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Making Strategy Work Essential

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

As coronavirus continues to claim more layoff victims in agency land, we should all take a moment to examine how we can make ourselves too valuable to lose. Check out our top five ways to ensure you’re an essential strategist. Heads up, there’s nothing in here about making sure you’re not left off of meeting invites. Nobody became more useful by attending another meeting. Ask designers and developers if work gets done in meetings. You should have your answer about how essential meetings are.

Photo (modified): Robbie Noble on Unsplash

1. Answer “so, what?”

You did a lot of research. Whatever kind it was, you did a lot of it. Congratulations. But your job isn’t done yet. Rather than dump a mountain of data on your team’s desks, you actually have to do something with all those findings. What about that data does your team need to know to do their job better? If you don’t answer that for them, they have additional work to do in their already busy day.

One of the most useful things you can do is answer the question “so, what?” Here are a few examples. The target audience has an average HHI of $75k. So, what? Why does that matter to your creative team? Or how about, the target audience is more likely to have their first child in the next five years. So, what? Go the next step and tell the team why that matters. If you don’t, they have to figure it out for themselves and there can be a wide range of interpretation.

To some degree, it’s about providing insights instead of data. Insights answer the “so,what?” They provide the why. They express human truths. They lay the groundwork for great creative thinking. Here’s a classic example of the difference between facts, observations and insights:

Fact: People tend to feed their pets twice a day. Observation: They tend to feed them at breakfast and dinner time. Insight: People feel guilty eating in front of their pets.

You could also justify that the insight is people love their pets like they’re people. The insight comes from the data, but it takes that data one step further. There’s a level of art injected into the science. Some people are uncomfortable making that leap. Those people aren’t essential strategists.

2. Tell great stories

Are you the person who thinks the art directors you work with can make your slides pretty and the writers you work with can make your words sound good? Then you’re also the person who lacks necessary storytelling skills and has no idea what your creative team’s job is.

If you want to be essential, sweat the narrative. Storytelling is how humans make sense of the world. It’s not just important, it’s necessary for our survival. So, a 50+ page deck that’s brimming with data, but doesn’t make any clear, actionable recommendations and lacks a cohesive storyline is worthless to both your clients and your teammates. And if you’re relying on someone else for some “deck love” a.k.a. basic storytelling skills, then how much have you contributed to the job at hand?

As an intelligent, essential strategist, you too are capable of dragging and dropping images into a deck to make your story more visual and easy to follow. And as someone who is most likely a college educated human, you’ve excelled at your fair share of persuasive writing assignments and can absolutely find the words to communicate the information you need to share in a clear and engaging way.

Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Don’t keep rolling into meetings with the the same data dump deck. Put the effort into turning the information into a story everyone wants to see and hear.

3. Know the client as well as you know the consumer

As strategists, we’re frequently preaching about the benefits of audience insights. We should be practicing what we preach every day at work. Your audience is your client. How you deliver messages to that audience impacts everything you touch. Knowing your audience is a basic tenet of storytelling. You could have the best consumer insights, but if they aren’t presented in a way that will resonate with your client, you’re SOL.

You could have a great idea for how to change the product your client’s company produces, but your client in marketing might have nothing to do with product development. They might not have the authority or even interact with the people who do. While I’m a supporter of breaking down those kinds of internal silos, I’m not a fan of strategists who can’t find solutions that their clients can implement.

You must first and foremost be a problem solver. And your solution-finding well must be deep. I’m confident you can solve issues and innovate in areas that fit squarely in your client’s realm. And you can deliver those solutions in a manner that really resonates with each and every client you have. I’m positive your clients are confident you can do this, too. It’s why they pay the agency you work for.

4. Get everyone aligned on a north star

Some of the most difficult, but rewarding work is getting agency and client teams aligned on the same goals. By defining and shaping the path forward, you’ve done more than most to pave the way for creative greatness to take place. Every brand needs a north star to follow and guide the work. Without that, it doesn’t matter how good the creative is because no one will agree on how to assess it. It can easily be torn down when it’s not built on a solid foundation of mutual support.

You’re building the culture around the brand. For consumers sure, but just as important, for the stewards of the brand itself. Helping everyone who works on the brand understand its mission and purpose will help them work together to achieve its collective goals. If you foster the development of shared goals and understanding, you’ll be undeniably essential to helping a brand flourish.

5. Get creative

If you’re uptight about impacting the creative work, then start making creative work. The last thing your creative team needs is another cook in the kitchen. If all you’re offering is another opinion, I promise you, it’s not helpful. But show up with some good solutions and all of a sudden, you’re making yourself useful. From the outside, it might seem like a writer or art director spitballed a few mediocre ideas, but in reality a lot more time and effort went into it. And many, many ideas hit the cutting room floor before you saw the ones that survived. As the strategist, you’re meant to be the expert on feeding the creative output and the creatives are meant to be the experts on creating great work. You might think you’re better at it. Great. Think it all you want. But until you’ve actually created something, event the most junior team has more experience and perspective on making great work than you do.

So, if what you’re really after is shaping the work, then make some work. Present your ideas to your creative team and see if anything sticks. And don’t get sour when your ideas get killed. Ideas get killed all the time. It’s part of the process. If you start participating in that process, yours will not be immune. And maybe keep that in mind the next time you’re giving negative feedback on something that’s already survived a few rounds of approval. Your creative team’s job is to create an endless supply of solutions. You can join the solution-making team, or you can continue to sit on the sidelines with the problem finders. Try making ideas bulletproof instead of simply pointing out the weak spots.

You got this

As we all work hard to figure out a new normal, the good news is that you already possess all the skills you need to make yourself more essential “at” the office. Answering “so, what?”, telling better stories, knowing the client, gaining team alignment and getting creative are a few strategies you can turn to when you need to be the MVP on your team.

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