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Planning for the Best: Jack Trew on the Essence of a Strategist

The Croc's strategy director on the perpetual fear of being asked exactly what a strategist does

Planning for the Best: Jack Trew on the Essence of a Strategist

Jack Trew is strategy director at The Croc. Before that, he was a senior planner at Saatchi & Saatchi, leading strategy on brands including EE and Visa and lead strategist on the Unilever account at AnalogFolk.


In late 1956, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev delivered a clear message to the Western world: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”

The violent language prompted envoys from twelve NATO nations to walk out of the room in disgust. While the speech is widely acknowledged as a key escalation point in the Cold War, the problem is it isn’t exactly what Khruschev meant.

‘My vas pokhoronim!’ does mean ‘We will bury you’, but more in the sense that someone will live to see the other person buried – it’s less a threat of violence and more about standing the test of time. A worrying escalation to a nuclear stand-off was down to some sloppy translation.

The reason this anecdote springs to mind is that I live in perpetual fear of being asked by a friend of a friend what it is, exactly, that I do for a living.

To avoid ill-fated conversations about congestion charges and pedestrianised high-streets, I tend not to use the term ‘planner’. Instead, I opt for the no-less-vague but possibly more accurate ‘strategist’.

I prefer strategist because it’s more holistic – it encapsulates the range of jobs that our discipline needs to turn its hand to – from high-level plans through brand building, to the nuances of creating coherent customer journeys that deliver contextually resonant messages.

‘Strategist’ also better conveys the way the role has changed; from planning campaigns and media to solving actual business problems.

Semantics of job titles aside, there’s still the task of explaining what it is I actually do, and that’s where Mr Khruschev comes in. The closest correlation I can find to what I do on a day-to-day basis is translation.

I’m a translator.

For me, this is the essence of my role. Taking baffling, acronym-loaded business ambitions and translating them into a simple human problem that a creative team can’t wait to solve. All without losing sight of why we do this – to help our clients’ businesses grow.

Strategists should always be working with this end goal in mind. The industry’s fixation with effectiveness is a positive development – it increases accountability and helps us remember that while a Cannes Lion is nice, getting the job done for our clients is what really keeps agencies alive.

My job as a translator is also about representing both parties. Effective translation however requires straddling two cultures;

On one hand, you need to be intimately acquainted with the client’s needs. What they’re really saying between the lines of their brief and what’s keeping them up at night.

On the other it’s about giving creative teams something they can grab onto and get excited about. Translating KPIs and constraints into something that excites and inspires them.

I believe good translation is predicated on four rules:


Rule one: Understand the broader context

Translation can suffer from being too literal. When Pepsi’s translated their 60s campaign slogan -

“Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation’ – for a Chinese audience, they ended up with “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”.

Not quite the message they were after.

Good strategists develop a strong understanding of the broader context because without context, nuance is lost. It’s the same for a creative brief.

It starts with learning the client’s business and arriving armed with questions and a view of the market, but equally, it’s also dependent on having strong relationships with clients and connecting the dots others – especially siloed business departments won’t even see.

 

Rule two: Expand your frame of reference

Our job is rife with unexpected connections and multiple perspectives, providing a wide range of reference and creating the ability to convey messages more accurately and more interestingly.

I value people that have a range of outside interests over those that have read every book on strategy. Being interested and passionate about things helps us unearth insights that may seem unrelated and help us better connect with the people we’re selling to.

You never know when a board game, knitting stitch or soap opera feud will provide the perfect analogy for your client’s current situation.

A greater frame of reference is also something that comes with experience.

The blank page is always daunting, be it your first brief or your five-hundredth. But when it comes to translation, practice makes perfect.

Practice simplifying complex concepts.

Practice questioning and connecting things.

Practice seeing things from other people’s perspectives.

 

Rule three: Create mutual understanding

Misunderstandings happen when people aren’t aligned. That’s why it’s a critical role of the translator to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Clarifying key questions in the first brief and going back with a formal strategic response to the brief are critical points of alignment that often get disregarded due to timings, so do it early and often.

These stages create the trust and buy-in needed to prevent a never-ending cycle of rebriefs. Equally important, they show the value of strategy within the process, which can often be missed when the first response to a client brief is a creative presentation.

 

Rule four: Talk to each party in their own language

One of my biggest frustrations is the myth of the strategist heading into a dark room with a complicated client brief and emerging, blinking into the light, with the brief perfectly crafted in their hands.

It’s nonsense.

In general, I believe strategists need to have more conversations.

Talk to friends, the client, the account team and most importantly, the customers of the brand. Understand how people who don’t know (or care) what ‘brand salience’ means think about the product.

These conversations are so important because the more people you can talk to, the more you gain the perspectives you need to develop communications that will resonate with them.

Creative briefs are a great example of this. I don’t believe there’s perfect method to getting to a great brief, but knowing which team you’re writing for, how they work and what will get them excited will always be more effective than walking them through twelve boxes of ‘creative considerations’.

Teamwork is critical. Involve the Creative Director and bounce the proposition off them. Refine, provoke, debate, chat to the creatives and see if it gets them excited. If not, try again.

Good briefs in turn lead to good creative reviews. I want to be surprised, I want ideas that make me think and put a smile on my face. I want that feeling of ‘of course that’s the way to do it’.

*      *      *

Translation is an art, and like all arts, takes practice, but when it’s done right and the intention and meaning translates perfectly from one language to another, it’s magical.

Gregory Rabassa was the man given the unenviable task of translating Gabriel García Márquez’ literary classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.

On reading the translation, García Márquez pronounced it better than his Spanish original.

As strategists, and as translators, I don’t think that’s a bad aspiration.

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