Lesley Bielby is an experienced, driven and ambitious Chief Strategy Officer who has helped Hill Holiday to win a significant number of new business pitches, and who led the integration of digital strategy, social strategy, planning, decision science and business strategy into one group under her leadership. She is also the author of Super Strategist: The Art and Science of Modern Account Planning, the only modern guide to advertising’s arguably most vital discipline, written with the passion of someone who’s found their calling and the wisdom of an industry veteran who is still actively leading strategy in a large, modern, full-service agency.
““The business model is you have less people involved.” - Lesley Bielby
Max Traylor: Oh, yeah. Welcome back to the very first outdoor episode of the season. It's 2021. The world's opening up. And the pool's open. The grass is growing. And as my guest today, Lesley Bielby confirmed, I'm not growing weed. I'm actually growing some grass, some good old fashion green stuff for the kids to play on. And it's my first project out here in the yard that I'm destined to screw up. I am drinking the very last Original Maine Ale. So I'm excited about speaking with you, Lesley, because I'm almost sure I won't have to do much. You're going to have to carry me today. I'm 24 hours off the COVID shot number two. I'm a Moderna guy myself, and I'm a little foggy.
Lesley Bielby: Me, too.
Max Traylor: And the pale ale doesn't help, but I'm encouraged because you're fresh off the release of a new book.
Lesley Bielby: Yes, I am.
Max Traylor: So you should have plenty of... You should have all this stuff in your head. And you're drinking some tea today, so you're going to be quite clear.
Lesley Bielby: I'm not much of a drinker. Yeah. So I'm on the tea, which is my usual tipple. Yeah.
Max Traylor: Well, the tea gets me. I don't know about you, but I'm a... I get kind of crazy when I'm drinking tea. I had to go back to coffee. Anyway, in fear of getting too off topic, what do you do professionally, before we get to the book stuff?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. So I'm chief strategy officer at Hill Holiday which is an agency. It's part of the IPG network based out of New York and Boston. I'm based in the Boston area.
Max Traylor: So I'm a big fan of Hill Holliday. I went to Babson College and I always looked at the agency world as where I wanted to go into. So the president at Babson College hooked me up with a meeting with the CEO of Hill Holliday. So I have a special... It was a cool office. It was like my first big office experience and stuff. So how do you find yourself in such a cool position at a company like that? Where'd you come from, in other words?
Lesley Bielby: [inaudible] And I want to ask you if you were in the Hancock Tower, 53 State Street? Do you remember which one you were in?
Max Traylor: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It was like a blue glass building, State Street.
Lesley Bielby: The State Street. Yeah. You know the Hancock Tower. You'd remember if you got into the Hancock Tower.
Max Traylor: Yeah. So it wasn't in Hancock.
Lesley Bielby: It wasn't in Hancock. Yeah. The offices are gorgeous. All right, so it's a long career, but I'll keep it short. So I started my career in advertising. I stumbled into it, literally. I was doing my first temp job when I came back from a couple of years in Paris after I graduated and I was looking for something to do. And so I did a temp job and I just happened to be temping in one of the most interesting creative agencies in the world. I had no idea. I just happened to get there. And so I was lucky enough for them to have offered me a job within the first few months. And then I managed to get on the graduate training scheme.
So that agency was called Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners, which will probably mean nothing to you, but any Brits of my sort of age listening will remember it. And then from there, a few other agencies in the UK, moved over to McKinney and Silver in, at the time, Raleigh, North Carolina, now in Durham. That was my first fly over to the States, and I was probably one of the second wave of strategists to bring account planning, as it was called then, to the US. The phase before me would have been the Douglas Atkins, the Jon Steeles, etc. So maybe the second or third wave. Stayed there for a while. I was at Merkley for a while. I was at J. Walter Thompson for a while, back to Merkley, DiMassimo Goldstein, Hill Holliday, back to DiMassimo Goldstein, and then back to Hill Holliday. I'm a chronic boomeranger.
Max Traylor: Yeah. That is the short story for a long career.
Lesley Bielby: It is. 30 years. 10 years in London. I'm from Scotland, but 10 years in London, 10 years in New York, 10 years in Boston.
Max Traylor: Now, we're going to start getting into book stuff. And I do want you to promote the heck out of it. I think we're fresh out of good account planning books or strategy books or whatever we're calling it. But when you say you were part of the second wave of account planners coming to the US, I know you know something about the history of account planning, and I sure don't. So maybe you could give a quick history lesson on what you mean by the wave of account planning. I feel like it originated in the foothills of Scotland or something now.
Lesley Bielby: No, it did not. It originated between two agencies out of London. So it was BMP and J. Walter Thompson, which is now part of Wunderman Thompson. So those two agencies, before I was born, so in the very early '60s, they got together and decided that the consumer wasn't being represented in the discussion about advertising and the account people were not really using research properly, because that wasn't really their job. Their job was to manage the client.
And so nobody quite knows who invented account planning. We just know that it was between those two agencies and probably like everything in the UK, it happened in a pub somewhere. But, essentially, it... So it started there. It grew really quickly. By the time I left the UK, which would have been in the late '90s, pretty much every agency in the UK had account planning. An account planner's role, I'm sure you know, is to represent the aperture in the room, which is the consumer, to help the client understand where they are now, where they want to go, and create strategies to get them there, but by being consumer-informed, not consumer-led.
Max Traylor: So is it synonymous with strategy? Is there a very clear difference? Is strategy part of an account planner's job? How would you define those two [crosstalk]
Lesley Bielby: Here's the complication, and this was actually the biggest point of discussion with the publisher when I was writing my book. It used to be called account planning. Now we call it strategic planning, brand planning, brand strategy. It's got a multitude of different names. It generally is not called account planning anymore. It was a weird name to start with. It had nothing to do with running accounts and it had nothing really to do with planning other than, how do we get from A to B?
So strategy is probably a more accurate term, but, of course, at the moment everything's strategy. It's the term that is... the most overused term in, I think, any industry at the moment. But you asked about the history. So what happened, in the book, I call it two beginnings. First beginning was in the early '60s. The second beginning was when a woman called Jean Newman, who was kind of the first planner to hit the shore, this side of the pond. She worked at Chiat Day because Jay Chiat realized that the work in the UK seemed to be more effective than the work in the US. And so he wondered why that was. He learned it was because of account planning. Jean came over and his business just went crazy when she introduced the discipline to the agency.
And so then every other agency wanted what they called at the time, British account planners. And so that's when everybody that wanted to get out of the UK and have a bit of an adventure, jumped on a plane and came over and we all thought we were going to stay a couple of years, and most of us stayed for a few decades. So and then that was, again, in the late '90s. At this point, pretty much every agency in the US has account planning. [crosstalk]
Max Traylor: So the nuance I'm picking up on is people went from, "We're going to manage the client. We're going to build some ads. We're going to make some money," to, "Hey, we've actually got a lot of information about what customers want, so let's get smarter. And let's actually think about what is going to be most effective for meeting your business goals." So is it just purely intelligence? Was that like the big thing?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. I mean, to me, there's so many different definitions of planning and I, myself, change my descriptors all the time, because I've been doing this for 30 years, and it's kept interesting for me because it keeps changing. It changes every five or six years. So back in the day, when I first started, it was all about representing the consumer, all about doing consumer research. Typically, back then it was all qualitative research, so that means focus groups. There was very little data to be had back then. This was before the internet, of course, right? There was a time before the internet, which my kids [crosstalk]
Max Traylor: I've been told. I don't believe it.
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. And then, of course... Nowadays, account planning or strategic planning, if that's what you want to call it, it's turned into something quite different. It's very much about the consumer still, but there's also a lot of data that we use to help identify what the opportunities are for brands, how brands can evolve. Again, how they can strategize to get from A to B. And it's really important to make the distinction between being consumer-led and consumer-informed because it's not about having the consumer tell you what to do, because they don't really know. It's about listening to consumer insight, understanding where they are in their lives, their minds, their hearts, etc, their behaviors, and then creating strategies, positionings, advertising, all of those things that resonate with them. But you need the skill of a good account planner, of a good creative to really make the work sparkle. Okay. The consumer can't do that for you.
Max Traylor: So you've got a pretty old practice and a very new book, and the book is called the Super Strategist: Art and Science of Modern Account Planning. And in a previous conversation, you were sort of explaining to me the spark or the impetus for the book it was time to re... It was time to rewrite the old textbooks on account planning. And it seems to, now only recently or sub recently, become more of a science. So what made you feel like it was the right time to update the record books?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. So the only book that had truly been written about account planning had been written about 22 years ago. And I was constantly in the position of being asked by graduates for me to recommend a book for them when they were interested in what I did for a living. And it got to a point where I was getting embarrassed recommending that book, not because it wasn't a great book. It was a great book, but it was a book that was written before the internet. And so there have been other books, but those books... Because you have to do your research when you're writing, obviously, to make sure that you're not creating something that's already in a saturated market.
The only other books about account planning or strategic planning were really academic. And so they didn't really apply to the work that we do day-to-day. And so I thought, "Well, rather than [inaudible] this issue," which is what I was starting to do all the time. I thought, "Well, I've been doing this a long time. I started in the UK with the birthplace of account planning. I'm still an acting CSO. Why don't I write it?" And so I did. And it just happened to coincide with COVID. My kids had all... The last one had just gone to college. And so I spent a number of weekends being pretty disciplined, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboards, and knocked it out and worked with a great publisher. And 14 weeks later, there it was, the first draft.
Max Traylor: Well, you explained that the biggest difference between said book that was 20 years ago... I believe the title of that was The Art of Account Planning, and it's obviously shifted to both an art and a science. Is that just a data thing? I'm kind of after what the big difference is now. What it means today to be an account planner or an account strategist.
Lesley Bielby: Well, as I mentioned, back then, it was all about qualitative research. And so a lot of Jon Steel's book was into how to do good qualitative research, and it gives you some very good tips that are still applicable today. But nowadays, the notion of data has really become the new digital. Digital came into, obviously, our industry about 10, 12 years ago and it's all we talked about. But now all we talk about is data. And so planning has taken on kind of the science as well as the art, because it's important for us to use the data carefully, because a misuse of data can be a very destructive thing. A careful use of data can be actually quite a beautiful thing. There's so much data out there. There's so much information that it's easy to drown in it. It's easy to become overdependent on it. And so, again, the skill of a good account planner or a strategic planner is to continue to use qualitative research, but also use the multitude of other resources that are available to them, data sources, social listening, of course, just a plethora of other stimulus that they can use to do their work nowadays.
Max Traylor: So is the biggest danger than to have so much data that we're paralyzed? Or would you say that it's actually losing the human element and relying too much on data and not thinking, not talking to people.
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. So that's probably the most important aspect of the book. So I don't know if you've got the book there, but in the front cover, there's actually what [crosstalk]
Max Traylor: I don't. The Amazon people, they haven't shown up. I'm very upset.
Lesley Bielby: So it shows a seesaw. It's all about the balance. Yeah. And so I believe that they're both incredibly important, but I do believe that creativity trumps everything, because at the end of the day, a client is not paying us to go through all of their data sources and not add anything extra. A client is paying us to think and create things that are different to what they could think about and create. And so the idea of human insight, the idea of making sure that the right brain is very present in the process is still really critical to what an account planner or a creative does.
It's just that nowadays the CMO and the CEO have a very short tenure. The budgets are being cut every single year. Even though the economy is strong, the budgets are still being cut. Our industry is shrinking quite a lot because parts of it are parsing off into consulting and the big data companies, sorry, the big tech companies and to in-house agencies, which are becoming very popular. And so it's really important that we're competitive, and the way that we can be the most competitive is by helping our clients put something amazing out there in the world, safe in the knowledge that we've done every single thing in our power to make sure that we believe it is going to work.
Now, there's always that part of you that wonders, right? Because nothing's completely watertight and foolproof. But compared to when I first started 30 years ago, honestly, we might do a little bit of qualitative research, then we all held hands and let it go and hope to God that it would do something. And sometimes it did, sometimes it didn't, and that was okay because that CMO was going to be around for another 10 years. They had plenty of time to make their numbers up. Today's CMO does not have that luxury nor do they have that budget. And so the biggest challenge that we have in our industry is actually making sure that they put something out there worth putting out there, and not be too paralyzed by research and data, but use it diligently and carefully to put the best work out there that they possibly can.
Max Traylor: Well, tell me more about the state of the industry. I talk a lot about... I kind of talk half about, how do you be a great account planner? That seems to be the fun knowledge bouncing around your head. But I also talk about business models and for account planning, is it something that's harder to sell today? What's going on in the industry speaking to other account planners out there? Is it cut ties and get out now?Is it the industry is completely changing and here's what you need to do to prepare? Or is it better than ever? W hat's your thoughts on that?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't say... Certainly, the traditional agency is not the way that it used to be. When I first started, the industry was all about traditional agencies. So traditional meaning that the olden television print and radio, that was pretty much it [inaudible]
Max Traylor: Yeah, the Mad Men show.
Lesley Bielby: [inaudible] Well, that was before my time. But the Mad Men era went on right until the mid '90s. Really, again, till the internet. The industry is funny. I talk about this in the book. I kind of get annoyed when people say, "Oh, your industry is disappearing." I don't think it's disappearing. I actually think it's kind of shape-shifting. My daughter is really interested in getting into this industry specifically to do what I do, and I was explaining it to her. And I said, "It's just that for people of your generation, there are so many more options now where you can do this work."
You can go to an ad agency, as I mentioned before. You can go to a consulting firm. You could go work for Google or Facebook or Spotify in their consumer insights department or marketing department. You can go client side. You can go work for Accenture because Accenture and [inaudible] are swallowing up some... And your creative agencies like Droga5 were bought out by them. There's just so many places you can do this now. So if you're a bit of an egghead, go do at Google. If you're a much more creative person-
Max Traylor: Just go work for Google. That's good advice.
Lesley Bielby: Exactly. If you're somebody that likes to be in a much more creative environment where there's less certainty, then go work in an ad agency. But I always say to people coming into the industry, "If you are risk averse, do not get into advertising. That has never been a stable career. Never. It's just one of those industries, which is... It's not a job for life. It just isn't. People jump around a lot and people churn out. People get laid off. If you're one of those people that relishes the adventure, then go for it. But if you're scared of uncertainty, then don't do it. Yeah.
Max Traylor: So it's shape-shifting. That's the Original Maine Ale for you and the COVID cocktail. Shape-shifting, how so?
Lesley Bielby: Well, just as I mentioned, it's no longer... Exactly what I just said. So it's no longer just go to a traditional agency. Traditional agencies are shrinking and parts of those agencies are spinning off into the places that I mentioned before, so the tech companies, consulting firms, etc. So you could go do what I do at any one of those companies. You don't have to be in an ad agency. Yeah.
Max Traylor: Where do you think the most opportunity is? If you were talking to a young person that is just a natural, "I want to come up with plans. I want to solve big problems." They're creative. They're analytical. Where do you think the opportunity is? Is it in one of those pieces? Is it in agencies? Is it in smaller agencies that are more nimble and can change? Is it in these larger agencies? Is it the solo practice, now that COVID has kind of displaced a lot of senior leaders in the space?
Lesley Bielby: Well, here's the thing. We don't really know because we're just coming out of COVID. And so COVID obviously had a profound effect on many businesses, including ours. We were lucky enough at Hill not to have travel or hospitality. Those are the accounts that really got crunched during the worst time of COVID. But it's a really difficult question because, logically, you would say, "Go to one of the places that is... one of the behemoth companies that is growing and growing and profitable, and whose stock price is doing brilliantly." Again, like the big tech companies or the big consulting firms. Those are the places where you may have more stability. But if, you know, again, if you're looking to be a very creative person in a very creative environment with very creative colleagues, then go to an ad agency. I think if I were starting out again... Maybe the best way of answering this is, where would I go? [crosstalk]
Max Traylor: That's what I meant to ask. What would you do?
Lesley Bielby: If it were 24-year-old me, back in the day when I was first starting, I would definitely go back into an ad agency. I would. I've only ever worked at ad agencies, but, obviously, I've worked with plenty of clients. I would not make a good client. People work in agencies because they love the variety. You never really work on one thing. You're working on multiple things at one time or you might work in something for a couple of years and turn out into something else.
But, again, it's the creative environment and the characters in ad agencies. I mean, there's really nowhere like it is. I really believe that I've got one of the most fun jobs on the planet. I really do. I get to work with amazing people. I get to work with people that are much more creative than I am. I've got an incredible department. Some of the funniest people I've ever met work in the agency world. Some of the brightest people I've ever met. Some of the most reverent people I've ever met. And you get to do great work.
Max Traylor: Well, let's imagine that you had to start fresh and you're looking to... and you know everything you know today, how would you evaluate agencies? I guess, it's kind of a question of it can't all be sunshine and rainbows. You had to have some less than stellar experiences and then really saw some environments where you're like, "Yeah. That's it."So what would you look for in an agency today and what are kind of the telltale signs that they're not going in the right direction?
Lesley Bielby: It's a good question. I mean, agencies have had to adapt to survive just like any other business. You and I were talking before about how we've had to spin off certain services. So it's no longer just going to be a full service agency. The world of projects is becoming much more typical in the agency world. So coming and doing like a $500,000 project, doing three or four of those in any given year, rather than the big kind of 20, 30, $40 million fee agencies. Yeah.
Smaller clients, smaller budgets, more individual projects, and those projects could be the development of a brand house, a lot of this stuff that traditional brand consulting firms might do. Or a customer journey mapping or the development of a visual identity or a brand book, for example. It's kind of interesting a lot of those things that people, typically, would not have gone to an agency for even 10 years ago, they are going to agencies for now, because we're very well positioned to do that kind of work. The part that isn't all...
Like any job, it isn't all sunshine and roses. There are parts of it that are not that kind of glamorous or interesting. It's horrible when you lose a client. When you lose a client, especially if it's a big client, it dents your ego, first of all, collectively. You often have to let people go when that happens. You have to go out there and try and find a replacement really quickly, especially when you're owned by a holding company. And some clients are amazing and some clients are difficult to work with. So just like any job, there are ups and downs, but I really believe if I look at my 30-year career, 80% of it has been fantastic. Honestly, it truly has.
Max Traylor: This is kind of new news to me that agencies are moving away from full service and towards projects, which optimistically, it kind of sounds like that might diversify some of the risk of losing such a big client. You might be sitting there fat and happy that you're the agency of record and offer service for these big accounts and then lose once, "Oh my God." But on a project basis, you kind of have to have a culture of constantly hunting and killing. How has that shift affected the business?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. Well, not every agency can pivot in that direction, unfortunately. So in my experience, the bigger the agency... The big global agencies are the ones that find it tough to pivot. You asked about smaller independents. I think the smaller independents are probably the ones that are going to do really well over the course of the next five years, for every reason that I've just mentioned, more project work, more nimble, less kind of traditional television, more looking at every potential channel out there, more examination of business problems instead of just going straight for TV and video, and just a better ability to change with the times.
Big legacy agencies, the legacy part can get in the way. They're kind of hearkened back to where they started in the 1960s, as opposed to looking forward. And our industry, it's had a couple of... Obviously, digital and then social a few years ago, transformed everything. So we all had to change really quickly. And those that did not adapt genuinely suffered and died. A lot of them got merged. A lot of them disappeared. A lot of them shrunk. So again, to survive, you have to adapt.
Max Traylor: Now, this question might be because of my childhood experience of being in the cool blue building in Boston, but is Hill Holliday not a larger organization? Where would you put it on the spectrum of...
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. So it's really interesting you should say that. I think people think that we're like a 1,000-person agency. We are not-
Max Traylor: Yeah. I thought it was like pretty big and you got the holding company thing going on. So I'm like, "How are you nimble?" Yeah.
Lesley Bielby: Holding companies own small agencies, too. I mean, that's the whole... The whole point of a holding company is to have a portfolio of different brands. If they're all the same, then they wouldn't succeed. If you can ask me how many people work at Hill Holliday, somewhere in the region of about 350. And so I would classify us as the larger end of mid-sized. I, personally, do not do well in extremely big agencies. I don't like extremely big agencies because I'm one of those CSOs that likes to do the work. I don't want to just run a department and sit in an ivory tower. I want to go in there and get my hands dirty and work with clients and work with my strategists as a team. And so, Hill's probably as big as I would go to at this point in my career.
Max Traylor: Got it. So you're still nimble enough to make some of these shifts. One of these shifts being from full service to more project, which brings me to one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, monetizing this brand planning work that you've done. And I understand that you have put together a lot of workshops. Is that pretty representative of this sort of short-term project use case specific mentality that buyers now have? You've had these sorts of experiences?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. No. You're right. We started a brand consulting arm at Hill Holliday called HHBrandAble a few years ago because we discovered that we were getting lots of calls from maybe smaller or adolescent brands, that didn't have huge budgets, but that were wanting to do some quite interesting work. And our infrastructure wasn't really set up to accommodate those brands. Even when you're a mid size agency, you have to put together scopes. You have to allocate an hourly rate against the fee exacted to calculate the fee, etc. And so we created a different business model.
And so if you're a client that say half a million dollars and you are an adolescent brand, by that, I mean, a brand that's less than 20 years of age, that went out there with a great product idea, but you forgot to create a brand. You'd be amazed at how often that happens. And then suddenly you've got all these new investors and the investors are saying, "Well, what about your brand margins? How's your brand doing? How does it compete?" Not just in terms of sales, but in terms of saliency and awareness and familiarity, etc. And so a lot of times those brands are scrambling to do that work.
And so they can either go to a consulting firm who do great work, but they're going to charge them an arm and a leg, and they're going to take six months to find a positioning and a brand book, and some of these other elements. Or you go to an agency like ours who will do it for maybe half the time. Yeah. We still do those big full service clients, but as I said before, the kind of the $20, $30, $40, $50 million accounts are getting harder and harder to come by. And so we still have those that are spending millions of dollars in fees, but we have a fairly hefty slug of those that are smaller are doing project work. You're all good? What you're doing, swatting flies?
Max Traylor: Yeah. No. I'm clapping at my dog. This is the only downside of doing interviews by my pool. I got a dog that literally hangs out in the pool area all day. A Golden Retriever. So he swims all day. But I got some poison ivy creeping in, and I put some poison on it, and he's creeping over there. But I digress. Tell me about this consultancy model, because now you're starting to get my juices flowing. I've got some conspiracy theories in my head and you're starting to speak my language. The brand consultancy just wasn't going to work out in mid-size agency world. What is this different business model that you're talking about with HHBrandAble?
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. So the business model is that you have less people involved, so you don't have the traditional three account people, three planners, different tiers, creative team, production. We have in-house media. It's not that at all. You may have myself working on an assignment along with a mid-ranged planner. And that's it. Or you might have a junior account person. The benefit of these kinds of projects, by the way, is they're a fantastic way to train planners because, first of all, they get to work directly with me. Secondly, I'm teaching them in a very, very, very quick time. And so it's a way to hot-house them. When they've done two or three of these projects, they find doing more traditional client work much easier because they're typically in a position where they're working with founders and CEOs, which is really thrilling for them.
If you're a 30-year-old planner, to work with a CEO of a 10-year-old kind of startup, is just awe inspiring. So it keeps them motivated. It keeps them really smart. It keeps all of us really smart. It means that we're not turning away those clients, which we did in the past. I mean, if you came to an agency like Hill or any other agency of our size with half a million dollars, the chances are we would say that we can't help you. We're just not set up to accommodate a brand of your size. But because there are less brands to go around there, A, we want those businesses and B, we like those businesses.
And often, businesses of that size are the ones that also want to do really kind of different irreverent, interesting creative work too, because they want to go out there and make a name. Because when you're a brand that has really created a business and you haven't created a brand and you have to do it quickly, you're not going to do it if you go out there and create a piece of communication that looks like everything else in your category. You're not going to do that, anyway, for an entrepreneur because you're a challenger if you're an entrepreneur. You're challenging the convention of the category. Yeah. Agencies know that some of the best work comes from these types of hungry clients. And that model has served us really well.
It's not just about taking on smaller pieces of business. It's even potentially working with a bigger client that's cheating on its current agency, which happens sometimes. They don't want to leave their current agency, but they want to try something out. So they have a project that they want to give to another agency. And so sometimes, we can take on, again, a customer journey workshop. We'll do that for three months and then they'll go back to their agency and all will be good. And we've each benefited from that relationship. But maybe somewhere down the line, because they liked you, they'll give you more business and ultimately maybe they'll give you all of their business.
Max Traylor: So I understand the full service agency model and putting six, seven people onto a client because of all the different disciplines that you have to manage. But tell me about what the actual service looks like in a brand consultancy. It's just you and a semi junior planner. What are the things that you are delivering? Is it workshops? Is the big difference between agency and consultancy, the consultancy is really contributing ideation, a plan, the direction, and then doesn't really need to get into the execution of these things? So talk to me about the difference.
Lesley Bielby: So, listen, to break it down. If you are a big brand working with an agency of records in a traditional model, you are getting pretty much everything from them. You're getting strategy. You're getting brand positioning. You might be getting research. We have in-house research, by the way, which I want to talk about too, because that's another part of our agency in our industry that is starting to grow. You're going to get creative. If you have in-house media, we're going to plan and buy your media for you. We're going to use data throughout the entire process. The whole data loop is going to be present in that relationship. But if you're coming in as a consultant, you're one of several different things. You're either, again, an adolescent brand that doesn't have a lot of money, but you want all of those things.
And so, if it's an interesting enough opportunity for us, we'll give you a kind of a mini team. So maybe one account person, one planner. It isn't always me, by the way. I have some very senior, incredibly talented people in my department that can take on these things alone. You may get one junior team and that's it, four people, that can do all of those things for you. Or more typically, you're a brand that just wants to do some additional sort of brand development work. You want to understand how the customer's making decisions as they navigate the category. And so that's the customer journey that we can do. And that typically, would be a very senior planner and a junior planner. And a designer to draw the thing at the end.
It may be that you want to do a brand house. You know what a brand house is. It's when you take elements like your brand purpose, your positioning, your mission, etc. And that involves two, three workshops with clients over three days. And so you're in and out really quickly. I just did one of those this morning, actually. Yeah. The business model is definitely changing, not just because agencies have to find other revenue streams, that's part of it, but because agencies have to become a lot smarter because we're competing with a much broader range of competition now. It's not just other agencies now. It's all the brands that I've talked about, the tech firms, the consulting firms, the Accentures of the world. We're competing with all of them.
Max Traylor: And if you don't offer these point solutions, we'll call them, someone else will.
Lesley Bielby: Exactly. Well, somebody else already is. And so then, I think that the question that typically I get asked at this point is, Well, what makes you better or different to those places?" And I really believe it comes down to one very simple thing, which is when you're working in an ad agency... So let's say you're a consulting firm. I won't mention this, but you know who I'm talking about, the big [inaudible]
Max Traylor: I'm there.
Lesley Bielby: Right? You come in and you work. It is to your benefit to stretch that project out for as long as you possibly can because there's an hourly rate, right? And what you deliver at the end of the day is a positioning statement, right? Or it's a positioning statement and a visual identity. They're starting to move into that area, as well. They have for some years now. And then you leave. You give it to the client and say, "Here it is. Now go and give it to your agency and, hopefully, they'll do something good with it." Agencies are typically really uncomfortable with that situation because, A, they haven't been involved in any of the work that got them to that point. Sometimes you are. Sometimes a client will pull you in, but quite often they won't.
Agencies haven't been involved in any of the workshops that got to that position. And most importantly, the agency is going to take that brand positioning, turn it into a creative brief, give it two creatives and monitor the work that comes out of those teams who will ultimately turn it into something that goes on air, goes into social media, or whatever, whatever channel you choose. So we know what is going to happen to that positioning when it leaves the consulting firm, but they don't because their job's over. They've given birth to this thing and then they walk away.
And so when we create positionings in similar types of workshops, we are thinking, right, "How would I turn this into a creative brief? What would this look like if I were finding parts of the customer journey, where I wanted to engage people in advertising or an app or a customer experience online or offline. How would that positioning inform those things?" We're thinking ahead. It's like a game of chess. And so in my experience, we create more usable positionings for that reason.
Max Traylor: Because of your experience with the downstream vendors that probably are responsible for using said thing.
Lesley Bielby: Upstream [inaudible]
Max Traylor: Brilliant. Upstream, downstream, I'm not familiar with the stream direction. Salmon swim upstream. I'm aware of that from the Discovery Channel
Lesley Bielby: Some of the time, not all the time.
Max Traylor: Research. Yes. Go. Research. The business of research as it relates to agencies.
Lesley Bielby: Yeah. I didn't mention that. So one of the things that we did about four years ago now is we took data... I don't know how familiar you are with all the kinds of comings and goings of a media agency. But we took data-
Max Traylor: Sometimes I think I'm familiar and then I talk to people like you, and I realize I really don't know much.
Lesley Bielby: Oh, goodness. So we took data analytics, which is basically the optimization of media. We took it from media alone. We combined it with our in-house. We had a little in-house research team called origins. We combined them into one team, had one leader above all of it, and we called it decision science. And so, to me, it's one of the best decisions that we ever made. Talk about decision science. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. The reason being is that we can use research and data throughout every single part of the process.
So from the early kind of analysis of consumer insight, so finding out what makes the consumer tick. What's going on in their heads, their hearts, their behaviors, to examining different positioning territories, to understanding how the client makes money, to understanding the social channels that these consumers are most kind of addicted to or understanding what other media channels that they tend to consume. And all the way through to ultimately how the kind of the work performed when it was in market, and then the whole cycle begins again. So when you have decision science in your agency, you can complete the entire data loop. And you can only really do that if you have in-house media, too. An in-house media is somewhat unusual for an agency of our size, the big behemoth agencies have it, but ones that are large... mid to large size agencies like us typically don’t.
Max Traylor: And is that because you have access to the performance data on the media? Okay.
Lesley Bielby: Exactly. When you're working with, let's call it, a media partner... Here's the truth agencies, we're all the same people, we really are, and we all jump around, all right? We all knew each other in some way, shape or form, but we're really competitive with each other. And so if you're a media company that has access to a lot of data, you might not feel it's in your best interest to share that data with the advertising agency that also happens to have in-house media.
We just don't have your media, because then that gives us insight into your performance and we can compete with that. And so what they'll tend to do is hold that data close to their chest. And so we're kind of frenemies in our industry. We truly are. And so, to me, the only way that you can do everything that a client might want... And some of our clients, literally, we do everything for them. If you can complete the data loop and you can only do that if you have decision science and you have in-house research and an in house media, as well.
Max Traylor: Well, I got to tell ya. I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled that we got to have this talk. You've made my day. I promised I'd get you out of here at least in like seven minutes from now. You've got some important things to do. What haven't I asked about? I usually have a closing question. What are you most excited about? That might have to do with the future of brand planning or... For someone in your position, what do you wake up in the morning and go, "Ah," in the next three years, this is, this is going to be it. And you're kind of planning for it and nobody wants to hear about it, but you've got your little notebooks and you're telling people that you're telling people that you're not crazy, and this is what's going on.
Lesley Bielby: Well, here's the truth. I've been doing this for three decades and every kind of few years, I think, "Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? I've been doing it for an awful long time and there might be a moment where... I've told you that 80% of the time it's wonderful. 20% of the time, it's not. It might have been one of those moments where it was in the 20%, right? And I think, "Should I go do something else?" And then something always happens to reel me in again. Things just change. Again, the introduction of social, the introduction of digital, no data. And I tell you what I think is going to happen over the course of the next three years.
I'm fairly certain this is what's going to happen. And I think this is what is most exciting for people coming into the industry. I think we're going to move back into a creative age. I think that we're all kind of saturated with data. We know that it has its benefits, but we also know that it can easily be abused. And I think we've suddenly woken up again and realized that there are two sides to the human brain for a reason. And that right brain, a fully developed creative right brain is an asset that you don't find everywhere. You just don't. And again, clients pay us to think differently and conceptualize differently to the way that they do. They want people to think differently.
And so, that talent is what they're paying for. I've noticed... It's funny I'm in the UK at the moment. I've been working out here for a while. I've noticed re-emergence globally, so in the States and in the UK, but elsewhere, of really good work again. And there was a while, a few years there, where I just wasn't seeing much of it, but the work is getting really, really good. So part of that is because we have to work harder with what we've got. So we have to be, again, more irreverent and more kind of attention grabbing. But I think part of it is just this renewed appreciation for the creative brain. And to me, that's the most exciting thing about the industry. It always has been.
Max Traylor: Lesley Bielby, everybody. That's a wrap for me, Lesley. 10 out of 10. Thank you so much. I couldn't imagine not having a spot for you in volume 33 of my book, which who knows when that will come out, you know how that works.
Lesley Bielby: I do.
Max Traylor: But, wow. Wow. That's all I got. That's all I got.
Lesley Bielby: Okay. Well, thank you-
Max Traylor: Do you have anything else? You got important stuff to get to, remember?
Lesley Bielby: I have a client meeting right now. So over here, it's almost 9:00 at night. My hours are 2:00 till 11-ish over here.
Max Traylor: Bless you. Bless you for that. I barely get through 10:00 to 4:00.
Lesley Bielby: Well, it's been fun talking to you. You asked all the right questions, by the way. You got my brain moving.
Max Traylor: We're recording, so don't say anything incriminating. All right. Well, cheers, everybody. If you're still listening, don't binge on Beers with Max, unless you're far away from heavy equipment, and then, by all means. Why not? See you.
Lesley Bielby: See you.