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Planning for the Best: Vicki Holgate

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MullenLowe Group's executive strategy director on the difference between a strategist and a planner, her work on This Girl Can and the importance of curiosity

Planning for the Best: Vicki Holgate

MullenLowe Group's Vicki Holgate spent her formative planning years at BMP DDB. She was chief strategy officer at FCB Inferno before moving client side to Diageo as effective creative excellence director, where she spearheaded their haul of 4 IPA Effectiveness Awards and 3 Special Prizes. Vicki is the current chair of the APG and sits on the IPA’s talent leadership group. She has 13 Cannes Lions to her name (across This Girl Can, UEFA and Lurpak). She has personally won 5 IPA Effectiveness Awards, a Gold Effie and the APG Creative Planning Awards Grand Prix ….not once but twice! Vicki has worked on lots of Government business over the years including Apprenticeships, Teacher Recruitment, This Girl Can, Knife Crime, Seasonal Flu & the Swine Flu Pandemic - few people understand better how to drive behaviour change.


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

Vicki> There’s no difference! ‘Planner’ is the traditional term, but personally I like ‘strategist’ better. When I was running a department, I made sure everyone had the word strategist in their title because the dictionary definition is closer to what we do every day and it sounds smarter! But I’m also chair of the account planning group, “the home for planners and strategists”, so I use both!

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?

Vicki> The British Airways ‘Don’t Fly. Support Team GB.’ campaign for the Olympics is a fabulous example of bold strategic thinking.  It turned what could have been a sponsorship badging exercise into one that established BA as the most patriotic sponsor and drove sales.  What was so smart about the strategic solution was the understanding that true patriotism sometimes means making a sacrifice for your country. So, BA initially asked people not to fly so they could stay here and give our athletes a #HomeAdvantage.  Willie Walsh, IAG CEO, acknowledged the boldness of the idea with “This is the sort of idea that, if it doesn’t work, heads will roll.” It was followed by a planned sale straight after the Olympics and overall revenues went up 4% vs 2011. Brave strategy. Enlightened CMO. I love it.


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?

Vicki> Talking to people. I’m a massive fan of qualitative research in whatever form that takes – groups, depths, casual conversations.  Ideally, visiting people in their homes (Covid permitting) or asking them to take some photos to bring their world to life. Talking to people gives you their hopes, desires, concerns, dislikes, phraseology and a jolt back down to earth if your ideas have become too ‘up their own ****’!


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

Vicki> Making connections. James Webb Young says in A Technique for Producing Ideas, “An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”  And it is deeply satisfying when all the reading & researching & analysis comes together in a moment of clarity. JW Young’s book was written for creatives but applies equally for strategic development. It’s short and contains a great recipe for new thinking.


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

Vicki> Any of the models developed by the Government Communication Service e.g. COM-B, EAST, Evaluation Framework, etc. They are simple, smart and easy to apply. I’ve found the Evaluation Framework incredibly useful throughout the strategic process for both the setting of KPIs and ultimately proving the success of a campaign. It puts structure around measurement. And it’s easy to adapt to use for commercial clients too.


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?

Vicki> I love working with empathetic creatives – creatives that can feel what the audience feels. This is when you get some of the most exciting work that allows their creativity, ingenuity and craft to connect with the people you want to reach.  Some creatives I’ve worked with who have been great exponents of this are Simon Cenamor & Ray Chan on This Girl Can, Jane Briers & Dave Commell on NHS Covid-19 App launch and Tom Hudson on the Covid-19 Vaccination campaign.


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?

Vicki> I think it’s dangerous to limit strategic thinking to any single point in time. Strategy is vital at the beginning to set everyone off in the right direction. It is the launchpad of creativity.  And it needs to be bang on. If you are 1% off, the creative will be wildly off. But strategy also has a role to play in explaining why a brave idea will work and helping clients see this brave work as a risk well worth them taking - a highly calculated risk. The strategist’s job is putting the ‘highly calculated’ in the risk.  Strategy is critical throughout the creative process & working as a close-knit team with account management and creatives throughout is key to getting to the best answers.  

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?

Vicki> The most important quality to look for in new strategic talent is ‘curiosity’. There is so much you can teach people, but an innate sense of curiosity is what will drive them onwards and upwards. It’s the magic ingredient in the psyche of great future strategists.   

Where Covid has had its biggest impact is in helping everyone in the industry understand each other a bit better. We’ve had a window on each other’s lives, interests and issues.  Despite our separation & reliance on technology this last year, I think the industry has become a bit more human. And it is an opportunity to understand our teams better and what support they really need in order to excel. Long may that last.

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?

Vicki> MullenLowe puts huge emphasis on effectiveness awards & is the current IPA Effectiveness Network of the Year. Being actively engaged in the effectiveness of campaigns helps lift conversations with clients out of the day-to-day and onto a higher level. Proving effectiveness falls squarely on the shoulders of strategists and it takes a lot of work to do it properly. Having worked ‘client side’ for a while at Diageo, it is clear that strategists willing and able to prove the value of the creative work significantly strengthen the relationship and respect between client and agency.  


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

Vicki> There is always a beautifully simple logic at the heart of the best strategies. However, I’m not sure it is always fully appreciated just how much work has to happen in the background in order to get to that beautifully simple answer!  


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

Vicki> Be curious. Be clear. Be concise.

And read ‘How not to plan – 66 ways to screw it up’ by Les Binet & Sarah Carter.  It will accelerate your strategic knowledge by 10 years in one book.

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MullenLowe Group UK, Fri, 14 May 2021 10:59:00 GMT