Q&A with Pete Petrella, Partner at Blackbook London

HEY PETE. HOW DID YOU GET HERE?

I started life as a designer/art director. I still paint and draw when I get a moment, I love fine art. When I started working in this industry I found I never really fitted in a traditional structure. I started in a marketing agency that was focused on events and the entertainment sector but I didn’t fit in any one department. I veered from design and production to creativity to user experience and strategy.

When I started at that agency, I realised I was in a team where strategists also seemed to come up with ideas, so I was curious about what they actually did. But then I also noticed that the media folk were coming up with ideas when planning and buying, but that they didn’t really talk with the strategists or the creatives. And then there was the creative department itself that came up with ideas, but it was full of people willing to argue with the others about their ideas in the middle of the room. It was all a bit of a strange new world.

There are some great advertising agencies that I really admire like BBDO, Leo Burnett, JWT, to name a few, masters of storytelling and managing the perception of brands. So I wondered, who needed another ad agency?

We set up Blackbook to create an agnostic strategic and creative business decoupled from production to give honest advice for clients. We were lucky starting out with the world’s largest luxury watch brand as a client. I’m proud to say that they are still a client – 75% of Blackbook's work is consulting. 25% is rolling up our sleeves and making stuff, which is always great fun. It’s a thin line to walk when you want to give genuine, honest advice to clients but your business depends on making stuff. This balance is something we’re always very conscious of.


AT WHAT POINT DO CLIENTS COME TO YOU?

Often there is a problem, and they can be quite varied. It goes from 'how do we better spend and activate the money we spend in sponsorship?' through to 'what should our content strategy be?'

I’m proud to say that we have such a good relationship with our clients and know the brands we work with so well that today we sometimes get briefed over the phone! In all seriousness, when you move away from the brief as a piece of paper and actually sit down and have a discussion, or ongoing dialogue about the problem you’re trying to solve, it’s far more constructive so we insist on meeting a lot and talking.

 

WHAT’S THE PLANNING PROCESS AT BLACKBOOK?

We aim to look at the effectiveness of a brand’s marketing performance through channels over time. The starting point is mapping the brand and all its touchpoints.

We look at the brand in the aggregate, from unprompted awareness, right through to loyalty and repeat use. A large logistics client we have would have a ‘know’ phase – familiarity and consideration that goes into research. We look at the tipping points. Where people land, where they might encounter content and how quickly that turns into an action. It takes creative thinking, UX thinking and strategic thinking. It’s incredibly hard to find that in one department usually. When you get down to the research piece, it’s mostly about search. What terms are you buying against the category and yourself in order to capture and serve people the right information at the point of need. It also affects where people end up after they click a link.

We then have a unique way of scoring the experience, which is always illuminating for clients. We look at how intrinsically linked everything is through the journey, from what is said to what is done.

Ultimately though it’s a means to an end, and the end game is to generate actionable insight and great ideas that move a brand forward in terms of marketing performance and brand health.


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SOMETIMES CLIENTS AREN’T RECEPTIVE TO A GREAT IDEA, IT JUST DOESN’T CONNECT. HOW DO YOU MITIGATE THAT?

Patience is a big part of it. There are a few elements to that question but it all comes down to influence earned through trust, developed through good work, collaboration and honest advice.

The fastest route to influence is a senior client that knows their brand’s marketing needs to change or evolve and they have decision-making power to implement that change or at the very least, lobby for it.

Often clients have a campaign focus while you are trying to take a more holistic, long term view for the brand’s health. It’s hard when the focus for clients is one piece of the puzzle. The important thing is to open the lens on this piece and encourage it to be considered as part of the whole experience – what comes before and after.

It can be tough as a junior planner or creative trying to exert influence on clients – especially senior ones. I’ve seen brilliant, smart people get torn apart by senior clients – not at BBL I might add! – because there is an experience gap. You can plug that by being really well informed and well read. Deliver insight in a way that doesn’t feel like a sermon but a discussion, make your ideas their ideas, be generous with your ideas. If your language is replayed in a meeting, that’s great. Don’t say anything. It’s not about you. Blackbook doesn’t enter awards. Our work is about our client and the brand we are trying to maintain or improve.

 

I WENT TO A TALK BY GOOGLE AND THEY SAID THEY WERE TRYING TO DEVELOP CREATIVE SYSTEMS INSTEAD OF CREATIVE WORK. HOW DO YOU SELL A CREATIVE PROCESS INSIDE A COMPANY?

The Experience Planning Framework (EPF) we developed was one vehicle for doing that. A number of agency parters at brands we work with have or are using the EPF to frame both creative and media. It works because it’s holistic and puts the customer at the center of the experience. It aims to take away some of the subjectivity and focus people's minds on where the real problems are to solve, if any!

The truth is there’s not a product out there that will give you the ‘right answer’, you still need a bunch of smart people to find insights and brilliant ideas. I’ve never seen a tool that will tell you how to run a campaign. We don’t prophesise tools. Not even our own. These tools are a means to an end. There is no silver bullet in my experience.

 

WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF INSIGHT YOU’VE HAD TO WORK WITH TO PRODUCE CREATIVE?

TV licensing springs to mind. Whilst at Proximity BBDO there was a tough brief to impress on students that they needed to buy a license whilst at university if they were watching TV. The insight at the time came through identifying what students would relate to and wouldn’t ignore, that was framing the issue using comedy. The campaign the teams came up with was, I think excellent. ‘It’s not funny’ was a 360 campaign – remember those? – that ran for a number of years using ‘anti-humor’ as a way of encouraging students to buy a TV license. A fantastic piece of integrated work that delivered results and won awards.

 

CATEGORIES LIKE FMCG ARE FOCUSED ON MEDIA HEAVILY, FOCUSING ON HOW MANY TIMES IT’S SHOWN RATHER THAN WHAT’S SAID ON THOSE CHANNELS. IS IT A GROWING THREAT FOR CREATIVE AGENCIES?

You have to go back to a time when media, strategy and creative were in the same building working together for the same clients. The brand strategy was deeply linked to media behavior and ideas grew from the insights generated. It’s very difficult to come up with something truly amazing if you can’t comprehend the whole puzzle. Today media agencies like Mindshare and Mediacom have a huge amount of influence because they control the biggest budget, define the audience and frankly can collaborate easily with media owners to deliver great media ideas to clients – some of the better ideas I’ve seen in the last few years fit this profile.

That said, you still need a good idea and a clear message. Creative agencies aren’t going anywhere but they do need to modernise their approach and think about media in conjunction with their ideas and execution.

Talk to the media experts, collaborate with them, check the production costs. Ask the questions that are difficult but which makes your approach more solid and holistic.

 

YOU DON’T MENTION CLIENTS ON YOUR SITE. WHY? HOW HAS IT HELPED OR HINDERED NEW BIZ?

Discretion is a big part of our ethos. We have great relationships with the brands we work with, unquestionable trust that’s been hard earned through great work. We made a conscious decision to be discreet and that has served us well. I know our clients respect it.

The main consequence is that it makes hiring people a little harder. Marion (one of the partners at Group Think) asked the right questions, took a leap and she’s turned out to be a great asset to the business.

 

YOU’VE MENTIONED THE NEED TO BE FLEXIBLE AND BUILD SPECIFIC TEAMS FOR CLIENTS. HOW DO YOU BUILD THE TRUST THAT THEY ARE GETTING THE RIGHT EXPERT AT THE RIGHT TIME?

We’re transparent about our scale and our business model. At no point ever have we told the client that we are bigger than we are. They are buying strategic and creative ninjas. They are using the best people at the top of their game. I like to think the work we do and the way we are to work with is proof enough of that.

When a client comes to us with something we haven’t tackled before and we think we can help, we say as much and then build a team or bring people in to help us. Ultimately we know our brands intimately and often it’s a knowledge gap and niche expertise you are missing. That transparency, overlaid with our knowledge and approach, works well.


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