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Talking Strategy with Ian Dolan

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Talking Strategy with Ian Dolan

Ian Dolan

Having worked for some of the top agencies in the world of media and advertising, Ian Dolan is an award-winning strategist currently working in the world’s fastest moving media market, China. When he’s not helping brands like Unilever and Google navigate the China communications landscape, you’ll find him on a backstreet capturing street scenes or with his daughter, Ela.

Trendeavour talks to Ian Dolan, Head of Strategy & Planning at PHD Media China.

Disclaimer: all views expressed in the interview are personal, and belong solely to Ian Dolan, and do not reflect the view of his employer, organisation or other individuals.

How did you become a marketing strategist?

I grew up in Manchester, England at what’s considered now to be a ‘Golden Age’ for advertising.  Creative shops like Saatchi & Saatchi were at their prime producing amazing work like the iconic British Airways ‘Face’ ad, and I became hooked as a viewer first.

Click here to read our interview with Graham Fink, who created the iconic British Airways ‘Face’ ad.

In University I saw an ad for Campus Brand Managers, promoting Alka Seltzer to students, I applied and won the best campaign twice; it sill amazes me what you can do with a bit of imagination and $150!

In the UK the industry is largely focused in London, but there was a large full-service agency in an old country house with an outdoor swimming pool in Manchaster, and I knew I had to work there. I applied for their graduate training scheme and beat 120 others to land one of 4 jobs there. I was picked by the board to work in the media department, which I was pretty annoyed about as wanted to be a Don Draper suit, but as it happens it was definitely the right decision, I started by buying local newspapers, radio and magazines. I then moved to TV Buying which was brilliant fun, before leaving to join a company called PHD where I have been ever since, first in the UK, then Dubai, and now Shanghai.

How do you usually approach a new project? What is your concept or do you have any go-to guidelines?

It always starts with research. Strategy is a blend of disciplines and requires left and right brain thinking, a typical project starts with what we call ‘Discovery’: we look at the problem in hand and break it apart, listing initial challenges. We then look at client’s situation through the lens of their category (what’s happening, how are competitors behaving, who is growing, how is it evolving, where is it evolving).  

We then look at the consumer and assess what’s happening in their world, how are macroeconomics impacting them, how are their attitudes changing and what’s driving their decision making. 

We asses culture, and trends impacting perceptions on brands, changes to the way consumers see ethical production, health and ingredients etc.

And then finally we asses brand health, we have a lot of tools and usually client data that helps us diagnose which element of the brand requires attention, this helps us design communications solutions that address these areas of weakness, and equally, play to the brands strengths.

Every brand, category, consumer profile and brand client challenge is different, so no two project are ever the same and this is probably the one thing I love most about my role, the variety and exposure to often obscure industries (I once worked with a cracked heel cream).

What’s been the most exciting project you’ve ever worked on, and why?

I must have worked on hundreds, and I still get a buzz working on new business briefs where I know nothing about the category or market. That said, probably the best campaign I was part of, albeit in a small way, was for a soft drink called IRN-BRU. The brand is an orange, sweet (and really tasty) soft drink that outsells Coca Cola in Scotland. The idea for the campaign was tongue in cheek, the brand celebrated the fact Scotland were so bad at football they didn’t make the finals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The creative idea behind it was truly amazing, instead of drowning sorrows, the brand went on air during the world cup to encourage Scot’s to ‘mate’ with Brazilians, therefore enhancing the football gene pool in Scotland, and ensuring they’d win the world cup in 2034. As part of the activation, our team planned and bought dating ads in Brazilian media and flew a ‘recruitment’ ad across Copa Cabana behind a light aircraft, trailing a message asking Brazilian women to come to Scotland to marry a Scottish man. The campaign won a Gold Lion at the prestigious Cannes Lions Festival of Media.

You have a very international background, having worked in different countries around the world, moving from the U.K. to UAE and China. How is the Western approach different to the Chinese when it comes to strategy?

One thing I’ve learnt travelling the world is people are ultimately the same, we share common values, fears and motivations and care about the same things. That said, culture, education systems and social conditioning make us all different. I grew up in the UK where we are encouraged to challenge, to be abstract to reason and to debate. Working in different countries made me realize that this is not always a common approach, and also that my experience isn’t the ‘right’ way either.

Probably the best skill I have acquired which makes me a good strategist is actually diplomacy. 

Strategists often span multiple stakeholders including the client, function leads, and the team more broadly. When solving problems, solutions can come from anywhere, and removing your ego and listening, playing people in and giving them a voice, helps. 

Culture plays a role when you’re not in the UK, because each society has a different values relating to things like respect. In China for example, the seating plan is carefully considered to avoid offending senior leaders, similarly being seen to contradict a more senior colleague is a huge no no. In the Middle Eastern culture, it is really important to built mutual trust and respect and not to be too direct too soon. If your job as a strategist is to unearth and solve marketing problems, you have to be aware that your diagnosis and treatment may indivertibly embarrass your client and therefore you have to be considerate how you frame issues and solutions.

Having fun: Ian Dolan with his daughter, Ela
What are the newest/coolest innovations in marketing that you’ve come across in China?

China is definitely first when it comes to media innovation, the pace of change is rapid and the Chinese mentality is rooted in commerce and adaptability.

Only recently I was in Carrefour (supermarket) and a robotic assistant followed me down the beauty isle with a promotion for Dove shower gel. The robot has facial recognition so can identify gender and present the relevent product and promotion accordingly.

If you’re involved in E-Commerce or retail though, you must keep and eye on China, there is some really game changing stuff happening here.

Alibaba for example have created a store chain called ‘Hema’ which is a hybrid between experience, ecommerce and retail shopping. Each store acts as a fulfillment centre and items like fish are fresh are all instore, each with a unique QR Code allowing you to choose your specific one. You can browse, order and then sit down to eat, served by robotic assistants, whilst your groceries are packed and then delivered to your door.

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The latest trend I’ve seen in China is ‘virtual influencers’. SK-II recently ran a campaign using a virtually generated influencer called ‘Imma’ who starred in their ad, she’s barely indistinguishable from a real, cool, human.

Globally speaking, there are loads, but one thing we should all be focused on now is the move towards automation. Many people fail to recognize the power of AI and the fact many industries will become partially and then fully automated within their working lives. We’re talking fully automated logistics companies, trucking and delivery.

Something immediately tangible is Virtual Personal Assistants, like Siri. Today Siri remains as a fairly primitive personal assistant, but within three years, Siri will be a gateway to your everyday life and will manage brand access to you and the world around you. In short, Siri will become your PA.

Watch out too for how media changes when 5G connectivity becomes ubiquitous. Advertising is really only constrained by the bandwidth used to deliver it, in a limitless bandwidth world of 5G, advertising will become much more immersive, deeper and higher quality.

What’s your personal take on how digital marketing is going to evolve in the near future, beyond COVID-19? 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is going to have a significant impact on everyone and not least to the SME sector, aside from big business. That said, I think some of the hardest hit industries will rebound stronger.

The travel market is being hammered right now, but I think once things cool down and restrictions are lifted, people will want to exercise their liberties and travel. I think for many too, the virus has caused genuine shock and fear, when this happens people reprioritise what’s important; this may be good news for exotic destinations, organised tours to far flung destinations or summits, and more ‘bucket list’ type holidays, I call this the ‘Carpe Diem’ mindset.

One thing to watch is the changing dynamic of E-Commerce. Compared to China, the percentage of population buying online, and the age and social profile of these people is completely different. The virus will force a broader range of people online shopping, out of their comfort zones for necessity, this creates new opportunities for local retailers.

Its also not unrealistic for a global baby boom in 2021, lets face it, people stuck at home will find their own entertainment! I think this alone in interesting, but the psyche of parents and the way they parent will also be of interest- remember, these were children conceived in threating times, and I think we will likely see a response with mollycoddling by parents.

Moreover, I feel consumers will rally round their community retailers. American Express did a brilliant initiative called ‘Small Business Saturday’ which has evolved to ‘Shop Small’. I think this ethos will spread and we will see consumers really championing their local retailers.

Shanghai by Ian Dolan
Shanghai, photographed by Ian Dolan
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