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Planning for the Best: Suzy Truong on Embracing the Poetic Side of Strategy

Advertising Agency
Toronto, Canada
Rethink strategist Suzy on immersing into the real world, surprise in strategy and the story of Parmentier the potato

Suzy dedicates her curiosity and passion to grow brands. She has supported several clients in their brand positioning and the development of their communications campaigns: BonLook, Brasseur de Montréal, Saputo, Special Olympics, etc. She is known for her versatility and ability to work in vagueness. For this keen strategist, the unknown is not a barrier, but a motivation to find insights to inspire creative opportunities. 

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

Suzy> Some would say the difference is in the gap between vision and action. In the advertising context, there should be no difference. In an agency, whatever the title, the strategic output is not the end, rather the campaign that lives in the real world. As a strategist, planner, or insight-ninja, it is important to have the humility to remember that - at the risk of not being in the right industry. The best strategy in the world is worth nothing if it doesn’t translate into a compelling creative output/execution. 

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?

Suzy>  One of my classic favourites remains the story of Parmentier, who popularised the potato during the 18th century, which had a bad reputation at the time. Parmentier, convinced that the potato would be ideal to include in people's diets because of its nutritional value, its ease of cultivation and its ability to fight famine, had thus put in place multiple strategies. For example, he had a potato field highly surveyed by guards in order to enhance the public's opinion of the potato and increase its perceived value. 

LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, where do you find the most useful resource to draw on?

Suzy> Getting out into the real world is a great starting point to craft my point of view. If my client is in the used car industry, I'm going to go and pretend to sell my vehicle to get through the process. If my client sells glasses, I will buy some. If my client wants to start a subscription-based coffee service, I will subscribe to other online services to see how it goes. Reading documentation is a good place to start, but there are insights you just can't find through the lines of a report.

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

Suzy> For me, the most exciting portion is definitely the distillation of solid strategic work towards a clear, concise, and most importantly, inspiring approach to creation. Sometimes strategy can seem cumbersome, because this distillation step is omitted, as if we prefer to show the extent of the work versus the result. At Rethink, this step is extremely important: it is the bridge to creatives that has the potential to inspire them.

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

Suzy> That strategy is not an exact science. Of course, you need rigor throughout the process, but you also have to embrace the more poetic, organic and entertaining side that the advertising industry infuses into this discipline. You have to relieve yourself of the pressure to have all the answers, at the risk of coming up with overly contrived answers. Even in strategy, you have to learn to be surprised and surprising. 

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?

Suzy>  I love working with creatives who understand that passion for the creative product is not exclusive to their group alone. At Rethink, this desire for good creative ideas is truly shared by everyone, and that makes all the difference. Insights and strategic recommendations are thus perceived to guide and inspire, and not to filter out ideas. My motivation is to create a strategy that helps bring something into the real world, rather than resting in eternal peace in an online deck graveyard.

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?

Suzy>  At Rethink, we have built an internal culture that fosters this kind of perception, and that undoes the linear sequence of things. The relationship between the strategists and the creatives is like a waltz: the creative brief marks the beginning of the choreography, but the dance must be done in tandem until the end of the song, each listening and bouncing on the gestures of the other. In advertising, it should be the same ... maybe minus the swaying. 

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?

Suzy> At Rethink, we talk about People, Product, Profit, always in that order. Covid or no Covid, we have always put people first, because the rest follows. The context of the pandemic simply reminded us why it was important to see it that way.

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?

Suzy>  Strategists are often those who carry the torch to make the intangible tangible. This type of recognition helps prove that creativity is an investment that delivers business results, rather than an expense. Although not fortune tellers, these awards help strategist reassure customers of the potential return on investment. 

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

Suzy>  Sometimes, we cultivate the belief that being a strategic planner is rather lonely. In some moments of reflection it is, but I think we have to stop over-dramatising this aspect. It’s a lonely profession up to the number of interactions you want to have. If you build trustworthy client relationships, if you go out in the real world and interact with people in search of inspiration, if you develop your briefs and campaigns closely with the creatives and the accounts: soon you will find that you are running out of time by yourself. 

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

Suzy> Don't feel pressured to be the smartest person in the room. Try to be the most helpful.