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MullenLowe: Elizabeth Paul – The One Two Punch

Today on the Creative Leaders podcast, the Senior Vice President and Head of Strategy at MullenLowe joins us. Elizabeth Paul is an ambitious creative who has great insights on the industry which she shares with us, as well as discussing how her team works. We also discuss her strategic ideas, her interest in comedy and craft, and her thoughts on the cultural landscape.

Hello and welcome to the Movidiam podcast. Today I’m delighted to welcome Elizabeth Paul, who is the Senior Vice President and Head of Strategy at MullenLowe US. Elizabeth, welcome to the Movidiam podcast.

Thank you, I’m glad to be here.

Elizabeth, speech writing, the Martin Agency, strategy, never being able to shed a previous role, all part of the creative journey?

Yes, indeed.

Tell us, where did the ambition to get into advertising come from?

Honestly, I tripped into it. It wasn’t on my radar when I was in college or getting ready to venture into the work world. I, rather serendipitously, studied a lot of things that were well-suited. I studied communications, cultural anthropology, creative writing, and dance – which I admittedly use less of.

Perhaps in the future you can use more of dance, maybe pull that into a few strategy meetings.

I have been known, late at night before a pitch, to rouse the team with some group choreography.

All a bit Billy Elliot?

Indeed. I was that combination of naturally curious, creative, and analytical. A student of history and art and culture, I was working as a speech writer. I had a friend of a friend who was leaving the Martin Agency and looking to back fill herself. She recruited me, Kristen Cavallo hired me at 23, she’s now the CEO of the Martin Agency. We’ve worked together, on and off, our whole careers. I had the good fortune of being hired and mentored by someone who was not only a giant in the industry but also a kindred spirit and friend. That’s how I got my start.

Quite an interesting approach, like a soft landing. I always think the door is open on the way in but it slams pretty shut if you’re useless, so you must be quite good at what you do.

Thank you, let’s hope.

The history of art culture is a key part of identifying strategic hooks to hang the brand coats on, how much is it execution, the output, versus strategy? Is strategy the vast part of the iceberg and execution the tip of it?

I genuinely think they are inextricably linked. Particularly at MullenLowe, we’re incredibly integrated. It’s the most hand-in-glove I have personally seen creative and strategy, at least in my focus group of one.

There are lots of different types of gloves, aren’t there? There are velvet gloves and there are boxing gloves.

Indeed. This is, probably, a mix between the two. 

A beautifully Zuckerberg blended answer.

I do my best. I will typically go away and do some digging, but I bring my creative teams in really early in the process. Just to give them a peak under the curtain of what I’m seeing and the patterns I’m seeing emerge. I, really, have my creative partners weigh in early on what seems fruitful. It’s not totally pick your own adventure. I’ve seen one too many great, brilliant, strategy decks that weren’t inspiring and didn’t lead to great work in this industry in general. I don’t believe that strategy is an end unto itself. It’s only as good as what it inspires. The train that runs on the track that it lays.

I bring my creative teams in really early, and let them get their fingerprints on the brief. Vice versa, I have the great privilege to work with creative partners that have me in early on creative reviews. Our chief creative officer has me sit in on directors’ calls. We’re talking about me going to a shoot for E-Trade in the near term. We have them pretty tied together, like a three-legged race, from the beginning.

It makes an awful lot of sense. I think it’s a challenge, isn’t it, when everything is about doing, faster, quicker, better, shorter, multi-platform? Obviously, sequentially, from a thought-leader’s perspective you’ve got be strategically informed before you can move forward. Actually, the speed at which you can make that strategy decision being shortened must help as well. How quickly do you come to decisions?

It depends on the type of decision. We talk about hyper-bundling at MullenLowe. 

Hyper-bundling, I love it. The one P&L sounds fascinating, but hyper-bundling is a much more creative and beautiful expression.

Thank you. We have one P&L between disciplines, between offices. That gives us the freedom to put a strategic or creative challenge, or business problem, at the centre and to push a bunch of atoms together and look at it from different perspectives. No one has their own agenda.

What tends to happen is you put a business problem at the centre with people who are, “collaborative partners”, but they each have their own P&L. The PR team thinks they need a PR solution, the media team thinks they need a media solution, the creative team thinks they need XYZ. The liberation of one P&L is we can be a little objective in terms of the best way to solve that problem.

So hyper-bundling, taken to its natural conclusion. I lead an interdisciplinary strategic team across offices, which includes classically trained brand strategists, but also social strategy, behavioural sciences, coms planning – we’ve got some coms planners in our mix – etc. Often, I will bring in an interdisciplinary group pretty early on in the process, and get different perspectives and different ways of looking at the problem to begin with. I think that helps. It depends on the type of problem we’re trying to solve. I try to keep it a pretty fluid conversation.

A fluid conversation, I agree, is always important. What you’ve described there, sounds like your role as strategy is you’re like an octopus, you’re pulled in all sorts of different directions. You’re hosting the mega-brain behind what route you’re going to go for. You must coffee out, you must speak with people etc. Where does your cultural interface come from, to be able to define strategy? Presumably that’s at the speed of thought or the speed of feedback from the social channels these days?

Yes. For one, the more minds you have working behind something, the more points of reference and intersection you have. Having a team that is racially and socioeconomically diverse, I think, is really rich because you get a variety of backgrounds. We each have our own passion points and our own perspectives. Personally, I’m not a huge student of the industry. If someone comes to me and they’re like, “Oh, did you see the latest thing that such and such agency did?” There is better than a 50/50 chance the answer is no.

That’s the start-up mind-set isn’t it? You’re a fringe operator until suddenly, overnight, you’re a 12-year success.

Yes. Honestly, I study the things that I’m interested in. I mentioned, earlier, a lot of history and philosophy, a lot of art, a lot of music. I like stand-up comedy, a number of things.

Are you telling me you’re influenced, for your customers, by the likes of Ricky Gervais?

Ricky Gervais maybe, maybe not. Donald Glover and Aziz Ansarifor sure.

Donald Glover, I love it. Sorry, I’m being playful. It’s relatively late afternoon in London, it might be early where you are.

No, it’s good. I have strategists on my team. Somebody joined our team recently, this girl named Tamani, she’s really into slam poetry so she’s going to bring that into the conversation. A guy in our team, named Byron, he started a music studio before he got into advertising, he brings that kind of cultural frame of reference. Another guy in my team, Jeff, he came over from New Zealand, he was in the Peace Corps before he went into advertising.

From my perspective, the more diverse our interests are outside, the more creative the references are inside. I once briefed a creative team and, on the outset, said, “Hey guys, I need you to hang with me in the first six pages of this deck. I’m going to weave together a Doctor Seuss story, Bernie Sanders, and Game of Thrones. If you hang with me, it’s going to make sense.” They looked at me like, “What the hell is coming?” By the end, they were like, “Oh my god, that makes so much sense.” I think the more engaging and diverse our references are, the more engaging and diverse our output will be.

“Hang with me until it makes sense”, it’s a critical creative thing isn’t it? If you’re at MullenLowe, or you’re at Nike, or you’re at Johannes Leonardo, or Grey London, or any of these huge corporate agencies. You are the chief creative officer and you’ve executed X for X. “Hang with me until it makes sense” is, maybe, a 30 second or 1-minute conversation. If you’re starting out in the business, you’ve got to get some creative collateral behind you, haven’t you? What lessons would you share with those starting out in the business?

Strategists or people in general?

I think people is probably too wide for us, Elizabeth, on this 30-minute podcast. Just more narrow than all humans.

Alright, more narrow than all humans. I think one of our core and sacred duties is still the keeper and the deliverer of the insight. There is a lot of talk about fundamental human truth. I can tell you that my favourite definition of an insight, the one I use with the strategists I lead, is I want to hear an insight that has the one two punch. On one hand, I hear it and think, “Oh my god, that’s so true.” On the other hand, I think, “But I’ve never thought of it that way before.” There is a German philosopher who famously said, “The task is not to see what no one else has seen, but to think what no one else has thought about that which everyone sees.” That’s a high bar.

A very high bar. When building a business like Movidiam, and you’re going up the adoption curve and you say there 4.2m people in the profession – production – and there are 8m commissioners, that is an unlikely bridge for people to jump or cross in the light of the incumbent agency and holding company and bespoke small players.

Actually, it’s a reality that people want to see, from the adoption numbers and from the scaling of the platform. It’s behavioural, isn’t it? Sometimes in this ecosystem, that we briefly touched upon with the likes of Facebook, it’s like there are new technologies. If you look at the etymology of the word ‘technology’ – to go back to your philosophical stance there – the etymology here is something that enables. How you pull people together, it’s got to make sense in a penny. At a moment’s notice, it’s got to make sense. I think that’s the root of great marketing, it makes sense – class or creed – immediately.

Yes, I think that’s right. I think the thing that all of us struggle with is that we’re all toggling back and forth between the organised and the organic. The organic is, “I’m out in the world, I’m constantly taking in inspiration. I’m drawing from a lot of different things. I’m only as interesting as the books I read, the music I listen to, I need time to breathe deeply and think deeply, I’m always taking it in. At any given point, I can have a conversation and I can draw from that. I can pull that in for inspiration.” On the flip side, simplicity is only found on the other side of complexity, we have to have enough time to actually distill that.

I actually had a brand strategy intern, she was at the brand centre 10 years ago. She compared great strategy to a reduction sauce. You start out with 27 different ingredients, you reduce them down and reduce them down and reduce them down until you have a very small output. Ideally, it’s something that is simple and yet really rich and references all these things. I always thought that was a great metaphor, because a reduction sauce takes time – which is always scarce.

I think some strategists will cut to simplicity, without bringing in the richness and complexity. That’s where their discipline needs to be applied. Other strategists love the complex and the complicated, and don’t have the discipline to actually distill it down to something that is concrete and powerful and quick to take away. The one two punch of those two things is something I think we all have to keep working on getting better at.

The one two punch, do you mind if I rip you off on that one?

All the time, steal with pride.

I’ll steal with pride, and I’ll tweet you and I’ll @ tag you and I’ll Instagram you. I do believe that sometimes you need to stand on the shoulders of giants, which is a lovely simplistic expression.

Also, going back to it, I love that analogy that Saatchi once developed, which is, “Beautiful simplicity of thought.” I think it distills what you’re describing very well which is, “This is permanent, it’s critical, it’s clean. It can guide a whole lot of multifaceted direction in what we’re doing as a business.” Obviously, you come from a very different business and background and entity. Simplicity from chaos is what a lot of agency businesses need to do for their customers.

Yes, I think that’s right. Again, I think the discipline is simplicity with a lot of power behind it. Actually, delivering something that is simple, but also profound, also inspiring. Personally, I think that strategists need to be the best storytellers at the agency. If I’m not inspired by something, and I can’t get my creative teams inspired by it, then it’s going to be a much harder ask for them to deliver something that gets other people inspired. So, yes, I set a high bar for the strategists in our department.

Looking at the history of the universe and the size of planet earth, being basically a small speck of nothingness in nothingness in space – Elon Musk is helping us get to other parts of it – what are the core kernels of what drives people in strategy? Is it the success of the outcome? Is it seeing a deck of 5 or 10 or 50 or 100 pages land in the business and think, “How do we turn this into a $100m worth of sales?” Or is it the finial nature of the team members and the leadership?

I think it’s entirely dependent upon the person. Personally, in the four years that I was freelancing, I did some work for clients, I did some work for fully integrated agencies – big agencies, small agencies, consultancies. I knew that I would go back into the workforce full-time J-O-B eventually, but it was a great time to see what I loved. 

Sorry. Can I just say, for our British and European customers listening to the podcast, J-O-B was that an acronym of job?

Yes, it just means job.

Love it. Going even more simple than the word, down the individual letters.

Yes. Anyway, one of the things I did during that time is I just figured out what I do love and what motivates me? For me, personally, I like to make things. I like to make things that I find beautiful, interesting, and significant. Absolutely, the work has to work. Otherwise clients won’t keep paying for us to do it, it has to serve their business ends because that’s the way this ecosystem works. For me, I’m really motivated by creating cultural goods that people want to spend time with, that challenge the way they think or that are additive to the culture in some way, shape, or form.

I know other strategists for whom it’s about the efficacy study. The fact that the work works is the primary motivator. I know others, still, who love the elegant simplicity of building the case. We all have to be able to do all of it, but which part of it makes us most alive – I think – depends on the person.

Beautiful, interesting, significant, okay, fantastic. Beautiful, I get because you’ve got a sense of beauty. Interesting, I get because in the cohort – or in the current paradigm… Significant is the one word there that, perhaps, leaves legacy. Could legacy, could your idea of a piece or work be 100 years old – when we’re long gone – and still be a relevant part of it? I see beautiful and interesting on Instagram. Do I see significant? Maybe not.

Honestly, I think less about legacy personally. Maybe that’s just being a millennial, who knows if the planet is going to be around in 100 years.

Hopefully we’ve got some strategists that are working on that one.

Yes, indeed.

For our children and our children’s children, to paraphrase Michael Jackson.

Yes, agreed. I think, for me, it has more to do with the fact that I think the cultural landscape is incredibly littered with a lot of junk. I don’t want to be a polluter. I want to create something that is a cultural good that somebody would interact with. It might encourage them, it might inspire them, it might make them laugh, it might make them think. That, in and of itself, is significant to me. Sometimes that’s social good, but it’s not always about social good.

Sometimes you get an opportunity. Like we’re in the midst of doing a big thing on gun violence, you actually can feel the momentum of helping bend the world a little. Those are amazing.

I actually got to work on the Alliance for Climate Protection, Al Gore took his Nobel money and created a non-profit. When I was at the Martin Agency, I got to work on that. Sometimes you get to work on those things that you’re like, “Man, there is social good in this, it’s significant.” It’s not always big significance, sometimes it’s just that you made somebody smile or you made them laugh or you made them cry. That has real momentary value, if not legacy enduring value.

In the UK, and probably indigenous to Europe, we have a bird. A black and white bird called a magpie. This magpie has probably made KitKat, inadvertently, very famous because it spots a shiny something that is a littered piece of KitKat wrapper and goes in on it. This word ‘cultural good’ that you came in on there, that really chimes with me. I think cultural good is something which you can’t plan for, but it’s accidentally brilliant if you see what I mean.

Yes, I do.

It’s beautiful when that comes about. That’s a moment when you all go out for tea and drinks.

Yes, for sure. It’s certainly the moment that you feel inspired and proud. There is a great book called ‘Culture Care’, by a painter named Makoto Fujimura, that helps guide some of my thinking. I’ve read a number of books that are about this idea of having stewardship over culture making. If I’m going to make things to put out in the world, I want them to be worthy offerings to the masses so to speak. You can’t always do that, sometimes you’ve just got to work on a kitty litter add right? That’s why I’ve got beautiful, interesting, and significant. If I can get two of the three; sometimes it’s beautiful and it’s interesting, but it’s not that significant. Sometimes it’s beautiful and significant- I don’t know that I could ever do anything that wasn’t interesting though. 

Sure, I understand that. 

We’re not saints, we’re in advertising.

You’re in advertising. Elizabeth, thanks so much indeed for your time today on this Movidiam podcast. It’s really been fascinating diving into your strategic role as head of strategy at MullenLowe, and also your previous career creating cultural good and moments of interest and things that we can hold onto on a daily basis. Thanks very much indeed for your time today.

Yes, alright, thank you, bye.

This article was originally published on Movidam