still needs to be the big emotive pieces that strike a chord with people, and the more targeted, which can be tweaks off the base of that, so you’re taking that emotive message and making it applicable to that person’s individual situation. You’ve got to make sure you’re keeping that emotion.

Angela:

You’re right; there’s a real risk of saying this is a binary situation whereas we often think of it as a two-speed approach. There are points on the journey where you really want to focus on and have a specific conversation with a certain group of people.

And there are other times when you come right back out and have a conversation with everyone; ‘hey, we’re here and this is what we stand for. If you like us come on board’. We’ve always got to be two- speed about this.

Russell:

And there’s a bit of a difficulty obviously with attribution. Adidas has recently changed their marketing mix where they realised they were applying too much credence to the digital work they were doing and forgetting about the need for the big emotive pieces over the top of it as well.

Darren:

Personalisation is a big thing that often comes out of data; with so much data we can personalise messages to individuals but you wonder whether the more personal, yes, it could be more relatable or relevant, but doesn’t emotion happen on a larger scale, on a personal scale?

Russell:

That’s exactly right; those personal ones work but they don’t work in a silo away from the rest of it. You still need sponsorships.

Angela:

Like building, you have a connection with the brand.

Russell:

We don’t know why we like a certain brand; it’s because of the mix of all the messages you’re getting.

Darren:

And you respond to it as a human being from your own personal experience. I wonder if someone holds such a mirror up to your personal experience that it begins to alienate you. I’ll share a personal thing; over many years birthdays change. For a child a birthday can be totally different to when you’re in your 40s and 50s and you don’t want to celebrate them. Yet every human being can relate to the idea of a birthday as a celebration.

But when it starts getting targeted to you it could easily misfire depending on your current state of mind about the birthday.

Angela:

Personalisation is very personal isn’t it? That’s the problem with personalisation, but having said that, I hit rather large points, an accrued milestone with an airline loyalty program and I was wondering where’s my emoji and they haven’t sent me anything and I’m quite annoyed.

But that’s an opportunity for personalisation but maybe the next person will go ‘whatever’. It’s a real challenge.

Russell:

We’re still riding that first wave of personalisation and it is getting a little crazy. On your birthday there are messages from your vet.

Darren:

It’s not about your birthday; it’s your dog’s, cat’s, all the above. I read recently, Kim Larsen, who is managing director of Global Creative Services at Google is quoted as saying ‘every great creative director I’ve met recently has said bring me more data’. Now, I had a reasonable level of cynicism because Kim is at Google.

Russell:

Kim does have a personal interest.

Darren:

Could there be too much data? Do you want data?

Russell:

As we were saying before, there is too much data there but when you cut it the right way it is fantastically advantageous. So, bring me more data of the right sort; don’t just dump all this data on me. Give me stuff that helps me understand either the people we’re targeting or the right places and ways to speak to them.

Darren:

Insights.

Russell:

Yeah.

Darren:

The rarest of attributions.

Russell:

And it’s so exciting when data can reveal something totally new and everyone goes wow, who’d have thought that.

Angela:

Horses for courses; if it can give the guys a really nuanced picture of who they’re speaking to; it could be as subtle as influencing the language they use or telling them what not to use. Sometimes it’s not about exactly defining it and constraining them but it might say avoid this word or way of putting things because that’s going to offside too many of the people we’re talking to. It comes down to not being too specific about not using too much of the information.

Darren:

Great creative director—how would you define a great creative director—apart from looking in the mirror?

Russell:

Depending on which aspect of being a creative director you’re talking about. I think a great creative director can spot a fantastic idea from a collection of them. Sometimes it might just be a word at a meeting that we can really grab hold of and run with. A lot of it is recognition of ideas.

In a big creative agency, it’s being able to help and nurture half-formed ideas and make them better. You also need to have the business sensibilities to be able to work with a client that is genuinely interested in doing a creative execution or campaign that’s going to sell product and improve their brand. That’s where the excitement comes from.

It still thrills me when I look at the graph and the campaign started there and look how the sales go and that still blows my mind how it works.

Angela:

I was geeking out the other day about reaching a record number of applications for a client last month and that’s where data becomes really exciting because we’re more connected to our clients’ commercial outcomes than we’ve ever been. That’s one of the true benefits and creative is connected to that. They’re involved in this whole cycle of optimisations.

It’s not just launching the creatives and let’s hope it works. We’re actually on board with the clients, watching the progress and learning and being able to invest that into the next cycle. That’s thrilling.

Darren:

And, Angela, the other thing that came out of that quote for me; obviously, Google and Facebook have a huge amount of data and there are lots of sources of data. How important is it from your perspective to not rely too heavily on single sources of data?

Angela:

Incredibly. And during this conversation, I’ve been thinking about what is creativity. Sometimes it’s just the creativity of what data sources you do choose to use. So there again little links of creativity—looking at 3rd party data beyond the usual and that’s where we get really excited and make some great leaps of logic or creativity. Weather data, Medicare data, census data—there are all sorts of free sources of information that you can overload on top of all these other sources and then find all these patterns or anomalies and we totally geek out about that.

And you find some really crazy stuff in those patterns and anomalies. It’s really critical that we answer that question directly, that we consistently challenge ourselves to look at unexpected sources of information. And that can be really small data, big data.

Darren:

And structured and unstructured data. So often people only look at structured data and they don’t also look at the unstructured data of which there is even more.

Angela:

It can be just a conversation and you go down that rabbit hole. It just comes down to the semantic or language itself. A lot of people when they hear that 4 letter word data they think of a very specific little box but it’s such a broad church and we’ve got to stay creative about what that term actually means.

Darren:

Russell, you mentioned before that we’ve been using data forever; it’s always been there.

Russell:

We’ve just got a flash scientific word for it now.

Darren:

I think part of it is technology has generated it. It’s not just collecting the data; it’s generating the data and you have to start wondering what’s interesting and usable and what’s not. There’s a lot of very crappy information out there.

Russell:

As we said before, it’s finding those little golden bits and it’s exponentially growing every day so it’s finding the right way to analyse it to get those interesting bits that will help us.

Darren:

Talking with Martin Cass was really interesting because he’s been in media for years, like us, he said that in a media agency traditionally you would be looking at 4, 5, 6 sources of data; your Morgan omnibus, client’s 1st party data. He said, working with data scientists and analysts was interesting and he recounted a story where he said, ‘I’m off to see the client—what data should I get?’ The answer was ‘grab everything you can and I’ll tell you what I can use’.

Often they wouldn’t even start considering until they were looking at 100 sources of data because when you get into the mathematical analytics of it those big numbers, those big sources are the starting point. This process of constantly filtering and distilling this down so that it becomes usable.

Angela:

The opportunity is to define and distill what problem am I trying to solve and then you’ll, by and large, know what information you’ll need to answer the question. And that is still a human strategic process to define the question or the problem. Let’s say you were trying to drive more attendance at a destination.

The actual answer might be that you have crappy food. The entertainment or the destination itself might be great so how do you find that answer. Start with some human ingenuity, ask some silly questions, post some hypotheses and then ask where will I find that information?

You don’t start with that strategic and inquiring mind. You can get all the terabytes of information but it’s pretty pointless unless you’re doing that human inquiry upfront because that information is useless without that scientific inquiring mind.

Russell:

When it comes down to the strategic brief for the creatives you want to come back to this one interesting, amazing data fact that leads to the insight. You don’t want a whole lot of different bits. You just want that one thing that gives you what you need to build your campaign on, the intriguing, interesting bit that hasn’t been recognised before.

Darren:

That’s what I see as the big opportunity: stimulating the thought and creative process to look at something that is not just the usual. I define creativity quite simply: finding new patterns. That’s what excites people; new is the thing that gets the human brain excited. We hate change but we love the new. It’s the great dichotomy of human existence.

Russell:

We also love having things pointed out to us that we haven’t recognised before. Comedy works that way as well. There’s Seinfeld standing at the chemist shop talking about how the chemist needs to stand on a step a little higher than everyone else just to count pills. We’ve all noticed it but when he points it out we all go wow, that’s insightful.

Darren:

It’s also the delivery that‘s important in comedy. What’s the secret of good comedy? Timing. There could be a whole podcast on that. I was reading an article in the US where they said, the death of comedy is political correctness.

Russell:

There was a very sad article in the paper about it. We live in interesting times where people do like to find something wrong with something people have said.

Darren:

We love outrage. Social media has helped that.

Russell:

And we’ve got a great channel to express it now.

Darren:

Anyway, we’re getting off the topic but that’s what I like about these conversations; they can lead you anywhere. At Affinity you talk about being a full-service digital agency. How important is working around clients with what data they have? A lot of clients really struggle with having robust 1st party customer data and then with the idea of being able to mix that or line it up with other data the agency brings. Has that been an issue or are your clients already at that point?

Angela:

No, to that last question. Without exception, there’s a lovely kind of awkwardness or embarrassment from clients about their data to some extent. They either say we’ve got too much we don’t know what to do with it or our data is in terrible shape or we don’t have enough. There are always data inadequacies we find.

But it’s not an absolute term or entity; it’s going to evolve, grow, improve, and become sophisticated. So our conversation with clients around data is we can learn and grow with them. If we start by making sure that our communications, and the results, the optimisation is an ongoing process from today then we won’t be having the same conversation in 12 months’ time.

It’s really important to set up your business objectives, a measurement framework and making sure you work towards that from today. No matter how you feel about your data now it’s got to start now. No one feels like they’ve got it sorted. We really started on our data journey in 2012 when everyone else was getting their social media people.

We saw all the platforms and went, it’s the data. In the last 7 years, I don’t think we’ve met anyone who feels they’ve got their data sorted. It’s a great opportunity for us. The guys that get into it today, no excuses, let’s start improving today, are the ones that are going to survive and thrive into the future.

The other ones that are still just building a strategy and let’s get all these expensive platforms and what not; it’s about being resourceful, not about your resources and that’s really important.

Darren:

And, Russell, you’ve worked in many different agencies, different sizes and foci; what is it specifically about this role that you’re finding incredibly rewarding or even challenging?

Russell:

It’s being in a small agency that’s full-service; you get to deal with media people. Media got taken away from advertising years ago. It needs to come back and it works so well when we’re all working there together. The fact that I’ve now got data scientists, technologists, social media guys; it’s exciting for me to learn new things and to be at the coal face.

And it’s great being able to work on the creativity with the strategists and technologists. It’s fun.

Darren:

We’ve run out of time but I want to finish by asking you both a question. I’ve seen Affinity grow and develop as an agency. If you could have any client in the world who would you want to walk through the door next?

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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