15 highlights from our conversation with Simon Cotterrell, Head of Strategy at Interbrand

We recently held a Q&A with Simon Cotterrell, Head of Strategy at Interbrand. Between beers and lime ’n’ sodas , we discussed all sorts of things related to agencies, consultancies, going client side and some of the fundamentals for any strategist. Here are 15 highlights from our conversation.


Brand consultancies see the story from the inside out and make sure that a brand idea comes to life universally across an organisation, not just to its customers. But this roundedness in application can mean that they end up being rounded in their thinking. Ad agencies, conversely, put single-mindedness of thinking at the epicentre of their activity, but face the challenge of being too mono-dimensional in output. It’s the bringing together of the best bits of both that clients are looking for.


Strategists should act like the consumer reality check. We should perpetually remind clients of what customers want and what choices they have. We should remind them that if their brand doesn’t captivate customers, providing either utility or meaning, it’ll lose.


There could be an opportunity for Brand Consultancies to be the Trojan Horse of networked organisations. In theory, they offer a more neutral voice to the conversation because their revenue doesn’t depend on a specific media channel or the production of a specific campaign.


The thing any consultancy has to watch out for (probably in a way that creative agencies often don’t) is the projects that result in large PPT documents that can quickly become a pile of paper gathering dust somewhere (a place Simon always refers to as “the filing cabinet of doom”).


Good strategists often embody three (admittedly, quite masculine sounding) skills / personas. First, Sherlock Holmes. Being tenacious, able to investigate, digging your teeth and wrestling people for information. Second, Jason Bourne. Being able to think quickly, compartmentalise logic, make hypotheses on the go and create lines of attack (the old world of having loads of time for research/thinking is gone). Third, Michael McIntyre. Having the ability to take all that and make it relatable to an audience, not necessarily through wordsmithing, but through great framing; finding new ways to look at the same old things. The first two of these skills/personas are teachable, the third tends to be more innate.


One of the best research questions you can ask someone: “how do you feel when [X]”? Arguably, we don’t spend enough time asking this to real people, or people across our clients’ organisations.


Strategists and creatives work best when they work together. If you get creatives involved in your strategy, you get a license for them to involve you in the creative process. The strategist’s brain is that of an inquisitor, while a creative brain is more of an entertainer – together they’re powerful.


In the marketplace, our job is to stop choice, because ideally we position our client’s brand in a way that makes it irresistible for people to choose them over someone else.


When it comes to Brand Purpose, a consultant’s job is often to hold companies accountable for the things they claim to stand for. If a company has a purpose already, always ask “what do you mean by this? Which activities support this?”


10 years ago, you’d only move from an agency/consultancy to client side to go away and die... Today, there is a new attractiveness to it. There are new challenges that agencies can’t offer, and other market forces that make it attractive to try a non-agency career. Perceptions include increased money, greater access to data (to make better decisions), and more control over output. Whether all of these are true or not is another matter...


In large organisations, there are often various layers of approval that need to be gone through for anything to happen. When an idea gets blocked it’s not always because people are scared of it, sometimes it’s because that person needs a sense that others are bought into it as well, whether that’s their boss or peers. Not dealing with this can result in a good idea dying then and there.


Everyone talks about the ‘why’ (a la Simon Sinek), but one of the most important layers of activity is the ‘how’. A strong ‘why’ without a clear ‘how’ is just a fake promise, an empty statement. Often, there’s nothing wrong with a purpose statement in itself, as long as you mind the tone through which you approach or execute against it.


Useful frameworks for strategic thinking include: “Because we identified A who think B, we make C in order to D”. Another useful framework, to test the quality/actionability of a purpose statement, is to add next to it the words “and that’s why the first thing we’re going to do is X”.


Another good metaphor to think about purpose: greyhound racing. In it, greyhounds are racing each other by following a (fake) rabbit, but if the rabbit goes too fast the dogs get demotivated. If the rabbit goes too slow it gets ripped to shreds and the dogs stop racing. Likewise, a brand purpose needs to be powerful enough to pull your people forward. If it’s too lofty it’s just going to feel too unachievable, and if it’s too pragmatic it’s not going to inspire anyone to go very far.


Advice for young planners: go out of your way to understand how people in other departments work. Ask them what makes their day good, or not good. It never harms to know how other parts of the business work. Or even ask your boss if you can be temporarily seconded in the client’s organisation, because that can be a powerful way to see all the tensions and curiosities that otherwise you would never notice.


Useful craft skills that any strategist could benefit from: A. writing (even if fictional ads). B. Showing people you understand what is an insight and how it’s different from a solid observation. C. Cultivating the art of brevity, especially when doing presentations. Think in five slides for every argument, and no more than that. Because if you’re influencing senior clients, they will often have no time for anything that’s longer than five pages.

Thank you for your time Simon!

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