The APG Strategy Conference 2018


It’s my first time at the Account Planning Group’s strategy conference.


400 of us are crammed into the banked seating of the Royal Institution’s Lecture Theatre, the one you see on the Christmas Lectures. And I really mean crammed in: people were shorter in the 19th Century when this place was built. My poor knees.


The conference theme is contrarian thinking and how it can inspire creativity and change. As you’d expect from the industry body which represents strategic thinkers from across the marketing ecosystem, it’s a carefully curated menu served up to provoke and inspire. Half the speakers are experienced insiders, half are charismatic outsiders.


Let’s take the outsiders first.


These were heroic types relating life beyond our ken. People who had seen something in the world they wanted to change then worked to made that change happen – be it helping inmates on death row, making communities safer or understanding why big companies deliberately stick their head in the sand rather than confront reality. We basked in the reflected glory of people whose working lives involve less powerpoint and more meaning.


The insiders?


This was an industry ill at ease with itself. Beyond the usual frustrations about clients and their misplaced priorities Adland was characterised as out of touch, self-satisfied and navel-gazing. Mark Ritson lamented that most basic tasks – like understanding people then developing a compelling offer which meets their needs – were beyond us. Listening to Martin Weigel I sensed a sadness about what the job had become, a sense of alienation even.


Which frustrated me. There is life beyond lowest common denominator, multi-country landfill bland-vertising. It is possible to generalise not just to specialise. To be empowered to use all the tools within the marketing toolkit. Many of us go out into the world and meet real people weekly. It’s just that – paradoxically – senior roles within networked agencies and brands don’t give you the opportunity.


One to ponder.




I want to focus on just 3 of the speakers.


Tor Garnett


I’d not heard of Tor Garnett before the event but I won’t forget her. Her enthusiasm and sheer force of personality created such forward momentum that it was impossible not to be carried along.


Garnett is a police officer who is trying to change policing from the inside (co-founding the Commissioner’s 100, a programme which empowers junior officers to improve policing)

and the outside (co-founding Police Now – getting high fliers into policing, a bit like Teach First).


Both programmes are objectively successful in the face of huge odds. The secret? Creating role models: seeding change in the system. The Commissioner’s 100 were empowered from the top, then individual ‘champions’ were hot housed to role model the right behaviours in a “licensed insurgency”. Crucially this was about “personal action not a shopping list for above.”


If that wasn’t enough for someone 10 years into their career, Garnett is also aiming at the root cause of violence in society. The Take 90 campaign - based on the notion that it takes 90 seconds for anger to pass - was launched with 90 partner organisations like Facebook and Unilad. 


These are not small challenges, and it takes audacity and charisma to make a dent in them. Few would remain energetic in a negative culture (“the job’s fucked” a constant echo) not known for its agility (“3 months ago we got laptops and it’s been a game changer”). The contrarian thinking we can learn from?

·         Diagnose the problem clearly: the first rule of marketing;

·         Undermine the hierarchy by using it: a ‘licensed insurgency’ sponsored from the top;

·         Relentless enthusiasm: “there’s 100 bricks in every wall of no – keep going”;

·         Never settle: grubby compromises won’t do;

·         Repetition: the knowledge that you are adding to the net balance of positivity with each convert.


Nils Leonard


Next up, a creative.


Nils Leonard characterised creativity as a survival mechanic. In his view “we are most creative when we are in the shit”. I think we’ve all been there. His cheat sheet for creativity was instructive:


·         Look for trouble: it is inspiring. The biggest leaps come from the biggest problems. Go where the heat is;

·         Create an agency culture with simple belief that if creativity dies then we’re doomed;

·         Find the stuff that pisses you off and channel it into your job;

·         The brief is the culture of every project. What is yours? Planners should think carefully here;

·         Fear is worrying about what someone else thinks. Ignore it. Use the ferocity your emotion creates.


Leonard, mad at the knowledge it takes 200 years for Nespresso capsules to biodegrade was spurred to launch Halo, an eco-friendly alternative, in 2017.


For me what struck a chord was the emotion. Perhaps I spend too much of my time in a rage, but half the time I think if you’re not angry then you’re not thinking. Emotion drives action.  

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Mark Ritson

I came to the conference to hear Mark Ritson speak, and he’s up in the early afternoon. By this point all blood flow has ceased to my feet and I am developing deep vein thrombosis. The red velvet is slightly worn in the seat in front as I try to jiggle life to my tortured toes.  

“What I wanted to use my session for was look at the things that marketers get wrong and I mostly get right” – brand management & strategy, market orientation, targeting and media. So pretty much everything then Mark.

It’s an urgent, entertaining hour. Ritson exasperates his way through the sins of marketers and pushes the already high “fuck-o-meter” into the stratosphere as he provides a roadmap for success. It’s great to see someone who revels in being centre stage and is so suited to the big occasion, who’s done the hard thinking but is prepared to be playful with the delivery. I’ve not seen a better conference presentation. I’ve put a brief summary of his lecture in the appendix below.


Thanks to the APG for organising. I’m tired but inspired.



Appendix: Mark Ritson’s 60 minute marketing masterclass in 566 words

The 3 stages of brand management

·         Diagnosis: go and understand what is going on – drivers/behaviours/segments

·         Strategy: not tactics: a simply articulated goal

·         Tactics: a plan that will deliver that strategy covering comms, distribution, product & pricing

·         The challenge: it is multiplicative. If you get one thing wrong, the rest is wrong. Invest equal resources in each stage.

Market orientation

·         You need research to set your strategy.

·         “The first rule of marketing is you are not the customer – you are younger, more affluent, with no time for TV”   

·         “Your personal opinion about your brand is not just incorrect, it is dangerous”

·         “When you sign your employment contract you leave something behind – the world of customer… you never see your customer, price naturally ever again… you need to become a vacuum… it’s about humility.”

Brand strategy

·         Finish your strategy before you brief in tactics. Map the whole market not just your customers. Targeting is then about you. 

·         Strategy is elimination: what you don’t do – who you don’t target, the brands you kill, the segments you don’t follow. Award winning strategies focus on 1-2 objectives.

·         Strategy comes from military thinking: D Day was 9 months of hard thinking translated to half a slip of paper – a simple plan paratroopers could enact. Obvious is a good thing. Less is more.

·         You need to answer 4 questions:

o   Which brands will I operate?  

o   Who am I going after?

o   What is our positioning?

o   What are our SMART objectives?  

·         Undertake a one year plan: agility is the enemy – and I quote “…we need less agility motherfucker – we need agility like a 3rd nipple…”. Quite.


·         Targeting has become a choice: challenged from clients like P&G down to Byron Sharp “the dark lord of penetration”

·         Targeting and penetration are not binary! Binet and Field’s The long and the short of it evidences that it is a blend of brand building (60%) and sales activation (40%).

·         Over time it is apparent that we need the long with the short: the two work in concert. If our brand is a tree, you must water the tree to harvest fruit; picking fruit without watering the tree is unsustainable.


·         Is still cool! Distinctiveness is important. Without meaning brands are commodities.

·         Differentiation and distinctiveness are important: you can be distinctive with difference – it is not mutually exclusive / a false binary.

·         Brand meaning is important: brands must stand for something, they don’t need to be unique, but they need to be known for a combination of 2-3 things in a unique cocktail. 

·         Marketers have two goals:

o   Awareness/salience – Do you know I am here? You want 100% of your target audience to know you exist. A hard task.

o   Positioning - What do I stand for? The 1-2-3 things your customer thinks of when you come to mind. These need to be delivered across all touchpoints. 3-4 things are all you can hope for because brands just don’t mean much to people “We overstate the role of brands – they are little things.”


·         Media is multiplicative, interactive, synergistic - different tools work together.

·         A+B is greater than = 2a or 2b. Sales uplift analyses by Analytic Partners evidence clear synergies when you use 2+ channels.

·         Digital? “Why limit yourself to 50% of the tactical ghetto?” Now 72% of outdoor is digital in London – what does digital mean? We should not separate we should integrate.


Annabel Gerrard