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Planning for the Best: Finding Organic Pathways with Christine Milan and Deborah Marino

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Publicis Luxe's co-heads of planning on helping ideas come alive, identifying the real question and the joy when an idea finally clicks

Planning for the Best: Finding Organic Pathways with Christine Milan and Deborah Marino

Deborah Marino and Christine Milan are co-heads of planning and deputy general managers at Publicis Luxe.  

Spanish by birth, shaped by French culture, and a strategist by nature, Deborah Marino believes in the association between strategic positioning and cultural commitments and has applied that to international clients such as Cartier, Audemars-Piguet, Mugler, Biotherm, Helena Rubinstein and the Manufacture de Sèvres. Prior to Publicis Luxe, Deborah spent 15 years working on strategic planning and entrepreneurship at agencies such as Ogilvy, BBDO, and Raazorfish. Fascinated by the invisible patterns that drive behaviours and generate powerful insights, she has widened her research with her students from the Celsa (Sorbonne Paris IV), Sciences Po Paris and Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, as an associate professor in Semiotics, Psycho-Sociology, Digital Culture, and Strategy. 

French-Scottish and, in her own words, mediocre at cèilidh dances, Christine Milan believes in structure as much as she does creativity. After a decade of expertise in beauty, cosmetics, and, more broadly, the luxury sector, she believes in thinking big and small, from brand positioning to the ecom box, from service design to product page UI. Beyond beauty, she’s a firm advocate of applying courage, culture, and kindness when it comes to business, and believes that, today, “desirable” and “durable” are two ideas that should be codependent.  

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

CM: I never understood what we were supposed to plan – the future? A strategist, yes perhaps, but there are so many types and styles of strategy in our field. Their only common root is that they stem from an intimate understanding of culture – where it is and where it’s going - and people – psychology and behaviour. 

DM: The word I like the most in the sentence? Perhaps “difference”. Whatever the name of the job, there are so many of us who deal with strategy – as consultants, creatives, managers, planners, innovators, UX… The challenge is to find your difference, what gives you a voice, an alternative point of view.

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

CM: I’m there to make ideas exist – help them get born, then they get made.

DM: Christine is right, we are such midwives! She is totally the catalyst, I’m more the analyst, trying to find the invisible strings that hold things together. 

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?

DM: Ok, let’s get historic – the campaign that made me fall for advertising, choosing it over academics, was “Litany” from The Independent. A personal strategic and creative shock, the moment when I discovered that advertising was more than just selling things and changing things. It could also be a perfect mix between guts and brains, punk poetry, and raw images. It also brought to my attention the phenomenon of propaganda as well – the evil side of efficient communication and the ethical line.

CM: I’m convinced you can’t separate creativity and strategy – and so I never judge them separately. I would say Under Armour’s “It’s what you do in the dark” for the emotional impact of its insight, cult French brand Orangina’s “Secouez-moi” saga for its impact on product perception (=made with natural orange juice pulp), and the “Just do It” campaign that became Nike’s purpose, for its simplicity and strength that positioned the brand for decades (=everyone is a potential athlete).

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?

CM: Everywhere – culture and observation. Everywhere except benchmarks.

DM: Same here, my mother and my daughter are of great help – as ambassadors of the real world. But as the librarian type, I believe in the power of words to get inspired. As said Wittgenstein “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”.

LBB> What part of your job/the strategic process do you enjoy the most?

DM: That moment it clicks – how thrilled you get over an idea.

CM:  Ideas and building the path to selling them.

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?

DM: The curious ones, those who agree to share the creative process with you, by working in iteration. They generally improve the strategy while working on their creative canvas.

CM: I love conceptual creatives as much as I love those who come up with striking, never-seen-before references. Most of all, I enjoy those who like making connections, building bridges between things that may seem unrelated at first.

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?

CM: I think there’s nothing wrong in post-rationalising a great idea to help sell it. Sometimes intuition is best, and our job is to find how to explain why it’s the right path. I dislike the traditional waterfall from client brief to strat brief to creative idea. Things are and should be more organic. The only important thing is to frame the initial question right and set some boundaries / a creative frame to play inside. 

DM: Couldn’t agree more, half of a strategist’s duty is to identify the real question – after that, who knows where the good idea is going to come from. Strategy is not an authority; it is the modesty to identify the right idea wherever it lies. 

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?

CM: To be honest I find that to be the hardest part of our job – again because strategy is now so many different things - the temptation can be to try to find a “one-man band”, we’re now trying to bring together people with more specific and different backgrounds – in business consulting, anthropology, visual arts. 

Similarly, I used to think dealing with an all-things strategy for a single client, meaning managing positioning to campaigns to omnichannel experience, was an incredibly rich way to grow your experience as a strategist. But today, honestly, I think variety and teamwork are more important, at least in the first few years.

DM: I would add one thing: you need to know why you’re there. Covid has accelerated the hygienic process of questioning our role in society as strategists – game changers, desire igniters, sellers, liars, growth drivers…? It has accelerated the phenomenon of moral burnout as well. We need to recruit those who are dreamers and makers, with a solid sense of ethics, lucid about their reasons to work for the industry and willing to be the change they want to see (cheesy but necessary).

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?

CM: For me effectiveness should always be measured in short term business objectives as well a longer-term brand perception. A strategist should work with these two goals in mind.

DM: We’ve always been respected and invisible, like the bassist of a rock band (Colin Greenwood, love you). We’re not going to change the score because we’re a bit more into the light.

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

CM: Yes, I’m convinced that strategists should have a partner role in building a brand’s offer – not just communicating it. Marketing more than comms.

DM: And on my side, as a teacher, I would love to see all our tools & means shared with children and teens, as a piece of common knowledge: rhetoric, psychology, basics of marketing… For a good book, you need a good reader – if we want to make great campaigns, we need to get back the free will, impertinence, intelligence, and culture of our audiences.

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

CM: It’s the best job in the world, if you have obsessive curiosity, an analytical mind and love ideas.

DM: Read more, talk more, dance more, eat great food, go to bed late and trust the disorder of your interests to become the beginning of a good idea. 

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Publicis Luxe, Wed, 09 Feb 2022 10:42:04 GMT