Barstool Interview #3: Nate Swift

We bellied up with OKRP veteran and Head of Strategy for this edition of our “barstool interview” series.

Nate gave us a look at what his position entails, how he made the leap to strategy and heading up the department at our booming agency.

Let’s get started with what you do at OKRP as Head of Strategy.

The role is to oversee strategic planning on all of our accounts. But what that really means is that I’m responsible for building trust: trust between teams in the Agency and between the Agency and our clients. We work in a creative industry and creativity is based on intuitive leaps, feelings, emotions, biases — system-one-type-stuff that’s not in the least bit rational. What we do in account planning is create environments built on rigorous logic and data where creativity doesn’t just thrive, but consistently produces ideas are sellable and beneficial to client’s business. Great creative work always has an inherent aspect of novelty. Our thinking, and the structure we put around that creativity, gives our partners the courage to embrace ideas that are uncomfortable. And to us, that’s about trust.

I hear your team talk a lot about “framing.” What’s the role of framing in strategic planning?

It’s not a new idea by any means, but it is a core tenet of how we operate as strategists. People evaluate information much more confidently when they have some comparative context. So one of the things we try and do in advertising is provide people with context when talking about a brand or product. Dissonance, tension, disruption — these are all forms of framing. One form of framing we’re particularly fond of here is “finding an enemy.” People much more readily identify with “who they’re not” than “who they are,” especially these days. So often times we’ll ask consumers to evaluate their relationship with a brand not in terms of what they’re opting into, but what they’re opting out of. A great example of this for is Groupon, when we launched a campaign attacking conspicuous consumption called “The Haves vs The Have-Dones.” Groupon is a brand based around experiences, but everyone talks about experiences — it’s tired. So we framed our beliefs in terms of who we’re not. And what that did was add a valuable element to the conversation around the merit of experiences and ultimately create a highly salient message.

I wanted to know about your path to OKRP. How did you get started in this industry?

When I was in college, I was not a very serious student. I spent most of my time skiing and doing other recreational activities in Colorado. Then when I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but my wife, my girlfriend at the time, moved out to Los Angeles. Her parents had been in advertising. They suggested I try Account Management at an agency. So, I applied for a couple jobs. I got one. That was right before the crash of 2007, or 2008. When was that? I got hired in 2007, and then the shit hit the fan.

They had to fire a bunch of senior-level people so I ended up running accounts and doing strategy for a bunch of smaller clients basically right out of college. Since we were under-staffed, I did all the strategic planning. So I thought that was what account management was. As I moved from agency to agency, accounts got bigger and I realized there was this whole separate kind of planning department which really gets into the consumer insights… identifying challenges, dissecting those challenges, and then finding solutions to them that later could be translated into something the creatives could work with. That was the part of the job that I found the most interesting, the most challenging and ultimately wanted to pursue.

Fast Forward 10 years… how did you wind up at OKRP?

I got a call from Matt Reinhard. He said, “Nate, I hear you’re moving to Chicago. I have started a small agency called O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul. Would you like to come join us?”

I said, “Yes, I would.” And that was on April 10th, and it opened on March 17th. I think I was the sixth person hired.

It was fantastic to get a call from him and have the opportunity to work with these guys more. Quite frankly, after working at big agencies for a while, I really, really liked working with small, independent agencies. Small agencies typically have a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove. They are a small agency because somebody said, “I think we can do this whole advertising thing differently and better.” That vision is something that I really appreciated at the time and still appreciate now.

At the start I was doing this kind of hybrid role of account management and brand strategy. Then it became clear I added more value to the brand strategy area. From then on, I was essentially the lead strategist and the one who was pitching all our initial clients. I was able to grow with the agency, grow the department and grow our client list as we expanded. We figured out pretty quickly that I was on the same page as Tom, Matt and Nick in terms of the vision for what we wanted to do differently and where we wanted to be better than other places.

You mentioned small agencies. So as OKRP is growing and becoming a bigger agency, how do you think you, as Head of Strategy might keep that smaller agency thinking or operation style going? Are there any things you have in mind?

That’s the million-dollar question and the one that we’ve been spending a lot of time navigating through. The short answer is that we don’t quite know yet. But, I think there are some tenants that we do want to apply; and that is we don’t want to get bogged down with layers and process. We want the working to always be in service of the work. So, it’s very much about finding experienced, talented people and putting them in roles where they have a lot of autonomy. It’s finding the right people to run and roll their sleeves up on accounts and own that relationship with the client. As opposed to somebody who’s going through layers of process and working off templates and briefs and a very rigid approach to strategy.

You wrote in another bio, “Our industry acts as a cross section between business, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and storytelling. It offers endless opportunities to explore how we behave as groups and as individuals, and why. It also allows us to contribute to our culture and measure if those contributions are meaningful.” Have those always been topics that have really interested you?

It is something that has interested me, but I didn’t grow into it until I started working in advertising and seeing that the theory and practice both have material effects on understanding why people behave the way they do. It’s fascinating, it’s dense- we pick out what we can and then try to use it responsibly and effectively for it to serve our clients.

I would say that one of the things that we look for specifically in planners we hire is openness. And it is a fine balance because we have to have people who ultimately can sell work and really can make a decision and say, “No, this is the strategy. We’re gonna test this route out and then we’re going to kick the tires until we prove that that’s not it.” But when you take a step back we need people who are very flexible thinkers and very open to inputs and experiences, being able to internalize those and being able to put those through different filters in order to get different outputs.

That makes sense. Okay, so now I have some questions that move away from advertising a little bit, just to get to know you a little bit better. So I thought, since you’re a strategy guy, you have to have a good strategy for the end of the world. So, I wanted to know, what is your strategy when there’s a zombie apocalypse, or just some sort of missile gone haywire?

Totally. So, it’s … I don’t think it’s that original of a strategy. And here’s what I’m torn; I’m torn about … Alright, so here’s what I’m thinking; is that in the “end of the world” occasion, it’s probably the people that are going to be most dangerous. So, I would say the strategy is to get to someplace remote. Now the challenge there is that the remote places are probably not going to be the most desirable places to be. So, I’m thinking: go north. And, but when you go north, you risk exposure. And you wanna be able to find some place that has a constant supply of food. So, the thought would be: go north, find a small town in the northern…let’s call it, “Canada.” Where it has access to some sort of resources, and set up shop there.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with it. I have thought that I do need to up my fire starting and bow and arrow skills.