The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Standards Not Speed …

So while I was at Deutsch, the brilliant WARC – for reasons that I don’t quite understand – asked me to contribute to their paper regarding the future of strategy.

To be honest, these sort of things tend to do my head in because ultimately, when you’re talking about the future – you can say anything you like and no one can say you’re wrong until the future is the present.

However as WARC are ace [present contributor excluded] and a bunch of my much smarter friends were also going to be a part of it … I happily agreed, even though my version of ‘the future of strategy’ has ended up being less about what we can be and more about how we should be looking to the past for how we should be doing it.

You see I worry that, as a discipline, we’re working more down to a speed than up to a quality.

I get it … the competitive landscape means clients and agencies want more stuff in less time for cheaper prices … but it’s a false economy because if our job is about opening possibilities for the clients we partner with, the only way we can truly recognize the creative opportunities for them – whatever they may be – is if we really understand culture.

Not just the big or functional things, but the nuances of attitude and behaviour.

And while we now have many ways of doing this, I don’t think many make up for good, old fashioned, rigor.

Not just in what we do, but who we get to do it.

I’ve seen too many people interpret data without truly understanding data.

I’ve seen too many people think they’re the audience when they’re the opposite of it.

I’ve seen too many people think focus groups reflect reality as opposed to exploring reality.

I’ve seen too many people evaluate culture from outsider positions, rather than insider understanding.

I’ve seen too many people think society doesn’t know what they want when most of the time, they just don’t know how to express it.

Rigor changes everything.

The level of understanding. The ability to see what’s possible. The quality of the creative response.

It’s something I worry we are sacrificing in our bid to keep up with what we think clients want.

And while speed is a competitive advantage, quality builds sustainable change and we should never just focus on the quick fixes because that is ultimately running to stand still.

If our industry is to get back to where we deserve, we have to do what’s right and that’s more than just doing the job, it’s doing the job with knowledgable and dangerous minds. It’s why Martin Weigel and I started our school and why I wrote this as my ‘future of strategy’.


So WARC asked me to write a piece on the importance of spending time outside the office.

Not in the quest for a decent lunchtime sandwich, but to better understand what’s going on in people’s lives.

In some ways, it’s kind-of horrifying to be asked to do this because it should be bloody obvious. Even the author John Le Carre, understood it with his famous quote, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the World”.

And yet, it seems fewer and fewer planners spend much time in the real World, preferring to observe it from the comfort of a research report and google search.

Look I get we live in times where we can access incredible amounts of data.

And I appreciate in this competitive World, things need to happen quicker than ever before.

But – and it’s a big but – spending time outside the bubble of adland is also a necessity.

Not just for planners … but for the clients you’re working with and the audience you’re unleashing your creativity on.

When I first joined Deutsch, I wanted to understand what the hell was going on with American youth so I sent 3 of my colleagues – Maya, Armando and Leigh [along with Sarah, a photographer] backpacking across the US to spend about a month in some of America’s most opposite cities.

Specifically, the richest/poorest … fastest growing/shrinking … most/least diverse.

The only stipulation I gave them was a bit of advice my Mum once gave me, ‘be interested in what others are interested in’.

And so off they went.

A month later and they were back with experiences that had challenged them on deeply personal levels. Stuff that was incredibly uncomfortable to witness and experience.

But they also came back with stories that changed the way they looked at what was going on in America. Stories that added colour and context to how people live… stories that filled the gaps between data and research reports … stories that made them laugh, cry, despair and feel excited with what’s going on in the shadows of society.

No nice hotel rooms. No fancy travel. Just a month listening and learning straight from the mouths, lives and streets of youth. No wonder we called it America in The Raw.

We are all better for the experience.

Better planners, better department, better agency.

Better at helping our clients understand their audiences more intimately.

Better at identifying creative opportunities that would otherwise not reveal themselves.

Better at making work that stops telling people what to think and starts resonating with how people are thinking.

Of course, nothing in this approach is new.

Nor is necessary to go to such extremes to get cultural understanding and nuance.

But given how few planners seem to get the time – or have the inclination to get out into the real World – I hope this serves as a gentle reminder that planning is an outside job, because in a World while clients want agencies to help them stand out from the competition, the real opportunity is to help brands truly resonate with their audience… and as great as sitting in a nice office can be, you’ll never achieve that – or the creativity that can come from it – if you’re sat behind a desk.

You may wonder how you get your agency or client to pay for you to do this?

Well – apart from the fact it doesn’t cost anywhere near what they may think – you just need to point out the commercial value of having a level of intimacy with culture that few others will ever have. Plus there’s the fact this understanding leads to more interesting creativity with more powerful results.

But as I said, it doesn’t have to be this huge, formal thing, it should just be a natural part of how you do your job which is why if you’re a planning head, you should push your team to get out the door and if you’re a junior planner, you should push your boss to let you out the door.

It will change your life. And career.

21 Comments so far
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A great piece Robert. And the perfect choice of title and image for the post.

Comment by George

Of course I’m not saying speed doesn’t have a role in all this. The way the world works, you have to keep pace with cultural change and opportunity or you lose before you’ve begun but – and it’s a huge one – too many people focus on the speed as the goal rather than the standards that make the difference to everything.

Comment by Rob

Standards can create speed but it doesn’t work the other way round. Though people will argue it creates “learnings”.

Comment by Pete

problem with all this shit is who is setting the fucking standards.

Comment by andy@cynic

The approach isn’t obsolete, the standards are. I would say that doesn’t mean it’s always about too little insight, but with data, it can lead to so much that there is no clear and distinctive point to be made that helps move everything forward to an exciting space.

Comment by Pete

What did Rumsfeld once say, there’s now so much quality data that it’s easy now to be convinced that something that isn’t the issue you need to address becomes the issue you need to address and so you end up paralysed by what the data is appearing to tell you.

Though I’m paraphrasing obviously.

Comment by Rob

He wasn’t the brightest.

Comment by John

Did you miss off the last line. “Then I fucked off and left everyone to deal with my shit.”

Comment by Billy Whizz


Comment by Pete

That must have slipped off.

Comment by Rob

I very much look forward to your month in Cleethorpes, rural Lincolnshire and downtown Abergavenny.

Comment by John

I’m not going to send myself to my childhood days.
But my team is going to love it.

Comment by Rob

Maybe things have changed since your childhood and your expert eyes might be able to glean new insights rather than receive them second hand from your team? I read somewhere that planning was an outdoor sport.

Comment by John

nice one doddsy, make the fucker go back to those shitholes. except hell like it because the people who live there are as miserable as him. fucker.

Comment by andy@cynic

great minds think alike Rob

Comment by Niko

Hahahahaha … you evil bugger.

Comment by Rob

niko is a fucking dark bastard genius.

Comment by andy@cynic

Niko FTW

Comment by DH

I did some work recently with a mental health charity, and visiting the places where they do good work provided ten times more insight than any data or brief.
It’s also why I suggested the creatives visit, otherwise they would only have had half a brief.

Comment by Rob (Other one)

More than explaining how that extra expending can bring better insight into people’s lives, I think we must start working in a completely different way. Going out and about must be the way of doing things, not something you do when you are lucky to have a client that is willing to spend a little bit more or wait a couple more weeks. The most amazing project I have ever done included living several weeks in a small village and do a lot of things that didn’t make sense at the time (like visiting every fucking coffee shop and speak with everyone there). But the result was extraordinary.

Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.
Just look at this quote from Paul Krugman:

“I suspect that stepping beyond traditional economic methodology is going to be productive in the years ahead. We just had the Rainwater Lecture here. We had a lecture from an ethnologist, who goes and talks to working-class fathers.
I was blown away by . . . It’s a totally different research method from anything we do in economics, normally. It’s totally different and, of course, requires a degree of personal interaction with the subject you’re studying that I would find terrifying.
But that made me think, “I wonder how many insights might we get by doing things in a way that’s very different from anything that’s now part of the standard economics research paradigm?”

Comment by mazevedocoutinho

[…] While we may all like to think our intelligence allows us to engage and understand others, the reality is no one can truly understand what is going on in the lives and minds of segments of society if they don’t come from those segments of society, especially if their views are born from the pedestal of observation. […]

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