Speaking to People: The Strategist’s Secret Weapon

“We don’t talk to enough people about stuff”, this was the hit home message from Lucky General’s Strategist, Loz Horner as he took the mic to give his perspective on how to develop and sell strategic narratives. And what a topical point to land on, after the ability of planners to connect to the public was questioned as the shock of the Brexit vote reverberated throughout the industry. In this talk, Loz proposed we need to spend more time chatting to real people and drilled home the value of qualitative research for successful strategy.

So why have we stopped sitting down for cups of tea and listening? It seems that with the stack of other research we have to do, the social listening, competitor audits and never-ending client questions, qual research simply gets put off as ‘someone’ else’s job. But it is not; in fact it is fundamental to our role, as the IPA still says, “Planners are responsible for representing the consumer in the agency”. Thus we must gather our Dictaphones and start to think of ourselves once again as qual researchers.

With 20 years in the industry, focus groups have become a honed skill in Loz’s artillery of strategic weapons. Throughout his talk he divulged a series of solid tips on how to get past the red tape that tells you research is too expensive, so here goes:

1. Start with whom you know: You have friends and family, they are all consumers of ‘things’, so go ahead and ask them about the things they consume. Think how many friends you have on Facebook and how many friends they have; shoot out a message or email and no doubt the people you need to talk to will appear.

It’s this ask around strategy which led to the Boots campaigns he worked on to become known as the ‘Loz’s wife’s insight’ briefs. One of his favourite ads for Boots was about painkillers, and the killer insight is that women are basically walking pharmacies. They stock up big time, some in their cupboard, their draw, in their bag, probably stuffed into their shoe if they don’t have bag. So this nugget from his wife’s ability to pull painkillers at any occasion became the insight into the work. There are plenty of people in your life that you can chat to, you just have to get off your arse and do it.

2. Get the client to hook you up: Sometimes you might find yourself working on something not so close to home. Let’s say a brief comes in to sell gravy granules to chefs in Singapore, but you really don’t have any pals you can chat to — then you should call the client. They will be able to put you in contact with the right people and it will show an enthusiasm to really get under the skin of their consumers.

This upfront approach worked well for Loz when repositioning Hostelworld into the modern age. His team spent some time hanging around hostels and chatting to the people staying there. With the clients approval it was free (bar some £20 hand outs to thank those involved) and gave some great contextual knowledge. It’s from these hangouts that the whole new brand idea was born. After spending some time kicking heels with backpackers and travellers they realised the best thing about hostels is that you meet all kinds of people, lose your inhibitions and have some mad adventures. So that is what they celebrated as the strategic narrative.

3. Offer to organise the pitch research: What better way to show you’re a top notch consumer expert than to organize and host the focus groups yourself. Find a good recruiter (Loz recommends Criteria to help you quickly find your participants) and make yourself useful. If you can be the go-to planner for good qual research, it will take you far and teach you some vital skills.

4. Speak like Hodor: For those who are not on the Game of Thrones hype, this basically means various forms of grunts. What Loz means by this, is that you should develop your go-to responses for mediating a focus group. The goal? Keep people talking. It might be a ‘umm’, ‘ahh’ or ‘yes tell me more’ but you will be surprised how long people will talk if you give them the prompts that they are welcome to chat way.

5. Use online tools quick wins: There are a plethora of platforms for quick opinion polls, from Survey Monkey to Toluna; you can get some audience vetted support for your strategic route almost instantly. By upping the volume of respondents, this verification element can add more gravitas to your strategic narrative.

6. Start making films: This final point is one that I personally feel always wins over clients. They can argue with your logic but they can’t deny the views of their consumers, so use your qual research to create a film you can play back to them. You already have a great camera and microphone on your phone so simply use the tools in your pocket. Or if you have a GoPro, even better, as the fisheye lens will capture the whole room.

Our role as a planner is to unearth irrefutable truths, convert them to strategy and sell it to the client. Never underestimate the value of “talking to people about stuff”, some of the world’s best campaigns have been born from one tiny gem of an insight.

This is the first write-up from the second Open Strategy School of Planning event on Strategic Narrative. It’s a summary of the talk by Loz Horner from Lucky Generals. Slides below: