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Planning for the Best: Wrapping Strategies in Creative Outfits with Laurent Ponce

Advertising Agency
London, UK
MullenLowe France's head of strategy shares his love of client meetings, understanding strategic thinking and having the most interesting job in the agency

Laurent Ponce is not exactly a strategic planner, he is head of strategy at an integrated agency. He has a digital and marketing background, so his vision of what the strategy is about is probably quite different from your average advertising guy. Consequently, a lot of the work he has been involved from a strategic standpoint is not 'campaigns' - let alone downloadable ones – but rather comms / marketing platforms including digital work for Nespresso and Audi to name a few. 

That said, check out MullenLowe France’s recent work here

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

Laurent> Words mean different things in different contexts, but I would say that a planner fuels the creatives and put them on an inspiring track, while a strategist's goal is to frame the work at a higher level from a business standpoint. A planner thinks about cultural saliences, customer insights and emerging trends while a strategist thinks about business position and long term goals, and the means to move from the former to the latter – communication towards the general audience being only one of them.

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

Laurent> As an integrated agency covering all aspects of communication – from traditional ad to PR and influence, from brand content to marketing and customer experience – we tend to approach strategy from a broader perspective than just ‘finding the right insight for the right campaign’, including a lot of business strategy thinking. However, it all depends on the brief: sometimes we plan, sometimes we foresee, sometimes inspire, sometimes we just dig deeper…

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?

Laurent> It’s a classic one but still undefeated to me: the 60’s Avis 'We try harder' is one of the boldest strategic move I’ve seen, not only because it was the smartest way to transform a perceived weakness – we are only N°2 – in a customer benefit – we have to deliver better. But also because claiming that being second is actually a strength, and owning it, in a country and culture where anyone who’s not first is a loser was almost subversive thinking. Everlasting props to DDB for this one!

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

Laurent> It can come from lots of places, but most of the time the most useful resource was already there BEFORE we even got the client brief. It may have been something I have read, seen, talked about, experienced, or thought about in the previous days or weeks. Availability bias plays a strong part here. A few years ago, we made one of the biggest YouTube campaigns with Nespresso starring George Clooney and Matt Damon. The idea – a Nespresso cap that can stop time – came from the long hours I had to wait in Nespresso’s Lausanne office in between meetings, and using this time to test any kind of Nespresso’s flavour. These moments were really relaxing pauses during otherwise frantic days, and I just recalled this memory when the brief came in.

Of course, social media platforms are a great tool to detect trends, but I see a strong risk here – finding out what everybody else has already found out, ending up with what I call the typical ‘obvious but boring’ idea.

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

Laurent> First of all, discussing the brief with useful and resourceful people – especially my fantastic team. Exchanging first ‘gut feelings’ is always a fun and inspiring moment. Secondly, talking with the clients. The right ones. Those who are passionate, and articulated about their business – usually, either the founders or hands-on practitioners. Trying to understand the true essence of their company’s purpose through their words. And this is why I absolutely love client meetings. The longer, the better. The more challenging, the better. And when you see in a client’s eye this special light, not only because you understood them pretty well, but because you managed to open new relevant doors to them. Finally, the moment when you take some distance, press pause, have a break and go surfing or whatever activity helps you clear your mind. All of a sudden, when you come back to it, it all becomes crystal clear in your mind. This tactic doesn’t always work, but when it does, the feeling is fantastic!

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

Laurent> I don’t really have a favourite tool because, as the proverb goes, “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. Favourite tools lead to favourite solutions, not new ones – even the ‘kill the status quo’ tool is a status quo in itself and potentially misleading. Sometimes, doing what you’ve done so well before is the answer. But I have a few principles I always apply, one of which is best told through a story: two men are on a train. Man A regularly throws a little white rock through the open window as the train moves. Man B, intrigued, says “Excuse me but…what exactly are you doing?”. Man A : “I’m chasing the dragons away”. Man B: “But… there are no dragons outside…”. Man A : “Yeah, that's proof this works!”. Beware of that confirmation bias; all too often, they will hide the truth from your eyes.

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?

Laurent> First of all, as I believe I have a creative mind wrapped in a strategist bundle, I want to work with strategists wrapped in creative outfits. We need to find common ground. They need to understand the strategic thinking, I need to appreciate the creative potential. And we both need to understand the business issues to solve too. And be able to challenge each other for good reasons, not just because they don’t find the brief inspiring, or because I don’t find their work “on brief”. It’s always a conversation, and a never ending one – finding the balance between what is right, and what is cool. I’d say we are in search of a ‘rightfully cool’ direction, and it’s usually uneasy, far out, complex and evidently simple at the same time. Also, I can’t work with ego tripping people, people who are on their own agenda rather than the client’s business. This can really drive me mad!

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?

Laurent> I don’t think using strategic work to validate an idea is a negative stereotype. Or more precisely, I think these are two stereotyped  ways to describe the same thing. I believe that informing the creative in the right direction is indeed a way to ‘pre-validate’ the upcoming ideas. We give a frame, and a direction at the same time. You can / should go there, not there, and here’s why. Once this playground is defined, then you can play safely. Having the whole team play by these rules is hard work, and takes time and confidence.

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?

Laurent> To me, Covid has not changed anything when it comes to recruiting people. Covid will pass, the way we detect and grow talent will not. The most important thing, the highest ranked quality – rather than ‘skill’ – that I’m looking for is a perfect blend of three personality traits: curiosity, ability to question, and ego-less confidence. Schools and diplomas, previous jobs, publications, LinkedIn recommendations, all of these don’t matter that much to me. I hire people who ask questions. A lot of them. Don’t settle with easy answers. People who challenge me. Who go out and see by themselves, not just through books. And people who ultimately never put their ego in the path of their thinking. 

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?

Laurent> I come from a digital and marketing background, where performance has always been the only way to assess a campaign’s efficiency. This is my training, so I naturally understand the Effies better than Cannes. To me, the most creative campaign in the world is totally pointless if it does not generate any truly quantifiable results. Don’t get me wrong: building a strong brand is perfectly quantifiable and totally OK. But I think this industry needs to clean up its backyard and realise the power of having real results, otherwise clients will put their money elsewhere. Consulting big players got it. Media agencies got it. Social media agencies got it. Digital agencies got it from the get go. I think, in the end, planners will all have to be strategists with deep understanding of business goals and metrics otherwise traditional agencies will fall behind. 

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

Laurent> Not really, this is a great job and probably the most interesting one you can have in an agency, but you have to fight everyday to make it count, and understood. Frustration can come if you want to step in the limelight – you won’t. If you want to be front row, go to the creative side. But if working in the back office to make sense out of the mess sounds cool to you, then give it all you got and you’ll get rewarded. But you also need to find the right players – co-workers and clients. There’s no point in being right alone. In having a great strategy no one listens to.

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

Laurent> Robert Heinlein said it better than I would ever: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

So cultivate your curiosity and your critical thinking. That’s all, and that’s a lot. Get out of your office, the real world is out there. Go talk with people. Don’t tour the world, go to live places. Listen more, talk less. Think a lot, but do things even more – or better yet: do things while thinking about what you’re doing. Try to understand the world you live in, the deep transformations that are always on – and will always be. Think about their implications. Don’t just focus on the ‘young and wealthy urbanites’ just because you are one. You’ve got to dig deep in this ever changing popular culture. On the other hand, read the great books of the past. Read Seneca and Daniel Kahneman. Learn from the master thinkers, they are easy to find. Learn as many languages as you can. Learn to surf, paint, and conduct an orchestra. Keep learning, always - it is so easy nowadays. This will put you in the right mindset for our wonderful job. Just don’t be an insect!