The Digital Strategist

Episode 3: The Role Of The Digital Strategist

In previous episodes we have defined what we mean by a digital strategy and how to start building one out by highlighting the questions we need answered in order to do so. Today we are going to change gears and focus on the practitioners themselves. What is the role of the digital strategist, whether in an agency environment or working in-house for a brand?

In my opinion, the core responsibility of the strategist is to be the resident storyteller. Let me explain what I mean by illustrating this with my own experience over the last few years. When I first moved into a strategic role a few years ago I found the role to be somewhat indistinct. This was an agency that was pivoting from an established traditional media focus into one that today is overwhelmingly a digital performance agency. But in those early days, with little definition to the role, I likened the work to mortar…I would fill in the gaps between account service and execution. Increasingly, I would be pulled into discussions around topics that really had nothing to do with strategy, but were very tactical in nature. I was lucky enough that the agency leadership made the commitment to expand the capabilities on the front end and the back end in order to allow me to focus on the strategy. The bandwidth they were able to provide me allowed me to begin to define the core responsibilities of the strategy group. I have since defined the strategy team’s overarching responsibility as driving the thinking, ideas and innovation in order to win, keep and grow business.

Now that’s a big objective, and for those things to happen everyone needs to contribute and do their respective parts. But the role of the strategist in that is to pull these elements together. And the only way to achieve that is by understanding how these elements fit together in a narrative that all the various stakeholders can understand. And that is where the storytelling comes in. Storytelling in this context is specifically about:

  • Understanding your audience, what their motivations are and how they communicate.
  • Understanding objectives, resources and expectations.
  • Understanding digital media, how it fits together and what elements need to be combined to achieve objectives.
  • Being able to knit together a narrative that can clearly, concisely and eloquently articulates the points you want to get across in a way that will prompt the actions you are looking to inspire.

The role of the strategist is not to get into the weeds on the day-to-day execution. They also tend to work on a variety of projects. This gives them the perspective and the responsibility to see beyond the immediate needs of a project or a stakeholder. And it puts the onus on them to be able to pull together the story that needs to be told in order to maintain forward momentum.

I wanted to provide this context because when I’ve told people that the role of the digital strategist is to be the storyteller, it’s elicited a variety of reactions from raised eyebrows to profanity. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig. And to be clear, it really is, but only because it is challenging and dynamic and infuriatingly difficult at times. It is also exciting, and never boring. And for those that are passionate about digital media and advertising, and I mean really passionate, not ‘resume passionate’, there’s no better job. But the responsibilities are considerable. If a project goes off the rails, if expectations aren’t clearly understood and managed, if campaigns aren’t performing and strategies aren’t delivering, if programs and engagements aren’t growing, then you can bet that the strategist will be called in to answer for it, because it is the strategist that stitched together the vision and sold it in. It is the strategist who marshaled the troops and defined what elements were needed and how they fit together. And it is the strategist who found a way to articulate the vision, to tell the story to the various stakeholders and subject matter experts in order to get them working towards a common goal.

That, in a nutshell is the role of the digital strategist. To understand the business problem and the stakeholder dynamics. To define the vision that is necessary to achieve the objective. And get everyone behind it To ensure that it is being delivered against expectations. To pull together the subject matter experts for guidance when it isn’t. To anticipate challenges. To identify opportunities. And to use storytelling to achieve all these things.

Next week on octopus, we will get really personal by outlining what I believe are the attributes that make a successful digital strategist. Please visit for notes and transcripts and to comment on content. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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