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Planning for the Best: Steve Zaroff on Looking to outside Perspectives



Chief strategy officer at Johannes Leonardo on why the best creatives are natural strategists

Planning for the Best: Steve Zaroff on Looking to outside Perspectives

With a track record of helping brands navigate disruption and major inflection points, Steve brings over 25 years of experience to his role at Johannes Leonardo working across the agency’s client portfolio of iconic brands including Instagram, Kraft-Heinz, Volkswagen, adidas and now Uber.

Since joining JL, Steve has transformed the strategy department and served as a main player in winning Uber Mobility as a client, and went on to launch its first strategic platform since the app's creation. No to mention his pivotal role in steering forward the new and improved Volkswagen Drive Bigger 2.0 Platform.

Before joining JL, he held the role of chief strategy officer at Ogilvy, McCann and Sapient. Steve was a key transformational leader during his time at McCann. Within his six year stint the agency doubled in size and was recognised as the most awarded creative agency at Cannes Lions, and the most awarded effectiveness agency at the Effies. In addition to being a seasoned agency executive, Steve is the founder of Other Strategy, a creative provocation agency bringing outside perspectives to brands and agencies determined to change.Over the course of his career, Steve has led global strategy for brands like American Express, Miller Brewing, Volvo Global and Holiday Inn.

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

Steve> Some people use them interchangeably. To me, a 'planner' works in an advertising agency and is a specialist in crafting effective creative communications; while, a 'strategist' has a broader remit and area of responsibility. They are shaping how brands behave over time, their product and experience, as well as how they grow. Some of the best strategists I know are now client-side, or have become CEOs of big ad agencies.

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

Steve> I grew up in the business as a creative planner, but over the recent years I’ve found myself enjoying being more of a broad strategic partner to my clients. I enjoy helping to lead the business and direction of the agency itself.

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?

Steve> It would have to be Truth Initiative - an anti-smoking campaign from the 2000s directed at teens. There was nothing new to tell young people about the harmful effects of smoking. Rational knowledge, no matter how dramatically delivered, is not persuasive. Smoking is an act of rebellion in a rebellious time of their lives. This brilliant campaign revealed to teens how the tobacco companies really think of them - as gullible, easily manipulated suckers - thus unleashing and redirecting that inherent rebellion towards the tobacco companies themselves. It’s memorable work with admirable (and enviable) effectiveness.

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?

Steve> I look to outside perspectives. 

As strategists we’re only as good as the observations and data we have available. Those are our raw materials. So by casting a wider net of curiosity - speaking to people who seem only tangentially related to the brief, or looking at brands in radically different categories that face similar problems - we can bring fresh new ingredients into the mix that force us to look at the problem from a different angle. We can’t have a surprising insight if we’re stuck staring at the same old inputs.

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

Steve> The unlocks. The moments when patterns suddenly emerge and reveal clarity within the chaos. 

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

Steve> Problem —> People —> POV

This little tryptic sounds simple, but it is the logic backbone that we need to have worked out before we can ask creatives to do their magic. We have to ask ourselves:

1. What’s the real business problem we’re trying to solve with marketing? Never be content with treating the symptoms, let’s diagnose the underlying problem and focus our energies there.

2. Who do we need to win with, and what’s the unexpectedly relevant thing about them that can help us solve the problem?

3. What is the most interesting and credible thing that this brand can say or do to address its consumer needs?

This is a chain of logic that starts with clarity, and leads to inspiration. We should be able to recite this for every brand we touch.

Second, but probably the most important:

“Get outside and talk to people,” is what my first boss said all the time, and that truth stays with me. Ad people in big cities are almost never in touch with the real audiences for our brands. We can learn a lot from Google, data and trend decks, but nothing beats going out and talking to someone who’s had very different experiences from you. That sound you’re hearing is your little culture bubble bursting, and it’s good for you and for the brief you’re working on.

Get out there. Talk to people, gain empathy and perspective. You will learn something new that will help. Guaranteed.


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?

Steve> The best creatives are natural strategists. They love solving problems the same as we do, but they possess a different amazing set of tools to do so. The desired response I’m always hoping to get from my creative partners from a strategy is “wow, I didn’t look at this brief like that before, your reframe unlocks a whole range of new ideas.” I hope clients have that same reaction when we take them through the strategy, too.  

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?

Steve> Express the problem in a sexy way that’s irresistible to creatives. Get them intrigued and excited about the real business issue, so we’re all aiming for the same outcome.

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

Steve> Acknowledging that people are on a journey in their careers and their lives, and that any one job is just a step on that longer road. It’s imperative that you treat talent as full and complex people and not just employees. I’m always interested in their longer-term goals, not just what they can do for me or the agency. It has been an unlock for some incredibly constructive and honest conversations.

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?

Steve> Good strategists have always been the bridge between rational business problems and creative leaps of imagination. Agencies are here to shepherd creativity in service of real brands and real problems. This can be through a fresh human insight, a problem reframed, a brand equity modernized, or an ingenious way to get people to propagate ideas themselves. So the more emphasis and celebration of excellence in this truly foundational area of our industry, the better.

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

Steve> Strategy as a discipline has evolved over the years and as a result, has fragmented into one too many specializations. Some strategy departments have ballooned in size. As a result, the strategy process risks becoming complicated and cumbersome, and failing to deliver the clarity and inspiration is why we’re invited to this party to begin with. 

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

Steve> To paraphrase the slogan of Austin, Texas - Keep It weird.

We need people who are creating new rules, not following the old ones.

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Johannes Leonardo, Mon, 05 Dec 2022 16:11:00 GMT