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A Pro­fu­sion of Information

An Inter­view with Account Planner/Strategist Drew Coburn

In this age of two-way mar­ket­ing where many just throw up their hands and focus on the past I sought to inves­ti­gate where the line between pre­dict­ing the future and plan­ning for it inter­sects. Here is what transpired:

Q: Tell us a lit­tle bit about you and your background?

I did not go to school for adver­tis­ing or com­mu­ni­ca­tions, I had a lib­eral arts degree. I just kind of stum­bled into adver­tis­ing. I had a friend who I knew from school I called him one day and said Account Man­age­ment what’s that all about? And then some­thing called “Strat­egy” emerged in the early 90’s it used to be called research. It became “Strat­egy and Plan­ning” I just grav­i­tated towards that. I got more and more into strat­egy not just for brand­ing or adver­tis­ing but for any kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And I love it. I really love it. I like think­ing about “what’s going on here?” for a client.

Q: Do you still see a clear line between account, brand­ing and strat­egy?

These days at any moment, in any meet­ing in an agency or with a client if there is a 10,000 ft. view to be talked about; whether it’s their sales force, their com­mu­ni­ca­tions or devel­op­ing a new busi­ness strat­egy “That’s where I play”. A Profusion of Information/interviews

Q: In a way, part of a strategist’s job is dare I say to “pre­dict the future” have you ever vis­ited a tarot card reader or other pre­dic­tive prac­ti­tioner to com­pare notes?

My mother-in-law twenty years was into Astrol­ogy she actu­ally got a degree from Har­vard in it. She read my star chart. She wrote me a 20-page let­ter that I have to this day and that was a pow­er­ful inter­nal look at myself. I started ask­ing, what can I cre­ate instead of what other peo­ple can cre­ate for me. This is the basis of social media.

Q: As Social Media matures, what do you see as the next big trend?

Right now we’re in a period of con­fu­sion and I don’t mean that neg­a­tively. I believe it was Ein­stein that said “A will­ing­ness to be con­fused is to be in the high­est state of think­ing” The rate of change and the flood of news and infor­ma­tion really chal­lenges agen­cies and plan­ners to dis­tin­guish between what is a rel­a­tively mean­ing­less tac­tic, that will fiz­zle out and what is a strat­egy. I see this period and the period com­ing is really one of a lot of agen­cies try­ing to fig­ure out what the heck is going on. Given the great change – I’m not sure I know the answer to that yet other than a will­ing­ness to be con­fused and have the humil­ity to approach things with eyes wide open.

Q: What is the impli­ca­tion? The core prob­lem if you will?

I think the core prob­lem is “oppor­tu­nity” it’s a pro­fu­sion of infor­ma­tion and access to that infor­ma­tion that allows us to become over­whelmed on a daily basis try­ing to decide what’s impor­tant and what isn’t.

Q: I think you’re onto some­thing; can you give us a real world example?

I met with a Dig­i­tal agency recently – and talked with them about Point of Dif­fer­ence: They now do most of their research and plan­ning through online tools. I was try­ing to think; is that a strate­gic dif­fer­ence or a tac­ti­cal dif­fer­ence. Is online sim­ply a new tac­tic with the same strate­gic cloth­ing or a fun­da­men­tal shift need­ing us to rethink our busi­ness? I some­times hear con­ver­sa­tions that address dig­i­tal in a very large way and its not large at all. Other times I hear con­ver­sa­tions and I stop and think Wow that could be a more fun­da­men­tal thing.

Q: So then, does buy­ing an ipad count as a strat­egy?

I was at a think-tank func­tion a few weeks ago. We talked about all sorts of issues. At the end of the day there was a gath­er­ing where they asked what we got out of the day? My obser­va­tion was that some years there are shiny new orna­ments in the room and we are all so taken by the “shine” at that moment that it takes a while to fig­ure out what’s behind it and what it really means for us. And I think this pro­fu­sion of data infor­ma­tion, rumor and new com­pa­nies that we all have access to instan­ta­neously is still kind of a shiny object and I some­times feel like we’re all dazed by it.

Q: As an exec­u­tive level plan­ner what per­cent­age of your advice is based on gut instinct vs. ask­ing new questions?

I have always felt whether its 1987, now or 2030 tak­ing the time to form the right ques­tions is crit­i­cal. If it’s done well it should be an ugly process. The pro­fu­sion of infor­ma­tion allows me, in a few hours, to go online and start snoop­ing around, to start approx­i­mat­ing the ques­tions and hypoth­e­sis that may be crit­i­cal to the clients work. Now I could do that for the deli next store or a for­tune 500 com­pany. Frankly, its where do we look and how do we judge the value and use­ful­ness. That’s part of the larger issue this being over­whelmed by infor­ma­tion and pick­ing what to weigh in our thinking.

Q: Much like myself, you’ve made a point to exper­i­ment­ing in dif­fer­ent size agen­cies and mar­kets what have you learned?

For me the dif­fer­ence between big agency and small is that big agency you spe­cial­ize and have an impor­tant func­tion to part­ner with a cre­ative team. There should be a sym­bi­otic rela­tion­ship to get a good result. Small busi­nesses do some things really well. Mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions tends to not be one of them. I have to lis­ten really hard when they give me their exper­tise in their busi­ness for the impli­ca­tions for plan­ning. So it’s a dif­fer­ent kind of part­ner­ship.  

Q: I see you were also active in the Latin Amer­i­can Mar­ket what was that like?

When I worked for Bozell – I man­aged from New York vis­it­ing Latin Amer­ica two weeks of every month. Mostly São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Mex­ico City. I was sup­posed to bring a sense of “Amer­i­can Strat­egy” to adver­tis­ing down there. The dif­fer­ence at that time was the Amer­i­can Indus­try was more advanced and more for­mal in its struc­ture in how you approached an account. Strangely, I went down there to help them, and I did, but I also learned to think more openly and broadly about brands. Later, when I went to a smaller agency what I real­ized is that my earn­ing would be cut but that’s OK because it allowed myself to start giv­ing myself to the com­mu­nity. I really for the first time dis­cov­ered what its like to be part of a community.

Q: Who do you admire in your per­sonal and pro­fes­sional communities?

I admire my wife incred­i­bil­ity for her pro­found con­stancy espe­cially as my life has changed. I also admire “Nike” they seem to be sur­pris­ing me on a reg­u­lar basis. I admire a buddy of mine who works there. He doesn’t let his fear stop him from tak­ing on things.

Q: What recent accom­plish­ment are you most proud of?

I just got my Mas­ters in Coun­sel­ing. There was train­ing in that that opened up a world of rich­ness. I’m a much bet­ter lis­tener; I’m a much bet­ter strate­gist. I also do some work on a vol­un­teer basis in edu­ca­tion. I think the way I used to be in the agency world, prob­a­bly arro­gantly — I had to help them fig­ure out what they need. And now its much more together.

Q: You men­tion Edu­ca­tion – what would be your advice to stu­dents or peo­ple con­sid­er­ing enter­ing our field?

Do it! Don’t be dis­suaded. Don’t allow peo­ple already in the world of work to dis­suade you from what you have pas­sion for. Don’t do it if you don’t have pas­sion for it. You should have a lit­tle flut­ter in your stom­ach. Be open to it not look­ing the way you have it in your head right now. You can apply an inter­est in plan­ning in many dif­fer­ent ways that you may not be aware of right now.

Q: Back to pre­dic­tions, I hear you’re a Buckeye’s fan any fore­casts for them?

I am wor­ried about the game against Clem­son, because I’m not sure if big 10 teams can com­pete con­sis­tently favor­ably with South­ern teams, and that’s my Buck­eye para­noia. Within two years, maybe three I see their new coach will have them com­pet­ing with any team in the coun­try. I like that Buckeye’s question.

Q: As a cre­ative I believe the non-tangibles are impor­tant too – can part of their team suc­cess be their music pro­gram?

Her­itage and tra­di­tion there seem to be good­ness in music and good­ness in every­thing they do. When they do “Script Ohio” I get Goosebumps.


Q: Who or what are your favorite “resources” and why?

I am drawn to find­ing out about what makes busi­nesses and orga­ni­za­tions tick…I think it’s more valu­able to focus on the busi­ness than the mar­ket­ing, which I see as deriv­a­tive. I graze — the radio, online, mag­a­zines, things for­warded by friends and col­leagues who know what I do. I fol­low curios­ity and enjoy­ment rather than task­ing myself to read out of oblig­a­tion. Who are my heroes? Char­lie Rose, Gwen Eif­fel, David Brooks, Judy Woodruff, Katie Kay (bbc) Inde­pen­dent minded and straight shooting…also more curi­ous than cer­tain about things.

Q: What’s should read­ers take-away from our dis­cus­sion today?

That inter­est­ing engag­ing peo­ple are right around every cor­ner. I was so taken in lis­ten­ing to your story Peter that I’m reminded from our dis­cus­sion that com­mon­al­i­ties are in every con­ver­sa­tion. Also to remain calm and open. Of course as a human I’ll never be able to do that but I can keep trying.

As a cre­ative with a wide pas­sion base I’m always on the look­out for peo­ple I can learn from and pass on those key insights to my fol­low­ers. If you are a thought leader, trend­set­ter or just have an inter­est­ing view­point please con­tact me to be part of this inter­view series.


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