Yeah. That’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got here.
I know I sometimes do. When I first launched this project just under 2 years ago, my hope was that coming out of this I could build a repository that would be useful to aspiring strategists, giving them a roadmap for their career development. In order to do so, I had to answer 2 simple questions; am I right in how I think, and how similar are experiences in this space around the world to mine?
Unsurprisingly, there were unintended consequences and experiences that helped shape this journey. Yes, I found my ideas validated. But they were also challenged. Things I took for granted turned out to be wrong. And the great driver for this was the inspiring people I met and spoke with along the way. From New York, London, Turin, Johannesburg, Malmo, Eindhoven, Aukland, Hong Kong, Toronto and beyond, strategists were generous with their time, their perspectives and their ideas. They shared concepts, experiences and applications. They talked about how they developed their careers in their respective countries and industries, providing invaluable advice on how to develop your career in this space.
And out of these conversations came the realization that while we are separated by culture and distance and language, there are universal truths that govern and guide us. Surprisingly, at least for me, these universal truths are not about the binary nature of the digital landscape that we traverse, but rather about the shades of grey that define human dynamics, desires and outcomes.
Yes, the hard skills matter, and they matter deeply. You can’t be credible working in digital marketing if you have never personally executed any of its component elements. Build a website. Run a campaign. Analyze reports. Do any and all these things. If you don’t understand how they work, how can you speak to how they interact and connect? But if your interest in digital marketing does not extend beyond the ability to manipulate digital tools and platforms, don’t become a strategist. Focus on being the best technical specialist you can be.
Being a strategist is about delivering outcomes predicated on understanding and driving human behaviours and actions. It is about understanding who your audience is, how they think, what they want, and delivering a message that motivates them to take the actions you want. Yes, in order to do so, you need to understand how to align and manipulate digital tools to deliver the right experience to the right person at the right time. But at the heart of this is an understanding of people in all our glorious messiness.
The audiences you need to influence as a strategist vary enormously. They begin as prospects and become clients who buy into your vision. They are your peers and colleagues that you need to execute your strategy. They are your client’s customers for whom you have to use digital initiatives and communications to motivate along a user journey.
Now do this consistently well, day in, day out.
It’s more than just challenging. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. So why do we do it?
We do it because when you work with the right people, with the right goals and in the right environment, this is one of the most interesting, varied and rewarding careers you can pursue. Lack of structure? I see opportunity to be creative. Unpredictable? Yes, but that’s what makes it exciting. Overwhelming challenges? That’s your opportunity to learn.
But as the conversations with accomplished strategists have made clear, for a successful and rewarding career, you need a framework to operate within.
It begins with defining digital strategy and articulating the role of the strategist. Ralf van Lieshout, speaking from Eindhoven said that the strategist was ‘to act as a hub and hover over all of (the other agency activities) and connect all the dots’, as he says, he ‘can move between Cannes, the festival of creativity and Silicon Valley within an hour and still be relevant to my client”. In Toronto, Ian Lee spoke about how to achieve this when he said that the role of the strategist was to ‘be a storyteller that can paint a picture, not for one person in the room but for all the constituents, to understand from an emotional, political and business basis what really is it that is going to be high on the list of priorities…. (the strategist must) help establish credibility between ‘the smart folks’ on both sides’.
Multi-disciplinary data driven storytellers. That is fundamentally who we are as strategists. In order to do this, we need specific skills, many of which are unrelated to technical capabilities. It begins with an understanding of the central importance of the human element in all we do. In order to understand this, we need empathy, because without the ability to see the world through the eyes of another, we can’t convince and motivate.
Beyond hard digital skills and empathy, one of the most important skills that define a successful strategist is to be water. This skill is best summed up in a famous quote from Bruce Lee, who said ‘Be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow, or it can crash: Be water, my friend.’ Our industry is characterized by constant and rapid change. To succeed, indeed, to lead in this environment needs a remarkable level of adaptability. Speaking from London, David Jowett reinforced this point when he said of the strategist that ‘if you aren’t trying to drive for a faster, better solution you aren’t helpful, if you aren’t smart you shouldn’t be in the room and if you’re not flexible enough to cope with linguistic or cultural issues or the changes we face each day you’ll get overwhelmed’.
But being water requires courage. From Aukland, Erin Burrell advised to not ‘be afraid to try something even if you don’t know. Jumping in and testing your skills on a new tool, a new idea, a new concept, that is what makes us creative, what makes us groundbreakers. Don’t be afraid to take a lateral move in order to learn something new. Take a test project on with your leadership group and test your boundaries. When you’re starting out take a generalist stance and learn a bunch of things and find which one fits…Pushing your boundaries allows you to be a student and an expert at the same time’.
These soft skills and attributes need to be augmented with a deep knowledge of strategic frameworks and concepts. These then get applied through the art of the pitch and mechanisms by which to tell the strategic story. These skills are particularly important not just in surviving a chaotic and rapidly changing industry, but thriving in it as we navigate the emergence of artificial intelligence and the disruption caused by automation.
Through our conversations we have heard how strategists apply their skills against various verticals, disciplines and in countries around the world. And through all that, we have seen consistent experiences and truths that we have reinforced by drawing on classical sources from Socrates to Machiavelli, Sun Tzu to Marcus Aurelius.
For all of this I am grateful. I’m grateful to the strategists I have already mentioned, and to those others that have contributed their time and perspectives to date, including Matthew Brown, Matteo Ceurvels, Mark Schurtman, Alec Van Noten, Susan Emerick, Adiela Aviram, Daniel Prendergast, Cherylann Smith, Kristin Heinonen, Ya-Yung Cheng, Louise Broberg, Elisa Cerruti, Jon Bernstein, Matthias Hendrichs, Octavian Mihai, Gustavo Arruda, Andrew Hickey, Viviana Machado, Scott Ensign, David Kavanagh, Ahmed Elemam and Nectarios Economakis.
I am grateful to the strategists that have read, listened, shared and commented. You are the reason I keep this project going.
Finally, I am grateful to have been able to learn and share these truths. For now, after these shared experiences, we can say that these truths are indeed self evident.
Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. 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.