Taming the HiPPO

March 2023:

It’s been months of work.

The culmination of endless debates, flipcharts, iterations, rotation of team members, random moments of inspiration, design, edits, debriefs, PowerPoint slides, and coffees – all set in motion by that ‘fix our brand’ workshop six months ago. Although we’re not all the way to actually producing the ad that will solve all our problems, getting to animatics is a significant milestone in itself. And, given the blood, sweat and sanity that have been invested to get to this point, the 30-minute slot we have in the Monday Marketing LT meeting to unveil its progress definitely puts butterflies in the stomach.

It’s a tight meeting, so best to get straight into it. Tell everyone how excited we are, share the work, then save a few minutes for discussion, feedback and perhaps a pat on the back. Then comes the response from the CMO, possibly even CEO, that everyone has been secretly dreading, even half expecting.

‘I don’t like it’.

It’s amazing the despairing ‘Oh my god, YES!’ reaction I get from clients and agencies when I paint that picture.It seems we’ve all been there or borne witness to that car crash before. Months of discussion and work in the trenches and, in a matter of mere minutes, the HiPPO (the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) waltzes onto the scene and sh*ts over everything …

And so, let’s take a moment to view the scene from the HiPPO’s perspective.

As we know, brands say something about their users. Consumers will pay waaaay over the odds for a pair of shoes, or a shirt, or a backpack if it has a Nike swoosh on it. Because that badge tells the world that the person wearing it is a sporty, determined, ambitious, never-say-die winner, just like the athletes who wear that badge when they shoot the winning basket, or smack a winning forehand down the line. A drinker of XXXX is a salt-of-the-earth Queenslander. A provider of Zooper Doopers is a fun parent. A driver of a Lexus is a contemporary social success (in a way that is, of course, totally different to the driver of a Toyota, the company lurking behind the scenes to actually make the Lexus). And so, if a brand says so much about its user, imagine how much it says about its CMO? Or its CEO? Imagine that CEO being at a dinner party when one of the guests says, ‘Hold on, that stupid ad I saw on TV last night, don’t you run that place?’.

Although they would never admit it, a brand’s marketing can feel like a very public expression of what a CMO or CEO does for a living. And so, when someone from the C-suite says, ‘I don’t like that idea for an ad’, what they might really be feeling is, ‘I don’t like how that ad would position me at my next round of golf’. It takes a lot of guts for a subordinate brand manager to come back with ‘Phew, I’m glad you don’t like it, because you’re a 50-something man living in Mosman, and this is aimed at working-class teenagers.’ (those brand managers do exist though, and that response was not a made-up example!).

The trick, of course, is to NOT start that 30-minute slot by diving straight into the work. It is critical to start off by very, very, clearly articulating the strategy. Something like this:

Here is our problem, here is our diagnosis of the problem, here is the agreed path forward. Here was our business case, these are the outcomes our modelling shows we should expect if, and when, we get this right. Now, for the last six months we’ve been working hard on executing against that strategy, and we have done some initial testing to confirm that we are on course. Check out this chart. Here you can see how ‘ad version one’ is performing, it’s doing OK, but to really nail our brief we learned that we needed to dial-up XYZ. So, we went back to the drawing board, and you can see on this chart that ‘ad version two’ is doing the exact job that we all agreed six months ago that we were setting out to do. OK, thanks for the 30-minute slot today, we’ll let you get on with the rest of your agenda. Oh, and if you are curious to see the animatics of the ad itself, we’ll set up a viewing in meeting room B and you can come and check it out after this meeting. Thank you.

The key here is to move from a subjective assessment of the ad to an objective assessment of whether we are successfully executing against strategic intent. It is a fact-based business discussion. It is also taking the audience on the journey everyone has been through – critical if you want people to understand how you arrived at your destination. So, now, whether the audience likes the proposed ad or not, becomes entirely irrelevant. The meeting has been framed as a progress report on how this piece of the puzzle fits into the larger picture of brand growth. That is where judgement and feedback should be welcomed.

This approach requires data, and a good objective research partner. Don’t go into that next ad reveal meeting without them!


Ryan France portrait

Ryan France
Head of Brand Strategy,
Australia, Kantar

This was first published in the Kantar BrandZ 2023 Most Valuable Brands Report – download it here