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Planning for the Best: Laura Thomas' Three 'i's of Great Strategy

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Curiosity's VP of strategy on being a good human, finding juicy insights and being an enneagram junkie

Planning for the Best: Laura Thomas' Three 'i's of Great Strategy

Laura’s 25 year career has been hyper-focused on developing rich strategy for brands leveraging a process of trend casting, idea generation and developing brand architecture for clients ranging from non-profits to global billion dollar brands. With a passion for developing research, audience insights and concepts, Laura’s strategies have impacted brands like Dr. Teals, Pantene, Nerf, Pampers, Always, Coleman Camping, Native, Cheez-It, Old Spice, Sherwin Williams, Olay, and Kroger. Laura is publishing her first book, set to be released in 2022 focused on conscious consumerism.


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

Laura> The dual language of both planning and strategy exemplifies the nuances of this dynamic role. At Curiosity we articulate the functions of our departments as strategy owning both the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of our work - creative is our ‘what’ and activation is our ‘how’.

But I see planning as the through line. The planning portion of strategy takes the result of the who, what, why and how and ensures that all of our great thinking reaches the right people, at the right time with the right message.

I consider myself a strategist first, who needs to be a planner in order to get ideas into the real world. That’s how I personally prioritise this industry language. 

 

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

Laura> Strategist. I’m all about finding the really juicy insight and the right consumer problem in order to deliver on a business objective.

 

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?

Laura> Cheetos’  “can't Touch This” with MC Hammer is a favourite of mine. Cheetos was able to find a way to turn a perceived product issue (sticky orange fingers) into something meaningful. The insight is that millennials are overworked and they have to constantly feel like they are living this always on lifestyle. The slow movement and the lying flat trend are both examples of a consumer desire to be more mindful and to just do less. The message of this advertising was that sticky orange fingers are your perfect alibi to opting out for a few minutes.

 

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?

Laura> I use socio-cultural trends everyday. Great strategy is made up of three ‘i’s. The work needs to be interesting, insightful and have an intersection with culture. Studying socio-cultural trends allows me to understand what is plaguing consumers and how we can help solve something in their lives.

 

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

Laura> I love research. Even if I didn’t have this job I would still want to interview people to find out what makes them tick. And not tick. I am an enneagram junkie (If you haven’t looked it up - do so. It’s life changing!). I found the enneagram is one of the best tools to understand both consumer and human motivation. I love hearing real people talk about everything from deodorant to insurance to being a new mom or dad, and the enneagram goes one step further in talking about motivation. Are the consumers looking to escape, have control, support others, bring people together - the motivation is key to unlocking how they value brands.

 

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

Laura> My top four go-to tools:

  • the enneagram for human behaviour
  • our trend practice for socio-cultural movements 
  • ethnographic research studies for empathy
  • social listening tools for both quant and qualitative

 

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?

Laura> I love my creative partners at Curiosity. They push me and my team to be truly thoughtful and always cutting edge in our insights and our brief creation. They are hungry for the best and will absolutely call us out if our brief is lightweight or uninspiring. They demand strong strategy before they begin the creative process.

Long gone are the days where creative lifts up strategy or strategy lifts up creative. We have built strategy and creative to be a unified force, like two parents who are unwavering. I truly respect that we don’t work in isolation or combatively.

 

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?

Laura> To be honest, we have worked really hard to ensure that strategy is leading the creative process. I like to say strategy without creative is theory, and creative without strategy is just beautiful art.

First things first it takes respect. It takes the chief creative to overtly tell his/her team that creative will not go rogue. That has been a Curiosity game changer and I am forever grateful to our CCO Jeff Warman who has set this standard for our creative team. I also always invite Jeff and his team to be brutally honest on the fruitfulness and level of inspiration coming out of our briefs.

For us, it has come down to letting go of the collective ego and building trust among our teams.

It also helps when clients consistently validate your creative as smart and sharp, and recognising it was born from solid strategy. That validation no doubt reinforces the connection between strategy and creative.

 

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?

Laura> It’s really hard to hire strategic talent. We have had a ton of philosophical debate around this at Curiosity. Do you hire young strategists and then train them? Do you hire Effie award winning strategists that might come with ego? I personally look for three things:

  1. Culture:. I look for kind, no drama, funny, interesting people.
  2. Curiosity: I want people who have a zest for insights and knowledge. I want people who are inherently curious about their craft, but are also curious about life, pop culture, travel, trends, cooking, games, literature, history.
  3. Courage: I look for people who want to evolve their craft. This job isn’t khaki coloured. It’s a rainbow of experiences - every single day. I want people to be craftsmen who work at this endeavour we call strategy every day.

Covid has allowed us to tap national and global experts in our freelance pool which is a practice we hope to continue long term.

 

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

Laura> Do a lot of things - have your hand in a million different hobbies, activities and interests.

Field research - get out and do in person research.

Fall in love with socio-cultural trends.

Be a good human - leave your ego assholeness behind.

Make connections in and out of the industry to support your thinking. I feel very strongly about mentorship. Rob Campbell, who has been at W+K and is now CSO at Conso, has taken time out of his busy schedule to mentor me, only because I LinkedIn with him. Put yourself out there - it can’t hurt.

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Curiosity, Mon, 31 Jan 2022 16:07:47 GMT