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Planning for the Best: Clinton Duncan on making friends with ChatGTP


Howatson+Company newest group strategy director, Clinton Duncan talks to LBB on accessing memories to hone inspiration

Planning for the Best: Clinton Duncan on making friends with ChatGTP

Clinton Duncan began at Frost Design, working his way up to be creative director at Moon Communications Group. 10 years later, he was head of planning at Marcel Sydney, then moved to CHEP as the brand planning director. Today he is working at Howatson+Company as their group strategy director. 

During his career, his client profile has included: 7-Eleven, Telstra, Qantas, NRMA Insurance, Aussie Home Loans, American Express, Prospa, Virgin Australia and Velocity. Winning bronze at Cannes Lion 2021 for his work with 7-Eleven and at the Australian Effie Awards 2020, he won bronze and was shortlisted as a finalist. 

LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one? 
Clinton> Language. Not really?

LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?
Clinton> Probably strategist. Although I use the term planner more easily and frequently to refer to myself. I’ll probably disappear down a self reflective rabbit hole on why that might be.

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? As I thought of a few different ideas to answer this, I realised I kept thinking of different examples of the same strategy; 


Zagging the fluffy platitudes of most advertising and saying something arresting and unexpectedly true

Perhaps the nicest execution of that strategy I came back to was Hans Brinker Budget Hostel, from KesselsKramer – you can refer to almost anything they’ve ever done for the brand, but the image that stands out in my mind is the cross-stitch poster “Just like home”. A couple more examples were Avis “We’re number two so we try harder” and Maxwell House “Good”.

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?

Clinton> Everything I’ve ever seen, read, lived, thought and felt throughout my whole life until the moment the brief is handed to me. Conversations I’ve had with smart people. West Wing dialogue by Aaron Sorkin. 

We all have access to brilliant tools, datasets, platforms, google – but only I have access to my memories, thoughts and feelings. And for a decent salary, I let my employers sell it to clients by the hour. 

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

Clinton> When work is made and in the world. Coming across it live in the wild, I’ll point at it and tell my daughter I was part of it. Then she tells me it’s rubbish and lame. I love that moment, because often she is right.

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

Clinton> Martin Weigel’s blog article ‘Strategy needs good words’ – there is a narrative arc diagram that has been my opening page on my web browser for years. ‘Strategy is sacrifice’ from Ogilvy is a very good touchstone. 

I quite like the theory of advertising as cultural imprinting. There’s something very simple, scary, depressing and yet liberating in that perspective on how advertising influences consumer behaviour, I’m surprised not to see it rolled out by more media agencies.

But the number one for me is something one of the first creative directors I ever worked for told me, back in my graphic design days; ‘sometimes you have to colour with the crayons you’ve been handed’

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?

Clinton> Good ones. Nice ones. Fast ones. Clever ones. Nerdy ones. Funny ones. I’d hope I give them more than simply information, but all I ask is that they run at the brief hard.

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?

Clinton> Hmmm, can’t help but challenge the premise of the question. There isn’t a right or wrong way. Sometimes another strategy emerges in the work, and so yes, you post rationalise the intuitive leap back into deductive reasoning so clients can connect with it and buy it. Doing strategy after creative isn’t wrong, or backwards. 

I think often this resentment is borne of hurt feelings when all your good little planner work is seemingly disregarded by creatives going somewhere different. But that’s an ego based reaction, rather than staying true to what the game is really all about – getting the best work out in the world – because that is what makes a great brand, and a great brand grows the business.

As a planner, it’s often helpful to tell oneself ‘the brief is a starting point, not a cul-de-sac’. To approach each creative review with an optimistic, open mind. To see possibility in each idea, not why it’s wrong.

No one likes planners who sit through each idea waiting to kill them with a clever criticism, including me. So I try not to be that guy.

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

Clinton> Two ears, one brain, bit of a heart and sleeves with creeses on them from being frequently rolled up. Most of all, the guts to speak up when needed and shut up the rest of the time. So, anatomy, I guess?

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?

Clinton> Have they? I hadn’t noticed that. I’d love it if that were true but I think there’s a long way to go. But sorry to poke the question again here, I have to say recognising planners ≠ effectiveness awards. Great planning went into almost every single piece of work celebrated in that French riviera town. 

The creatives have somehow cornered that racket with all the trips and acclaim… But planners, suits, production, designers, data, opps, media, tech – everyone was part of it, and often a critical part. Something our ECD Gav Chimes said the other day when he won some industry acclaim, he deflected credit back to everyone else. More of that please, especially if it is coming planning’s direction!

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

Clinton> Never seems enough time. Although I’m looking to ChatGPT to help out with a lot of my ‘writing stuff’ leg-work and chasing down stats.

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

Clinton> Make friends with ChatGPT.

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Howatson+Company, Fri, 19 May 2023 02:55:15 GMT