Google Firestarters Australia - Adapting Strategy for an Adaptive Age


Last week I travelled to Australia for our first ever Google Firestarters events in Melbourne and Sydney. We'd taken 'Adapting Strategy for an Adaptive World' as our theme for both sessions - a topic that was sufficiently narrow to hang together well but also broad enough to allow for different perspectives on what the concept of 'adaptive strategy' really means. And we had some excellent provocation from some great speakers who spoke to the current and future state of planning:

Dave King, Director of Strategy, The Royals

Our first Melbourne speaker was Dave King, whose agency The Royals has been responsible for some truly fun and innovative work. Dave began by asking a simple question: how up for change are we? We need, said Dave, to constantly question whether we (who act as change agents on behalf of our clients) are actually interested in getting better at the way we work. The traditional strategy/creative process can lead to silo-ed discovery of insights and ideas. At The Royals they have implemented a new process designed to ensure that their is no disconnect at all between strategy and creative. Based on the Google Ventures Design Sprint, the new creative sprint is a framework that is designed to be agile in the creation of ideas and to get the most out of people. A 5 day process that substitutes the traditional functional hand-off between planning and creative for a method that puts all the key people (including the client) in the same room from the very beginning, and then involves them at key stages throughout.


Dave shared what they had learned from working in this way. It hadn't always been easy to work in suhc a new way, but there had been some great successes and a number of key upsides. It is, for example, a structure that is 'applied around people's experience and instinct and intuition' so it is critical to get the right people in the room. Since it is a process essentially appropriated from a product or design context, it naturally puts 'need' at the centre of every challenge, but does so in a way that leads to fertile discussions. It places a good bit of focus on user journeys that traverse different places and so doesn't discriminate between offline/online, or traditional, creative, digital, social ideas. The volume of ideas that are originated quickly at the start of the process informs strategy, and gives them 'a bunch of little souvenirs from our trip to add to our bottom draw'. 

As an approach to adaptive strategy, the creative sprint felt like a compellingly new and different take, and it was really refreshing to hear from an agency who are genuinely working in a different way. It is a process, said Dave, that 'doesn't feel like writing a brief - it's more like decoding an opportunity'. 


Eaon Pritchard, Strategy Consultant

In a pleasing echo to Paul Feldwick's recent Firestarters talk, Eaon used the context of where we've come from as an industry, and in particular Stanley Pollitt's planning philosophy which focused on getting the work right at all costs, effective advertising over maximising billing or keeping the clients happy, account planners having freedom to work with the data they see fit, and consumer response being the most important element in making final advertising judgements rather than prejudice or over-attachment to an idea. How much of this, asked Eaon, really happens in agencies today? Eaon used some great cultural metaphors to illustrate the point that one of the things we've got wrong is thinking that advertising effectiveness is about messaging, when actually it's about display and signalling - speaking to the fundamentals of human behaviour that we know from social and evolutionary psychology. He referenced some of the external cultural factors relevant to strategy, and the relationship between culture, counter-culture and sub-culture that he eloquently explains in more detail here. Ultimately, a consideration of 'adaptive strategy' is about referencing what we know about human nature, but also admitting what we don't know. 

Roger Box, Director of Digital, Clemenger BBDO

This focus on understanding human complexities was echoed in Roger's talk. People often do counter-intuitive things, and the only way to understand how technologies impact behaviours is to observe and participate ourselves ('too many people and organisations are still playing in the paddling pool of the digital world'). We use jargon and acronyms to over-complicate what are basic behaviours, and yet it is often the simple strategies that really work. Human needs are consistent, but it is how we fulfil those needs changes. Strategies are carbon-based, ideas are silicon-based.


Abigail Posner, Head of Strategic Planning, Google

Abigail did a great job of providing the 'glue' between the Melbourne and Sydney sessions, speaking at both events about how what a humanistic view of solving problems really means, and how important it is not only to impact culture, but also have an action orientation to strategy: 'In our planning department' she said, 'we force ourselves to come up with things, we turn everything into a thing. Words are cheap, you have to codify it, have a name for it, turn it into something real, something tangible'. She described this as an engineering approach to strategy, and illustrated it with a short but compelling video compilation of some key engineers at Google talking about how they approach solving the big problems. And interestingly (and like Dave had) she mentioned how they often worked on challenges together concurrently as a multi-disciplinary team from the beginning.

Simon Small, Executive Strategy Director, Isobar

At the Sydney Firestarters, Simon provided a fascinating and different perspective on how, at Isobar, strategy has evolved to encompass many different facets, from helping clients establish a digital development roadmap, customer experience strategy, innovation, more traditional comms strategy, or platform strategy (CRM, Mobile, e-commerce etc) to product and services strategy. The interesting thing about this breadth of strategic involvement/output is that it has meant that the footprint within clients has expanded beyond marketing, and there is a new competitive context. He gave some examples of very different kinds of work, fulfilling very different kinds of client objectives, but making the point nicely that adaptive strategy is perhaps about the ability to deliver business benefit in many different contexts. Strategy, says Simon, needs to answer a new set of questions, from helping to define client objectives, to filling in gaps in knowledge, to direction setting and validation, to reporting and optimisation (there was an interesting point he made during the Q & A afterwards about how significant client value doesn't only come from big ideas but from the often under-rated impact that can come from smart but simple optimisation techniques). Entrenched mindsets, processes and balances of power within agencies can all act as barriers to change.

Sudeep Gohil, CEO, Droga 5

'The future is the past we have forgotten'. Digital, said Sudeep, is very good at continuously throwing up the ‘next big thing’ but as much as things change, they also 'devolve back into the old ways that we used to do things'. A really simple human insight often sits at the heart of the ideas we'd all wished we came up with, yet planners need to not think only in terms of advertising-shaped solutions. There is a temptation for agencies to rush toward the first good idea, but taking time to unpack client problems ultimately leads to better, and more rounded solutions. Agencies are in danger of losing ground to the big management consultancies if they don't solve the big brand problems. And we need to originate ideas that become part of culture itself:

“Being part of culture is more important than any strategy you can come up with because no one turns around and says I love that strategy or I love that ad, instead they talk about things they love which is generally not the stuff we create.”

Ultimately digital is just another part of popular culture.


Jason Lonsdale, Executive Planning Director, Saatchi & Saatchi

Our final speaker in Sydney, Jason Lonsdale, also touched on the theme of agencies broadening out from advertising-based solutions, but more in the context of 'making acts not ads', and briefs that start with 'do something' rather than 'say something'. Templated strategy, said Jason, can inhibit thinking, and great planners have more in common with hackers than programmers. Planners need to be 'obsessed with the truth':

“I would argue the truth is our client, the truth is our responsibility at an agency. Creatives are obsessed with awards and doing cool stuff, suits are obsessed with keeping the clients happy, we should be obsessed with the truth.”

We cannot interrupt what people are interested in, said Jason, we have to be what people are interested in. The concept of media-neutrality is something that good planners get anyway, because of their understanding of context. So rather than being media-neutral, it's about being people positive:


Overall, we had two fascinating sessions with no shortage of good debate afterwards, and it was a brilliant way to launch Firestarters into Australia. We had some great write ups from industry journals mUmbrellaAdNews, and BandT, and there is a Storify of the two events which are all worth taking a look at. We will be doing more events later this year (watch this space for more on that) but in the meantime my thanks to Google Australia for hosting, and to our brilliant speakers.

The Creative Company


I thought this Scientific American piece on the messy minds of creative people (based on research by Psychologists Guillaume Furst, Paolo Ghisletta and Todd Lubart) was the best thing I’d read on how creativity works in ages. 

What was fascinating about it was that it acknowledged the many different (and sometimes contradictory) components, characteristics and personality traits that comprise creativity, and how they play a different role at different stages of the process.

What was also interesting for me though, was how much you could apply this thinking to companies as well as individuals (after all, an organisation is but a bunch of people put together). We all know just how important creativity is as an organisational differentiator, and not just to creative sector businesses  - an IBM survey a while back found that global CEOs believed it to be the most important quality in being able to navigate an increasingly complex world. So taking the key points in the piece, here’s how you might view the critical attributes of a creative organisation.

The researchers identified three “super-factors” of personality that predict creativity: Plasticity, Divergence, and Convergence.


Plasticity comprises personality traits including extraversion, high energy, being open to experience and inspiration. The common factor in this is a high drive for exploration, and the comparator here is with organisational willingness and propensity to be externally facing and exploratory. Too many companies become increasingly internally focused as they scale, mature or face ongoing challenges and this is about outwardly-looking organisational energy, curiosity, scrutiny and ambition. About a willingness to try new things, to experiment and learn at a fast pace.


Divergence consists of 'non-conformity, impulsivity, low agreeableness'. For me, this is about organisational independence of thought, a willingness to be misunderstood, to try new and different things, stubbornness and uniqueness of vision.


This relates to qualities such as precision, persistence, critical sense and conscientiousness. The equivalent organisational qualities here might be taken to be data-driven decision making and validation, a strong purpose, a focused approach, aligned and informed decision-making.

The article goes on to talk about how convergence often related to plasticity and how 'those who were open to new experiences, inspired, energetic, and exploratory tended to also have high levels of persistence and precision'. I can see this being true of companies too. But they also mention how these different, and sometimes seemingly contradictory characteristics may be used at different stages. Those who were creative were able to combine both generative (coming up with lots of original ideas) and selective (being able to critique, evaluate, and elaborate on ideas effectively) skills. And I think this is true of companies as well.

Being able to imagine lots of different possibilities, originate quality ideas but also focus on those which have the most potential value are key attributes of the creative organisation. And it is those that are able to combine these different behaviours and switch between them in flexible ways, that are best suited to world in which we now find ourselves.

Performance Firestarters 7: The Mobile Future - Performance or Branding?


For the seventh in our series of Firestarters events for the performance marketing community, we focused on a specific but fascinating aspect of mobile marketing - the question of whether its future will be more defined by performance or brand advertising.

Ian Maude from Enders Analysis gave a great scene setter supported by some good data showing how mobile is the driving force in both digital commerce and digital ad growth. Whilst PC penetration is forecast to remain relatively stable and mobile adoption is reaching maturity, Enders predict that Mobile will soon (by 2020) account for 75% of time online. We’ve seen rapid growth in mobile search and performance advertising and whilst this will continue it will be joined by a new wave of brand advertising on mobile as consumption increases and ad spend follows the eyeballs. Enders predict that we are moving towards half of all advertising spend being on the internet, with advertising becoming less TV centric, but the ability to fuse TV and internet/mobile audience data will be key.


Alex Hewson, Media Director at M & C Saatchi Mobile, talked about how 90% of their billings currently come from performance based marketing, and how performance based data underpins just about every aspect of their work. Their approach to planning for mobile incorporates elements of the customer journey from brand performance (intent, engagement), user acquisition (app install, registration, subscription), to life-time value (usage, retention, (re)purchase). He gave examples of how specific types of mobile-friendly targeting can be used to drive these different kinds of objectives, and then how a layered approach to buying (buying against different metrics to support different staged objectives) can minimise risk, and how post-install data for apps is key to properly judging value (given the wide gap that often exists between install and usage rates - something that is in-turn creating additional options to drive improved ROI). 

Alex finished by talking a bit about mobile creative in the context of data-driven test-and-learn, a theme built on by Ben Rickard, Head of Mobile at MEC, who spoke about what he called ‘mobile’s dirty little secret’ -  their research had indicated that up to 75-80% of UK mobile inventory is still standard 320 x 50 or 300 x 50 banner formats, meaning a huge missed opportunity for advertisers to utilise the kind of larger, more engaging in-feed formats that he believes will be key to the future of brand advertising on mobile. In terms of formats, said Ben, brand ads are running on old rolling stock whilst social ad formats are becoming the norm. And in fact the latest UK IAB Ad Spend data for the full year 2014 (out that very day) supports this assertion showing content and native ads (including in-feed advertising) are now a fifth of total display with social media advertising (powered by native) growing by 65% year-on-year, and representing one half of all mobile display now. Ben laid down a challenge calling for a new approach to planning with objectives driving formats, the centralisation of creative analytics and insights (through Celtra), greater availability (from owners) and demand (from advertisers) for larger, in-feed formats and mobile video, and improved standards across Europe on mobile brand advertising.

Scott Seaborn, Global Head of Mobile Strategy for Aimia (Nectar and Air Miles), finished with a witty and entertaining talk about moments in mobile history and how we tend to view the future through the lens of the past. Scott’s challenge was for brands to be braver about iterating in market with mobile, and to start with the unique, ‘personal’ attributes of mobile as a way to create compelling, creative, mobile-first ideas (he talked a lot about how mobile makes you feel, rather than just its visual aspects).


It was a fascinating evening and the debate afterwards echoed the fact that whilst consumption is in rapid growth, and ad spend is now really starting to follow that growth, there are still many questions that we do not have the answers to just yet. It certainly felt as though whilst the performance side of mobile marketing might have mature more rapidly, it is in the brand marketing side that many of these questions remain, but lots of optimism from our speakers that we are potentially on the verge of a step change in how we do brand advertising on mobile. The amazing Sciberia were on hand as always to take visual notes of the talks, and you can see their visualisation in all its glory here. My thanks as always to Google for hosting, to everyone that came along, and of-course to our excellent speakers.

The Full-Stack Employee


Chris Messina (who invented the Twitter Hashtag) wrote a post last week describing what he called the ‘Full Stack Employee’. This is, says Chris, the type of employee that has a powerful combination of skills, are adept at navigating the rapidly evolving and shifting technological landscape, and ‘make intuitive decisions amidst information-abundance, where sparse facts mingle loosely with data-drenched opinions’.

Whilst not necessarily having deep vertical expertise in more than one domain, such employees have an intuitive understanding of the value of design and UX, engineering and algorithms, but also narrative and storytelling, and can work with simple prototypes to develop learning. They are able to dynamically deal with shifting priorities and expectations and prioritise well. But they also have a strong curiosity, an appetite for new ideas, best practices, and also a desire to be more productive and happy in their work. It is this curiosity and desire to stay on top of developments in their own industry and others that separates them out.


In ‘How Google Works’ Eric Schmidt describes the people that can have the biggest potential impact in a business - so-called 'Smart Creatives' are the product folk who combine a triumvirate of skills around technical knowledge, business expertise and creativity: 'when you put today's technology tools in their hands and give them lots of freedom’, he says, ‘they can do amazing things, amazingly fast'.

Lord knows with 'Smart Creatives', 'T-shaped' and 'Pi-shaped' people, and now 'Full-Stack Employees', we're not short of monikers to describe people who may have strong vertical expertise, but also have lateral empathy, knowledge and attributes that mean they can work well in rapidly changing, ambiguous environments.

But the point remains a good one. As Chris Messina says, the conventional seams between disciplines are becoming ever more blurred, the set of skills necessary to succeed are broader and more nebulous than they’ve been before, and so being a polymath has real value to businesses. It may sound like a big ask to accommodate so many attributes in one person, but it is increasingly employees like this that make the difference within and for organisations, and as Chris says:

‘the nature of work is changing, and the highest value employees are those who can handle ambiguity and synthesizing enormous amounts of information into strategically useful tactics.’

Nobody's saying that those with deep, vertical expertise have little value - an organisation needs many different types of people to thrive after all.  But I like this idea a lot, not least because I have always found it hard to categorise my own skills and knowledge or even career focus into a neat box labelled with a job title. 

Photo Credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML

On To-Do Lists


I rather liked this approach to doing a To-Do list from Peter Bregman, taken from this write up (found via Fraggl) of his 18 Minute plan to managing your day and finding focus. What I particularly like about it is the more comprehensive way in which it is inclusive of elements that sit outside of work tasks. It's easy (particularly when running your own business I find) for the time for these non-work related tasks to get squeezed, and this is a good way of allocating them at least equal prominence and so being more disciplined about making them happen. It's a point made well by Paul Graham in this short post about changing the defaults in life to make sure you don't forget about the really important stuff.