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Planning for the Best: Digging around and Listening to People with Sophie Lewis

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CSO at M&C Saatchi London on why trying to be honest about what your product is and does is so important

Planning for the Best: Digging around and Listening to People with Sophie Lewis

Sophie joined M&C Saatchi London as chief strategy officer from dentsumcgarrybowen in January 2022. She is the award-winning strategist behind campaigns including Boots’ ‘Here come the girls’ and Sainsbury’s ‘Live well for less’. Sophie is a member of the APG Committee, a former IPA and Campaign Woman of Tomorrow, and the founder of the Women’s Safety Project, a group working on practical ways to keep women safe.


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

Sophie> Life’s too short for this debate.


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

Sophie> The best do both, if you concede a distinction.


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?

Sophie> Sainsbury’s extra £1.13/’Try Something New Today’ has to be one of the all-time best strategies (also because it contributed to a much bigger ‘Make Sainsbury’s Great Again’ transformation). 

‘Your best first step in the dating game’/’the Lynx effect’ is fantastic.

Persil’s ‘Dirt is Good’, also brilliant.

Tesco’s ‘Every Little Helps’ is one of the most strategically accomplished strategies or endlines. I’m not sure how much meaning it still has, but…it’s excellent.

‘The Truth is Hard’ for the New York Times is fantastic. And is also fantastic work. 

And although I think it has yet to reach its true creative potential, I think ASICS is strategically right in the right place at the right time. Although this is less a new strategy than it is a timely refocus on the brand itself.

I actually think Baileys is brilliant strategically. But strangely weak creatively.

Marmite. Of course. 

Beats. You Love Me.


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

Sophie> People. Real people. The way they use and talk about and think about the product.

Everything I read, see, watch and hear in the mainstream and out of the mainstream. Pop videos, films, books, magazines, shop windows, high-low culture, TV, news, ‘Is it Cake?’, ‘The Floor is Lava’, '80s soft rock, opera, film, Radio 4, Kiss FM, literature, Country & Western, Harry Styles, Shania Twain, Radio 2, Heat Magazine, the Sidebar of Shame (don’t @ me), ‘Conversations with Friends’, ‘Grace and Frankie, ‘Euphoria’, poetry, the early work of Prince.

I walk a lot. In London or Brighton, wherever I am I will try and walk as much as I can. And I take a lot of photos which I often use and refer back to when I am writing briefs and strategies. Everything I see and experience goes into my thinking.


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

Sophie> Digging around, listening to people. Really understanding a category and a brand (and how the business makes money). Once you understand this, thinking about a strategy is much easier. And then getting to the point of articulating the strategy and the proposition without charts or documents (I love a ten-point plan!). 

Sitting in a room when you know that the strategic story and brief is good and that you could be about to see something that will blow your mind. 

And then seeing ideas. That’s the thrilling bit. Reading or hearing an idea and instantly thinking 

OH MY GOODNESS THAT IS BONKERS AND I LOVE IT

And then talking about it. And hearing about how it might come to life. 

Very, very occasionally, getting goosebumps when you see an idea for the first time. Or an edit. That’s maybe once every five years if you are lucky. 


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

Sophie> Tell the truth. 

Why would anyone care?

Trying to be honest about what your product is and does is extremely important.

Of course, the truth is subjective, but I think getting clients to understand the role that their brand can credibly play in peoples’ lives is one of the biggest challenges we face.

I don’t like complexity, jargon or over-statement, and the advertising and marketing world is full of that stuff. Nobody really cares about your brand. That’s always my going-in point. 

I think a lot about the fact that if you don’t get people to pay attention to your idea in the first place then you might as well take your money and burn it.

And when you are looking at creative ideas (any forms of creative ideas) really being honest about whether anyone in the world will pay any attention to your idea is vital. Agencies and clients kid themselves repeatedly about this. You can tell by the amount of mediocre work out there.

You have to be constructive and build ideas, of course. But you also have to know when you are looking at nonsense.


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?

Sophie> The ones who can think about ideas and talk about ideas. And love talking about them.

The ones who love culture in its broadest sense and are trying to absorb and experience as much as possible in order to fuel their own ideas.

The ones who listen and haven’t formed a conclusion before the briefing or strategic discussion.

The ones who come back with things I couldn’t possibly have imagined myself. 

The ones who find things and say ‘I saw this thing and it made me think about that thing’.

The ones who have a vision for their ideas. 

The ones who love crisps.


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?

Sophie> I think some very successful agencies do this relentlessly (naming no names). It doesn’t really interest me, to be honest.

It wipes out all the aspects of strategy I love. It becomes an exercise in deck writing or awards paper construction. It also suggests that strategy has nothing to add to the development of brilliant, effective, creative ideas. Which I fundamentally disagree with. 


LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? And how has Covid changed the way you think about this?

Sophie> Covid hasn’t changed the way I think about it. It’s just made it easier, in a way, to find ways to employ people who may not want to work the ‘old’ way.

I also think people are thinking more about what they really want from their job. And that life is too short to work with unpleasant people. Which is to our benefit. 


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?

Sophie> Gosh yes. Awards. It’s a funny one because winning them tends to mean that you are very good at writing awards papers. Rather than strategies. Sometimes the two go together. 

It’s not always the case that brilliant planners are brilliant at writing awards papers. And vice versa. 

There are definitely some people, strategy directors, CSOs who position themselves as the iconoclasts, the rock-stars. And agencies who regularly turn out ten to fifteen papers for every major award. 

I guess that’s up to you. It’s not for me. I want to do the right thing for brands and contribute towards incredible creative work that creates meaningful change. Any kind of awards – strategy, creative, are a by-product of this. The focus should be on the work. If you get it right, the awards will come. 


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

Sophie> Not when you have good relationships with your clients. I guess what I mean by this is that they trust you enough to share a lot of information with you and have high expectations of you. And involve you at an early stage in their thinking and planning. 


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

Sophie> Do a bit of work experience. Try and meet a few planners. Read some APG papers. Understand the process first. And then work out which bit (if any) you are really interested in. It’s not for everyone. I find it really interesting on an ongoing basis. You’ve got to be able to really get into some pretty mundane categories. No two brands or categories are the same. Occasionally I think about becoming a client but in the end, I don’t think I would be happy just thinking about one product or service endlessly. 

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M&C Saatchi London, Mon, 05 Sep 2022 09:20:47 GMT