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Notes to a Young Brand Planner: Embrace Math. Or How Dr. Rick Came to be.

I can’t say I was good at math as a kid. For many years I was pulled into the back room behind the principal's office at my elementary school to get extra help on things like fractions and long division. I even had a math tutor for most of my middle school and high school years – a wonderful man named Mr. Richards who was also my 5th/6th grade math teacher. Despite this, I always wanted to be good at math. I am not sure why, only that numbers as patterns and symbols amazed me. Numbers reveal a rhythm of the world, express a deeper understanding of the past, present, and future, paint pictures when words fail. 

It is funny that many years later, I find I feel so comfortable looking for patterns in numbers, searching for stories that are revealed in charts and indices. Many brand planners do not embrace the numbers in marketing, leaving analytics to the analyst. I have a definite opinion about the role numbers play in account planning; numbers are critical. 

You see, brand planners are in the business of translation. We translate a client’s business plan into a creative brief. A creative concept into an actionable communication strategy. And most importantly, a soft and fuzzy emotional campaign into a measurable, results oriented business solution. 

Numbers are the language of business. Innovation lives and dies by a person’s ability to measure and monetize an idea. A brand planner must be able to translate numbers into concepts and back again to gain buy-in and inspire fantastic concepts. To be successful, brand planners must learn when and how to use quantitative research, and to think through the logic of analytics and reporting. I am not the only person with this opinion. 

Which leads me back to Jane Newman. I was fortunate enough to have signed up for a 4As (is this even a thing anymore?) program called Quantitative Research for Planners, taught by some of the best planners in the business. Merry Baskin, Robin Hafitz, and you guessed it, Jane Newman. It was the early 00s and a group of numbers-shy planners gathered in a hip hotel in SF for a crash course in the design, application and presentation of numbers. We found ourselves strolling the streets, conducting intercept surveys that would later fuel a presentation. Planners of all levels in their careers attended. And the net outcome for me was both the awakening to the storytelling power of numbers and a newfound confidence in my ability to practice the art and science of quant. 

Back at the agency, I further explored numbers at the insistence of my crazy and brilliant office mate, Patrick Callinan, an economist who had been a planner and worked for companies like Forrester and McKinsey. He lived in data sets, seeking stories through s-curves and clusters. The numbers and patterns we found generated great ideas in planning. In fact, it was his segmentation work that inspired Justin Holloway to position Liberty Mutual as the responsible insurance company that culminated in the Pay It Forward campaign (incidentally, its non-verbal approach to storytelling is a quick way to help people believe in your brand; and I still love that Hem song.) 

Fifteen years later, I found myself using numbers to build the case for a non-Superstore campaign for Progressive Insurance. The numbers told me that Flo was aging out of relevance for the younger generation – after all, they had grown up watching her on TV, she may as well have been their auntie. I loved my aunts, but they were not the pinnacle of cool or relevance. And neither was Flo to millennials. We needed a different campaign vehicle. 

Working with my agency team at Arnold, we created the Parentamorphosis campaign. The insight: when we need to be grown up, we look to the grown ups we know in life, and usually we think of our parents. The team took that grownup moment, added an insight, and then the humor Progressive is known for, and created a new legacy campaign using ‘turning into your parents’ as the central creative thread. Today, Dr. Rick has become as iconic as Flo. 

Numbers gave me the confidence to take a risk. While the risk was smart, and the opportunity was clear to me, my wonderful business partners were far more nervous. The trick was helping the organization see that a commercial that lived outside the Superstore could work. That’s where numbers came in. The numbers told me where to focus (on the moment in life when you realize you need to grow up), they type of story we needed to tell (one that makes people think Progressive is ‘for people like me’), not to use Flo (her appeal among youngers segments was diminishing), and how far we could go in telling this story (not very far – while most people thought Progressive was good at auto insurance, they did not have confidence in Progressive as a home insurance provider). The solution was not in the numbers, but the numbers led to the opportunity – helping me tell the story to my business peers in a way that made the idea feel like it could be a success and by identifying the strategic sandbox in which we could play. 

P.S. For an excellent primer on when to use quantitative and how, I suggest you check out Testing to Destruction, but don’t press print. It is over a hundred pages long. Well worth the read though. And learning to tell stories through numbers is well worth the effort. Yes, I know it is older than the new brand planners I am talking to, but that doesn’t make it wrong.