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Planning for the Best: Staying Interesting and Interested with Alex Roper

Advertising Agency
Melbourne, Australia
CHEP's director of strategy on making exciting choices, clichés as economic communication and a love for the 'boring' categories

As former head of marketing strategy and transformation at Coles, over the past few years Alex Roper has played a critical role in helping define and operationalise its marketing strategy. He helped establish a new unifying idea for the brand, alongside a change program managing a number of marketing technology and marketing agility projects, underpinning Coles strategy.

Before gaining an inside look into the retail business, Alex led multi-disciplined strategy teams at WiTH Collective, M&C Saatchi Sydney and Clemenger BBDO Melbourne. During this time, Alex developed strategy work across CX and innovation, brand and communications. Harnessing Alex’s passion to develop holistic solutions that start with tangible customer problems.

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

Alex> It’s the perspective you must take when you’re doing each. Spoiler alert, I am going to use a few clichés… but I like to think of clichés or analogies as economic communication. Strategy should be done from the highest possible vantage point. It’s the one where you’re really agonising over where to point things for the next five years or so. What trends are worth riding, what ones are worth dumping, how you are going to use those to drive growth and how that impacts what a brand should be to customers. Planning is the close-up stuff. What you’re executing under the nose of the customer so they can’t resist but steering them to do what you want them to. The planner makes progress on the strategy possible. We need more planners because they are what makes the work, work, and they care about exactly how the brand shows up at any given moment for any type of customer. In short, strategy happens at 35,000 feet, planning happens at 10 feet… or something like that.

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

Alex> I like trade-offs. The whole way through the process, that act of making a choice is pretty exciting. Like what trends matter, what customer matters, what idea matters or what parts of the experience matter. It’s hard to resist the buzz you get when you start ignoring the choices that don’t matter and see the path clearing in front you. And you can always see when this has been done well, because somehow the idea naturally works. Not making choices leaves you with lots of tactics. And as San Tzu says, tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat…. told you I dig clichés. Given all that, I suppose that makes me ‘choosy’.

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?

Alex> I tend to love the categories that are boring and the ideas in those categories that captivate culture. Which is why pensions (or superannuation as we call it in Oz) get my vote here. More importantly, Droga5’s campaign for Prudential in 2012 called ‘Day One’ just nails it, from great insight and strategic idea to thoughtful planning, that had it showing up in every conceivable and affordable moment, during the daily routine of the target audience. Rarely has such an allergy-inducing category found its way so brilliantly into culture.

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? 

Alex> Newspaper and blog headlines always spark the recognition of an insight and create some debate with teams. If the Betoota Advocate is writing about it, it means it’s a genuine insight about how people feel about something.

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

Alex> Working out how businesses are trying to sell something to people. Then finding out why people won’t do, or buy, what they want them to. That tension is dynamite for ideas.

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

Alex> So many brands want customers to give a rats about what they have. Which is why I like Jobs-to-be-done (by Clayton Christensen) as it provokes an unconventional answer to the question, ‘what are they really trying to buy’? He used to bang out the saying, ‘People don’t want a quarter-inch drill bit. They want quarter-inch holes.’ Suddenly you find yourself thinking about how to frame a brand, a product, or a category in a new way when you follow his line of thinking or trying to plug an experience gap with an innovation.

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?

Alex> The ones who can excitedly talk about a strategic idea. You know, the idea that creates the opportunity the business needs and the creative opportunity to really grab customers.

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?

Alex> You only win the business or the awards that people notice if the ideas will work. Doing work that works, doesn’t mean ‘be boring' by the way. It’s quite the opposite. However, there’s little long-term success for anyone involved when it comes to scamming, retrofitting or post-rationalising. Reminding everyone it’s just a sugar hit with regret on the other side usually works (more analogy bingo).

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?

Alex> Being a strategy person used to mean bringing the outside world to the business you work on, or to the creatives who work on it. But that’s been hard to do when you can’t go outside and get a visceral experience that puts you out of your comfort zone. So, you have to focus on nurturing curiosity in new thinkers and teaching them how to keep that alive. The best way to do that for me, has been to push them into meetings, conversations, or courses that they are openly uncomfortable with. It’s the only way growth happens and in turn, the only way talent will feel genuinely nurtured.

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?

Alex> It’s meant that strategists who care about objectives and results, have been credited with having the secret sauce (more clichés). In reality they’re just getting a fighting chance to apply what they probably learnt in uni or another notable marketing and communications strategy course. Clients dig them for that too because they’re now recognised for being able to support them to sell the wares of marketing and communications, and ideas back into the business.

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

Alex> My one frustration is that the ‘discipline’ has found a way to disadvantage itself by creating factions (or specialisms) that compete on ideals about methods, rather than seeing every new perspective as another way to make an ever more complex world of channels, competitors, ideas and experiences, blindingly simple to use, to make a solution a good as it can be. 

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

Alex> Stay interested and interesting, by doing something outside of marketing and communications. It’s anabolic steroids for strategists (another crappy analogy). Bingo you won.

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