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Heather Sheen Unlocks Business Growth Through a Creative Lens



The new head of strategic planning at R/GA Australia wants to build emotional brand stories that push boundaries

Heather Sheen Unlocks Business Growth Through a Creative Lens

Heather Sheen recently joined R/GA Sydney in October, bringing with her more than 20 years’ experience in the industry in both creative and planning fields. Her expertise in unlocking business growth through a creative lens aligns well with R/GA’s focus on nurturing ideas and collaboration.

Prior to joining R/GA, she was a planning partner at DDB Sydney, where she led the strategic thinking on the Westpac, Domain and Red Cross accounts. On top of her day-to-day work, she nurtures the next generation of advertising talent by lecturing at AdSchool, AWARD School, and leading Miami Ad School’s local strategic programs. 

Heather’s work has been awarded by The Australian Effies, APAC Effies, IPA, D&AD, Cannes, AWARD, One Show, and ADMA. 

LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?

Heather> I’m sure there is a rather intellectual answer to this, one that delves into semantics and etymologies. But, to be honest, I always thought the job title was ‘strategic planner’ and never thought any more of it. Going with strategist or planner was an abbreviation that made as much sense as calling your mate ‘David Roberston’ Davo one day, Robbo the next. Either way, it’s someone who figures out a way to solve a business problem through creativity.

LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Heather> I see them as interchangeable, so I don’t have a preference either way. However, I’m probably in the habit of referring to myself as a strategist, for the simple reason that anyone outside the industry gets confused when I call myself a planner and asks if I can help organise a fabulous party. I find it tricky enough explaining what it is that we do without adding any further confusion.

LBB> We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?

Heather> There are so many amazing pieces of strategic thinking out there, it’s impossible to just pick one. So, I’m going with the campaign that randomly recrossed my desk this week and filled me with as much envy as the first time I saw it: ‘Sperm Positive’ from DDB NZ.

The solution comes from a real understanding of human emotion. Firstly, you can’t just march in and tell people to forget everything those terrifying ads of the past burnt into their minds about HIV. You have to prove it (responsibly). 

Secondly, the fear of death is a biologically powerful thing. Once implanted in your mind it’s almost impossible to rationally dislodge. It’s not enough to just try and counter it with ‘nah, it won’t kill you’. The team found a way to go one step beyond this emotionally; to prove it has the power to create new life.

LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?

Heather> Real people. Whilst I’m always pestering clients to send me all the research, data and reports they can get their hands on, they often only show you where you have a problem, not why you have a problem. That’s when I find talking to real live humans rather helpful.

LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?

Heather> I’m going to break the rules here and pick two. The first might sound a little cliched, but it’s that satisfying moment, where the muddle just unmuddles and you uncover a real truth about human behaviour and why something is happening. The second is when a great creative idea really works, and you see the commercial results that prove it.

LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?

Heather> There are a couple of things I find myself saying over and over - to the point where I’m sure I sound like a broken record - but I find them incredibly useful principles to plan by:

  1. ‘A well-defined problem is half the solution.’ If you really sweat the problem and find the real insight behind why something is happening, your solution inevitably falls right out of it.
  2. ‘Yeah... but why’. To get to that well-defined problem, you need to be curious, keep digging and be unafraid of annoying people with the word ‘why’.
  3. ‘Say it straight, so they can say it great’. There’s a great book they used to give you to read when you started Award School called ‘Hey Whipple Squeeze This’ (Luke Sullivan). In its pages is a tip for writing great headlines: ‘first say it straight, then say it great.’ I’ve stolen and butchered it, but I believe when it comes to writing a brief, the job of a strategist is to synthesise everything down into something simple, so the creatives can say it great.
  4. ‘Humans are cognitive misers’. I’ve stolen this from Professors Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor who were pioneering behavioural science back in the ‘80s before it was cool. It’s a rather good reminder that humans are driven by ‘lazy’ emotional thinking and mental shortcuts, not the rational, logical thinking we like to think we are.

LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?

Heather> I enjoy working with creatives who understand we’re in the business of creating commercial impact through creativity, not just making cool stuff. They understand what drives growth for brands and their solutions actually solve business problems. What I really like about these creative types is that the process isn’t a baton pass where strategy hands over some information on a brief and they come back with some ideas. Instead, it’s a partnership where you push and challenge each other right from the initial client brief all the way through to the results debrief.

LBB> There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round?

Heather> I’ve rarely experienced this. I’ve been lucky enough to work with clients who value the strategic process and see it as an essential part of determining the right way to aim the creative thinking. I think it always helps when you spend time working collaboratively with the client at the start of a project to understand the commercial objectives and really define the problem at hand, before you start trying to solve it with creative.

LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent?

Heather> When I was a young thing trying to get a job as a creative, and then years later trying to make the switch to strategy, I was always amazed at how much time people took out of their day to help me. As a result, I feel like it’s very important to give that time back to nurture the next generation of talent; it’s as much a responsibility for us to pass on our knowledge and experience as it is for people to be keen to learn.

LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?

Heather> Hurrah. What a brilliant thing. I think the greatest impact of this is the ability to prove the real value of the work we do. For a long time, our industry has struggled to demonstrate the tangible impact creativity can have on business growth, especially amongst those in organisations who view marketing as a cost.

LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Heather> Absolutely. Somewhere along the line, someone started a silly rumour that ‘planners need to be the smartest people in the room’. Besides being incredibly arrogant, it hinders collaboration and honest conversations, the stuff that leads to the best work. It also drives paranoia fuelled planning for the sake of planning: over-thinking, over-intellectualising, and over-a-hundred-boring-slides-powerpointing. Instead, I’d like planners to be known as the most straight-talking people in the room; the ones who can cut through the reams of research, data and business buzzwords.

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

Heather> The first thing is: if you don’t really love what we do as an industry and don’t get excited by creative ideas - like want to talk about it at the pub in your spare time - don’t bother. So much of the work we do never sees the light of day, and unless you are passionate and optimistic, you’ll find the process incredibly frustrating.

The second: ensure you’re always building both your commercial and creative smarts. It’s one thing to have read all the marketing science books and effectiveness papers. However, you also need to know great creative work, especially the really famous stuff. The job relies on having a good grasp of both.

Finally: the planning department is often the hardest one to find a junior role in. Trust me, it took quite a few years to shimmy my way in. If you can’t find an entry-level position, take one in another department with a view to eventually making the switch. It’ll give you such good grounding in the industry, and who knows, you might end up loving a job you didn’t know existed, until you got a job in an agency.

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R/GA Sydney, Wed, 21 Dec 2022 07:15:58 GMT