Planning for the Best: Sarah Oberman on the Freedom of Tight Briefs
Sarah joined the industry after studying behavioral economics and psychology, and first worked at BBDO New Zealand, running large clients (food and beverage, charity, FS) for several years.
She then moved to London, “the country of strategy”; worked at TBWA and with Chiat/Day (LA) on Airbnb, before joining Gray for five years.
She was approached by Mother to create The Or, where she handles strategy.
His priorities include ensuring clear strategic direction for client brands that can also be applied to strategy and creative in the modern world; that lives, breathes and changes through culture rather than just being a big idea for television.
LBB> According to you, what is the difference between a strategist and a planner? Is there a?
Sarah> I think for most agencies it means the same thing.
LBB> And according to you, which description corresponds best to your way of working?
Sara> Strategist. Because it gives a better idea of what we are actually doing.
LBB> We are used to hearing about the best creative advertising campaigns, but what is your favorite historical campaign from a strategic point of view? The one you think demonstrates a great strategy?
Sara> There are too many choices.
I really like the early work of Droga5 (New York). “Help, I want to save a life” is a personal favorite. Probably because he was leaning into the truth about human behavior. They needed to increase the number of people signing up for bone marrow donation. But registering to make a donation was complicated and painful. So instead of trying to convince people, they took down all the barriers, catching people when they were already bleeding. They put a marrow registry kit in a box of over-the-counter bandages and turned an everyday act into a chance to donate…and maybe even save a life.
Avis, We Try Harder was launched in the early 60s and is still referenced today. They took a negative and turned it into a positive. But what really made it great was that the company backed it up by improving its customer service. And the commercial return has been impressive.
Lurpak for not getting into weeds and talking about the benefits or origin of the product, positioning itself instead as a tool for people who cook, Good Food Deserves Lurpak
LBB> When turning a business brief into something that can inform an inspiring creative campaign, do you find the most useful resource to tap into?
Sara> There is freedom in tight briefs. And the most inspiring thing you can give your creativity is a clear, directional brief.
Assuming that exists, it’s about trying to understand the mindset of the people we want to talk to. This means getting as close to their point of view as possible. Whether it’s watching what they’re up to on Tiktok, talking to them, or going to the places and spaces where they hang out.
We like to think about the communities or micro-communities in which the brief has a role. Because nothing happens in isolation.
LBB> What part of your job/strategic process do you enjoy the most?
Sara> The messy bit. When you’ve just been given a big problem. And there are several ways to do it.
LBB> What strategic maxims, frameworks or principles do you find yourself returning to again and again? Why are they so useful?
Sara> A strategy usually requires the entire company to understand and use it. So anything more than a page is probably not a strategy. For this reason, I tend not to rely on patterns that get in the way of a clear strategy.
However, I return to the book (strategic bible?) Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard P. Rumelt. It has very useful thinking and frameworks to help companies clarify strategy versus objectives.
LBB> What kind of creatives do you like to work with? As a strategist, what do you want them to do with the information you give them?
Sara> For me, it’s less a question of type than of attitude.
Good things happen when you work with creatives who come to a curious brief, with an open mind and a willingness to understand together. The more you work together, the better the work and the relationship tends to get, as you build trust and can challenge each other, without it being personal.
LBB> There is a negative stereotype that strategy is used to validate creative ideas, rather than as a resource to inform them and ensure they are effective. How do you make sure the agency is doing it the right way?
Sara> I’ve never worked in a place that only uses strategy to validate creative ideas.
Sometimes creativity sees something that strategy missed. Sometimes the creative solution is the strategy. There is no right way. There’s only the right path for the brief you’re working on and the people working on it.
LBB> What have you found to be the most important consideration in recruiting and developing strategic talent?
Sara> Hire for a good attitude and a curiosity for the world. You can teach the rest.
Then it’s about seeing people as individuals, who come with completely different strengths and areas for improvement. But also, with different ambitions and dynamism. Spend time understanding what really matters to this person and find out how you can best support them. Because you get the most out of people when they feel heard and supported.
LBB> In recent years, it seems that efficiency awards have gained more prestige and agencies are paying more attention to them. How do you think this has impacted the way strategists work and how they are perceived?
Sara> They are counting. They are useful for learning.
But they are expensive and time-consuming to write. So, it’s usually the big agencies and big clients that participate in the rewards. Which means we don’t always have the full picture of what’s effective.
LBB> Do you have any frustrations with planning/strategy as a discipline?
Sara> Every blessing has its curse. And what I love about strategy is that you are exposed to so many different categories and ways of doing business. You have to adapt to many different skills. From business strategy to creative craftsmanship. However, this does mean that you can sometimes feel incredibly stretched and go through lots of different things, instead of going deep into one area.
LBB> What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a strategist/planner?
Sara> Attitude beats titles.
Having the right attitude will get you noticed. And keep you there.
It gets harder before it gets easier.
Until you reach the level of chief strategy officer, you will oscillate between thinking “I have this” and “I don’t know anything”. It’s normal. Confidence will come.
It teaches you a varied and transferable skill set. And you will work with interesting people.