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Planning for the Best: Notes of Strategy with Will Hughes


LBB interviewed Will Hughes, big group’s strategy director, on what it means to be a strategist, his favourite campaigns, and how he's been strategic in building his team

Planning for the Best: Notes of Strategy with Will Hughes

Will is the strategy director at big group with a wealth of experience in developing award-winning campaigns and innovative plans for some of the world's biggest brands, such as The North Face, Hyundai, Samsung and Mastercard. In his nine-year tenure at big group, Will has worked to help both B2C and B2B brands evolve their creative and go-to-market approaches. Will believes in blending elements of both B2C and B2B marketing to create the perfect strategy and applies this to his work with branding, brand architecture, campaign planning, sponsorship strategy and activation, and purpose-driven marketing and communication. Will's mission is to create strategies that are empathetic, future-facing, focused on growth, and brave.

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

Will> I would say these roles used to be more distinct but the lines have blurred (driven by more interdisciplinary agencies, client requirements, and the growing skills of both titles) that I don’t see any advantage in defining a difference. 

I like the heritage of the planner title (with its link back to JWT and the role’s creation in the 60s) and I like the broad scope implied by strategist but as we are a relatively small community, we don’t need anything that promotes tribalism or snobbery. 

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

Will> I have the title of strategist, but I’d happily answer to planner. I think what is more important is having a consistent culture of using one or the other in your agency so clients aren’t impacted by Agency Land’s split personality disorder.  

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?

Will> Two of my favourite examples are the 'Taylor’s Coffee: Power of Obvious' case study and Honda’s: 'Grrrr' campaign

The Taylor’s Coffee case study shows how the planning process is messier than we often like to admit. 

I like the Honda campaign for a different reason. Before writing this, I couldn’t have told you about its results (turns out it won the Cannes Grand Prix and Black Pencil), but the advert had a personal impact. It was one of many great 'Power of Dreams' adverts made with W+K in the early 2000s, but this advert was the tipping point for me. One weekend, I walked into a dealership and asked them to tell me all they knew about the advert – who made it, how they made it, who came up with the idea? A bemused car salesman took my details, and eventually, I received a behind-the-scenes DVD of how the campaign was made. A simple biography would say it’s the reason I joined the industry.

I would wager that some of the most valuable strategic inputs are the ones we do not see; the ones the Strategists barely remember, or that sound too menial to put in a case study. We lose these moments from the official record, but the influence of small, informal conversations on a client and achieving an objective is part of the job I love the most.

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?

Will> In the early part of my career, I was painfully methodical, going through the 4Cs and related sub-categories with a fine-tooth comb with little editing. It was reassuring to clients but could detract from the logic of proposals. It also tended to contribute to uninspiring, one-way briefing sessions with creative teams (a late apology to all those involved).

I still use all the common ports of call: GWI, WARC, IPA and APG papers, Search data, social data, government/NGO data, social observation, art, poetry, comedy, business news, vox pop, and any research we have on or from the client, but I am less fastidious about sharing it all. No resource is universally more useful than the other, so one of our core talents is deciding which of these inputs is most useful to that project and the team you are working with. Clear direction requires cut-throat editing. 

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

Will> I mentioned the hard-to-measure elements that come with constant partnerships with clients earlier. The other area I value is working with other Strategists. Our world is packed with incredibly bright people with curious minds, which is incredibly motivating. 

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

Will> I find myself regularly coming back to the OASIS model. It is a simple framework where you define: Objective, Audience, Strategy, Implementation, and Scoring. 

You will end up using different models to approach each heading, but this is a straightforward way to structure your thinking before you write a proposal or a creative brief to reduce the plan down to its essence. If you can get each of these bullet points down to one sentence you will find your creative briefings and client meetings will have an extra level of focus. 

LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? 

Will> The best creatives commit to exploring constructive constraints the Strategist chooses to apply. They have the imagination (or experience) to see the focus we add as a positive challenge, that leads to unique areas of exploration, rather than needless parenting and process. They are confident enough to avoid a strict definition of their role and resist having an inflexible view of ours. 

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

Will> Post-rationalisation is often pinned on the culture of an agency. The common criticism is that agencies doesn’t protect enough time to do the process well, or they see Strategy as a tick-box exercise. Both elements are much covered and discussed so I’ll be a bit more introspective and say that Strategy teams need to do more to make sure they add value throughout the lifecycle of a project or a client relationship.

Strategy is an iterative process – it doesn’t begin with the client brief and end with the creative brief – so one of our team’s unofficial team mantras is “don’t wait for work, make the work”. This is a crucial mindset change that ensures we keep thinking about our client’s challenges and growth opportunities. It makes us the progenitors of ideas and projects rather than a procedural afterthought. 

LBB> What are you proud of about the big group strategy team? 

Will> Our agency is full of experts. We have a Head of AI, Directors of Performance and Creative Innovation…we have brilliant strategic Creatives and wonderful channel experts. The thing I’m most proud of is that the Strategy team never brings an ego to projects. We recognise that great strategy can come from anywhere, and we have the culture and confidence to acknowledge that.  

Our ability to form these squads for individual projects gives us the flexibility of thought and approach that I think many others would find hard to rival. 

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

Will> The best advice I’ve heard on building a strong Strategy department is to never hire people like you. Diversity of backgrounds, thought, and talents is one of the most valuable assets, and it should be actively promoted rather than achieved passively. 

The Strategist role has been unusually tricky for juniors to break into and feel confident in. You either feel under pressure to have all the answers immediately, or you feel that you are miles away from the front line of client meetings and presentations. 

There needs to be a balance of learning in a controlled environment and exposure to live client briefs for junior positions. The first builds knowledge and confidence in a low-risk environment, but the second is where the excitement and disproportionate progression comes from. You hired them because you saw a level of intellectual curiosity, so there’s no sense hiding them in the wings forever.

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 how strategists work and the way they are perceived?

Will> I think it’s a good and a bad thing.  All strategists should love the fact that the spotlight is increasingly on effectiveness. What’s our job if it isn’t the creation of tangible growth strategies? The awards create a space for knowledge sharing which will only improve the work and promote Strategy further. 

The possible downside is the kudos that comes from being a winning author has gone up. The goal should always be to produce effective work rather than have the material for a compelling paper. It’s a small distinction but an important one. To steal the sentiment of President Truman, “it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit”. 

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

Will> I’m actually very optimistic about the future of Strategic discipline so my frustrations are only minor. If pushed, I’d make one request. The industry needs to keep bringing new, young talent into the discipline. I see too few job roles for junior Strategists and Planners, and I fear we aren’t creating a strong pipeline of talent that’ll keep the role potent and relevant in the next decade. 

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

Will> New tech – particularly with the advent of AI tools – means we have more opportunities and methods than ever to explore deeply, find insights, and spark curiosity amongst clients and creatives. 

If you are looking to enter the industry, I’d advise getting as comfortable with these as possible, but...and a big but, don’t lose sight of what would make you unique. This is your background, interests, skills, and passions. They help create a distinctive point of view on each project. Time in front of a screen with an AI-fuelled chatbot won’t replace the insight that comes from having your eyes up and experiencing the world around you.  

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big group, Thu, 13 Apr 2023 15:46:28 GMT