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Planning for the Best: Leaving Space for Chaos with Gwen Lee



The strategist at BBH Singapore with the mantra "you are in advertising, nobody cares about advertising" on the importance of simplifying strategy and not taking herself too seriously

Planning for the Best: Leaving Space for Chaos with Gwen Lee
BBH Singapore strategist Gwen has spent the past four years with the agency working on brand strategy for several key local and global accounts. She started her career in planning at Bates Singapore before moving to Arcade and finally BBH. Over the years, she has worked on a number of brands including Samsung, Genesis, Hyundai, UOB, NTUC FairPrice, Lucozade, OCBC, Clear, and Trivago. Never one to turn down a challenge, her favourite and most important piece of advice given to her is "You are in advertising, nobody cares about advertising."  

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

Gwen> I doubt so, it’s interchangeable to me. If anything, the fact that there’s a discussion about it probably speaks more of our knack for over-analysis.

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

Gwen> I probably use ‘planner’ more out of habit, and the fact that it has one less syllable.

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?

Gwen> When it comes to historic campaigns, the deprivation strategy of the Got Milk? campaign takes the cake I think. For the longest time, the milk industry tried to convince people that ‘milk is good for you’, thinking that health benefits were the key motivating driver of sales. It wasn’t until GS&P had the brilliant idea of paying focus group participants extra money if they could avoid consuming milk for a week, that the team found a deeper, more emotional trigger: The universal frustration of going to the refrigerator and finding that you’re out of milk. Hearing participants recount the horror they felt when they realised that they couldn’t have their morning coffee or cereal was research gold.

It’s probably one of the most powerful demonstrations of insight and of how, when used well, upstream strategic research is indispensable in jettisoning dull, vapid analyses of human motivations at play. And sticking a camera in the refrigerator to film your co-workers’ reactions to the lack of milk just to prove your point? Genius.

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?

Gwen> To avoid drawing on the same references that everyone else is probably looking at, I find that it’s important to look outside of adland, and instead draw from popular culture, trends and other exciting things that exist beyond marketing. At the end of the day, you’d want to tell your team something you genuinely find interesting & relevant that they don’t already know of. Personally, I’ve always found stand-up comedy to be a rich source of fresh observations about human behaviour. The Web Curios newsletter by Matt Muir is also a tremendous resource for all things weird and wonderful.

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

Gwen> Getting out of the office, out of the adland bubble, to spend time observing, talking to real people, and listening in on real conversations. Research reports are too often completely devoid of colour.  Direct contact with people is much more valuable when you're trying to get to something interesting. And as testament to the power of words, sometimes it just takes a turn of phrase to spark magic.

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

Gwen> There is power in grounding strategy in the way advertising works in the real world, instead of operating within a romanticised version of it, so there are three things I always return to:
  • One, no one gives a s*** about advertising.
  • Two, brands grow when they’re easy to think of & easy to buy.
  • And three, the real battle is in reach & penetration
I think it simplifies the implication for strategy: Find opportunities to make the brand / product interesting & memorable, find ways to scale it and sustain it.

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?

Gwen> I enjoy working with creatives who challenge strategic thinking and are interested in finding new ways to solve real problems for clients. More often than not, it leads to better strategies and better work.

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?

Gwen> It’s probably down to respecting the value of strategy on two levels. On a day-to-day level, knowing the value that you as a strategist can bring to the table and pushing to show your team that. And at the agency leadership level, having leaders that put focus on effectiveness makes a big difference as well.

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?

Gwen> It’s a hugely positive thing that more emphasis is being placed on effectiveness. Great work that works is literally the only thing worth striving towards. That said, fundamentally because awards bring with them business and ego implications, it will never be a purely virtuous pursuit. More emphasis also comes with more manipulation, and it would be incredibly cynical, heart-breaking even, if it goes down that route.

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

Gwen> We take ourselves too seriously at times and often don’t leave enough space for chaos.

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

Gwen> Read enough to know your strategy fundamentals, read widely to understand the world.

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BBH Singapore, Mon, 07 Jun 2021 15:53:00 GMT