Interview

James Swift

25 March 2024

Will Parrish’s Strategy Diet 

VCCP Media's chief strategy officer shares his tips and techniques for better strategy

Photo by Sam B on Unsplash

Have you ever wanted to know what the ad industry’s sharpest strategists like to feed their brains or what resources they swear by when tackling a brief?

We have. So we’re asking.

Will Parrish is the chief strategy officer at VCCP Media, which he joined in January 2024. Before that, he was the chief strategy officer at Initiative, where he helped the London agency win accounts including Natwest and Nike.

What media do you consume that makes you better at your job or helps you think about strategy generally?

All of it. That sounds like a facetious answer. Let me explain. I think we can get sucked into the vortex of opinion on platforms like LinkedIn — it's important to stay on top of the big topics and what the prevailing winds are, but snapping photos of bus shelter posters, screen grabbing my social feeds and filming my living room TV during the ad break genuinely helps me keep a living library of media. I ask questions like, why am I seeing it? Why am I a valuable impression? What was the strategy behind it? And importantly, what impression were they trying to make? What do I as a normal human being think and feel when I am exposed to it? You can start to see the meetings behind the media, understand the patterns, the skillful choices and the bad habits or shortcuts a lot of us take.

Are there any resources that you typically turn to first when working on a brief?

Company reports, press releases, news stories, social posts from key clients. It’s so important to get a proper grip on why the business feels the need to create a conversation with consumers. What is the hole they are trying to fill? Where did it emanate from before the budget was released to marketing? It can shine a light on where you can challenge the brief with confidence to better deliver on what is really going on for that organisation.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

Who is someone that you follow/read/watch for their opinions and ideas?

Nick Thompson is the CEO of The Atlantic, he regularly puts out short updates on the ‘most interesting thing in tech’ and it is honestly the best way to not sound stupid in under five minutes. He is one of only a handful of people I tune into regularly from the feed frenzy. Beyond that, Cameron Armstrong is a digital planner who I had the pleasure of briefly working with, and like Nick, he is brilliant at humanising the data, and the tech maelstrom of media, into something accessible.

Is there anyone or any resource that you think strategists rely on too much that is counterproductive or unhelpful?

I think, like all social media, we can end up questioning ourselves and set unreasonable expectations of ourselves by over consuming ‘high performing’ posts from our peer group. This industry is as led by the will of the crowd as any other community — but just like any other community, it's the confident, independent thinkers who can and should stand out. You can end up oscillating from one point of view to another until you feel the only safe perspective to have is the beige one in the middle. We’re in advertising, don’t let the baying masses sway you from your brilliant way of thinking  we’re supposed to cut through the sea of same!

What do you think is the most underused resource for better strategy?

Real people. As a media person, we can drown ourselves in the noise of data, technology and automation. These are wonderful new tools at our disposal — but they are all in service of real people. If we cannot tell a simple story that resonates with them, that humanises how we orchestrate it all to move actual people out there in the world — we’ve missed the point! Send your work to your partner, your parents, your neighbour (possibly after they have signed an NDA)  ask them if they get it. It's easy to throw your world at someone, it's a lot harder to invite them into it.

The best resource is the work that has been successful. Ask to see the documents. Ask to see the speaker notes. Ask to see the work behind the work.

Will Parrish, VCCP Media

Is there anywhere you go when you’re struggling with a brief or a place that seems to help you work or think?

Weirdly, I love working on the train. I’m writing this on the train now. I’m not sure if it's the sense of motion, or being surrounded by people consuming their own media in their own worlds. More likely it's because there is no phone reception between Brighton, where I live, and London… so I get an hour of focus without the noise of emails, chat or calls.

Office etiquette: music or no music?

I’m happy with music! Just don’t ask me to pick it, or you’ll be subjected to a jarring blend of Bon Iver and Phil Collins.

What’s the best free resource for a strategist?

Anyone who has done it before. Whether that’s a colleague or an acquaintance. There are plenty of strategist communities out there you can tap into as well, filled to the brim with people wanting to pick each other's brains. They will have been into battle to sell in a platform or plan a thousand times. I had a very long list of wonderful mentors who taught me the chess moves, the forehand and backhand of the game… asking them how to sharpen up yours is not an admittance of a shortcoming, quite the opposite! 

What sort of media/resources would you recommend to someone just starting their career as a strategist?

I was given a great reading list by my first manager as a strategist, which I am sure is very out of date. But actually the best resource is the work that has been successful. Ask to see the documents. Ask to see the speaker notes (if they have them). Ask to see the work behind the work. What spreadsheets and research docs got to the polished final pitch presentation? What happened in the meetings? What whispered arguments by the coffee machine resulted in the magic that went into the media? This isn’t so you can blindly copy it, but so you can meaningfully create your own brand of kung fu.

What’s something that happened in pop culture that showed a better understanding of people than advertising?

This may be a cheat. But Beyoncé breaking into country music with Texas Hold ‘Em is masterful. The fact that she did it via the final few frames of her Verizon superbowl advert (‘Ok, they ready… drop the new music’) shows she knows how to game the system with her existing brand partnerships to her own advantage. She understood that a nation of country music fans would be tuned in to the game, not her. So she hacked the ad. I realise I’ve just talked about an ad. Oh well. Challenge the brief? Something like that…

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