Nicola Merrifield
Nov 1, 2023

Michael Lee: 'The idea of a big, TV-driven brand campaign is getting harder and harder to deliver'

VCCP Partnership’s chief strategy officer discusses what lies ahead for planners as the media landscape continues to fragment.

Michael Lee: 'The idea of a big, TV-driven brand campaign is getting harder and harder to deliver'

"Become a successful TikTok influencer” was top of Michael Lee’s to-do list three years ago. The comment may have been made tongue in cheek – an answer to a question in Campaign’s The A-List – but the social platform remains front of mind as he mulls over the future role of strategists.

He is discussing the many hats that planners will have to wear as the industry accelerates into an ever-more fragmented state and the extent to which agencies will need to house specialists and generalists within the department.

The Account Planning Group, the membership body for strategists of which Lee is chair, carried out a recent survey of the skills needed to be a planner – the total number reached 24.

“You sit there and go, ‘bloody hell that feels like an impossible job’,” Lee says.

“The question is whether you as an agency need to chunk up those [specialist] skills, or whether we really are asking everyone to be able to know what exists, and know how to do everything from the latest creative platforms that have been launched – such as whatever capabilities that TikTok have created – right down to the usual things around being able to prove the ROI of an idea and to almost be able to think like an economist,” he adds, noting that in reality the ratio to aim for is “probably 50:50”.

As the top planner at VCCP (apart from co-founder Charles Vallance) for more than a decade, Lee has overseen some of the most effective campaigns in the UK, including work for Cadbury, a client since 2017. VCCP recognised Lee’s contribution last year when it promoted him to chief strategy officer of VCCP Partnership after 10 years of him running the London agency’s planning department.

It is a long way from happening to “discover a job called planning at the age of 27” after “six inglorious failed career attempts”. These included stints in telecoms management consultancy, business development, documentary-making and sports and entertainment PR. His first adland job was in 2003 at VCCP, which, at the time, was a start-up with three clients.

VCCP has become a “lighthouse” for planning in the industry under Lee’s leadership, according to Sarah Newman, director of the APG. It is, she says, a place where strategists are given “leeway but also support”. Lee also always has his eye on shifts in the industry. “He is really good at being open-minded about what is coming down the track and embracing change rather than being afraid of it,” Newman adds.

The escalation of media fragmentation is guiding Lee’s thinking on how to safeguard work for clients and planners’ futures. Brand strategy needs to be versatile, he stresses.

“If you take something like Cadbury, it is all built around championing generosity and that can exist in terms of product innovation, in terms of brand partnerships, partnerships with charities, but also 10- and 20-second ads. It’s a really strong, core thought that can exist in multiple places, in multiple forms,” he says.

A recent Ofcom report on changing TV viewing habits underlines the point: “You saw even 65-pluses deserting linear TV. What that means is the idea of a big, TV-driven brand campaign is getting harder and harder to deliver,” Lee says.

The Media Nations report in August found viewers between the ages of 65 and 74 watched about 10% less broadcast TV in 2022 than the year before and 6% less than pre pandemic, in 2019.

VCCP took home the Grand Prix at the 2022 IPA Effectiveness Awards for its work with Cadbury, which has focused on the tagline “There’s a glass and a half in everyone”. Since launching in 2018 the campaign has homed in on two primary areas: storytelling (the big emotional ads) and storydoing (those targeted at commercially important times).

The approach is in opposition to montage ads by some brands, of which Lee is wary and sees increasing in prevalence. Of these types of campaigns, featuring fast clips of different people interacting with a product, he says: “It’s almost like you’re creating ads so they can be chopped up into five- and 10-second bits that then can be targeted on social channels to a more specific audience.” But the result is “a lot of advertising ideas that look very similar regardless of the category”.

He adds: “An ambitious agency, with ambitious creative strategies will do everything to build that versatility but still create something really distinctive and original. It’s hard, but that’s where agencies that can show they can do this on a consistent basis will be most in demand.”

It’s a proposition that Lee will no doubt help other planners to do, as well as delivering himself, Newman says. “Michael is one of those people who does what he says he is going to do and in advertising there are lots of people who don’t do that,” she continues, citing his co–founding of the VCCP Stoke Academy, which aims to bring more diverse talent into the ad industry.

Another increasing focus for Lee is the media alongside which work appears. He points to US energy drink Prime, which launched in the UK in 2022. The drink is made by Congo Brands and promoted by YouTube stars KSI and Logan Paul.

“Media is becoming more of a message. Who you choose to partner with, where you are seen, who you collaborate with is becoming more and more of the creative idea. Which is funny because ‘[the] medium is the message’ was something said by [Canadian communication theorist] Marshall McLuhan back in the 60s,” he says.

But Lee is adamant that the rise of brand collaborations doesn’t threaten him or his fellow planners. “I think any smart planner knows the company you keep and where you show up has as big an impact on how people perceive a brand as the message itself,” he says.

Strategists “should be excited” about meeting the challenges to come, Lee argues: “I see it as a blossoming of opportunities for brand fame.”

Campaign UK

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