I got an email from someone asking for some advice the other day, wanting a viewpoint on how to be a really useful planner in a small place, without all the data and information resources you might be used to at a big leviathan agency network, the time or budget for primary research ...and being able to add something to a department where there are already some great intuitive brains.
Two points here. First, I'm always amazed when someone asks for advice, as if I know what I'm talking about, but more pertinently, people do actually read this silly blog and take some of the things said here with a measure of seriousness. That's a responsibility that should be treated with respect.
Secondly, I like trying to give out useful advice. Not because I have delusions of grandeur I hasten to add, but because sharing some useful (?) tips forces you to think about you own working habits and how realistically you live up to what you're advising. It's rare you're completely whiter and white and it's a useful reminder to never get lazy or cut corners. There's no way you can avoid doing the work.
It struck me I might actually have some stuff of use, not if you're a fancy pants hotshot who's worked in big hubs like London or New York, for big fancy pants agencies, however, if you're finding your feet, trying to learn without any great mentoring, or trying to do your job in a placed not that used to planning and it's value, well, I really don't mind helping out. Seriously.
Anyway, this is what I wrote (edited for confidentility and general public consumption).
It’s a bugger when you don’t have the tools. I used to love TGI and struggled for a bit without it, until I realized that all it did, and this goes for most quant in my view, nothing more than validate what I already knew.
Now, how can you do stuff already great 'intuitive' planners don't do already without that kind of stuff?
My first point is about intuition, using your guts. Your guts have shit for brains because you will base everything on your own experiences. We all do. We’re all biased. There is a way around this, which will make you better than them though.
Do thought experiments, find a point of connection between your own experience and something you know about your audience’s experience. For example, if you want to know how to sell running shoes to men who fetishise them as pieces of design (that’s most of us) you can relate it to how a woman thinks about shoes. I did some work on women’s hair straighteners and didn’t get under the skin of how women felt about how it transformed their looks until I remembered what it was like to wear my first decent suit...helped me anyway.
You can do that sitting at your desk and, if you work hard at thinking about genuinely similar experiences you won’t go far wrong because we all behave the same - you just need to find that connective experience in the first place.
On the same note, become specialist in something they’re not….I suggest become the in house behavioural economics and social anthropoligist expert – read Dan Ariely, read Thaler Sunstein’s Nudge, read Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, read Grant McCrackens books and everything you can on ‘choice architecture’. These are universals on how people behave and can be applied to anything. It's not new, but not enough are using proper behavioural psychology well.
Now for trend suppliers. They are a waste of money. You can find trends just by reading a newspaper – spend more time absorbing as much popular culture as you can, what are the patterns? What do they mean? What could they mean? Look at the culture around the category, the conventions etc – how does that conflict or not capture the relevance of what’s going on in their real lives? Collect a scrapbook of interesting stuff that might be relevant now, but more likely will be relevant for something you’re not doing yet.
Have a read of Douglas Holt’s two books on cultural strategy – especially the second. There’s a way of going about things, a process that’s great, unique and delivers proper commercial results. Have a go at that process.
Finally, be truly great at qual. I don’t mean focus groups and depths etc. I mean going out and meeting your audience in their own environment. There’s so much that’s wrong with groups – group think, people not being able to articulate how they feel etc they are not that reliable. Get confident and talk to people at ‘the scene of the crime’. Just observing how they behave, the atmosphere etc is more useful than groups. I understood more about the role of biscuits in a UK mum’s life when I attended one of my mother in law’s coffee mornings than masses of available data. I got under the skin of men and their motorbikes by spending a morning at two motorbike retailers and talking to a few staff and customers (they see themselves as the last wolves in world of sheep if you’re interested). This kind of research is quick, cheap and more useful than more formal ‘primary’ research.
Finally, read all the academic, pop cultural books you can around the category, and wierder stuff around that, you’ll quickly get to the stuff that’s really driving it. I got some good stuff for a UK frozen burger brand through an quick look at the category conventions – on a product level, it was all about health, on a brand level, it was all about making Mum’s feel guilty about not playing with their kids enough…but we remembered that our own experiences of burgers as kids was as the food our Mum’s gave us when we had our friend’s around – fuel for good old fashioned playing. This was getting us somewhere, but it was only when I read a relativeley heavy weight book on parenting and the state of kids in the UK that we found one of the biggest issues for a UK Mum these days - culture forces her overprotect her little darlings, which is actually harming kids happiness by stopping making the firm friendships kids need, that only come when parents leave them alone to play together. On a product level, the burgers were something you could leave kids to eat without worry – all kids love burgers, on a brand level, we encourage them to lighten up, get some ‘me time’ and let their kids play without interferance , which flew in the face of the category culture that, to be honest makes them feel guilty and bad and has the same kind of cultural codes - the have it all Mum and the close knit middle class family. Kids need to be left alone to make proper friends, let them.
Hope this helps
Take care and good luck