With 17 years’ experience of marketing, brand and communications strategy, freelance strategist David Warren has established himself as one of the most effective strategists in our industry. AdSchool is excited to welcome David as Sydney lecturer for the upcoming Advanced Strategic Planning course – we caught up with him to get his thoughts on the strategic planning discipline, and what students can look forward to on the course.
ACA: From your perspective, how does our industry best create value for clients?
David: When I first started working at BMF there was an Enero flag hoisted above the office. Occasionally, someone would swap it out for a pirate flag. I never knew who did it, or how long the Jolly Roger would remain on display until someone got ordered to take it down, but it made me smile the few mornings that I saw it.
It made me smile because that little act encapsulates what I believe makes our industry unique: We’re the dissenting voice.
That may seem like a dangerous idea to some, but it’s been proven that dissent promotes divergent thinking, enhances the quality of decision making and leads to better innovation. Dissent liberates and stimulates our minds.
So, at a time when far too many brands are held captive by their own conventions, dogma, or consensus, the dissenting voice of one agency partner can be a game changer.
ACA: Did you always want to be a planner, or did it happen by chance?
David: I fell into planning more by accident than design. Isn’t that the way for most planners? I had no idea what account planning was, but someone said they thought I’d be fairly decent at it.
A few years after graduating from university, having tried everything from accounting to music production, I landed a gig at DDB London and found myself in a role that excited and scared me in equal measure every day. It’s awesome when you can just walk around the corner and ask Les Binet for his advice on a problem, but similarly it’s nerve-wracking when you feel like an imposter surrounded by industry luminaries.
ACA: Is there a particular campaign you’ve worked on that stands out from the rest in terms of the strategic planning that went into it?
David: The Tourism Tasmania campaign that we developed at BMF is without a doubt a career highlight for me. It won the APG Grand Prix a couple of months back, which I think is testament to the quality of strategic thinking across the board at BMF under the guidance of CSO, Christina Aventi.
I don’t want to give too much away, as I’m going to unpack the strategy as part of the course! However, I can say that the strategic approach was to avoid thinking like a tourism brand, and instead think like a culture brand. We leant heavily into the work of Douglas Holt, author of How Brands Become Icons, which helped us to break free from the usual tourism tropes and find a much bigger role for Tasmania to play in modern Australia.
I can still vividly recall receiving a text from Alex Derwin, BMF’s CCO, which just read “Come Down for Air.” The hairs on my arm stood up as soon as I read it. It’s a truly world-class platform for the brand.
ACA: Tell us about the changes and improvements you’ll be making to the Advanced Strategic Planning course.
David: Yeah, sure. If I can share some context first that might help explain the changes.
There’s a huge concern in agency land at the moment about declining margins and how we can reaffirm our value as an industry. I genuinely believe that a big part of the problem – and the solution – rests on the shoulders of planners.
The issue is that planning has become increasingly fragmented and specialised, which is pushing the discipline further and further downstream. Instead of helping clients cultivate and realise demand by building stronger brands, we’ve become more concerned with shaping ads or other comms tactics. We’re obsessed with outputs when we should be obsessed with outcomes.
I think that one necessary change is for planning to get further upstream and find more interesting problems for creatives to solve, which then empowers creatives to do what they do best: Find ingenious ways to connect people and brands.
So, the changes I’ve made are meant to reflect this ethos a bit: More time devoted to brand theory and practice, a greater emphasis on commercial effectiveness throughout, and a deep dive into cognition and behaviour.
ACA: Can you tell us some of the key learnings you’re hoping students will take away with them?
David: There are three things that I’d really love to achieve through this course.
Firstly, I’d love to help students hone their bullshit detectors. One of the biggest issues in our industry is the sheer weight of rhetoric and nonsense that gets thrown around about how brands work or how consumers think. Brand purpose is probably the most prominent example for me at the moment. If you look at the data that underpins the theory it’s super-flawed, yet despite this there are many agencies banging the brand purpose drum because they know some marketers will buy it. However, to be an effective planner you need to be able to separate fact from this type of wishful thinking.
Secondly, and related to the first point, I want them to become obsessed about effectiveness. If you look at who is consistently winning EFFIEs every year, you’ll see the same agencies: BMF, The Monkeys and CHE Proximity. This is not by chance; they’re not blessed with some uniquely successful client base. What they do have are strong planning cultures obsessed with effectiveness: That is, setting the right objectives from the outset, being rigorous in the strategic development process, measuring the right things and then – most importantly – acting upon what they learn to become more effective next time.
Finally, I’d like to make sure that the students fall in love with creativity (assuming they’re not already in love with it!). I think it’s super important to remember that the ONLY point of a course like this is to get better creative. It’s really important that we don’t fall in love with our strategies because, at the end of the day, it’s the work that matters.
ACA: What in your opinion are the most important qualities a good planner should possess (or work towards acquiring/learning)?
David: There are a few adjectives that we’ve heard many times before: Empathetic, objective and curious. But honestly, I think that – foundation planning skills and those three qualities aside – you should find what works for you and focus on that.
The most interesting thing you can bring to the creative process is you and your experience. No two planners I’ve ever met are the same, and I think there’s something awesome to be said for that.
AdSchool Advanced Strategic Planning starts on 13 October. Full information and enrolment details.