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How to Act on Smart Thinking: Notes From the 4A’s Strategy Festival

In our day-one recap of the 4A’s Strategy Festival, the theme that came through was smart thinking. Day two was a perfect continuation, as it took smart thinking to the next level: acting on smart thinking.

Great ideas without actions are just daydreams; likewise, actions without well-thought-out ideas are just chaos. So, how can we not only think strategically, but also have our actions follow through to produce great work? Here are a few takeaways from the day’s speakers:

Be solution-seekers, not just idea-seekers.
Daniel Cherry, CMO and innovation officer for the New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center, said, “Many people will come up with ideas; very few people come up with solutions.” Cherry is an ex-agency guy who now lives in the client world, so he sees the distinction firsthand — a distinction many of us may forget.

When we’re merely idea-seekers, we’re forging a disconnect between the agency and client. Our clients feel this disconnect when we present work that may be based on a fun idea, but that doesn’t meet their business solutions. Should we abandon ideas we believe in or squeeze the life out of the creative? No, but we need to acknowledge there’s an art to delivering creative that solves the client’s business problems. We need to know our clients so well that they are confident we have their best interests in mind.

“Don’t allow the brief to be the only communication with the client,” said Cherry. When we dig deeper into our client’s goals, frustrations, hopes and difficulties, we’re able to marry our great ideas with solutions for their business. And at the end of the day, it’s solutions that our clients buy.

Make it simple.
As we learned on day one, planners love knowledge and sometimes want to show off that knowledge. Whether it’s writing a robust creative brief or wanting to use big words, we’ve all fallen into the trap of wanting to spotlight our smarts. But it’s vital to remember that our goal as planners is to be the most effective, not the smartest, person in room. Results beat cleverness every time.

If we’re using language our fellow strategists don’t understand or our creatives aren’t inspired by, we aren’t setting up our teams to produce their best work. In the same way simplicity is key to communicating with our teams, it’s just as important when selling work to our clients.

Venetia Taylor, strategist at Google, said, “Make it boring. When we’ve made our reveal boring, it means we’ve been transparent.”

This is not a call to produce boring ideas. Instead it means we need to simplify our ideas and keep our clients in the loop from the beginning. When the time comes to present the reveal, it’s much less scary because we have been building up to this point alongside them. This is far more efficient than throwing a risky idea at them at the last minute and asking them to buy it.

We don’t buy into things that make us uncomfortable, and neither do clients — and they certainly don’t buy into things they don’t understand. So it’s our job as strategists to make our work transparent and digestible.

Lead by listening.
What started as an interactive workshop on learning to present well turned into a broader lesson on being a great leader.

Nate Starkey, a comedian and improviser, walked the room through an improvisation technique on leading a conversation, and it quickly became apparent the lesson wasn’t just for effectively communicating; it was also for being an effective leader.

“The best leaders are always the best listeners. They read the room and read the people; they know how to react and be in motion together,” Starkey said. In the same way, leaders need to be able to read their team and know if they understand what’s being asked of them. A great leader will tailor communications to bring out the best in his or her team.

Leadership is best done subtly, not abruptly. Starkey showed this in a hands-on way with attendees: When their communication was too scattered for listeners, or when they presented a thought that was too abrupt of a change, the audience grew more reserved. It’s not only in communicating to our clients when we need to think with empathy, but with our own coworkers and employees as well.

Recap: Day two of Strategy Fest linked the importance of smart thinking in day one to the equally important need to do something with our thinking. When we begin to seek solutions, simplify our communication and become better leaders, our work flourishes. Stay tuned for our overall takeaways from Strategy Fest.


Chase Donahue is a strategist at Leo Burnett Chicago.