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Planning to Stand-Up

Leo Burnett's Global Head of Social and Mobile James Kirkham and Holler's Global Head of Strategic Ideas Jonathan Fraser link the discipline of Planning to stand-up comedy.

Today in Cannes, Leo Burnett's Global Head of Social and Mobile James Kirkham and Holler's Global Head of Strategic Ideas Jonathan Fraser presented 'Planning to Stand-up,' a seminar on how the advertising craft of planning is much like stand-up comedy. For those who missed it, check out this recap from James below.

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Last summer, Holler’s Global Head of Strategic Ideas Jonathan Fraser walked into the Planning department and told them all that in just one month’s time, each planner would perform live at a London comedy club. The planners looked frankly frightened, and the training began immediately.

At Holler, no day is ever dull.

So why in the hell would he put them through this?

Jonathan Fraser (known simply as ‘Fraser,’ even by his parents) is a former stand-up comedian and the ex-head of Planning. He spotted a bunch of similarities between learning stand up comedy and agency planning. Fraser wanted to try and experiment to see if teaching the planning department to become stand-up comedians would in fact make them better planners, too. Nothing like using your agency as science-lab Guinea pigs.

Many people who hear about Fraser’s experiment assume the correlation is purely about the art of presenting. Although much of the relationship is about finding your inner voice and presenting yourself in the right manner, this is way more than just a session in how to present; the delivery and the timing are just smaller parts of a much more intricate and fascinating tapestry.

The Training

The first week of training was spent developing insights. The most obvious insight for a casual observer was knowing that successful jokes, strategies, and ideas are based in truth. Observational comedians have nailed this for years – Seinfeld built a multi-million dollar career on it.

Planners tend to lose themselves in product details and behaviors, always searching for that particular nugget of an insight. Both planners and comedians strike on the same territories to find their gags or killer planning strategies, each based on a unique insight. All the usual insights have been exploited time and time again in comedy clubs all over the world. Both comedians and planners need to look for what is fresh to achieve an innovative breakthrough and ensure they don’t resort to well worn territories.

The second week of training focused on crafting insight. One of the personal planning no-no’s at Holler is when planners overcomplicate things, or over elaborate because they think they should, not to help clarify the position. The best planners can make things that might be complex, seem perfectly clear and simple. This skill is just as valuable in the world of stand-up comedy.

Once comedians have their insight they will then hone it, distill it, and craft it meticulously to make it as simple as possible. There are no wasted words when writing a gag. The joke has to be as effective and streamlined as possible. Simple always wins.

Good planners and good comedians share similar traits. Both need to know which information is crucial and useful and which information is distracting and unnecessary. In training, they were taught to be ruthless.

The third week was about delivery, the fourth about rehearsing to perfection, and there were many important lessons learned along the way. One of the most exciting revelations compares heckling with an always-on reactive approach to advertising. Comedians actually welcome ‘the heckle’ from a crowd, as it enables them to put themselves in the world of the audience. The best brands respond to an individual in a social, open-letter style, but comedians do it in full view of everyone else.

Following the success of the initiative, Holler London started the program so that every single member of the Planning department would be taught how to be a stand-up comedian. All members are required to perform at least one live gig at a London comedy club.

Agencies and comedians both go through processes of analyzing behaviors to find a unique insight that allows them to create a new, niche idea that moves them towards a certain objective or goal. The process is nearly identical. The session in Cannes explored this with some hilarious examples.

Who’s laughing now?