VMLY&R Italy head of strategy Luigi Accordino ponders the changing nature of the planner as well as what he thinks should be the “lighthouse of strategic thought” with LBB’s Alex Reeves
In the 20 years since he discovered his love for strategy, Luigi Accordino has worked at some of Italy’s most prominent ad agencies, including Publicis and The Big Now! as well as working client side for Italian tyre manufacturer Pirelli. In that time the discipline of brand planning has changed drastically, but there are several universal truths that he’s never strayed from.
LBB’s Alex Reeves had a chat with Luigi, who now presides over VMLY&R Italy’s strategy department, about how two decades of strategic thinking has shaped his outlook on advertising.
LBB> When was the first time you found out what a strategist in an ad agency was and what they did?
Luigi> I can answer to this quite precisely; it was in the middle of October 1999. I could never forget such a revelatory moment!
I was studying for a master’s degree in Marketing & Communication at the wonderful Venice University. At that time I was struggling with myself, trying to understand how to capitalise on my humanities background from high school, my BSc in Business Economics and my lifelong passion for creative writing and storytelling, in just one job within those in the marketing and communications world. I had just started with the master’s and I had no clue. As far as I knew at that moment, I felt like I should have forced myself to choose between becoming a copywriter in an advertising agency or a marketeer in a company, but either way I would be making a compromise.
Then the strategic planning director of a very important advertising agency came from Milan to teach a one-day lesson for my master’s. And in one day he told us everything about brand strategy. The good and the bad, the easy and the hard part: insight catching, briefing, research interpretation, sociology, psychology, concept platforms, cultural studies, dealing with clients, accounts, creatives. Everything I’ve ever liked could be done at the same time, in the same job… I was overwhelmed.
That day I knew what I would have done for the rest of my life.
LBB> What was your first strategic role?
Luigi> After the master’s I was selected as a Junior Strategic Planner in the strategic department of Lowe Lintas Italy. I started in early 2000.
LBB> Back then, what were your main concerns or topics that took up your time as a strategist?
Luigi> Since at that time the way agencies were working was still very much oriented on the impact of creative ideas instead of their relevance, in the beginning.I had to self-discipline about the fundamental distinction between “brand strategy” - that is mainly about identifying the right business and marketing issues to solve through communication - and on the other hand “copy strategy” - that is mainly about identifying compelling entry points and ways to convey a certain message. Italian creatives didn’t give a damn about brand strategies in the early 2000s, they only wanted to listen to creative insight that could lead them to award-winning executions. But my background pushed me to always start from an accurate understanding of the brand and the company in their competitive scenario. And since these beginnings (spitting blood sometimes), I’ve always tried to engage creatives in these kinds of thoughts before sharing with them possible creative starters for their executions.
I know it could sound naïve but I believe that recalling this very basic distinction should be done by every single strategist, no matter their age and years of experience, everyday as a good ABC exercise to keep themselves in a fresh intellectual shape.
LBB> Over the years, have you noticed any shifts in what a strategist’s place in an agency is?
Luigi> I don’t think that the strategist’s place in an agency has ever shifted from one place to another. I would rather say that the combination of (at least) three certain macro-phenomena are allowing strategy to claim its fundamental, central role in the contemporary agency:
1. The sociological evolution of media and touchpoints. Today no message becomes relevant unless you’re able to deliver it “strategically” according to the specific relevant channel for the target. And strategist are leading creatives in the understanding of each channel.
2. The rise of the strategic culture among creative people. 20 years ago, creatives on average were Jurassic in their approach to a brief. To think first in strategic terms was not their automatic approach. Today, creatives are far more strategic and competent with strategy.
3. The economic global crisis that started in 2008 and is still going on. The other side of this very negative worldwide event is that each and every brand, from the biggest to the smallest, is super focused on the effectiveness of their communication projects. In the past there was much more room to go wrong with communication for companies. Today they need to maximise every effort to avoid an immediate negative impact on their business models, which could put them in serious danger.
LBB> What have been the biggest changes in that role since you began, and how have strategists had to adapt their skill sets to keep up?
Luigi> Brand strategists are always brand strategists. The psychological relationship between a brand and a person will always be driven by the same logic and dynamics. We are first of all sociologists and psychologists, and this is not ever going to change.
Then of course we have to study and understand the new media so as not to suggest a 30 seconds commercial on prime-time national TV instead of a video on Facebook, but this is just a part of the never-ending update that every strategist has to make about consumers’ habits, trends, lifestyles and deep motivation.
At the same time in the strategic universe many specialisations have been born over the last 15 years. Digital strategy, channel strategy, social strategy, customer experience strategy, etc. My personal belief is that none of these specialisations can be effective without starting from the brand strategy.
The emotional/psychological nature of the relationship between a person and a brand is and should remain the lighthouse of any other further strategic thought.
LBB> When you are recruiting junior strategists now, what do you look for?
Luigi> The length of university degrees changed in Italy, more or less ten years ago. Now you can take a BA or a BSc degree in three years in our country and then immediately jump into the working environment. When I started leading strategic teams in early 2008 I used to look for a certain level of specialist skills and psychological maturity in juniors, because their age used to be between 26 and even 30! I couldn’t afford to start from scratch leaving them such a lengthy time to grow up and learn, I needed knowledge, character and sense of responsibility.
Today the average age of a junior is between 21 and 24! My criteria are completely different: I accept fewer specific skills and go for the solidity of their general culture and cultural interests. And I make a big effort in trying and see the “adult in the kid”, the cues of a potential confident, smart personality that they can develop in the following years.
Thank God, the other side of the medal is that, being so damn young, they are all digital natives and naturally into new media end new technologies. Therefore, I can also learn something from them instead of just teaching as I used to do in my beginnings as a strategy director.
LBB> Could you give us some examples that demonstrate the way strategy should be carried out in 2019?
Luigi> Again, strategy should be carried out in 2019 as it should have always been. Identifying a problem/opportunity to be faced, and using communication to solve the problem or take the opportunity. Any strategy which allows a brand to be eventually effective in terms of business vitality is a well-executed strategy.
In the recent past, I look at the Old Spice case history as a reference for this. Today there are brands like Burger King, Barbie, Libresse, if I have to mention the first three that come to my mind, that have been able to evolve in a very contemporary way, leveraging on unique and relevant brand purposes, injecting their “higher values” and ideologies into their hero products and being extremely effective with their business models.
At the end of the day, consistency is the key for any effective strategy.
LBB> What strategic disciplines have endured and will always be relevant?
Luigi> Generally speaking, I strongly believe that strategic thinking in itself is imperative before any kind of marketing activity. I couldn’t affirm that some activities are less applied than some others, like for instance digital strategy is the new big thing. I would rather say that brand and marketing strategy are becoming more and more articulated, deeper, more and more precise, thanks to the introduction of new specialisations and technological tools.
But no matter whether it’s a chess game, negotiating another chocolate snack with your four-year-old daughter, boxing against a bigger opponent or relaunching a yoghurt nobody wants to buy anymore, a strategic mindset will always be the key to manage it.
Viva la strategia!