About Learning


Before you read this post, click here and play Donald Fagen’s Great Pagoda of Funn in the background. It’s an accurate representation of how I feel today.

There are some weeks where you are lucky enough to find out quite a lot about your craft as a strategist, and quite a lot about yourself along the way.

This week I was charged with delivering a Point Of View to a room full of CMOs from one the US’s most dynamic industry verticals. Their industry is about to enter an era of vertiginous change due to a raft of new legislation that could either make or break their businesses, but in any event will result in root-and-branch change to almost everything they do.

This industry sector simply doesn’t exist in the UK, so I had no experience either as a consumer or as a planner in how to think about it or approach it, leaving me nervous some weeks ago when this started, that I would be able to deliver any meaningful insights or recommendations. The scope of the subject was pretty vast: encompassing segmentation, divining consumer insights, brand definition and positioning, product strategy and marketing activation strategy.

Happily, the 4-hour session that I came up with was very well received, leaving me today pretty much glowing, and in a great mood as I leave the beautiful city of Chicago, looking down over the incomprehensible vastness of Michigan towards Canada and home.

What I’ve realized (again) is the unparalleled importance of learning. Last week I read a great piece about the traits of confident people, and was very taken by some of the truths contained in it.

One of the key traits of confident people (which I guess we all have to aspire to) is the ability to learn, and to keep learning, and I’ve always believed that the only true sign of maturity is the deep acknowledgement that you are constantly changing, and that there is no ‘final destination’ for you to get to, where you can say that you have mastered your art.

But how do you best go about learning? How can you get from what you may fear is a point of hopeless ignorance to a persuasive and robust position in only a limited time?

The past couple of weeks have given me some pointers:


Build on your fundamentals.

You’re never starting from scratch.

Despite my lack of formal training as a planner (or perhaps because of it) I’ve been lucky enough to develop a range of original perspectives for various clients over the past couple of years. These broad themes include areas such as How brands are built digitally, Strategies for mobile and digital transformation, The role of digital for CPG, and Consumer-centricity techniques for brands and services among others. I guess the joy of spending over a decade in mobile means that you have to be inventive to survive…

While this thinking originated from spaces as diverse as alcohol, finance, automotive and loyalty, you should be able to take from all the work you do some core beliefs.

Using your core beliefs doesn’t mean short-cutting, and it doesn’t offer some kind of one-size-fits-all strategic miracle cure, but it does offer some key areas of truth. Each of these is a lifetime of work in itself, but I think they can be ideally defined as:

  • Brand truths. There are only so many ways that a brand can be developed, and there are commonalities among all brands in how success is achieved
  • Human truths. If we understand how people behave and understand their world, we can help brands float naturally within consumers’ perceptions and desires
  • Product truths. The relationship between what we say as brands and how we want people to hear it is only worth doing if we design client products that deliver credibly on our marketing vision

A key element to learning for me is developing new aspects and applications over the top of these core truths


You’re never alone

Unless you’ve spent your whole career annoying people, you should have a network of people with skills or insights to help, or you should be able to use your network to find new people who can do so, thus growing your network even further.

While I have some branding chops, I was able to connect on this occasion with the Copernicus team in Boston, and one hour with the incomparable Eric Paquette was enough to power me with key insights and at-the-coalface techniques.

I have learnt that expertise and experience can be found almost anywhere, with our CRM director in this instance providing some of the best insights. Ask anyone their opinion, as you never know who will add a new dimension, some anecdotal evidence, or at least some color to your thinking.


Don’t be afraid to be original

I once worked with a planner, who, when faced with a big challenge, made a point to reach out for established planning or brand frameworks as a first point of call, sometimes without necessarily trying to crack the problem the hard way first. Thus whole responses would be based on Blue Ocean, or McKinsey, and openly called out as such in presentations and documents.  While planning frameworks can help, I have a problem with some of them, particularly the hugely over-rated McKinsey cycle, which bears no relation at all to how brands are built.

The use, or overt use, or frameworks places two key strains on a strategist and the result he is aiming for:

  • Having set up a piece of thinking to use an off-the-shelf model, the team is then committed to making the rest of the work fit to it, even if it turns out not to be appropriate – I’ve seen some uncomfortable contortions made in final presentations to accommodate this in the past
  • If used too blatantly, or if not selected very carefully, it can look like the approach lacks originality, or worse still, is counterfeit


But most of all, I think that the strength of original thinking works because if you believe it yourself, and have developed it either over the course of many years or as an application to a particular problem, you will always sound more credible and convincing when explaining it to others.

In this instance, learning is about giving yourself the freedom to go a bit out there and discover something new.

Author, Tim Dunn.

I'm Director of Mobile at Roundarch Isobar. While I've specialised in mobile for over 13 years, I now work across broad digital marketing strategy, and am interested in interactions, UX, media and marketing theory, and innovation of almost any description. Click About Me for more and info and what this blog is about. Follow me on Twitter @timmcdunn or connect on LinkedIn

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