CRC 2017: Leaving the zoo to understand the tiger

The report card's top planners talk about how they arrived at winning insights and why their jobs follow them home.

This article appears in the March/April 2017 issue of strategy.

If you’ve ever been in line at Starbucks, waiting for an almond milk latte that you feel is taking far too long (you’ve already swiped left on a dozen potential matches and ordered 300 Nespresso pods, which would surely have been ready to drink by now), there’s a chance that Brent Nelsen has been observing you, diagnosing your impatience.

The SVP and director of strategic planning at Leo Burnett, and the CRC’s top planner, calls himself a “legal voyeur,” studying real-life subjects and sometimes gently interrogating them.

The behaviour is not uncommon in the profession. Cossette chief strategy officer Jason Chaney takes junior strategists to Balzac’s with a similar anthropological intent. Juniper Park\TBWA’s Joshua

Hansen can be found at car dealerships, lurking and inquiring about decisions and indecisions.

We talked to the CRC’s top planners about the research behind their winning work, and why their jobs follow them out of the office.

0V6A0171-Edit#1 Brent Nelsen, SVP and director of strategic planning, Leo Burnett

Top campaigns: Raising the Roof – “Coming Soon”; Ontario Women’s Directorate – “#WhoWillYouHelp”; Amazon – “The Magic of Echo”; Ikea – “The Great Indoors”

Using an example from one of your winning campaigns this year, tell me the story of how you arrived at the insight.

I’ll give it to you in a quote: ‘If you want to understand a tiger, you have to leave the zoo.’ What we do well is ‘dirty research.’ Rather than ask people into a focus group room, feed them warm sandwiches and bad soft drinks … [we] go out and simply interact with people.

As an example, on the Kellogg’s Special K work, in trying to understand where to take that brand from what was essentially a heritage of low-calorie and diet food to something different, given the context of how dieting had shifted, we sat down with peer-recruited groups – girlfriends of girlfriends from the agency – over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. We had a very emotional heart-to-heart – an elucidating conversation for me as the opposite gender – [covering] issues about body, issues about self-image, issues about what is skinny and not skinny, what is healthy and not healthy. I think we got to insights and an honesty and rawness of conversation because the three women knew each other … You would never, ever achieve [that] in a focus group.

How do you bring those insights back to the client when it wasn’t as scientific a process to get there?

Most of our clients are fairly open to experimenting and changing how we get the research. At times it’s sort of Einstein’s definition of insanity, of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We’ve been fairly quick to prove an approach of ‘dirty research’ yields tremendously good results.

What is the general mix between data and intuition or other anecdotal types of research?

I would say 100% of what we do is informed by data, without a doubt. On a brief, we will always quantify what the main message is so we know that of the six or seven potential messages, there are two that are really going to drive solving that big, juicy consumer problem.

How does your work colour how you interact with the world on a daily basis?

When I’m in a grocery store – my better half hates this – I’ll stand and watch what people are putting in their basket and sometimes I will say, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ I think they assume I’m the poor male shopper in need of help, which is true, I am really pathetic at shopping. It’s amazing what you learn when you just engage with people in a very simple, honest, trustworthy, empathetic way.

Josh#2 Joshua Hansen, planning director, Juniper Park\TBWA

Top campaigns: Printed by Somerset (Leo Burnett), Nissan – “Conquer All Conditions” (Juniper Park\TBWA)

How much did your experience doing tours and interviews with staff, and it being a family-run company, feed into the insight and the final product for Somerset?

It was instrumental. The time we spent working with them, understanding their business, understanding what is really unique about not only what they create but their point of view on what they create… No matter who you talked to, whether it was the guys running the presses or the people doing pre-production, you kept hearing that this was a very tight-knit group, that they were there ultimately for the work… All of these different filters – the interview process and the rigour that went into talking to everyone – it was hugely important in the formulation of the strategic way in and the final result.

How does your work affect how you interact with the world on a daily basis?

Strategy at its core is about understanding brands and their role and place within culture. So one has to spend time not only observing but participating in culture. A lot of being a strategist these days is about doing as much as it is about thinking: creating projects and experimenting with things, having personal projects and exploring things… I work on a podcast where we spend a lot of time talking about cars [called “The Bucket Seat”]. I’ve worked on some musical projects with friends. All of those things give you a lens through which to look at brands – brands as cultural artifacts – and understand how they need to be positioned so that people react to them in the way we ultimately would like them to.

JayKev#3 Jason Chaney (right), chief strategy officer, Cossette and #4 Kevin McHugh (left), director of strategy, Cossette got together to discuss their work.

Top campaigns: SickKids Foundation – “Life Unpaused”; Kobo – “Titles”; General Mills – “Bring Back the Bees” (Cheerios) and “Rediscover the Joy of Nature Manifesto” (Nature Valley)

McHugh: What piece of advice would you pass on to an aspiring strategist?

Chaney: Continue to push yourself to understand the world in as many ways as humanly possible. To be a great strategist, it should be something that almost consumes you outside the [agency’s] walls.

I’ll take juniors over to Balzac’s and have them analyze the people in line, and watch them when they look at the food and don’t order the food. What were they thinking? Why did they choose to not buy that food even though they were looking at it for five minutes? It’s to get them to start living in the world where they’re watching people’s behaviours and trying to understand them.

The other part is it’s a tough role. You’re kind of the leading edge of the spear in getting to new work and opportunities, and that’s met with a lot of resistance from a lot of people. Your job fundamentally is to sell an opportunity that hasn’t been identified.

“Bring Back the Bees” is a great example of that … In retrospect, a lot of people look at the work and think it was pretty straightforward – of course that makes sense for the product, it was a great connective strategy. But the job of getting it into market was nearly a year of work and convincing and a lot of debate.

McHugh: That project was ultimately kicked off by grounded intuition – it wasn’t just pie in the sky, see what sticks; there was a rationale behind it – but it wasn’t necessarily data driven until we got to that point where we were met with a lot of skepticism and we had to go back and prove this point. We found that the bee population was the third most cared about [environmental] cause among Canadians [behind global warming and water quality]. Without a doubt we had the smoking gun after we did the research to prove this is something people do care about, and were perfectly poised to have a voice in the matter.

McHugh: Do you feel your intuition comes naturally to you, or is it something that’s developed over time?

Chaney: At the core of our process is a basic understanding of human behaviour – not at a superficial level but understanding the deep-rooted fears, anxieties, joyous moments in people’s lives and understanding what drives those. Our process is really rooted – you see this in “Bees” and “Life Unpaused” – in finding value for the consumer and connecting that back to the brand, rather than starting with the brand and connecting that brand to the consumer. It’s a subtle difference but it’s a big difference in the work and the output and what motivates the creative team to end up creating what they’re creating.