Q&A: Cocker Comes To RPA To Cultivate Ideas

pilotLast week, Honda's agency, Los Angeles-based RPA, gave Christian Cocker the tiller on the account. Cocker, who will be SVP, group strategic planning director, has done work for DirecTV, Snapple, Dr Pepper Ten, PlayStation and others. What about cars? That's a whole ’nother smoke, to quote the old Winchester cigarette ads. 

Well, if outsiders like Ford's Alan Mulally and General Motors' Daniel Akerson can do it, why not someone on the agency side? Cocker gained a wealth of experience working on DirecTV, Snapple, Dr. Pepper Ten, PlayStation and Taco Bell at Ogilvy London, Los Angeles at M&C Saatchi, McCann and Deutsch. He speaks to Marketing Daily about his new role.

Q: Why did you decide to jump on board at RPA?

A: Honda's an incredible brand. RPA is an incredible agency, and it feels like it's having a renaissance. What they were looking for is new thinking. With younger people, we are in a world where cars are another tool, like my iPhone. Because of that, having to reach out to try to find fresh thinking from people who have experience with other types of consumer brands is actually a really smart thing to do. 



Q: Isn't it also kind of a challenge, a risk, because you don't have experience in the auto sector?

A: I don't think so. First of all, I'm just one person; there's a team here with a significant number of planners with auto experience, and RPA is an agency where everyone who works here is an expert in that. The other thing: when I first started out, I worked on pregnancy tests; obviously, I'm a man and I can never know that experience. But the job of the strategic planner is to listen and observe and understand real people and what's important to them. 

Q: A new perspective is great, but with automotive, some would say you kind of need an expert on the account.

A: But there is a danger that, because you are an expert, you think you're always right. One of the skills of a planner is to take yourself out of that. You have to listen to what a consumer says, whether it's fabric conditioner, a candy bar, a pregnancy test, fast food or a car, for that matter. I have a lot of experience working on a lot of brands, and at the end of the day, it's about consumers' desires and behaviors. The old math on cars may not be good now; people have to rethink it because the generation coming up doesn't think that way.  

Q: So your idea is that it's about a new perspective and not being entangled with traditional ideas?

A: There are always conventions in every category, and I think when you bring someone in with a fresh perspective, they don't immediately go to convention. What makes advertising such a fun job is that every day you are dealing with a new world. Tomorrow is a different world than yesterday so there are no facts on the future. If you do it the way you always have and stick with convention, you won't stand out. And that's not just in advertising but in general. Blockbuster stuck with convention, then someone found an unconventional way to do what they were doing, and now Blockbuster's gone. 

Q: But what about internal resistance from people at RPA who know the Honda business quite well? A first lieutenant takes over a platoon, thinks he knows better and gets fragged … not that you will get fragged, but …

A: I hear you; I'm a big believer in only speaking when you have an interesting idea or something you think is valuable to say, and I think a lot of what's interesting for RPA is its wealth of people who know automotive but also a have lots of experience in other categories. Honda's not the only thing they do. My personal approach to planning and advertising is to make sure you listen and understand before you just assume. Assumption is the worst thing you can do.

I think that one of the skills is recognizing insights and also being able to pull out great ideas from other people. A good planner is able to do nothing without a good team. I want to stimulate and ask questions they may not have thought of, which doesn't mean I have all the answers. I may have different questions that lead to new creative ideas and solutions.

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