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Planning for the Best: Jesse Unger

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Jesse Unger, group strategy director at TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, on killer stats, surprising twists and cultural insights

Planning for the Best: Jesse Unger

Jesse Unger specialises in both digital and brand strategy and during her time at Chiat has worked on brands including Peak Games, Intel, Robinhood, Principal, and AT&T TV. She has a true passion for uncovering a brand’s identity and unleashing their values in a modern and meaningful way. She doesn’t play by a marketing rulebook and is always looking for a fresh story and innovative ways to bring them to market.  Prior to moving to Los Angeles, she worked in Chicago and Mexico City across brands like Bayer, Pepsi, Exxon Mobil, and Lay’s. There, she helped build long-term brand strategies, inspire and mobilize creative opportunities and launch a new brand in a foreign market.


LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one? And which description do you think suits the way you work best?

Jesse> It’s frivolous and I almost don’t want to admit it, but I hate being called a planner. To me, labeling us planners doesn’t acknowledge the breadth of the work we’re expected to execute and the depth of knowledge we’re required to have. Strategy today is much more than research and consumer obsession - it’s an applied understanding of business, product, and marketing strategy. We’re the keepers of the big picture, connecting the dots across the client org and putting ‘brand’ (not advertising) at the centre. As agencies fight to prove their worth beyond making ads, we have to have a seat at the client’s table, beyond the marketing department. And more often than not, agencies are turning to strategists to not just speak the language but bring real value and fresh insight to those conversations.


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?

Jesse> I’m going to cheat and mention two. One of my favourite campaigns is Canadian Club: Damn Right Your Dad Drank It. As a strategist, I often reflect on this work – it’s a great reminder that sometimes the problem can also be the opportunity and your biggest misperception might be your biggest strength, if reframed. For the same reason, I also love Avis: We Try Harder. I’m jealous of the brains that realised ‘’there’s an advantage to being #2.”  We’re too quick to re-invent brands, make them trendy, and answer briefs by looking for something new to say vs. a new, meaningful way to reveal what already makes that brand special.


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?

Jesse> I love killer stats, surprising twists and cultural insights as much as the next strategist. But as cliche as it sounds, my most useful resource is my gut. I think of myself as the junior creative team on each brief I write. If I can’t come up with 10 creative ideas that excite me and answer the brief, then how can I expect anyone else to? I’m an immersive strategist - becoming the brand’s biggest fanatic (fun fact: I was my high school mascot, so going all in is my truth), and through that lens I look for fresh ways to answer why people simply cannot live without it. 


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

Jesse> I love finding a brand’s ‘why’ and giving clients the bravery to do something disruptive. Great strategy leads to great work. There’s nothing more fulfilling than building something together with a client who shares your vision and has no problem believing it because the proof is in the strategy. 


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

Jesse> Is it simple? Is there a clear, single thread? Is it differentiated? What’s the real problem and opportunity? My heart definitely leans towards strategic principles more than frameworks. At Chiat, Disruption is both our ethos and methodology to unlock creative strategy and ideas. It forces you to be ruthlessly simple and trains your brain to look at the category and consumer through a unique lens. And if I still find myself unclear in my thoughts, I often come back to the Get/To/By. If I can’t write it in three sentences, then I don’t have the answer. 


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?

Jesse> The most important thing to remember is we’re creative problem solvers, not advertisers. I love working with creatives who aren’t afraid of the messy bits, who don’t need to be shielded from the hard stuff and who don’t always think the answer is a beautiful TV ad. I don’t believe the strategy is done once you’ve briefed. It’s an ongoing process. Creatives should play with the inputs and information and spit it back out with pushes and builds that make the strategy better. 


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?

Jesse> I’ve been lucky enough to work at agencies that foster an environment - from the top down - that believes creatives and strategists are better, together. I have a unique situation in that my creative partner at Chiat is actually my husband. Crazy at times, yes. But I always say it’s a true case study in what happens when the department lines fade away and you both become creative problem solvers who bring a unique perspective to the table. If done right, great strategy leads to work that is both inevitable and surprising.


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?

Jesse> It’s all about finding people who see life a little differently. People who have unique experiences, are passionate about what they do, and most importantly, have a point of view. In strategy, there are always 100 possible answers. It’s our job to believe in one. And when it comes to nurturing that talent, I lean on the thing I’m most grateful my mentors did for me: allowing people to find their style of strategy instead of expecting them to emulate others. 


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?

Jesse> I’m competitive, so I love to win awards. But I don’t believe awards are changing the way we work. Strategists everywhere are working smarter, because we have to. Every category is saturated with competition, people like Ryan Reynolds are out-marketing iconic agencies, and the media landscape is forever changing making it impossible to do the same thing twice. The real change is the outcome; no longer is creative the only reason clients love and value their agencies.


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

Jesse> The biggest frustration for me is drawing that invisible line in the sand between creative and strategy. At the risk of being repetitive, creatives should be strategic and strategists should be creative. 


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

Jesse> I mentor a handful of new graduates, and we always discuss how hard it is to prove you can be a strategist when you haven’t had the experience. My advice is always to make a ‘fake book’ -- whether it’s proactive work or a strategic breakdown of work you love -- it’s a great way to show how you think. But beyond that? Talk to other strategists! As many as you can. A good conversation is sometimes all it takes for someone to think ‘Damn, I love the way this person thinks about the world. I want them on my team.’ 


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TBWA\Chiat\Day LA, Fri, 09 Apr 2021 15:28:00 GMT