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Smart Thinking Behind the Art of Influence: Notes From the 4A’s Strategy Festival

The first day of the 4A’s Strategy Festival can be summed up into two words: smart thinking.

Now, obviously smart thinking is celebrated every year at the conference with the nominations for the Jay Chiat Awards. But this year, the event emphasized specific workshops and keynotes to help find actionable ways to promote smart thinking in our everyday work.

The focus wasn’t only about showing examples of smart thinking — it was about encouraging and enabling it. For a room of more than 300 planners, walking away with practical ideas to use is much more valuable than just hearing a common case study.

Change happens by continually deciding to think differently in small ways to reach better ideas. Here are three (of the many) ways we can continue to think differently, and smartly, about our work:

Stop influencing people — invite them in.
Adam Ferrier, global chief strategy officer of Cummins&Partners, said that a “brand’s strength comes from embracing its weaknesses and being vulnerable.” Sometimes it’s a brand’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities that stand out in a sea of sameness. We often immediately approach our brands by their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. But do people really want to see brands so polished that they can’t relate and interact with them?

Consumers today are drawn to authenticity, and because of this, they have become extremely talented at identifying what’s real and what’s a little too good to be true. People are looking for a real, honest experience they can take part in. In order to do that, they need to be invited in.

We often approach influencing people by conveying what we want our audience to think, then how we want them to feel and, finally, how we hope they’ll act. But what if we went straight to creating experiences for our audience to interact with?

When we invite people into our brand’s story and let them be a part of it, they’ll naturally begin to care about it. In order to do that, we’ll have to take an honest look at our brand and be vulnerable.

Learn to be influenced.
As strategists and planners, our job is to know our audience. In an ever-changing culture, that can be hard to do. Consumers have gone from renting DVDs to streaming Netflix; from staying in hotels to using AirBnB; from playing video games at home to having apps on mobile devices. So how can we continue to stay on top of this volatile culture we live in?

Sarah DaVanzo, chief cultural strategy officer at Sparks and Honey, made a strong case for all planners to approach their work as cultural strategists. In order to do this, we need to do two things: consume everything and continuously look toward the future. In other words, “Eat Culture for breakfast. Everyday.”

A good planner is curious, but consuming culture is more specific than having curiosity. Planners must find ways to dive daily into the audience’s world to try to know what’s going on in their lives. This cultural immersion gives us insight into how consumers are behaving, and when this knowledge is married with past behavior, we can get a great look at how consumers will evolve.

As DaVanzo points out, rather than just recognizing how people have changed, this is a great opportunity to anticipate change and be influenced not only by current insight, but also future foresight.

Influence the work.
Being a planner isn’t only about being influenced and influencing people; it’s also about influencing the creative product of our agencies.

“Don’t brief something that doesn’t first inspire us to want to make something out of it,” said Andrea Ring, chief strategy officer at Big Spaceship. Ring shared three steps to briefing anything — and hopefully making it more exciting.

First, ask what world your brand is in right now, and then what world your brand should be in. This is an opportunity to dream of your brand standing for more than it currently does.

Second, figure out which people matter in this world and ask what is keeping them from fully enjoying it.

Last, tie these points back together by asking what your brand can do for them. Figuring out how to make your brand mean more, while also allowing people to take part and enjoy it, is what you should hope to accomplish in your work.

Recap: Day one of Strategy Fest encouraged smart and new ways to think about how we influence our audience, ways to better be influenced by culture, and how to better influence the work we are producing. Stay tuned for the day two recap of Strategy Fest and follow #4AsStratFest for live updates from the event.


Chase Donahue is a strategist at Leo Burnett Chicago.