Interview with Mark Brownlee

Join me as I have a conversation with Mark Brownlee, strategist at Banfield in Ontario, Canada.  As he shares his 3 pieces of advice for a strategist, his strategy journey, and what he found most helpful in joining The Planning Dirty Academy.

Hi, I’m Julian Cole. And welcome back. We’ve got Mark Brownlee strategist at Banfield in Ontario, Canada, where it’s in a snowstorm today. Thanks for coming on, Mark. My first question to you is what are your three pieces of advice for new strategists? Yeah, so I think the first piece of advice really relates to you.

Learning and I think it’s gonna kind of sound counterintuitive, I guess. And it’s something that I found kind of a powerful technique, I guess, not just for started strategy career, but really through, whatever I’ve learned in life. And that’s kind of a, I guess, sort of a, I think people have this natural inclination when they’re learning about something new to kind of take what they’ve already take, what they already know and sort of see how that applies to what they’re trying to learn sort of thing.

And I think like, I guess, The advice, the first piece of piece of advice I would give is like, forget what you knew previously, and then try to remember it later. So like the first, I think like part of learning something is like really starting from the ground up. And like, anytime I’ve learned, something is like, is really, starting from.

Just trying to kind of forget all your bad habits sort of thing. So like we all have these people and I’m sure a lot of people come into strategy and I’m certainly the case as you come in with these preconceptions about how things are supposed to work. And I think it’s really most powerful when you.

Kind of start from the ground up, sort of build out, like try to try to weasel out your bad habits sort of thing, or sort of get those out of there. So learn something from the basics. And then, you know, once you sort of learn the, learn the existing conventions, then you, at that point, you can kind of, you can kind of, you can kind of, sort of start to bring in some of the stuff you learned in the other elements of your career.

And I think that this is something. It’s probably a really powerful and strategy because I think as you’ve pointed out a few times, like there’s a lot of. Nobody goes to like strategy school or anything like that. So like, you’re, we’re all coming at this from different angles. Like, for me, like I got my start in, I’ve learned how to run digital ads and then got hired at, at Banfield after that.

And then before that I worked in journalism. So, everybody’s coming at this from different angles. So I think if you can sort of, if you can sort of learn strategy from the ground up and then sort of bring in some of that other stuff that you’ve, that you sort of learned. Previous to that.

I think that can be really powerful. I guess my second piece of advice is, just sort of, I think one of the most important things, is just sort of learning too. This is gonna sound kinda weird, but not really necessarily thinking of yourself as a, as a strategist or a planner or anything like that.

Like viewing yourself as a member of, as a member of a team. That’s kind of all working towards the same goal. So like Julian as part of, like the Planning Dirty Academy, you had mentioned this idea of like, well, don’t like, don’t take it personally, if you. If you work with a creative and they come up with an insight, that’s more powerful than your sort of thing.

So like view yourself as being, view yourself as being, I guess just a part of this team. That’s all working towards this one goal of this, all one goal of doing really great work. And I think if you can sort of, if you can sort of view yourself as, as, Being a success. If you’re, if you’re stimulating other people’s thinking and helping push people down the direction that they need to go, then I think that that’s a really powerful, that’s really powerful.

Way of thinking about it. And I guess it’s, um, obviously like teamwork is kind of always important regardless of the career that you’re in, but I think it’s like in this business, I think it’s sort of just having that sort of mentality I think is, is a really, I guess just a really powerful way to, to kind of build your career and, and be successful with others and all that sort of stuff.

And I guess the third piece of advice is just, and again, I think you’ve pointed this out a few times, the strategy is such a new field, that there’s just so much, there’s so much potential for what we can do with it. And like the different directions that we could take it in the different ways that we can apply it to, this is gonna sound kind of corny, but like the world’s problems essentially.

So like, there’s like this, there’s this, I mean, there’s the most obvious application of strategy, which is for like consumer products and services and all that sort of stuff. But like, for example, with like Banfield, like we do a lot of, we work with a lot of government clients. We worked a lot with a lot of nonprofit clients and like obviously the calculus, there is a little bit different in terms of, um, in terms of what we’re trying to.

What we’re trying to do if you’re that, if you’re like selling headphones or selling a video game or something like that. And I think just, keeping in mind that there are so so many different directions, you can take this in and just the different ways you can think of, the different ways you can think of applying these.

And I think like, the Planning Dirty Academy is like one, is, is sort of, I think one of the, or I guess sort of powerful, A careful way of thinking about some of these, some of these ways that we, that we work as strategists and that sort of thing. But I think there’s like there’s a lot of power in being able to take those ideas and sort of make them work for you and make them work for, make them work for whatever it is you’re working on.

So, I think I used to, as I mentioned to you, I used to work as a journalist. And like, there’s a lot of, like, what I loved about that was like the public interest element of it. So like talking about important issues that, that people, if they don’t care about it enough now should be. And I think like the thing that I’ve learned is like, yeah, that’s, that’s cool.

But like, there’s so many ways that you can use strategy to like change people’s minds about change people’s minds and more importantly, change people’s behaviors about some really important issues in the world. So for example, like one of the, one of the campaigns that Banfield worked on recently, it was related to human trafficking, in Canada.

So like, obviously not, obviously not a consumer issue, but a pretty important kind of public interest one. And just being able to put some of these. Take some of these ideas and sort of put them to work towards an important issue like that, I think has been really powerful. So, I’m trying to think of how to summarize that, that advice, but I think it would be just, you know, use your imagination like user imagination and it can be pretty powerful how you can sort of take these principles and apply it in different ways sort of thing.

I love that. And I love the idea of like taking your title away as a strategist and just seeing yourself as a team member, that’s like, To me a really powerful thought because it goes back to the thing of just, just be useful, just be useful in that meeting to your team members. And that’s the best thing that we can do.

I’d love to hear your story of, cause you’ve talked a lot, a little bit about how you went from journalism to digital advertising, but I’d love to hear the step between you knowing that you wanted to be a strategist and then becoming a strategist. What was that journey? Yeah. So that was, Well, I guess to answer that question, I’d have to just, I would have to figure out when I decided to become a strategist.

And I don’t know, I don’t know when that point is. So, I think that for me, so I think for me, I guess I’ll answer the question this way. So for me, I started working in, I started after I left journalism and started working at communications for a nonprofit. And, it wasn’t really a strategist then it was more sort of, I guess said, you know, writing blog posts and all that sort of stuff, you know, sort of basic content creation sort of stuff.

But really, I guess what I really enjoyed about that job was just the opportunity to sort of, I guess like using Google analytics, for example, to like mine, that for information about, mine, that for information about like, Well, when are people coming to our website? Like, what content are they engaging with?

Like what lessons this going to be learned here in terms of how we’re going to, how we’re going to build out this strategy too, to make it more engaging for people and that sort of thing. And I think like, in there is kind of, I guess, sort of the germ of, or the sort of, I guess, the seed for, the scene for a lot of, a lot of strategy work, because it’s a lot of the same, like even with like audience research now it’s sort of, it’s sort of similar, like looking into what makes your audience tick and all that sort of stuff, and then sort of crafting an approach, crafting an approach based on that.

So all this to say is I think that, I think that when I was in journalism like you don’t worry about this stuff. Like you just write, like you write the article and it’s somebody else’s job to try to sell some newspapers or get people listening to listen to the radio or whatever. And I think the I guess the sort of move here is like, well, When you’re like a content creator, it’s like, well, you put something under the world.

And then you see, like, what about it worked? What didn’t work? You know, what are the different elements that can, that can make it connect with the audience and all that sort of stuff. So I think that that was a big, and that was a big transition and probably when I’m still going through, So anyways, so, this is kind of a meandering answer to your question.

I guess they’ll get more to the point. So my entry point was actually, another, course that I did here in Ottawa called the digital marketing certificate. And it was basically, learned a lot about, you know, kind of digital marketing strategy in particular stuff, like, technical skills, like how to run, how to run social media ads, like how to use Google analytics, all that sort of stuff.

And it was kind of at that point, it was sort of. Combining like some of that technical expert expertise with obviously some of the writing stuff from working as a reporter, and some of the content creation stuff from my job in communications and all that sort of stuff. So I think that was, that was the point, I think, where I started to see the possibilities of like how all this stuff works together.

In terms of like, in terms of how, how like, the writing aspect of it is so it’s so important to that to be able to push something out into the world and all that sort of stuff. and even now, like, even now, like writing, like writing creative briefs, like there’s obviously like, you know, those don’t, those are.

Better when they’re, you know, when they’re well-written and sort of, you know, tight and use descriptive language and all that sort of stuff. So seeing how these different, I guess, these different elements kind of come together has been, has been really interesting. Um, and I guess, I guess this is all this is to say, is that I don’t think there’s anyone moment when I, when I, I wanted to work in strategy, but I think certainly the entry, certainly the entry point was like the digital, like the digital ads component.

And then ever since then, you know, working at Banfield, I’ve been able to see sort of the different, sort of the different elements. And, one of the things I really, I really enjoy now is just, learning about audiences. So like doing, like doing research and, Doing research, seeing what, seeing what connects with audiences coming up with different, coming up with different creative ways to get them, to get them to change their behavior and all that sort of stuff, I think has been as interesting.

Great. And you’ve, you’ve actually if there’s a way to clock, the planning dirty academy, I reckon you’ve clocked, Planning, Dirty Academy, because you’re one of the members who’ve actually gone through all the modules. And so I’d love to hear from you. What did you find most applicable to your work?

What’s what’s really helped you. In the work from the academy. Yeah. So I think, so I think, I can give you a, I’ll give you a specific answer and I’ll give you a more general answer, I guess, I guess my specific answer would be the module on insights. So I think that, um, that’s really, I found it really powerful just because it’s one of those, it’s one of those words, that’s we all here, it’s and see, you know, sort of.

I think we understand and that sort of thing, that there’s really, I think when you get into the agency world, like, it has a really specific meaning for, for planners and creatives and all that sort of stuff. So, I think for most, for most people, and this includes myself, like you come in, like a lot of people come in the agency world through the back door.

And like, for me, it was like, I could run Facebook ads and like, that’s how I, that’s how I got involved in this business. And then you sort of, so you do your job and like, if you do it while you continue to take on more responsibilities and that sort of thing, but like some of the stuff just sort of like.

You know, you come across it, but you don’t really have the chance to learn what it is from the ground up and all that sort of stuff. So that in particular, I think has been, has been really powerful because I think that that’s, I think that that’s kind of how creative, like that’s how a lot of creatives think, and that’s what they glom on to is if you can, like, they don’t wanna read like a five, they don’t want to read like a five-page brief, but if you can grab them, if you can grab them with, you know, A good insight.

That’s written pretty clearly. Like that can be, that can be really powerful. And I think the other element of that is that, um, you don’t need to, I think I fall into this. And I think a lot of, I would imagine a lot of young strategists fall into this as well. Is there’s a tendency to try to pack everything into, try to pack too much into an insight.

So like you do all this research, find all this different stuff and you to, you wanna make sure you mentioned it all sort of thing. And I think like the powerful, really powerful thing I’ve found about that module is it’s really like, you know, just make it. Make it simple and make it powerful and make people make people want to hear more sort of thing.

So like, if you can, if you can come up with a, if you can come up with something insightful, it might not encapsulate everything you want to say, but like, Hey, if I can grab your, if I can write this and grab your attention, then you’ll, you’ll want to hear more from me about what I discovered in the research process sort of thing.

So I think that’s, that’s sort of the specific answer. And then I guess the general answer is just. Kind of, I guess kind of goes back to what I was talking about earlier in terms of that, um, seeing how all these different, seeing how all of these different pieces fit together, sort of thing. So like now that I’ve sort of learned.

From the ground up, like a lot of the stuff in the planning of Planning, Dirty Academy, I can kind of see how it doesn’t feel like I’m learning from scratch anymore. Like I can kind of, I can kind of see how some of the stuff that I’ve worked on previously, I can bring in some of the stuff that I worked on previously in my career to, to sort of help.

Augment some of this stuff. So like, obviously like writing, the really surprising thing to me is how important the writing aspect of all this is. So like writing insights or writing creative briefs and all that sort of stuff. And I’ve done a decent amount of that in my life. So I can start to, like, I can start to introduce some of those ideas.

And then I think, I guess like this might be like a fourth piece. I’m sneaking a fourth piece of advice in the backdoor to your first question. But just like, seeing how, Like elements from, elements, from like storytelling and storytelling theory and all that sort of stuff can play into, how you can combine some of those things with what you talked about in the plane for the academy to sort of, I think help fill out this sort of stuff.

So one of my, one of the things that I. I really believe strongly is that like, storytelling can be really, can be really powerful, but it’s one of those words that’s kind of lost all meaning like everybody is doing, everybody is kind of doing storytelling these days. Like if you’re talking about your product features, you’re doing storytelling, which isn’t really, which isn’t, I don’t think is really true.

So I guess, like, I guess for me, if like, if I was a young strategist, like I would be. Learning a lot, like learning as much as I can about it. I bet it’s storytelling theory and like really getting down to like, what is like, what is a story and what isn’t a story and all that sort of stuff. And I think like combining that with some of the, some of the nuts and bolts stuff in the planning dirty academy could make your really, could make you really powerful, you know, really powerful, helpful strategists sort of thing.

Excellent. Thank you so much, Mark. very insightful and lots of great advice in there. So thanks for, thanks for speaking with us. Thanks a lot.


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