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Planning for the Best: Adrian Tso

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The DDB Group Hong Kong group strategy director on learning to let things go, being a pain in the ass and holding on to your own naivete

Planning for the Best: Adrian Tso

Adrian joined DDB in 2015, and has since led strategic thinking on both local and regional business. He initially started in the role of Senior Planner and was promoted to lead the planning team in 2019.

Adrian’s background saw him largely focus on finance and real estate industries, specialising in corporate branding and communications. He developed brand strategies at Brand Union for Prudential, Prudential Financial, Swire Properties, Henderson Land and Grosvenor. He also spent time at start-up Nanoleaf, helping them launch their brand.

Since joining DDB his account experience is now wide-ranging and all-encompassing, including Hang Seng Bank, FWD Insurance, Samsung, A2 Milk Company, Hagar International, and McDonald’s, to name a few.

Adrian drives strategy in advertising through a rare combination of long term, big picture thinking and an astute insight into both commercial implications and human behaviour. As a result of this approach, in collaboration with creative partners, he has produced multiple award-winning campaigns. Adrian has also judged both creative and effectiveness awards such as Ad Stars and the APAC Effie Awards.

Born and bred in Hong Kong, Adrian was educated in the U.S. with a BA in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. His interests are eclectic and diverse, ranging from mixed martial arts to crypto-currencies, and from gaming to behaviour economics.

LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one? 

Adrian> As far as industry vernacular is concerned, they are interchangeable. Personally, I do see a distinction, however, regardless of the title we carry, I would say that the industry, especially in mature markets, would expect both skillsets. 

Perhaps I am splitting hairs here, I have always understood planning as identifying the route to get from point A and point B, whereas strategy defines what point A is and where point B should be. A planner adds value by mapping out the directions, funnels, and vehicles to help realise a client brief. A strategist adds value by questioning and enhancing the client brief to achieve client objectives with greater efficiency and effectiveness. 

Without a plan, a strategy won’t see the light of day; and without strategic thinking, a planner’s role can be quite limited. Obviously, this also comes down to what the client is looking for. If the client is just looking for an agency to execute their brief without question, having a planner in the mix would absolutely make sense. However, if the client is looking to consult with a partner, then a planner capable of strategy would be required. 

LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Adrian> I would like to think that I am whatever the situation calls for. Coming from a brand strategy background, I personally enjoy working with the bigger picture more. But as I continue to grow into my role, I have come to value and respect the challenges and necessity of both skillsets. At the end of the day, clients pay us for a point of view to help make decisions easier. So, call it campaign planning, digital strategy, brand consulting, management consulting, or investment strategy, it’s all the same at heart. Society just values some above others (and for good reason, no bitterness or hard feelings here). 

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?

Adrian> This is a difficult question to answer. The output of work we tend to see is the result of much collaboration and discourse, both from within the agency and with clients. Strategy is part of the process that facilitates that output, but there is no telling how the original strategy has been improved, diluted, enhanced, or distorted. We can always reverse engineer a coherent strategy that leads to the work, but the stories behind the scenes are seldom neat and clean. 

But personal biases notwithstanding, as far as work that I really appreciated, I would include the ‘God made a Farmer’ Superbowl campaign for Dodge Ram in 2013. 

While the connection between the blue-collar demographic and pickup trucks is not a surprising one, the insight that there is a blue-collar attitude that transcends socioeconomic classes in America, and that there is a reverence for this attitude that is deeply seeded within the minds of a much larger cohort, really struck a chord with me. Looking back, truck brands had always spoken to what they did as opposed to whom they were for. The Dodge Ram campaign celebrated the ‘farmer’ in us all, winning the hearts of their audience when everyone else was still trying to convince their minds. 

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?

Adrian> I’m a bit of a pain in the ass. In the sense where my process revolves around questioning assumptions, predispositions, and conventions. They say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I’m the guy who can’t leave well enough alone. Sometimes it leads me nowhere, sometimes it leads me to something I can get excited about. And to me, it’s necessary; because if I can’t get excited about an idea, how can I expect others to get excited about it? It sounds silly, but I’m not going to be able get someone to try my Kool-Aid unless I drink it myself. 

I see strategy and planning as 50% of what I do. Selling the idea and direction is the other 50%. Fortunately for me, I enjoy both aspects of my work. Finding a solution that fulfils all requirements while working within all parameters of a brief is quite satisfying. It’s a bit like watching a good heist film, where only at the end do all the dots connect, all in an instance. However, taking someone else on the journey, and having them see what you see, connect the dots you connect, that is just as satisfying, if not more so. I would imagine that’s kind of like directing said heist film. 

LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful? 

Adrian> Every client problem is different and requires a different approach. However, regardless of the means, as a personal mission, I tend to find the most joy in identifying solutions that are simultaneously counter-intuitive and logically irrefutable. These solutions tend to challenge our most fundamental assumptions. It’s also when I feel I offer the most value.  

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?

Adrian> I would like to think that I enjoy working with most people. I think creatives who have an inquisitive nature, and an open mind are more fun to work with, though I imagine that basically comes with the territory of being a creative. I subscribe to the philosophy of a marketplace of ideas; in the sense that through the competition of divergent ideas can greater truth be achieved. A prerequisite of such is a sensible opposition. And as such, I appreciate and welcome challenges that my creative partners pose.

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?

Adrian> It is true that there are some who use strategy to validate creative ideas. However, there are also those who use strategy to guide the creative direction. It’s a matter of agency culture and process. Simply put - what comes first. And sure, one can argue that much of this is shaped by client expectations. There are clients who budget time for strategic alignment before diving into creative, which fundamentally dictates the agency process. Conversely, there are also clients who require quick turnaround timelines, which leaves little room for proper strategy to precede creative work. For agencies that believe in the value of strategy, discipline is often required to keep it as a part of the process. And sometimes, standing your ground means standing your ground, regardless the cost. Some agencies can afford to, some can’t. But the irony in it all is that while the client holds the meal ticket that puts food on our tables, it is ultimately the standards that agencies hold themselves to that shape client expectations and the marketplace at large. We are accountable for the work and processes that we put out there. At the end of the day, you can’t buy what is not for sale. 

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?

Adrian> There isn’t much to this job that can’t be learned. However, there is also much to this job that can’t really be taught. Sure, there are processes and frameworks that we can all pass around, but unlike school, there is no ‘ideal’ solution to most challenges in a live work environment. So what I look for, and try to develop in myself as well as in junior talent whom I work with, is a discipline towards relentless refinement – refinement of our ideas, arguments, points of view, world views, and more. And a lot of it really comes down to being observant and inquisitive, picking things up and drawing connections with each new project, task, or encounter; and these qualities are immune to the conditions that Covid introduces.

At the end of the day, a strategist’s / planner’s / consultant’s product is a point of view - an informed point of view that is supported by research, insight, and creative thought. And the kicker is, there is no right or wrong to a point of view. There is shit, good enough, and better. Most people can arrive at a justifiable point of view easily enough. But I find that not enough people spend the time to arrive at a defendable point of view. The difference lies in identifying and reducing the reasons to why an idea won’t work, as opposed to simply identifying why it could work. 

With the way school and testing develop our young, the system rewards right answers and supporting arguments. And while this is a solid process in cultivating analytical thinking, it inadvertently stops students from challenging ‘good enough’ responses. So, while this system of learning and thinking plays a crucial role in the youth’s development, I see my job as helping them unlearn some of these habits. 

If you ask me, the strategist’s best friend is the question ‘so fucking what?’ 

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?

Adrian> The competition and judging standards are definitely pushing strategists to think more broadly about each project, if they don’t already do so. The business component, regardless of whether it’s on the brief, is getting the attention that it deserves. This should also help illustrate the value of proper strategy and planning to clients who don’t already see it. However, it also comes with risks. As strategy and planning culture is still maturing in a lot of markets, both from an agency development perspective, as well as a client expectations standpoint, effectiveness awards that have yet to develop a stringent judging process or criteria, may mould a culture that is meant to still be taking shape. But considering the necessity of growing pains in all things, I’d take that risk.  

LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?

Adrian> If we consider the overall timeline of the industry, planning/strategy is still a relatively ‘young and maturing’ role. This, with the addition of the fast-changing landscape of technology, media, and consumer behaviour, there hasn’t really been enough time to establish a clear universal standard for quality of work or thinking, nor has there been a strong academia established to support it in most maturing markets. 

The frustration that this leads to is an overall inconsistency in client expectations, especially for smaller or less developed markets. Their understanding of what is on offer, the value of it, the investment it requires, its applications, etc. is all limited to their previous exposure. On a good day, you get to work with someone who has worked with the best, and therefore challenges you and holds you to higher standards. On a bad day, you see your efforts go down the drain, because they were once sold tactics as strategy. But like I said before, 50% of the job is the work, and the other 50% is the ability to sell. It may be painful at times, but we hold our fates in our own hands when it comes to initiating the uninitiated and shaping the market. 

LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?

Adrian> Learn to love your own work

Modesty, as I am sure we have all been taught growing up, is a virtue. But when it comes to this business and your work, you have to learn to love your own work before you can expect others to. And it’s not going to be easy. It’s counter-intuitive. There is a sense of security that comes with self-deprecation, and we are extremely good at poking fun at our faults. But to be able to stare at your own work in admiration, to be somewhat content with what you have done, is not something that comes naturally for everyone; but for our line of work, it is necessary. 

Learn to let go

While loving your own work is a start, there is no guarantee that the rest of the world will feel the same. So sometimes, as hard as it may be, you’re going to need to let it go. Yes, your idea, your brief, your baby - if you can compartmentalise your thinking, stick it in a drawer somewhere for future use. But if you can’t, kill it. Bury it. Set it ablaze, or send it adrift. Do what you have to do to rid your mind of what isn’t going to sell or work right this moment, so that you can free your creativity up to develop something else. In the business of creativity, the path to success is paved on the decaying corpses of dead ideas. 

Develop thick skin

Passion is good. Passion sells. But when you put yourself out there and lay your heart out on the line, know that passion doesn’t guarantee success. And rejection, reasonable or not, is a viable outcome of any proposal. And this can, and will, happen again and again and again. To survive this business, you have to develop thick skin. Just as you learn to let your babies go, you have to learn to move on from rejection with no loss of enthusiasm. Because screw’em if they can’t appreciate your brilliance.  

Develop a hero complex

Calling it a hero complex may be a bit of a hyperbole; but understand that if and when you carry the title ‘Strategist’, to clients and co-workers alike, there will ever so often be moments, where in the eleventh hour, you will have to shoulder the perception of being a warlock who can summon a solution out of thin air. Learn to embrace it. Develop a demeaner of confident preparedness that will keep the troops calm when shit hits the fan. Take on the responsibility and accountability of leadership - close your eyes, cast your spell, and pull something out of your ass. You will be fine. 

Hold on to your naivete

Not of a lot of people join the industry for the money or the fame. Some do, and if you are one of them, all the power to you. But for the rest of us, for some of us, there is a naivete that genuinely believes in the power of an idea. How spoken words and stories can influence behaviour and shift culture; how the commercial success of a business, can also be a force for good through a brand. And in a business of self-indulgence, dead ideas, rejections, and eleventh-hour magic shows, hold on to that naivete. Because while not every idea of yours will influence behaviour or shift culture, some will. And when they do, all the rest of the bullshit would have been worth it. 

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DDB Asia, Mon, 16 Aug 2021 08:03:41 GMT