Head of strategy at VMLY&R Melbourne on how coming into the role via journalism, management consulting and marcomms has given him a different perceptive towards planning
Throughout his career, Ken Chan has been a journalist, copywriter, management consultant and client-side marcomms specialist. With more than 15 years of experience, Ken has spearheaded branding, content strategy and digital marketing projects for some of Australia’s leading brands including NAB, Google, Optus, Honda, Coles, and across various government and industry groups. This breadth of experience gained from all sides of the agency/client/consultancy divide makes Ken incredibly adept at understanding challenges from various perspectives – and he’s able to bring this empathy to uniquely inform the creative process.
In his current role as head of strategy at VMLY&R (Melbourne), Ken leads the Melbourne strategy team, encompassing all brand planning and CX work across the agency’s stable of clients including Monash University, Australian Unity, Department of Transport, Major Transport Infrastructure Authority (MTIA), Ford and Defence Force Recruiting.
LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?
Ken> In my mind, I see strategy as a discipline, while planning is a specialisation (or core skill) within that discipline. It’s like a basketball player calling themselves a “shooter” – yes, you may be great at putting the ball through the hoop, but to stay in the game, you need to have a broader skillset.
Also, one tends to love clumsy sports analogies more than the other.
LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?
Ken> Strategist. Coming from a non-linear background (I’ve worked as a journalist, client-side marketer, management consultant, and copywriter) I often say I took the scenic route to planning. As such, “strategist” always felt a bit more comfortable as I’ve had to think in a variety of ways throughout my career. I like to bring this diverse approach to the way I tackle a challenge.
Ultimately, I think the job description comes down to the type of agency you’re in – and what’s being asked of you. At VMLY&R, planning is just one specific application of strategic thinking that I’m tasked with (and enjoy) in my role. Due to the broad mix of services we offer, we have to be able to move fluidly between creative, CX and commercial thinking in order to deliver great work and value for our clients.
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?
Ken> This is a small social example, but I always love bringing it up when I get the chance. It’s when Farmland Foods called out Supreme for “borrowing” their logo – not with a cease and desist like so many other brands do, but with an on-point look book using their farmers to model Supreme streetwear. I won’t explain the whole thing, but here’s a good summary on it
Personally, I love the strategy behind this because it was born from an insight that was deeply rooted in an understanding of the audience and culture. This resulted in a creative idea that beat the streetwear behemoth at its own game of “appropriating the distinctive assets of other brands” while garnering mainstream PR attention and kudos from the notoriously fickle streetwear community.
Often strategy gets painted as a painfully drawn-out process – but this is just a nice small example of how strategy can move fast in a reactive environment and hit the mark perfectly.
LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?
Ken> This will sound weird, but: the client. Seriously. A strategist should be getting quality time with the client to interrogate the task at hand – exploring the context of the request, the motivations behind the objectives, the ambition beneath the goal. It’s often all the stuff in-between the lines that can open up a totally unexpected perspective or train of thought or the opportunity to expand the scope. If anything, it’ll let you know how far you (and the creatives) can push things.
LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?
Ken> Besides the crippling self-doubt? I’d say the luxury of divergent and convergent thinking is why I absolutely love strategy. The process of exploring broadly and thinking deeply on a topic – weeding out the red herrings and pulling at all the loose threads to see which ones lead to something meaningful is equal parts frustrating and fun.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?
Ken> Strategy has to be useful and useable. If it isn’t, it’ll be left to collect dust on a shelf (or a forgotten folder on a desktop).
As such, I always go back to the strategic framework from Rumelt’s Good Strategy & Bad Strategy
, which states that strategy is made up of three essential components: Diagnosis (a clear definition of the challenge); Guiding Policy (an overall approach to address the challenge); and Coherent Actions (coordinated steps to carry out the guiding policy).
Yes, “learn the rules to break them” and all that. But this approach serves as a reminder to always make sure the strategy I’m developing is effectively defining a challenge or problem and proposing a clear and actionable way forward. It prevents me from getting lost in self-indulgent navel gazing rather than producing something that will compel a client to buy-in and inspire creatives to think up great ideas.
LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?
Ken> I like working with creatives that are naturally curious – not just about the ideation side of things, but also the insights. It’s that whole “iron sharpens iron” approach to forging great creative work.
So what I want them to do with the information is “kick the tires on my strategy” – interrogate it, pressure test it, poke at it a little. I love it when a creative questions the brief, an insight or even the proposition. It keeps me honest when putting a strategy or creative brief together, and reminds me that a good strategy isn’t worth much if it isn’t communicated well.
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?
Ken> Creativity is a funny thing – because while there are “rules” for creating great work, there are a hell of a lot of exceptions too. So, while my preferred route would be strategy then creative idea, sometimes, you need to recognise that a great idea can be found through other means.
In those cases, you need to check your ego and use strategy as a vehicle to a) ensure the idea is adequately pressure tested to make sure we really “captured lightning in a bottle”, and b) give it the necessary protection when it ventures out to client-land.
LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? And how has Covid changed the way you think about this?
Ken> What I look for is someone who is willing to do the hard work of listening. Whether that’s talking to clients, facilitating a focus group, briefing creatives, partnering with account service – listening is the unsung skill in our line of work. Covid hasn’t changed that; it’s only made the art of listening even more vital in the absence of being physically present.
LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?
Ken> It’s nice to have an avenue for industry recognition in our discipline. However, it should also be viewed as a shared “win” across the agency. I feel very lucky and fortunate to be in an agency where the wins are shared. Creative awards aren’t just hoarded by creatives; but are held up as a win for all departments involved – and the same goes for effectiveness awards too.
Personally, I haven’t really seen growing prestige of effectiveness awards impact how strategists work. If anything, it’s a comforting validation of the rigour, commitment and integrity that most strategists have always approached the work – effectiveness is just now more readily accepted and valued by a broader group.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Ken> One of my frustrations is when I’ve heard people say that strategy is where the “brainy” people go. In my opinion, it’s the wrong thing to hang our hats on. “Brainy” is a quality that is readily found across all departments in our industry.
As such, I think this misplaced perception has led to a lot of unhealthy expectations (and anxiety) for strategists, who feel they need to constantly demonstrate their value by trying to be the “smartest person in the room”. But as strategists, our job isn’t to be the “brainy” one (or to never be wrong) – it’s to provide insight, clarity and focus for clients and creatives.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Ken> Be resilient and resourceful. Strategy is a hard thing to show off. It often isn’t cool or shiny (or even tangible at times) – so it can be an easy thing for others to overlook or even ignore. Don’t take it personally; but take it as a challenge. If you’re truly passionate about the power and value of strategic thinking in the creative process, you need to find ways to demonstrate and share that value in ways that can’t be denied.