Academy of Media — November 11, 2019
On The Leaders' Lounge with Christina Aventi.

Christina Aventi is the Executive Planning Director at award-winning advertising agency, BMF.

With a tonne of experience in guiding and delivering long ideas for many high profile clients, Christina possesses a wealth of practical advice to help the next generation of industry leaders make their mark.

If you want to play the long game in advertising and marketing, this is for you.

…Life itself is a great teacher for strategy. Get out of the books and podcasts and live it.

BMF is an award-winning advertising agency. What makes it stand out against other advertising agencies?

Long ideas. Effectiveness. The people.

Long ideas are our special talent. We are all about building durable memory structures for brands, building ‘mental availability’ and all that jazz. That’s why we say we are in the ‘memory biz’.

Long ideas are a statement about the enduring quality of the ideas we create, and the ripples they create in culture. It’s as true today as it was when we started 22 years ago. BMF was born of creativity and commercial pragmatism in equal parts. Long ideas apply to our people as well as our work. We’re long-termers, not a ‘fling’ kind of agency. And, because we try to do our best by creative types and makers, whatever department they are in we attract an unfair share of restlessly creative talent. This is critical to making sure we are a factory of ‘long’ but so is making sure our people are happy.

You head up planning within the agency. What does a planner actually do?

I’m still working that out and it also kind of keeps evolving.  

These days, I do lots of different things. Mostly, in the pursuit of making things ‘as simple as possible but no simpler’. I still struggle with that. That requires a blend of rigour, science, art and instinct. Planners have a lot of yin and yang. They’ll be reading Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” on the one hand whilst catching up on Buzzfeed on the side. Equal parts nourishment and junk food. And they’ll use the stimulus from both. 

At BMF, we talk about ‘chattergy’ which might make some cringe but it does capture our flavour of planning – all designed to stimulate, to catalyse something – in creative and in the brand experience. As planners we serve many masters depending on the stage we are at. At BMF, serving creativity usually is the gateway to serving the rest including the brand, the experience, client, agency. This helps to keep us focussed. 

On a more practical level, a day in my life involves wrangling briefs, boiling them down to a concentrate, harnessing our natural paranoia for good, finding the problem behind the problem, but also pushing the insight. Planners hunt down fresh insights like a pig hunting for truffles. We do lots of primary and secondary research to get there. It’s lucky we love to chat but can also pivot table in Excel. We apply that to the brief, to get to the idea, and to building the customer journey as well as choreographing the channel plan. It’s a blend of conceptual and the practical: some planners are better at one and competent in the other. It’s hard to be equal parts of both so we tend to pair up with a complementary skill to round out our strategies.

What excites you most about your current role?

The work. Always the work. I still get a big thrill from the work we do. Stuff that makes me smile, laugh, think, and feel proud. Everything from classic storytelling in long-form content to a simple utility – like a branded SMS that pings from your phone when you get a call whilst working-out to an exercise app, which means you’re not interrupted but you’re also using it as a channel. Deadly simple.   

And the peeps. They’re super powers!

We’ve had a planner that became a hybrid planner/creative and is now a fully-fledged, award-winning creative. Then there’s the grad from three years that is now a mini boss. I’m playing extra nice here because I know I’ll be reporting to her in the future. The boy from Brissy who actually might be a future CEO… I never thought it possible for a planner to be a CEO but I’m thinking he could be. And that’s just scratching the surface. I love seeing the future in the peeps’ eyes and as an agency, we try to craft hand-made pathways so those imaginings can be realised at BMF. It can’t all the time, but we try.

You’ve been at BMF for nearly 15 years now. While many people find themselves working at different advertising and comms agencies throughout their career, you’ve stayed the course. What benefits are there to staying with the one agency? 

Is it really 15 years? Holy crap. It only feels like 10.

BMF has had many different versions of itself so it’s like I’ve worked for three agencies in that time, admittedly with the same beating heart.

And in truth, during those three chapters of BMF, core people were there in that era so you were part of a ‘generation’ of BMFers, the calibre of which make it hard to leave. That’s a benefit.

But I guess the main thing is you feel invested. I’d like to think it is more rewarding. Highs are higher, so that every win is felt deeper and admittedly, every speed hump hurts a little more.

You get to get beyond first base and make cultural changes that might take longer or encounter resistance at a place you are new at; a foreign body amongst the locals. When you are a tenured local, with a hunger to see the company at its best, you can help shape without as much friction.

As for the feels, short stints might lead to a great piece of work but a long stint is like watching a place grow up, go through puberty, be at its best then wobble and get its feet again, and then push beyond the early success to other successes. Yeah it’s a cliché. For me it’s more than a job, it is part of your life. And who you are. Rightly or wrongly.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received? 

Hmmm, this is hard. It’s a patchwork of lots of different influences rather than advice per se. A Mr Paul Bruce once said: “Do it your way”, which probably doesn’t mean much to others but meant a lot to me because I am fairly idiosyncratic. And don’t do it for the money, do it for love and the money will come. Although I’m still waiting for the latter.

There’s something I read in Creativity Inc from Pixar that is golden, given our industry: ‘You are not your idea’. Seems innocuous on the surface but we sometimes attach ourselves too closely to our strategy or idea that we take it personally when challenged. That’s not great in the pursuit of better and better-er. You have to lose the ego which is hard. Soft centred on the inside, Teflon on the outside.

Another thing, channel a Buddha spirit with your Ninja mind. Especially for planners that are always musing, ruminating, turning thoughts over, and trying to find a twist. You need Buddha time.  

What advice do you give to new recruits who want to progress quickly through the ranks?

Ok, from Mr Miyagi in Karate Kid: ‘First learn to stand, then learn to fly’.

Drink green tea and stay calm. Nail the fundamentals. Ask for experiences on accounts that enable you to grow and twist and turn. Find a great mentor to make you more Teflon. Find a nice bastard to help you push past strategy first base. And just consume it all. Read all the Effies and check out the Titanium shortlist at Cannes. Follow Fast Co, Julian Cole, Genius Steals. Listen to HBR podcasts when you are cooking (for some reason it’s something I think I should do – HBR or McKinsey is like taking medicine), and follow agencies that you love (thank you BBH labs for the treasure trove of analysis you generously share).

As for progress and ranks, “it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing”, so spend time finding a way to the get the broad array of experiences that can help you when you are moving through the ranks. You’ll feel more confident and solid because of it. Savour having a safety net while you can because the expectations only get higher, from others and yourself. This isn’t a bad thing but enjoy being in the flow state of where you are for a little.

Define ‘media’. 

As much as it has proliferated and mutated, a medium is still a carrier of a message.

Yes, there are more options, devices, touch-points, channels from Netflix to Twitch, apps, good ol’ packaging or a shopfront to push notifications, insta posts and stories and and and…but these are all formats connected by their ability to deliver a message. Some more targeted than others.

We use the owned, earned, bought and stolen categorisation to help bucket and navigate. And we use moments of memory as a means to curate key moments in a journey that then helps us identify how best to use the medium. We need to have these hacks because we are operating in an attention-deficit economy, with attention spans officially less than a goldfish: sub 10 seconds and 3 seconds in mobile.

Given how media has advanced over the last 15 years, has planning become easier or harder? Why?

Neither. As a planner, independent of the external challenges, the feeling of imposter syndrome always means it is hard. You are constantly trying to better your last thought whilst trying to exercise conviction in the face of imposterism. I’m finding convergent cultural stuff from 10 years ago popping up again, like imperfectionism. It feels fresh for some but after 23 years, I’ve been through a few cycles.

In terms of navigating the ‘hard’ bit of media and its advancements, it can be difficult to keep up with changes in formats and how to optimise and play in them. But getting back to the task, the problem, mapping out the journey and the fundamentals, is key. Otherwise you’ll get lost.

For a different cut on media, I love this post by Faris Yakob to help navigate the ‘food groups’ of media. It’s simple and provides a brilliant breakdown, because as Faris says: ‘not all impressions are created equally’ and in an era of surplus inventory and programmatic, we mustn’t lose sight of this. Quality of attention, not just quantity. Impact and effects, not just blind pursuit of efficiencies.

Will there always be a role for a planner in the development of advertising or marketing campaigns? What’s your prediction for the future of the planning role?

Will planning become an algorithm? I hope not. There’s no substitute for the experience and instinct borne of working across categories and being in tune with people and culture.  

Of course I hope there will always be a role but I’d like us to be business partners, working more upstream. Marketing seems to have gone through a crisis of confidence (we’ve seen shorter tenures, chief growth officers emerge and the like) and so we need to, as a community, understand our C-suite audience and prove the worth of marketing as best we can – from ROMI to intangible value on the balance sheet. This is an expensive exercise. It’s hard but the more generous we are with sharing case studies from brands that do invest in justifying the impact of marketing and advertising, over the long term the better it will be for us all.

What education, skills and/or knowledge are necessary for those that wish to see themselves in a similar role in the future?

The attitude leads. Planners are usually restless for knowledge and skills, and so are constantly learning by doing. This may involve a human-centred design course on the side to a Ritson mini MBA, a bit of Hyper Island digital transformation to a bit of coding or learning how data can liberate creativity at General Assembly. Throw in HBR podcasts, a TED talk and a trip to Japan, and that feels like a pretty solid education for any planner (Japan being THE destination and offering loads of pop culture).

But sometimes it is overwhelming just keeping up, to which I say give birth to a digital native. I’ve learnt more from my son coding in Scratch, his influencers like Ninja and Mr Beast, and the art of geo-caching and Pokémon Go, than I have in any formal education.  

A more practical solution to information and education overload is to complement your skill with something at the other end of the spectrum. Aim for that sweet, salty combination. If you are strong in data analytics, go do a writing course. It’s not about becoming an expert but giving your core competency a different kind of seasoning. That’s what will help unlock fresh.

And lastly, life itself is a great teacher for strategy. Get out of the books and podcasts and live it.

Over and out.

 

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