Aki Spicer Featured in “5 Minutes With…” for Little Black Book

Aki shared how ‘Multicultural Intelligence’ is providing end-to-end solutions for Leo Burnett clients, including the award-winning work on “The Lost Class,” and across Publicis Groupe.

Aki Spicer recently sat down with Little Black Book and underscored the importance of meeting multicultural consumers with more insight, understanding and creative relevance.

Prior to finding his calling as an ad agency strategist, Aki dabbled in music video directing, online music magazines and marketing roles in the fashion industry. None of which count as advertising ‘experience’ but all of them are rooted in the cultural zeitgeist that adland so covets.

U.S. editor, Addison Capper, caught up with him to find out why embedding more ‘Multicultural Intelligence’ into advertising practices is his greatest career challenge.

Check out the full Q&A and read on for select excerpts of the conversation.

LBB: What sort of kid were you and did you have any strong opinions about advertising growing up?

Aki: I was an ‘80s nerd, geek, ‘latchkey’ kid who spent much of the time in front of the TV. I consumed books on the ‘Making of…’ movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. I scripted and directed really bad home-brew movies on an ‘80s video camcorder – think Miami Vice original episodes – shot and acted by kids in the neighbourhood with hand drawn graphics and titles. And I could appreciate advertising technique. As a kid I consumed catchy ad jingles and absorbed ‘80s graphics and animation styles. I really loved cinematic and conceptual ads such as Chanel #5Calvin Klein Obsession, or Nike Air Jordan campaigns. Ads sell wildly impossible possibilities, and I appreciated them as a kind of entertainment and cultural signal. I was weird.

LBB: How did you become a strategist? And what were the key decisions along that route?

Aki: I was once a middling music video director who then took a detour into web music magazine publishing, and then I flirted with marketing roles in music and fashion spaces. I then spoke to a head of planning at a NYC ad agency who casually introduced me to a role called strategic planner and suggested that I would be good at it and gave me some references.

I took on some early assignments as a research ethnographer for brands. For example, I went to neighbourhood barber shops just to talk to people about their attachment to New Era caps. I went to churches to talk to women about health and eating. I went to immigrant enclaves to learn about the role of money and transferring money back home to support my family with Western Union. I lurked amongst skater enclaves to understand ‘the rules’ of the community. I lurked at bars to understand how drink trends bubbled up. I was a bit of a spy on sub-cultures – for brands. It was fun. I found that I liked to unpack how people work. I liked translating culture.

So my planner career evolved from ethnographic street research to learning how to write creative briefs and bring it all together. I found myself being very digital-leaning and I proved to be an easy-going and persuasive translator of web2 innovations that would greatly change advertising.

LBB: Looking at your career, you’ve had a few very digital focused roles, both within strategy and more broadly. How have those roles helped and influenced the strategist you are today, in a time when ‘digital’ permeates pretty much everything?

Aki: I embrace technology. I am curious. I am entrepreneurial. I am adaptable. Embracing change is key to having a digital mindset. Acceptance that nothing remains static and new platforms usurp old. Advertising’s best eras have capitalised on change. Adland’s big idea era of the ’60s was built on a pivot to a rising new technology called television. Keeping pace with change is how we started, and it is how we will endure (if we endure).

LBB: What’s the knottiest strategic problem you’ve ever had to find an answer to and how did you work through it?

Aki: Embedding more Multicultural Intelligence into adland process is the knottiest strategic problem of my career. This has sometimes demanded invention of new products and protocols that just have not existed before in our agencies. This work has demanded holding tough, awkward, emotional conversations with brand executives and agency teams alike. It demands we try and untangle cultural baggage and hundreds of years of memory cortex to forge new agency operating systems. It has also demanded resilience and patience because organisational transformation isn’t instant and it isn’t a straight line.

A core truth of advertising is the recognition that people are rarely rational, and they rarely do things that are best for them in the long run. They often need to be persuaded. I am constantly reminded of this about adland itself. Demographics maths, business growth, consumption truths don’t always cue both individual and organisational change that is required to meet the future of a diverse mass. This kind of work has demanded that we keep the faith that it will all work out on the other side of persistence.

I channel much of my digital experience in this regard – in both shifts. From traditional to digital marketing shifts and informing the shift to meet a more diverse mass, I have tried to stay fixated on the horizon (and the data maths) and ignore the many potholes.

LBB: Data is obviously a huge driver in strategy these days – but what are your thoughts on the more human and qualitative side of research in 2022? How do you ensure that’s still relevant and present?

Aki: I started on the qualitative side. I still believe in the power of meeting people in their space and trying to understand them one-to-one. I also believe in the power of data to scale one-to-one understanding. I don’t see a conflict, and I push strategists to balance both inputs.

LBB: More generally, what’s inspiring you or keeping you occupied in your downtime right now?

Aki: Through lockdown, I have discovered the joys of indoor gardening. Growing a plant (or dozens of plants prolifically taking over the apartment) keeps you grounded and reminds you of simple things, simple needs. It is refreshing to get in touch with the simplest primordial truths.

Visit Little Black Book for the full Q&A.