Listening, Strategically.


In branding, advertising, and marketing it might be assumed that he who has the loudest voice, wins the most consumers. As the Greek philosopher Epictetus once remarked, however, “we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak”. While understated, listening is an essential part of the branding and/or marketing process and a skill I’ve personally found value in honing. As I look back at my career, learning to listen has been a key to success, regardless of industry. For example:


  • In wealth management, learning to listen was key to developing that attention to detail needed when transferring huge amounts of money between accounts.
  • In large agency life, listening to the daily interactions between the creative, account, and strategy departments was full of valuable insights about how the industry functions and thrives as a whole. Listening to the ideas that got squashed or pushed through, or to the way a pitch evolved over its many iterations, or just to the way the teams worked with each other, listening was a valuable tool as I began to understand how all the cogs fit and work together to push the advertising wheel forward.
  • In small business consulting, listening to owners explain their individualized frustrations was key to unlocking the real issues that needed to be tackled. Listening, rather than pushing forward a blanket solution, enabled trust, creative problem solving, and teamwork.


As lead strategist at FL+G, listening is as important as ever. To be effective in my role, I have to understand a host of different things. First, I have to understand what a client is trying to communicate at the get go. What is the problem and/or goal? Often times, the underlying issue is muddled or confused, so listening carefully to the whole story is key to digging in and unearthing the root of the problem. A client may not know what they need, so it’s our job as an agency to understand where they stand now and where they want to be, all so that we can advise on how to get there.


In addition to understanding their goal, I have to understand the client’s audience. To understand an audience, I have to listen to what that audience wants to hear, what they will respond to on a brand level, what they care about. This is why focus groups and surveys are so important to a strategist. That’s our opportunity to listen to the consumer.


I then have to listen to the market. And the competition. What are the competitors saying? Where’s the opportunity for differentiation? How can we position the brand, or craft the messaging, or devise a social media plan around that opportunity for distinction? What is everyone else saying?


So for me, listening (not just hearing) is an absolutely essential part of the branding process.


There’s a certain point, however, where the goal flips. Up until now, the goal was to listen, synthesize, and to gain an understanding. Once enough insight has been gathered, however, the goal becomes figuring out how to get the world to listen to us (a.k.a the client. I use “us” because we’re a team with a common goal now- true partners). Once we’ve spent the time listening intently and understanding what we want to communicate and to whomwe need to figure out how.


In the book “Power Branding”, Steve McKee relates strategy to answering the “what” questions and the creative to answering the inevitable “how” question. He writes that it’s at the “how” junction that “intuition and instinct play as important a role as logic and reason”. Luckily for me, it’s at this point, that the strategy gets passed to the creative mind.


If, as a strategist, listening is the skill I’m most intent on mastering, what then is the skill our creative team finds most important? As McKee so powerfully warns, it’s at the creative juncture (when answering that elusive “how”) where one can so “easily go wrong if you expect your target audience to be rational, to pay attention, or to give you the credit you deserve.” So how does a creative tackle the “how”? Check back in a couple weeks! Our next blog post will dive in and explore the skill most valuable to our creative team.