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Planning for the Best: Why Gareth Goodall Believes the Best Strategies Have a Sense of Drama



The newly appointed chief strategy officer for Publicis Creative, US offers advice to new strategists, ponders the importance of a good narrative within planning, and why the fundamental of strategic thinking are timeless

Planning for the Best: Why Gareth Goodall Believes the Best Strategies Have a Sense of Drama

Publicis announced at the end of July that Gareth Goodall had joined as chief strategy officer, Publicis Creative, US. Previously CSO at Anomaly New York, Gareth now oversees strategy across all Publicis Groupe's creative agencies in the US - including iconic agencies such as Leo Burnett, Saatchi and Saatchi, and Fallon. 

With more than two decades of experience, Gareth's  accolades include being named AdAge's North American Creative Strategist Of The Year, one of The Independent's 100 most influential people in British creative industries, and one of Campaign Faces To Watch & London's 10 Best Planners.

What's more, this new role is somewhat of a homecoming. Gareth has held roles as head of planning at Saatchi & Saatchi New York and Fallon.

Fresh into his new role, LBB's Addison Capper took a deep dive on all things strategy with Gareth.

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

Gareth> They’re terms people use to define the same role and I think many see them as interchangeable, but really they reflect two different aspects of the job. Strategy is about long-term thinking and vision setting. Planning is actually doing the job of getting there: building the architecture, defining positions and roles, constructing ecosystems of activity and tactics into coherent wholes, obsessing about language, the meaning of words and the craft of writing. It doesn’t matter whether someone is called a planner or a strategist so long as they appreciate that the job is to do both. 

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

Gareth> Well, the job title I have now is chief strategy officer, but when I first discovered this wonderful career, I was a planner. So, I am emotionally invested in doing both as well as I can! I do find, however, that you hear a lot of very lofty thinking that sounds like strategy. Yet the core skills of brand planning required to make it happen, bring everyone on board and make the path forward clear, are harder and harder to come by. So, if I was forced to choose one for myself, I’d be a planner.  A rarer breed.

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?

Gareth> When anybody asks for a recommendation of a book about brand strategy, I always direct them to the published award-winning case studies from the Account Planning Group (APG). They’re such tough awards to win because they’re only held every other year and the standards are incredibly high. The published papers go back into the ‘90s, maybe even earlier, and there are absolute classics in there. The media landscape we now have available to us is very different, but the fundamentals of core strategic thinking – defining a problem, flipping it on its head, revealing a truth you instantly know but have never thought of before – are timeless. Read any of those winners, from any decade, and you’ll learn something about great strategy.

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?

Gareth> The first thing worth saying is to never assume a business brief is going to require a creative campaign. The most crucial step in the strategic process is to define the problem and the type of answer required to solve it. If you’ve done that well, you may well find that a creative campaign is the very last thing the problem needs. Of course, I use all sorts of resources to solve strategic problems but the most useful resource to draw on throughout the process is the problem itself.  Throughout the swirl and the meetings and the late nights, you can keep coming back to it as North Star to give you the clarity of what you’re really meant to be doing. In addition to that, I ask my wife: she’s the best brand strategist I know.

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

Gareth> I love brands. I love the history of brands. I love how they’re constructed in people’s minds.  I love what they mean to people and what they mean to me. So, my favourite part of the job is defining and shaping them, especially as it’s impossible to do that job and only come out of it with communications: a well-defined brand strategy must impact every element of a business. The work I’m most proud of is the work that comes to life within an organisation and inspires products and actions before it inspires any comms. I also love it when strategy feels meaningful. When there’s a human insight that has depth and emotion. Hemingway said the key to writing was to “just write the truest sentence that you know.” When you get that right in this job, it’s an amazing feeling.

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

Gareth> I believe that strategy is all about making the complex simple and the simple inspiring.  That’s the framework I return to time and time again. I also want strategies to be dramatic. There is a narrative arc that is timelessly relevant to the way stories are told and that I often use when I think about strategy. I go into any pitch with this as my mission: imagine another agency has the exact same answer as yours and the pitch will be won by whoever tells the story in the most compelling way. It’s a good challenge to set yourself.

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?

Gareth> I love to work with creative thinkers who are problem solvers and have that gift to unlock a challenge with a little magic key. There’s nothing like that moment when someone reveals a line or an idea or some design thinking that just has an aura of energy fizzing around it. I am also excited about how the definition of ‘creatives’ will keep broadening to include those who may not have the actual word in their title: engagement strategists, for example, can be wildly creative in working out the right moments to connect with people and the right partners who could help do it. Data analytics is another discipline that should feel incredibly creative, if they’re able to ask the right questions of data to pull out interesting spaces.

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?

Gareth> I can say that’s never been a reality anywhere I have worked. I think the best creative thinkers all want the clarity of a tight strategy. Perhaps what helps is to reframe how we think about it. Simply put, it needs to be strategy-first not strategist-first. Strategy must shoulder the responsibility of defining the way forward but the best way to do that is always to bring other people on board. I’m happy for anyone to crack the strategy and you’ll likely get to better answers if the creative thinkers answering the brief have played an important role in setting the strategic foundations. That way you’re all involved – which should stay the case throughout the process.

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

Garetg> Ensuring that we are creating an inclusive and diverse strategy community where people feel they belong and can be their best selves is essential. Strategy is a job that is about understanding other people and it’s impossible to do that without diverse life experiences, voices and points of view within our team. The challenge the industry faces today is the nurturing of talent: it can be more challenging to do remotely, despite everyone’s best efforts. So much of growing as a talent is by being around other people and seeing them in action at their very best, especially more senior people. That is something at Publicis Creative we’re taking very seriously to ensure we’re giving the next generation of talent the very best possible development they can get.

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?

Gareth> We should all be rightly obsessed with effectiveness, but it needs to be an always thing, not a sometimes thing - effectiveness can’t be a scramble to gather data around award submissions deadlines. To do it properly, you need to build a culture of effectiveness within your agency. A culture of effectiveness impacts how strategists work in many ways. It puts an added premium on making sure your insight is robust and backed up by data and human understanding. And strategists need to make the monitoring of effectiveness a constant responsibility and ensure that it is front of mind for everyone in their teams so that they can drive action and change tactics quickly if something could work harder. The uncomfortable truth is that if you’re doing it properly, your job is never finished: there is always something that could be optimised or could feed into the next brief.  So, on that basis, it is nice to have some awards to celebrate and show to your family: you have to work hard to win one!

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

Gareth> Strategy gives me far more joy than it does frustration. Strategy is a wonderful community of people. I see more planners sharing their work and helping others than I do elsewhere, and that spirit of generosity and kindness comes through in all the people you meet. They’re often curious, passionate, and open to life. This is not a frustration, but I would love for more people to be able to get the very most out of it as a job. I think there are lots of distractions out there that shape what people think being a planner is and, as a result, I see the opportunity to refocus and reignite a love for core craft skills. They’re not really things you can talk about on a conference stage, and they probably don’t do much for your social media following, but they’re fundamental to the job and to loving what we do. It’s something I’d certainly love to help people with – in my new role, and beyond.

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

Gareth> Where to begin? I suppose I would say that first, you’ve got to believe you’ll enjoy it. Read the APG Papers I mentioned and see if they’re the sort of thinking you could get excited about doing - there’s a specific satisfaction in a perfectly crafted sentence that flips how you think about a brand or problem. After that, prioritise finding a team who you love over the account they work on. The harder the client’s business to work on the better: you’ll learn so much so quickly, and the feeling of being all in it together is special. I was lucky enough to have that experience when I started out. I made a few hundred ‘new store opening’ retail ads within my first year and it was the best possible training I could have had. I look back with such gratitude to those who took me under their wing. I wish you all luck in finding that too, and I’m committed to making Publicis Creative the sort of organisation that can give people those kinds of foundational experiences.

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Publicis New York, Thu, 11 Aug 2022 16:32:18 GMT