Life. Then Strategy
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Why strategists should make stuff

Make stuff - it's cool

I was recently asked this question by Brazilian account planner, Carlos Vilela:

What’s your best advice for the next generation of young and ambitious account planners and strategists?

I’ll always see myself as an up-and-comer so on one hand it’s an odd question to field… and a tough one to answer single-mindedly. My answer though…

Make stuff

The first thing I look for on an account planner or digital strategist’s resume is proof of what that person has done and made of their own accord in the past – outside of advertising. And, what they are doing now – outside of advertising.

There are a lot of smart people ‘learning advertising’ – university, ad schools – but I actually get a little suspicious of this sort. Possibly, it’s simply because that’s not what I did and my bias is ridiculously ignorant but I always gravitate towards people with real-world, hands-on experience.

Here’s why…

1. Money appreciation

One thing that frustrates me in ad world is the phrase ‘limited budget’. I hear it every few days. A project with a $50,000 budget has a ‘limited budget’ just like one in the millions of dollars. What annoys me is that I continually find that the people who say this have never put their own money into anything.

I set up a hip hop magazine when I was 20. I was earning $150 per week, sharing a single bed with my now-wife. I put on events. I poster-ed at 4am. I did community radio for 5 years un-paid. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of articles for music press usually earning $30-$45 a pop. The magazine was distributed globally through Tower Records, New York City Library subscribed, it’s been quoted in a bunch of books.

You can read about that journey here: 10 things about trying.

I got bits of funding along the way but the energy and focus required to turn nothing into something gave me a very different perspective on the phrase ‘limited budget’.

If you make stuff, you too will have this appreciation – not only that, you may actually relish the challenge of making do without lavish budgets. I find that mentality exciting.

2. Stories are currency

Making stuff means you are comfortable flirting with failure, and, from failure often emerge the richest stories. I’ve actually only started talking about my hip hop magazine in professional circles in the past year – 12 years after it started. But that’s because people didn’t understand hip hop until recently. I’ve realised that other business people – once they get over their misconceptions of the subculture – are actually interested in hearing these stories. They relate to me differently.

If you make stuff – regardless of whether you make stuff successfully – you will hand-make lots of interesting stories that will find a home some time during your planner journey. I guarantee it.

3. Initiative gets the team further

The way agencies are evolving, departments will matter less and less. More people will have more varied skills and combine those skills in odd, curious ways. It will take teams of people with a lot of initiative to get projects that have never been attempted before off the ground.

If you make stuff, it will show people you’re bigger than your role and are self-motivated. That is golden.

4. We need white space finders not mirror holders

Lateral thinking – the essence of creativity (and, it’s more than words and pictures) – requires lots of different experiences and stimuli. In my brief time in advertising, I’ve seen way too many people looking into the advertising mirror – they’re on YouTube, Ads of the World, Campaign Brief all day… seeking inspiration.

If you make stuff unrelated to advertising, you will have a pool of stimuli to mesh into your approach to advertising. That’s usually when the exciting stuff happens… you don’t learn this in ad school.

5. Wisdom not theory

Reading the ‘Plannersphere’ and observing different planners over time, one of the things I’ve struggled with is the theorist – the person who knows everything but does nothing. A lot of planners are lost in their own cleverness, making things look and sound complicated to everyone in the room only to reveal their incredibly smart solution to the world of problems just revealed.

This is snake oil stuff. If I ever find myself heading into this space, I try to pull myself out of it as fast as possible.

Making stuff will keep you grounded and ensure you talk mostly with knowledge you farmed in the field – not simply theory.

6. A network built in the trenches

If you collaborate with other stuff-makers, you’ll grow with them throughout your career and be able to bring them in on projects when required. This is cool. You’ll have already stood shoulder to shoulder stuff-making so will trust each other more in a corporate environment and know what you’re both good at.

7. Not an advertising lifestyler

Yes, this is cynical of me, but proof of stuff-making tells me you aren’t an advertising lifestyler. If you were, we wouldn’t get on. I don’t like expensive stuff. I do like interesting stuff though.

8. Multiple skills to fall back on

If you make stuff, you will have skills for your post-advertising life. And, let’s face it, you will have a post-advertising life.

So there you go. Eight reasons making stuff is one of the most important things an aspiring planner can do.

Speaking of people who make stuff… you may enjoy these three blogs from 3 super cool people I work with: Nicola Swankie on Happiness, Marie-Claire Jenkins on the Science for Seo and Hugh Munro on Dunny Art.

What do you think?

Photo courtesy Thinkstock.

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