Lazy Book Club: Five things we discussed about "Brain Surfing"

Our latest Lazy Book Club was about Heather LeFevre’s incredibly useful book “Brain Surfing”. So with a handful of other strategists, we gathered around an East London pub to talk about what the book had to offer, under the theme of “the process of challenging your process”.

Heather’s book is about how she went to live with some of the top marketing minds in the world to learn more about their ways of doing strategy, and depending on your level of seniority there are quite useful lessons in there. But the real kicker comes at the end of each chapter, where there are more practical tips that we could explore in our own work.

The best thing about it is that there’s no single way of doing strategy “right”. Yes, there are some basics we need to cover, but beyond that, the best process is a process that works for you. So we talked about a few different processes and research tools that have worked for the group.

1. Company financial reports

If you work for a publicly traded company, it’s often good practice to check out what they disclose in their financial reports. There are a few benefits of this: first, it allows you to understand what the business truly values, and where the opportunities in the category seem to lie according to their perspective. Second, if it’s one of your competitors, you can get that same level of intel about them to try and inform your own strategy. Third, it’s often a good source of quotes from the company’s leadership, which helps understand the vision behind the work they do (something that’s not always possible if you speak with a more junior client).

2. Social listening / search

Depending on the tools at your disposal, social listening is often quite useful to understand how people talk about categories, brands or specific bits of culture. The biggest challenge here is to not take it purely as face value, because at best you’ll get a sample of people who actually bother to talk about these things online, whereas the majority is at best a passive consumer of that information. But still, it’s better than nothing!

A good complement here is to look at search as well, via tools like Google Trends, YouTube search or Google auto-complete, because what people search for privately can be vastly different from what they talk about publicly. Good luck telling your toothpaste client that most people don’t talk about their category on Twitter!

3. Checklists

Inspired by another book called “The Checklist Manifesto”, we talked a lot about how certain checklists are handy to have when developing strategy. Now, the problem with checklists is they might make your work more formulaic, but the bigger point we got to was around how it’s useful to have a checklist of different things you could ask, and less of an order in which you should ask them. For more inspiration on this, check out these two checklists we found online: planning checklists and 30 key planning exploration questions (via Julian Cole’s newsletter).


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4. Informants

This one was directly inspired by one of the people Heather spent time living and working with, Rob Campbell, then Head of Planning at W+K Shanghai and now Head of Strategy EMEA at R/GA (check out our Q&A with him here). Rob’s become famous over the years for “collecting people” he calls informants, which are essentially people he speaks to in order to understand real world perceptions of a category, product or culture.

We talked about how while most of us might find it hard to recruit a prostitute to a client meeting or a car burglar for a pitch (like Rob has done), it’s still useful to have access to real people we can talk to about the work we’re doing. The receptionist? The guy working in mail? A security guard? Your grandma? Anyone can be a powerful informant. And no, a survey to your agency’s staff does not constitute real “primary research”.

5. Duos

A process that felt close to home, given our mission to develop strategists through conversations. The ideal scenario is that strategy is developed by talking with people as you go along, but the reality is often strategists find themselves having to do it all alone. This might be because everyone’s too busy, but often we hear juniors saying they’re the only strategist in the agency, which doesn’t help.

So what if, like creatives, we had more or less formal ways to have a strategy buddy around the agency? Some places already do open briefs, but we talked about a more one-on-one way of working where you have a buddy who, for example, could review your briefs or presentations and vice-versa, for a bit of perspective. We need to keep pushing against the “lone wolf” mentality, and duos might be a way to do it.

“Brain Surfing” is a great book altogether, and these are just a few things worth pulling from its pages. If you have a chance, do check it out. If not, why not start applying some of the above processes to how you do your own work? Your brain – and the other brains working with you – will surely thank you for that.


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