My strategy journey

A crass metaphor but a nice image, shot on a Pentax 1000 with Kodak film

I have built a professional life thinking about brands and putting that thinking into practice for many organisations. But this was all a bit of an accident. I mean, no one grows up saying that what they really want to do is to influence how people feel about a business by changing what its brand means for them.

I came to brands and brand strategy through advertising. Advertising is what I wanted to do when I grew up, or at least I’d figured that out by the time that the final year of university swung round and I needed to turn my attention to what to do next.

But in fairness my interest was in the creativity of advertising, in the intelligence, swagger, beauty, sexiness and craft of the output. I graduated in the year that BA’s ‘Face’ ad appeared from the creative department of Saatchi & Saatchi, at the time the most expensive commercial ever made. A still peerless piece of work, it sold without selling and made BA feel like the most important airline in the world.

At time I didn’t really understand the idea of brands beyond the fact that they were everywhere in ’80s Britain. And that for perhaps the first time ordinary people had started to use the word to mean labels, particularly fashion labels, that were desirable.

I wasn’t successful at getting into advertising at all. In fact, after the graduate application forms had been filled in and after I had done all the interviews offered, I came away with nothing apart from the briefest of glimpses of the advertising world in its pomp.

I have always advised people that want to get into advertising to start anywhere but never get stuck in a place you don’t want to be. Unusually, this piece of advice is based on my experience not just conjecture.

So at the beginning of January 1990 I started in a small direct marketing agency as an account handler, the people that run the client’s business in an agency. Albeit at this stage I wasn’t running anything, just enjoying having got into the advertising business by the back door and living in London for the first time – that kind of thing was a lot easier back then.

I was not a natural account handler and it was a while before I understood that there were people whose job it was to do all the things I loved about advertising and virtually none of the things I hated. They were called planners, the strategists of the advertising world and I really needed to be a planner.

Plus, I was not a natural direct marketer.

The US political strategist Karl Rove, the father of political micro-targeting, divided strategy people into splitters and lumpers. Splitters love understanding the differences between people and the granular detail of those differences. Splitters make natural direct marketers both in the traditional business I started in and the digital one that it has grown into, a business that can now split people into individuals and serve them in that way rather than as members of larger segments. A splitter starts a project and thinks ‘how many different messages do I need to create to make sure everyone is perfectly catered for’.

Lumpers are different. Lumpers love understanding the things people have in common. The universal truths, emergent trends and eternal tensions in people’s lives. Lumpers have tended to grow up in the places that specialised in mass media where there was a necessity to make one size fit all. And I am a lumper. I can turn my hand to splitting and I do get a degree of excitement from the matrix of data signals, targeting and messaging involved in modern one to one marketing. But I am more at home hunting down the one true belief that I want people to hold about a business, product or service and expressing it so that others can deliver it into people’s lives.

I got lucky (though I am sure that my inherent privilege played a powerful role then and since), in that my direct marketing agency, realising that I was no great shakes as an account handler sent me to a sister company to learn to be a planner. As it happens that sister company was the great Abbott Mead Vickers well on its way to becoming the largest ad agency in the UK and certainly at the time one of the very best. And they loved planning.

To be really clear advertising and brand building are not the same thing. Advertising is the use of paid promotion to encourage people to take a specific action or set of actions. As such its one of the ways that people experience your brand, and a very powerful one at that. But its only part of the brand story. If a brand is the sum of all the associations people have formed about a business, well those associations will be built from every experience they have of that business. Advertising is only one of them and its certainly not the most important these days, if it ever was.

That said, advertising agencies have always been a great home for those interested in the power of brands. And an even better place for brand strategists to spend time. Many types of companies, agencies and consultants offer people advice on their brand but advertising agencies have three advantages.

Advertising agencies have retained relationships with their clients and so build an ongoing partnership with and understanding of their brands. While other brand advice companies work on projects and so come and go, ad agencies are permanent partners. They never stop thinking about a client’s brand and what needs to happen next, rather than simply engaging on an ad hoc basis.

Advertising agencies have traditionally been places to which businesses have turned when they have serious brand issues to resolve. Often when things aren’t going quite to plan or a new direction is required. That is not to say that advertising is the answer in these situations but that the impetus of advertising, the creation of something tangible means that it is often called in when businesses want to do more than just think about an issue they face. This offers strategists the opportunity both to think big and to make creative work.

And advertising agencies have had a group of strategists or planners at their hearts for a long time, whereas this is a newer role in other brand advice companies. This means that agencies know why they have planners and the value that they create. So strategists aren’t constantly having to justify themselves and they certainly aren’t there just to provide pitch fodder.

Initially my life as a planner involved the creation of communications for businesses like Delta Airlines, Homebase, Wrangler and BT. But even at this stage, delivering a new communications platform often required that you develop a new brand strategy. Brand and communications were indivisible. For instance, in the mid-90s I was lucky enough to work on ‘It’s good to talk’ for BT. Even today there are many people (over a certain age perhaps) for whom that idea and its creative expression in the form of Bob Hoskins come to mind when they think about BT.

In many ways I learnt my craft as a planner at AMV. But I started to become a brand strategist in a real way when I moved to Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury (HHCL). Unlike AMV, that still exists, HHCL is long gone and in truth, increasingly forgotten.

Someone once said of the legendary UK music label Stiff Records (the home of Ian Dury, The Pogues and Madness) that it lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse. And I feel the same way about HHCL. The iconoclastic 1990s agency, it created an approach to advertising that defined the era. It was always clever, often daring and totally irreverent – towards the industry, its ways of working and towards creative fashionability. The result is that its work is still phenomenally famous.

At HHCL the AA became the ‘4th Emergency Service’. Tango created ‘You know when you’ve been Tangoed’ and Ronseal left us all with the phrase ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’.

Though I went to HHCL to work on Tango, almost I was almost immediately drawn to clients with complex organisational brands where the whole company is the brand rather than where the company owns a portfolio of brands. And In many ways that it where my fascination has remained to this day.

This was when I started creating brand strategy in a serious way and in a way that stretched beyond communications alone into many of the other facets of the consumer experience. Initially on the retailer, Iceland and then also on Texaco and New Look.

While AMV introduced me to planing and taught me my craft skills it is HHCL that has had the greatest impact on who I am as a brand strategist, not only what I do but how I do it. At the heart of this is the concept of radicalism. HHCL was built on being radical, indeed for a while it styled itself as ‘professional radicals’. And HHCL taught me the true meaning of this word.

Radical doesn’t mean revolutionary (as we often said, they tend to get shot on the palace steps), radical literally means root. It’s a horticultural term. So to be radical, to say something radical, to have a radical idea means to get to the root cause. Radicalism is essential to good brand strategy because it involves getting to the real problem and solving that rather than attempting to resolve more tempting and superficial problems.

If radical has connotations of danger and extremes its because strategies that really solve problems are often extremely challenging to begin with. Because they don’t muck about pleasing people, they get in and do the job.

To my mind you can’t be a brand strategist, or frankly any type of strategist, without being a radical. Since what’s the point of developing strategy that doesn’t solve the real problem? And yet the fact that HHCL’s radicalism was both unusual and unpopular, talks to the failure of much brand strategy to get to the bottom of the issue. The way that it serves as window dressing for businesses, in order that they look like they know what they are doing, rather than as a surgical approach to delivering success.

I didn’t work on the AA but it is a perfect example of radicalism at work. The AA were and still are in a category that is highly commodified, breakdown rescue. Commodification is a clumsy word but its the kryptonite of every business and an essential concept to understand and understand well, since at its heart the value of a powerful brand is in fighting commodification.

Commodification literally means that the product that you sell has become a commodity. Like wheat or crude oil it has value as a commodity, but your wheat or crude oil has no more value than that of anyone else, so the market decides the value of what you create and the price you can sell at. Its a business but not a great one.

In the case of the AA commodification meant that people couldn’t tell the difference between each of the breakdown service brands, especially the AA and the RAC. As a result they were unwilling to pay more for one service over the other and so largely chose on price. In the face of this problem, HHCL didn’t attempt to make the AA more empathetic, more caring, more modern or more distinctive.It went for the commodification jugular and removed the brand from the breakdown category altogether.

HHCL repositioned the AA as an emergency service on the basis that in the moment your car is stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the night with the rain driving down, that situation is nothing more or less than an emergency. But critically, it repositioned it as the 4th Emergency Service, fourth after the police and fire and ambulance services. This position transformed the idea of being an emergency service from a metaphor into a concrete truth and transformed the performance of the AA, driving volume growth and supporting their premium pricing.After all isn’t an emergency service worth more in your life than a breakdown recovery company?

It’s hard now to see the radicalism of this positioning but by facing into the real problem and them being prepared to do whatever it took to solve it delivered incredible results for the AA, and at their best for many HHCL clients.

It is impossible to over estimate the influence HHCL had on my approach to brands and brand strategy. In many ways the strategy I developed for Direct Line at Saatchi & Saatchi that led to the very successful Winston Wolfe campaign has its precedent in the AA. And many of the elements of my practice, were forged at HHCL.

HHCL went the way of many things that were big in the ‘90s. We kept the show on the road half way into the next decade but eventually closed its doors in 2007 after a few clumsy name changes. Perhaps it will still be remembered as an agency, alongside long gone brands like CDP, BMP and GGT and perhaps it will simply be the work that people recall. The vastly influential Tango campaigns from Orange Tango’s Slap to Blackcurrant Tango’s rabble rousing Ray Gardner. The idea of launching First Direct, a bank with no branches, with a vision of its 21st birthday party to give people the sense of its stability. The Harry Enfield fronted spoof public information films for Mercury, a brand new phone company all in grainy black and white. Or the astonishing body of work for Pot Noodle that transformed it into a youth brand. A cannon of work that played with both the intent and form of advertising. All of it trying to find a new way to sell.

If HHCL believed that nothing was impossible, Saatchi & Saatchi has it carved in stone as you walk into the agency. And its Saatchi & Saatchi that I joined on the eve of the global financial crisis in 2008.

At Saatchi & Saatchi I have blended the craft skills learnt at AMV (and the desire to find the right solution) with the radicalism of HHCL (and the desire to find the most interesting solution). My DNA as a brand strategist is product of both these influences and the vast amount of experience building and working across Saatchi & Saatchi’s business for over a decade.

Saatchi & Saatchi is a joyful place to be a brand strategist for two reasons.

We really do mean it when we say nothing is impossible and in truth impossible challenges are the only ones we are truly interested. As a result there is an enormous expectation placed on strategists to figure out how to prove something is possible, how to solve the problem at hand. But if you can do that the entire fire power of the agency from creative to production will line up to deliver it squarely between the eyes.

And there is also the quality and altitude of the problems that we are asked to solve, the questions that clients set us. Like how to launch a new mobile network brand no one has ever heard of with a technology no one wants for EE and its new 4G technology. How to enable Direct Line to fight back against the price comparison websites that were eating its lunch. Or how to restore BT to its position as part of the fabric of the nation and put its broadband business back into growth.

It’s this absolute fanaticism about finding the most challenging problem you possibly can and having the audacity to think you can solve it that characterises the approach at Saatchi & Saatchi. Much like HHCL we are not that interested in doing what’s cool, merely what will get the job done and then delivering this with as much energy and chutzpah as is humanly possible.

We are a creative company that has come from the advertising tradition, and proud of it. Advertising is a powerful tool, especially if you need to jumpstart change. But advertising is only one output of the brand strategies that we build, strategies that are increasingly a set of instructions to help direct every experience people have of the brand and not just its communications, what I call a Living Business Idea.

In rounding out my strategic journey I should mention adliterate, this thing you are reading now. Adliterate is the blog I created in 2005 when I was not trying to create a blog at all, just a cheap and easy form of self publishing. It became a place to record the stuff was thinking but that didn’t necessarily have an immediate client home. Over a decade and a half it has enabled me to put raw thinking out into the world to be picked up, played with, agued against, rejected and sometimes adopted and that has been vital to me. It’s like an idea incubator where I can rehearse what I think but with the scrutiny of a small audience.

In your strategic journey, I can’t recommend enough finding a way to practice what you are going to one day preach. It needn’t be a blog though as one of the last bloggers standing I still love the form – a few hundred closely argued words that deliver a strong opinion, lightly held. Today there are many more communities and channels to help you work out what you think and try it on the world. Make sure you find one that works for you.

Through this blog, my writing and work I have tried to share as much as is possible about what I do and how I do it. I am a huge fan of the advice that to gain influence you have to let go of control.

And so I want to spend the next few months sharing as much of my approach to brand strategy as I can reasonably commit to text.

Think of is as a part work, hell it might even make a book at some point.

Everything I will talk about is a result of this journey. The experiences I have had and the thinking I have done. Sadly it will not be not the result of painstaking research and lengthy interviews with other strategists or brand owners.

And that is because I am a practitioner not a pundit. I have never been interested in being an intermediary between you and great strategies and strategists, there are plenty of books like that crowding the shelves.

Whatever advice and wisdom exists in the posts that follow, is the result of personally putting thinking into practice. And it contains little theory because none of what I ever talk about is theoretical.

And that is perhaps what will most help you in your strategic journey whether as a brand strategist offering clients advice or as a business owner building a strategy for your own brand.

Because you too are practitioners not pundits.

I do hope you enjoy the ride.

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15 Replies to “My strategy journey”

  1. Very interesting to hear of more of your fascinating journey, Richrd. HHCL were good days indeed. I too have wrestled with the lumper versus splitter conundrum, as a marketer, but even more so now as a researcher. In an age of big data, it seems we have become drawn into the trap of seeking hard evidence of micro consumer behaviour, whilst the power of more intuitive insights is getting lost. Describing behaviour has pushed out understanding behaviour, and it is the latter that is really important if you wish to change attitudes and behaviours.

    1. Couldn’t agree more David. Feel that there isn’t a great deal of research aimed at understanding what we don’t know we don’t know even in the more enlightened insight departments that are strong advocates of qual.

  2. I look forward to your future posts. I’m starting up a business and have been a marketer for over 25 years. Your post brought back memories. As the client you and other planners have played a pivotal role in the brands I have managed over the years.

  3. Agree. Agree. Agree! Spot the qual researcher trying to forge a freelance career and convince businesses they need the behaviour understanding in order to really improve.

  4. Great piece. HHCL will never be forgotten. It was a brilliant agency with lengendary work. I hired one of your planners, Ruth Lees. She came to Scotland and cast magic spells.

    1. Thanks Mark. I remember Ruth, she interviewed me when I was desperately trying to get into HHCL. I fear that HHCL has already been forgotten but the work will surely stand the test of time.

  5. Wonderful read and insight into processes that I have been carrying out subconsciously, unprofessionally and half heartedly for my own business for years.

    To be able to legitimately call my brand “radical” is a lovely surprise!

  6. Stunning piece of thoughtful writing Richard. So good I had to save it on the ipad, re-read, mark it up slowly and share with a bunch of clients! Thank you for opening your brain and carefully spilling it onto the industry. It’ll be a fantastic legacy you leave.

  7. After stalking you around adland for over a decade (AMV? tick. HHCL? tick. SSF? er, was that a thing?), our paths sadly divided – but I’ve recently rediscovered the riches in your blog.

    You’re helping me to fall back in love with an industry which I’d been embarrassed to have been part of for too much of my life (as well as reinforcing my view that I should have been a planner from the outset). Every post causes something in my brain / soul / heart to fizz!

    REALLY looking forward to this series of posts. Thank you :-)

    1. Hi Rachel, so good to see a comment from you. And I’m glad there is something in here to help you love this industry again. I have never been an apologist for this industry – the vast vast vast majority of what we make and do is rubbish. But I have always found energy in this. That you can be an advocate without being an apologist. That there is always a need to do better and to be better. And I think that in their own ways AMV back in the day and HHCL, where we were permanently angry about how shit the industry was, two places you and I shared, were trying to do this more than most.

  8. I was back at Fallon (US) in 2005 when I first read this blog. One of my strategy leads at our agency just sent me this. Just as inspired by the tangibility of what you share. Thank you.

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