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If I knew then what I know now ... I'd have integrated strategy much sooner

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In this occasional series, Ad Age asked small agency chiefs what they would do differently if starting their shops today.

Planet Propaganda was founded in 1989. Early on, we were basically a bunch of kids making stuff up as we went along. My two partners and I were from the creative side and, back then, so was the staff. Some of us had a few years' experience prior to Planet, but most of us came straight from school.

Combine creative leanings with youthful energy and this is what you get: 1.) Coffee in the morning 2.) Beer at night 3.) John Spencer Blues Explosion throughout 4.) Go! Go! Go!

Our work process was pretty much the opening scene of "Baby Driver." But as frenetic as it was, good things usually came of it. Eventually. Of course that was the problem: we spent ungodly amounts of time (and life energy) generating concepts. We just kept firing creative in every direction until the deadline arrived, because that's what we knew. It's what we were comfortable with. Once we had 17,000 or so concepts, we'd narrow them down to three or four. And then (then!) we'd get around to identifying exactly what made each option work. In other words, we'd finally nail down the campaign strategy the night before the presentation because we needed it to set up the real star of the show: The Creative. Yeah. I know.

Back then, we called our approach to strategy "baking it in." Today I'd call it half-baked at best. But again, creative is what drove us. The rest was sprinkles.

Our strategic wherewithal has evolved quite a lot since then. First gradually, and then suddenly, thanks to a few wake-up calls.


One came from an insightful client. After unveiling four concepts for a digital campaign, the client asked us which direction we preferred creatively. We pointed. "Me too," he said, "However, I prefer that one strategically. How about you come back once the strategy is figured out?"

About that same time, we had two different clients (that we adored) turn to outside brand strategy consultants for help with their business. We were invited to all the meetings, but while we partnered with the marketing department, they were working directly with the C-level. Inevitably strategy flows into creative and we ended up losing them both.

From there, we got really serious about strategy, really fast. Today, every new client relationship starts with some version of our Simplify X Amplify process. (Yep, Simplify = Strategy.) It's become a core competency of our business and a springboard for the best creative we've ever done.

If I've got any wisdom to share here, it's not that creatives should embrace strategy sooner – that just happens to be our version of it. My advice would be for Type X people to embrace Type Y thinking sooner. It's usually the quickest way to get better at what you do.

John Besmer is Partner and CMO at Planet Propaganda

Want to hear more advice about how your small agency can not just survive but thrive? Be sure to sign up for our Small Agency Conference July 17 and 18 in Marina del Rey, California. Tickets and information are available here.

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