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What Jon Steel said that stuck

Ninety minutes ago, Jon Steel finished speaking at one of our Ideas Exchange events in Sydney. He’s a bit of a legend around these here planning parts – author of one of the most read books on planning (Truth, Lies and Advertising), former planning director (for a decade) of Goodby Silverstein, and lots more.

Here are some of his thoughts that I think are thoughts worth thinking about.

1. Clients value agencies less than they used to

Jon spoke of days past when agency types like himself were often so embedded in a client’s business that they would get seconded to temporarily fill brand manager roles, or induct new marketing directors on not just the brand but the business they were entering… because they knew it better than the client-side team.

It’s a thought that Bob Miller (former GM of Marketing at Toyota Australia, visiting professor at Macquarie University) discussed in a talk last year: in previous eras, the CEO or head of marketing would be in at their agency at the start of the day asking “How can we make money?” whereas, now, he said, the role of dealing with an advertising agency has been junior-fied.

2. The role of planning

Jon’s description of the role of planning is simple: to bring common sense to the advertising process. As a build, he described it as getting into people’s heads and working out how to influence them. He’s not a fan of ‘Google Planning’, believing planners should spend time in the real world, away from the agency and industry, and talking to people.

3. Turn pitches down

I would have loved to have heard more on Goodby’s approach to pitching but one of the key things Jon said is that they turned down 4 in 5 pitches offered to them. They had a set of questions that they asked themselves of the potential client, which included:

  • Does the client truly value the role of advertising and an agency?
  • Do we like them?
  • Do we really really want to work for them?

If he applied the same criteria to current opportunities, he said, they’d have an even higher turn-down rate. He also spoke about putting the client through some tests – a mini reverse pitch, if you like.

4. Approach pitching in thirds

Jon believes in approaching pitches in thirds:

  • Spend the first third on getting to the best idea you can
  • Spend the second third on bringing the idea to life in lots of different channels
  • Spend the final third on the presentation

He told an amusing anecdote about the first point, when, during a pitch, he asked Rich Silverstein if the work on the table was truly the best work possible. Silverstein replied: “Is your wife the best woman you could have married?”

5. Present one idea

Jon’s an advocate of only presenting one idea. I think this can work if the client relationship is great, work has been consistently great (for years), and it’s an expectation managed from the outset. However, it would be a difficlut thing for most agencies to change on the fly with existing clients. It’s definitely a thought that does the rounds every few months in most agencies I’ve worked in. Rarely acted on though, of course!

6. People outside advertising often make the best planners

A lot of the founding planners like Jon talk about deliberately hiring from outside the industry – killer whale trainers, geographers, mathematicians, psychologists. Jon is adamant that of the three types of planners he’s worked with (advertising outsiders, planning converters – eg account managers turned strategists, and experienced planners), the ‘not experienced planners’ make the best planners. A bit of a conundrum for any planning director – do they get to keep their job? <insert smiley emoticon>

7. Research has a role – when done well

It was interesting to hear that Jon believes that research should be done by the planner – not out-sourced. He believes that pre-testing usually leads to even better thinking (and Cannes-winning stuff) – but, again, it should be done by the planner who understands the intent of the thinking, who has seen it in its evolving forms, and that animatics and illustrations should not be researched. He believes planners should read the scripts themselves, and that the best use of quant pre-testing is for rough cuts of campaigns – again, not animatics.

What did you take away?

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. PS Jon, if I’ve misquoted you, let me know.

Mark Pollard (@markpollard) is the Strategy Director at McCann Sydney.

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  • David Bathur

    Neat summary. I thought one of Jon's most interesting points was that planning is about presenting 'possibilities'. If I understood correctly (it was a free bar), our job is to see feasibility as being as attractive as creativity. A simple thought. And useful.

  • Tim Wilson-Brown

    Thanks for capturing this Mark, it was an interesting evening.

    On top of his wonderfully simple description of the role as bringing common sense to the table, Jon made a comment that planning (and marketing in general) is about 'connecting brands to real life'. I think that's particularly something to bear in mind given how insular agency and client environments can be these days.

  • Nathan_manou

    Mark, everything seems to make a little more sense now!

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    These are all very good points. I do wonder why Jon thinks animatics and illustrations should not be researched. I've done this many times and when done well it can save a whole lot of headaches and provide good direction. I'd say if you don't like testing animatics or illustrations, you are doing the research properly.

  • Carolin Dahlman

    I like the idea of bringing in people who are not born and bred in the industry, since it adds spice and fruitful fresh perspectives! But how to get in? Most agencies still wrinkle their noses when they see an unusual cv, and the recruiters wouldn´t touch a person without the traditional background… What is the key for a misfit, a rebel, a round peg in a square hole…? haha