Life. Then Strategy

10 strategies for a strategist’s career – right now

New year, new restlessness? Well, here are ten power-moves that you, monsieur-dame strategist, could think about applying to yourself as your hurtle down your exciting career apth. And, if you’re truly strategic, you’ll take note of the career advice in ‘The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life’: your dominant strategy should be to take risks while you’re young… so have a crack.

1. Pick an audience

I think diversity is absolutely fantastic; working across different industries with different types of projects exposes you to a lot of different thinking. It helps you graft new methods onto existing methods, it encourages lateral thinking and forces continuous adaption so you don’t get overly attached to knowledge. However, there’s also an argument that because many strategists are diverse like this that you can stand out by (at least for a time) not being like this.

These aren’t rules, merely a starting point, but you may look at choosing an audience based on this sort of stuff:

  1. Growing in size and value
  2. Few or no specialists in the area
  3. Business activity gaining momentum (eg. growing fast but still like a cottage industry)
  4. An audience you could focus on for 5 years (passion/curiosity test)

There are very obvious starting points like baby boomers, empty nesters and youth. But if you absorb various trends and find overlap, perhaps there is a more interesting way to look at things.

For example, I’ve just stumbled into the world of organics, kettlebells and getting back into the relationship, and have also just been exposed to the Vibram Five Finger shoes. A lot of this thinking is about what I think of as the Return to Human – looking at ways we used to do things before we industrialised then got iPhones. The World Health Organisation and their breastfeeding recommendations – similar stuff. This 300 Spartan training diary – again: they wanted the actors to look “look like they lived off the land, in the wild, all sinewy and ripped”. So, maybe this human quest would be another way to cut your audience of specialization.

2. Build an audience

Increasingly, I believe agencies need to be networked not just to influencers but directly to consumers. If, as an agency, you have a lot of luxury brands, then why not set up your own communities and media as a direct channel. You’ll embed value in yourself for clients – especially as the intangible realms of strategy and ideas struggle for fair compensation compared to the making of things, the tangible results, the head hours.

Similarly as a planner, if you are plugged in to hundreds or thousands of people with a common interest and have the means to communicate with those people beyond your current job… then that’s definitely value you can take with you.

3. Get experience

Sure, I could be wrong, but I think the days of planners doing massive decks with research outputs and stuff that’s not always that insightful are steadily ending. Simultaneously, I believe planners should add a few new skills to their bow, and the big one I’d recommend is experience planning (see thoughts here: A simple approach to account planning).

The three basic schools I’d break this down into are:

  1. High-level customer journey mapping: knowing the behaviours and thoughts a person has through their purchasing, using and re-purchasing phases
  2. Service design: more granular exploration and strategic advice based on what currently happens when a customer interacts with you but also what should happen to deliver better results to the customer and business
  3. User experience design: designing how a person interacts with interfaces

With one or all of these skills in hand, the account planner becomes much less abstract and much more ingrained in the tangible.

4. Get healthy

Health is going to be a massive topic in the coming years. Obesity epidemics everywhere, Walmart changing some of its food practices with a push from Michelle Obama, sustainability issues growing and growing, the cost of healthcare and hospitals, huge pharmaceutical industry patents ending in the coming years… there is a perfect storm brewing.

From an advertising point of view, I don’t find much of the health-related communications very insightful or creative. Talking heads, Getty Images, former actors, ‘dial now for this incredible deal’, snake oil stuff and so on.

So, not only is there this perfect storm brewing but there are few really strong communicators in this space.

Further, health is pretty broad. Sure, you have pharma, alternative health, fitness, food, supplements, government but there will be a growing trend in the corporate world of trying to make companies healthier for their employees (so that they’re more productive and stick around longer).

Big opportunities here.

5. Numericise

Most strategists have a particular bent. It could be research, running workshops, propositions, trends, insights. Most are decent with numbers but I don’t think many have pure number-crunching skills. Perhaps maths is something you could add to your arsenal: working out customer lifetime value, for instance. This won’t be for everyone but it’s definitely a power move that would make you stand out: “Oh, look, here’s a pivot table I developed to show you how to make more money.”

6. IP power move

Can you develop a thing, an approach that truly delivers good results? I’ve seen so many agency and consultancy approaches that claim trademark but are merely sales tools. John Kay, in ‘Obliquity’, talks about spending 15 years developing economic models to finally realise that the clients that bought them only did so to justify decisions they’d already made. However, if you can develop something of true value, do it and push it.

7. Like it spicy?

China, India, Latin America. Move to one of them if you can. I think the trend for hiring outsiders in some of these countries will decline as locals are trained and brought on. Latin America, with strong creative traditions, probably has few expats but China still has a few. These three regions are where most of the advertising growth is expected in the next few years. Yes, North America is still the giant, but many of these countries will be trying to turn local brands into global brands and it could be an interesting time for a strategist to be a part of it.

8. A little something on the side

Have a crack at a project on the side – something that brings the themes of what you’re interested in together in some way. A social experiment. Research for the sake of it. Put an idea up on Kick Starter. You’ll learn, make new connections and have stories to tell to the business people you deal with (ie your clients). For more: Why strategists should make stuff.

9. Become a digital producer

I get really confused by big agency proclamations about putting ‘digital at the core’. What does this mean? If your CEO isn’t a digital native, if your creative director doesn’t use technology, if your management team doesn’t either, then how is ‘digital at your core’? Besides, what I think this comment means is not that they’re putting a channel at the centre (at least I hope not) but that they’re putting digital cultural values at their core. Anyway, I digress.

I think this point should almost be mandatory for anyone who wants to work in the industry in the next decade: spend at least 6 months as a producer. That way, you’ll understand how long things take to make, how much they cost, you’ll deal with more digital natives and close the culture gap, you’ll understand how complicated some of this is.

It’s a big move… but if you’re serious, give it a shot.

10. Start your own company

If you’ve been a planner for a few years, you should have pretty good instincts about three key things you can use to develop your business ideas:

  1. Consumer insights
  2. Growing and emerging industries
  3. The conventions of those industries

Who knows, with a bit of solid thinking, maybe you’ll create the next Method (detergent) – an article that makes the point plus another.


You know where to put them. Got your power-move lined up?

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