Everything I've Learned Part 2: Down and Dirty Research

A situation all too common: You receive a client brief that MUST be turned into a creative brief in less than a week.

You’re human. You panic. How could you possibly go through the civil process of focus groups, brief-crafting, and internal reviews in that absolutely rude amount of time?

If you haven’t encountered this yet, stay firmly put at your current agency — you’ve got it made. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll encounter this far more often than you’d like.

Do not panic — it’s counterproductive and bad for your health. Just make sure to avoid these 5 traps, and I promise you’ll be able to pull it off.

Trap № 1: Jumping right into the solution.

Your sense of urgency about the looming deadline will drive you directly into solve mode. Do everything you can to fight that urge, because you simply cannot solve a problem that you don’t yet understand.

It’s likely that the problem in the client brief needs reframing. Client briefs often contain a problem written through a corporate lens, or worse — it doesn’t contain a problem at all. Many client briefs lead with a tactic instead of a problem — e.g. “Create a fully integrated brand campaign.”

Lesson: Find the right problem to solve.

One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever received is that the most impactful insight can come in the form of a reframed problem.

Take Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” for example: The problem could have been the tired Old Spice isn’t relevant to Millennial men.Instead, the planners took the time to dig into sales data and found a broader and far more interesting problem: Women are buying the majority of men’s body wash and they have no experience with Old Spice.

Creatives are at their best when given a meaty problem. Invest the time upfront to reframe the problem to help them arrive at a unique solution.

Here are two amazing resources to help reframe a problem: WikiHow: How to Define a Problem and The Phoenix Checklist: Checklist of questions used by the CIA to think through problems.

Trap № 2: Starting from scratch.

New things excite us. It’s why I’m addicted to Amazon and have to fight back daily urges to propose new research. For young and eager Junior Planners, it feels right to launch new initiatives and start with a blank slate.

The Lesson: Lean on existing research.

Most clients — especially large corporate ones — have troves of research to tap into. Start with their brand tracker, segmentation study, or qualitative recordings. Finding insight in existing research will save you time and score you points with the client who invested in it.

Trap № 3: Wasting away in desk research.

The internet is a portal into sleep deprivation, which is why desk research can drive a young Planner mad.

Conventional wisdom says it’s full of insight, but it tends to be a swirl of regurgitated opinions — especially when it comes to consumer research.

The Lesson: Limit your time spent on Google.

One day for a-Googling — max. Gather a day’s worth of context, plant your feet firmly in the problem, develop a few hunches, and give yourself time to loop in the right people to help you — e.g. data strategists, strategic flâneurs, agency librarians, or client-side researchers.

Trap № 4: Avoiding real humans.

Scrappy qualitative research is messy and scary, which is why many planners settle for desk research.

The Lesson: Do everything in your power to speak with real people.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” -John le Carré

The Planner’s most powerful function is talking to real people and arriving at fresh conclusions. We need to make time for it.

Here’s a few time and cost-conscious ways to pull it off:

  1. Get connected through your personal contacts. It’s amazing how many people in the world are connected through first or second-degree connections. For example, I’m only two degrees away from Kevin Bacon (I have a client who once played his body double.) Take advantage of this by throwing out a line through social media or an all-agency email. I’ve been put in touch with first generation college students, compact hatchback drivers, police officers, volleyball players, nurses, and a electric-car-driving retiree with this method.
  2. Go where they are and strike up a conversation. Once a senior planner asked me to do this — to walk into tattoo shops on the Venice boardwalk to ask the artists what they thought about human memories. After considering getting an actual tattoo to force someone to talk to me, I opted to just chug a coffee, throw back my shoulders, and do it. The discomfort is real, but it dissipates. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
  3. Tweet at them. Even if it seems like a long shot, just try it — people like to share their opinions. A planning director once told me a story about how she successfully recruited famed “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear for research by tweeting at him. He had powerful insight into connecting with America’s Working Class.
  4. Ask brand advocates. Most clients have a list of highly engaged brand advocates who are more than willing to talk to marketers. Just be cautious that advocates are a very small sliver of your target audience.

Trap № 5: Chasing an original human insight.

A truly original human insight is rare. Human nature doesn’t change, only the context does.

The lesson: Look everywhere for the truth.

If you haven’t found an insight that’s particularly original or surprising, just find a clear and relevant truth. The truth is hiding everywhere, and it’ll work nicely in your brief that’s due EOW.

And finally…

Being new to a client and new to an agency is hard enough before adding the additional challenge of being new to a discipline. Continuously remind yourself that it’ll only get easier.

With each new day and each new project, you’ll become faster, wiser, and smarter. You’ll learn more about categories, media, and human nature. You’ll find your unique approach and voice.

Tight deadlines and times of uncertainty will only train you to be a more resourceful and resilient Planner. Relish them.

Everything I've Learned Part 1: Working With Creatives

This piece was originally published in On Advertising. Read the original here.

Being a Junior Planner is hard. The role of a Planner is by definition, the expert in the room who guides people to do things. In many agencies, the junior role doesn’t exist at all because how can you already be a junior expert?

But if you’re lucky enough to find an agency that trusts you to take on the role, you’re going to make lots of mistakes doing it.

As a young Planner myself, I have found that practical, everyday knowledge is hard to come by. It’s mostly hard-won through mistakes made in the trenches.

That’s why I’ve decided to write down all of the mistakes and the painful lessons I’ve learned from them, to hopefully impart a bit of knowledge for you to bring to work each day. Here’s “Part 1 — Working with Creatives.”

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Mistake № 1: Putting too much pressure on the brief.

Too much has been written about the creative brief. The single thought. Piles of research it takes to get there.

It sent me — a hungry little Planner — on a search for the elusive single thought that blows everybody’s minds.

Sometimes it happens, but most often these kinds of single thoughts are hard to work from.

The Lesson: Aim for clarity above wit.

Briefs should feel like a clear challenge. They find a door worth opening, a path worth lighting.

It sounds counterintuitive, but oftentimes the best briefs feel obvious because they are just so damn true. People always knew your insight in the back of their heads, but they’ve never seen it written down so clearly.

Because it feels inherently true to them, they’ll leave your briefing with a bunch of first-hand creative insight to work from.

Mistake № 2: Wanting credit for thought starters.

Planning itself is a creative process. We come up with creative ideas that get sold all the time. Our natural instinct says we should get credit for those ideas.

The Lesson: Never expect credit.

Credit is for creatives. They get jobs based on awards and books.

The creative process is a fragile endeavor. As one creative put it — “I birth a child every day that’ll just get killed in front of me.”

If they liked your idea enough to put their ass on the line for it, just give it to them.

It’s beautiful to see your ideas and your briefs come to life in the real world. Take silent note of it and be proud that someone invested money to make it. Everyone will know that you had a hand in it.

Mistake № 3: Giving feedback based on client needs.

Planners straddle the world of creativity and business more than any other function in an agency. You’re pulled in two directions. An Associate Planning Director once said, “There are two kinds of Planners: Account Managers’ Planners and Creatives’ Planners.”

From my experience, we sit closer to the Account side in agencies. We participate in statuses, we have direct client feedback, and we partner with Account Managers every single day. You’re at risk of being seen as an Account Manager who Googles stuff. Accordingly, Creatives will become skeptical of your input, just as they are skeptical of Account input.

The Lesson: You’re the voice of the consumer.

If Account Managers are the voice of the client, you’re the voice of the consumer. Offer that. It’s something no one else can offer. Use that to your advantage.

Always have consumer quotes and insights in your pocket. It allows you to be objective and steer work in ways that satisfy both parties. If your feedback is that a consumer wouldn’t get it or like it, it’s unshittable. We work in a business that sells things to consumers. The only feedback that matters is what the consumer will think or do in response to the work.

Mistake № 4: Killing crazy ideas.

Creatives bring stunningly wacky and sometimes offensive ideas. It’ll happen constantly. You’ll feel like your brief birthed something that will go down in history as one of the worst things to ever be made. You’ll feel like it’s your duty to kill it and bury all traces of it.

The Lesson: Let ideas die a natural death.

There are so many checks and balances on creative work — often too many — so if there’s something you think is entirely off, wait a bit and see if someone who gets paid way more than you kills it. They’ve spent years in the business and rake in way more money than you to wear the crown of the contrarian. You’ll get there one day, but you’re not there yet.

Mistake № 5: Packing briefs with statistics.

Ad agencies love being data-driven. It’s how we justify our paychecks. We need to have some sort of data that proves what we’re doing is the right thing to do, so we pack our briefs with it and overwhelm creatives.

The Lesson: Only use powerful statistics.

If you can’t tell someone the stat in the hallway and surprise them with it, opt for words. Your brief should be based on what our President calls “an accumulation of data” — but it doesn’t have to make its way into the brief.

For example, if your target audience over indexes on watching When Harry Met Sally (128%), Along Came Polly (114%), and The Wedding Planner (130%) — just say “they love to kick back and watch guilty pleasure romantic comedies.” It’s more memorable and inspiring.

Mistake № 6: Giving handouts during the briefing.

You did the work. You printed it out. You handed it to them. Seems fine, right?

The Lesson: Never hand out the brief before the briefing.

They’ll flip it over and look at the deliverables and budget and pay no attention to you. Trust me. Wait until you’ve went through the briefing.

And finally…

This is less of a lesson, but more of a thing that we need to constantly remind ourselves: We are lucky to be working in a creative industry. The creative process is one of the most invigorating, awe-inspiring things to be a part of. We’re privileged as planners to spur this process and make ourselves useful along the way.

Stay tuned for “Part 2: Down and Dirty Research.”