Planning for the Best: Josh Manning on Great Strategy with Great Output
Josh began his career at Leo Burnett and Analog Folk as a social media and content specialist, before making the jump to strategy at Clemenger BBDO and Marcel Sydney. Throughout his time working in creative agencies, he has contributed to and led work at a national and international level on brands including Campbell’s, Tiger Beer, Huawei Mobile, V Energy, and Tinder. At VCCP he is the planning lead for the Compare the Market account, as well as working across Torrens University Australia, The Australian Red Cross, and LDV Automotive.
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?
Josh> Like most planners (I hope,) I believe that great strategy is nothing without great creative output. Strategic thinking is incredibly important, but advertising is still a craft business.
In this respect, the campaigns I’m digging that are top of mind right now are:
Habito ‘Hell or Habito’ - A great human truth - “getting a mortgage is like going through hell” - and great use of a false binary to position the product as the only way to avoid disaster. Topped off with a killer creative execution.
McDonalds ‘Celebrity Meals’ - A hell of a brand truth - “Everyone has their own McDonalds order” - matched that with a cracking use of celebrity to pull the product lever rather than just the comms one. With Travis Scott, BTS and J Balvin, McDonalds feels current again and it has driven crazy amounts of sales.
NRMA ‘Help’ - A true leadership position that brings together the company’s culture with Aussie identity and what people crave from the category. Love that it has been activated not just in comms (‘Help Like No One Else’ print was fantastic) but through product innovation (‘Safety Hub’), experiences (‘Sloways’) and partnerships (‘Invisible Fires’ with LifeLine).
Hyundai Tucson ‘Tomorrow wants its car back’ - Does all those ‘advanced technology’ associations that car manufacturers crave, but without the coldness that usually comes with them. Hoping it isn’t the last we see of those sneaky, electro-loving robots.
Tourism Tasmania ‘Come Down for Air’ - The perfect platform for a seemingly perfect place. Really distinctive and answers a real human problem - needing to slow down to escape and recuperate. True challenger brand thinking in a very crowded, generally non-distinct, domestic tourism category.
LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, what do you find the most useful resource to draw on?
Josh> People’s reality. If you’re not doing something that addresses or acknowledges what people are truly experiencing, you’re not doing it right. We don’t have empathy superpowers, so you’ve got to get digging. If you don’t you’re going to struggle for work that’s relevant or compelling to people.
LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?
Josh> I love the whole process from research through to the strategic 'aha' moment when it becomes clear exactly what the problem is and the best way to solve it. However, I don’t think any of it beats the moment a creative team comes back to you with a truly amazing creative solution. You’re left wondering how they’ve come up with something so surprising, funny, elegant, or just plain awesome off of your comparatively clunky prop. There’s definitely something cathartic about letting go and watching someone turn your work into something you never thought it would be.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?
Josh> 1. Brands are built on associations. You drive growth by either building or destroying associations between your brand and attributes, moments, experiences etc. This is the base I work from for everything from developing and selling strategy through to reviewing and selling creative. I’m always asking, does this create the associations that will aid what we’re trying to accomplish?
2. Rem Tene Verba Sequentur - “grasp the subject and the words will follow”. This pretty sums up my approach to research. No brief is worse-off for knowing your subject in-depth. Get digging.
3. Brands are what brands do. You never build brands with comms alone. Are you considering all touchpoints? What is comms' role amongst them all? Is comms the right solution to the problem?
4. People don’t really care about your brand. Does the strategy and creative make what you’re saying interesting to people? Are we working as hard as possible to grab people’s attention?
5. Fame is the most powerful brand objective. Does the creative have something that, beyond inspiring an emotional reaction, will make people share or talk about it?
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?
Josh> I don’t think I’ve ever been in a position where I’ve been expected to validate creative regardless of whether it does a job for the brand or not. And, I don’t think I’ve ever sold an idea that totally disrespected the strategic direction I’ve put on the table. So I’d say the stereotype doesn’t hold true, but its obviously not doing us any favours.
Ironically, making sure you’re doing it the right way around isn’t a question of order. I don’t buy that strategy always has to inform creative, or that creative can’t move strategy on to a better place. Of course, resist the temptation to sell creative just because you wanna be best buds with the CD or you think it’ll look cool on the industry blogs. But, I’d always advocate assessing creative on whether it’s on-problem rather than if it's on-brief. If it is off-brief but on-problem, or its great proactive thinking you had nothing to do with, suck in your pride and sell it. Recognising a great creative solution and ensuring it gets sold is enough to claim the Effie paper in my books.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Josh> The devaluing of creativity. It’s an industry wide problem but I think it comes home to roost with those responsible for strategic leadership and output - so marketers and agency strategists.
The lack of a clear consensus as to how advertising fundamentally works is probably the biggest problem in the devaluing of creativity and all this talking of “new rules of engagement” and how marketing has been turned on its head in the 'new normal' - not to mention declaring death of this channel or that - isn’t doing us any favours. It really reinforces the “colouring in department” idea of marketers and their agencies.
Strategists need to make leaps in logic, but they need to be informed ones. First be smart and disciplined. Apply marketing and behavioural science, apply research, apply proper strategic processes. Then use that as a base for great thinking and creative execution across all the different marketing levers you’ve got to pull. You’ve got to understand the power structures before you can create a revolution.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Josh> Based on my sample size of one, if you:
Are kind of introverted but sometimes not,
Love evidence based arguments as much as you love pop culture, art and cinema,
Find yourself a bit too obsessed with anthropology, psychology and human behaviour
Prefer sneakers and Tee's to suits and ties
You might just love it.
But seriously, In terms of practical advice, absorb as much as possible.
If you’re in an agency and want to make the jump to planning, pester the planners for copies of presentations and book recommendations, annoy them with nerdy questions on their lunch breaks.
I spent two years at Clemenger BBDO, floating around different accounts not being particularly consequential. It was an incredibly valuable experience. I mined a very senior planning department for everything I possibly could.
I’d also say talk to as many people in as many different agencies as you can. Reach out to senior planners who work in the agencies you admire. Not only are they usually happy to give you advice, it will get you on their radar as someone who’s passionate and curious about strategy. No one wants to dig through a pile of CVs to find their next hire. They’d much rather have someone top of mind already. Be that person.