Broken Heart Love Affair’s partner and chief strategy officer on working with creatives to craft and sell through magic, issues with the term ‘junior’ strategist, and the advertising industry’s obsession with counting clicks
Jay Chaney, partner & chief strategy officer at Toronto agency Broken Heart Love Affair, has been Canada’s Top Planner on the Creative Report Card for the past two years in a row and was listed as one of four Top Planners in the World in 2018, according to AdAge.
He is known for pushing the limits of advertising, and redefining and championing the strategy and planning role in Canada. He has contributed to several internationally game-changing and award-winning campaigns; including, KOHO’s Dream Thieves, SickKids VS, Honey Nut Cheerios ‘Bring Back the Bees’, and McDonald’s ‘Our Food Your Questions’, which set a global standard for transparency in advertising.
A known challenger, Chaney began his career in the pure play digital world and has successfully connected the online and offline ad worlds in his most recent years and brings a fresh perspective on what’s happening and, perhaps more importantly, why.
Jay was previously CCO at KOHO and CSO at Cossette. He also held strategy roles at Lg2, Tribal DDB, Critical Mass, and Blast Radius. He is formerly chair of the Strategy Program at Toronto’s Miami Ad School.
Get his thoughts on profession in his contribution to Planning for the Best.
LBB> What do you think is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there one?
Jay> Strategy is the plan to win the war. Planning is the tool to win a particular battle within the war. Strategists create the plan of attack leveraging multiple tactics, best using the available resources and knowledge, to accomplish an end goal. Planning is a tactical tool to connect consumers to a brand.
LBB> And which description do you think suits the way you work best?
Jay> I am a strategist first and foremost and I have a well-developed skill in planning. I have had a multitude of experiences over my career, inside and outside of advertising, and I bring all of those tools to my clients’ challenges every day.
LBB> We’re used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what’s your favourite historic campaign from a strategic perspective? One that you feel demonstrates great strategy?
Jay> I still gravitate towards Apple’s 1984. It was so far ahead of the times. We often talk about breakthroughs in advertising. 1984 wasn’t just breakthrough in the moment, it was the advertising rapture. It blew everything else out of the water creatively and strategically. It took an underdog brand in Apple and spoke like they were the dominant brand, it treated television advertising as film, it shocked people into paying attention and remembering and it clearly set forth a POV which said you’re either one of us or you’re not. That to me was the beginning of the publicly facing strategy that Apple is intended for the creative class that made it the success it is today. It also foretold a future, our present, (understanding that the idea is based off of Orwell’s famed novel of the same name) that Apple would ironically have a hand in creating.
LBB> When you’re turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to draw on?
Jay> Psychological and neurological studies coming out of various universities and think tanks. I want to understand the inner workings of the mind at a human level. We are ultimately in the business of behaviour change. No matter what the challenge, we need to move people to do things that they are not otherwise predisposed to do. You could include perception change, but shifting perception always has an intended action-oriented outcome, so it always ties back to behaviour shifts.
LBB> What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Jay> Taking a tidal wave of seemingly disparate components and unifying it down to a very simple plan along a singular thread that over delivers results. When people get excited by the one thing that I see that connects it all, when it translates into amazing creative that people love and when that love turns into results, I’m fulfilled.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself going back to over and over again? Why are they so useful?
Jay> Sakichi Toyoda’s ‘Five Whys’. My dad introduced me to this method as a little kid and it stuck with me. I firmly believe that the opportunity lies beneath the assumptions or the façade of accepted reality by clients and consumers. For instance, we often get briefed with a business problem, but is it the real problem? That’s our job to figure out. All of the work in my career that has been celebrated as a success began by not accepting the stated business problem and by asking why repeatedly to figure out what the true challenge is. Similarly, consumer research is often taken at face value. Consumers say they want something or believe something, but they are always wearing a mask. Asking why – why are they responding this way? – helps to interpret the results to get to an understanding that creates effective campaigns.
LBB> What sort of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?
Jay> I love working with strategically open-minded creatives. I am very aware of the fact that I rarely have all of the answers, so I love to have early and frequent conversations with creatives. I want them to push me. I want to zero in on the answer iteratively. I also expect the same creatives to welcome me into creative conversations. At my core I am a creative person, so I enjoy being in the process, but it also helps to calibrate the work and realign to strategy before anyone feels bought off on the solution.
My primary goal is to inspire my creative partners, to remove all of the guesswork so that they can focus on inspiring consumers with their awesome creative talent. I am always accused of writing incredibly tight briefs. I am lucky to have creative partners who trust my work and build great things that tether to the core approach. When we operate this way, we create magic, but we also sell through ideas in the first round with levels of client excitement that are rarely seen.
LBB> There’s a negative stereotype about strategy being used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and make sure they’re effective. How do you make sure the agency gets this the right way round?
Jay> It always comes down to trust and relationship. If that is the view of strategy within shops then both the strategy and creative leadership have a lot of work to do in building practice and connection. Look, I think that there are creative ideas that can be highly strategic in nature and I can think of one of my favourite campaigns being an instance where my creative partner, Carlos, came up with an idea and loved it and I was able to isolate and back-out the strategy. He is so smart instinctually and strategically that if he is in love with an idea, there is something to it that I just need to capture and extract. But, for the most part, there is a lot of work to do with clients to isolate the opportunity prior to ever getting to creative, especially with more complex brand problems. However, just because an idea is highly creative it doesn’t mean that it will necessarily accomplish the end objective and in that case those ideas should never see the light of day in this industry because we should be creating with purpose. This may sound harsh, but if a strategist can’t figure out how to build value within their own agency or practice, are they really a strategist to begin with?
LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and nurturing strategic talent? And how has Covid changed the way you think about this?
Jay> I look for a specific personality type in recruiting and have found great success in this formula. First off, I don’t believe in the notion of a junior strategist. That doesn’t even make sense. Strategists need to lead and to lead you need experience. People need to glean that experience over time, performing different functions then make the transition with a perspective. I digress. I look for highly sensitive, observant, and critical thinkers with strong self-confidence (you need it in this role), people who love to live in chaos, but can make quick sense of it. All of this, plus the ability to convince. It’s a tall order, but when you find those gems hold on tight. I was lucky to have built the best strategy group in the country off of this plan.
Covid has only heightened my desire to find these profiles. Clients are looking for direction, understanding, and confidence in solutions. Strategists need to deliver now more than ever, otherwise we risk not only doing reputational harm to the agency, but the industry as a whole.
LBB> In recent years it seems like effectiveness awards have grown in prestige and agencies have paid more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted on how strategists work and the way they are perceived?
Jay> I agree, effectiveness awards have grown in prestige, but I also believe that this is because we are living through a highly tactical and myopic moment in the lifecycle industry. Effectiveness is critical, but I believe that two things have happened that makes me less than enthused: 1. We have just seen transactions as the only measures of effectiveness and activations as being the sole instigator of that success, which is nonsense. 2. Agencies have become incredibly adept at manufacturing results. I have seen campaigns that you know have only reached a few thousand people, dog walkers if you will, win effectiveness awards. To me that’s peak lunacy. But, this industry is suffering from an identity crisis at the moment, so that all makes sense.
As a result of a desire to count clicks and parse data we have seen analysts misclassified as strategists.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Jay> With the increasing demand for strategists, we are, as an industry, just putting butts in seats and not giving consideration to whether people who are becoming strategists should be strategists, which helps agencies sell hours, but not necessarily provide value. This circles back to the notion of junior strategist. I don’t know how a junior person provides strategic value to a client, but I understand how it helps the agency in the short term. There’s a secondary problem in that these incredibly eager and talented people are not properly being mentored, so that causes long term challenges as well.
The other challenge that I have is that most strategists want to be the star of the show. They aren’t. Any strategist worth their weight should be in service of amazing creative. That’s the goal: great creative output that people love and that moves business. There is little value in a giant deck or in being an academic completely disconnected from the creative team you work with. You are a piece of a larger whole all in service of one objective. I used to play a lot of sports growing up and I liken an agency to a sports team. The common objective of every team is to win each game and, ultimately, the championship. No one role is more important than the other. Everyone has to do their job to the best of their ability and training and play as a cohesive whole. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you play as individuals, you lose. I think a lot of people in the discipline have played as individuals for too long.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Jay> Remember that the end game is always about creative output. Surround yourself in creativity in all forms, you will earn the respect of your creative partners. Practice being decisive, it’s one of the more critical skills of the role. Grow thick skin quickly, you will need it.